9 August 2015

The joy of cricket


It is the greatest of games, and we have just witnessing a match which will be talked about for as long as cricket is played. The first Ashes test marked the dawn of Test cricket, and since then, every series has been fiercely contested: none more than this one. England’s triumph was as unexpected as it was memorable. Boys who watched today’s denouement will be telling their grandchildren about the Trent Bridge Test of 2015.

Cricket is a beautiful spectacle at all levels. There is something so heartening, so reassuring – so English – about white-clad players on the village green, with the match proceeding according to age-old rituals, which must include tea and beer. Cricket is now and England. Then there is the delightful terminology, especially about fielding positions, such as “silly mid-on.” That should really be rephrased as “suicidal mid-on,” for it means that the fielder is in real danger from a meaty hit. At its highest level – a Test match, there is still beauty, frequently enhanced by brilliant stroke play and superb bowling actions. There is also tension and fear.

No other sport involves such intense psychological pressure. The batmen feel it most. One mistake, and it is an appallingly long walk back to the pavilion. At test level, batsmen have to deal with balls bowled at ninety miles an hour, from 22 yards distance. There is not a lot of time to adjust your shot. When the fast men are not bowling, their replacement may well be a devilish spinner. The batsman has only a split second to work out what the ball is going to do: in which direction the spin will take it. All this pressure explains why strong sides sometimes crumble. The bowling side always hopes that it can “get in among” the batsmen. That really means getting inside the heads. Cricket is a game played inside the head as well as on the pitch.

Luck can be cruel. At the beginning of an innings, a batsman almost edges the ball in the direction of the close fielder. As he makes no contact, he survives, and goes on to make a century. By then everyone will have forgotten the tenth-of-an-inch miss – except the batsman. He will know just how miniscule the gap was between failure and triumph.
This is not only true of batsmen. In their first innings during the first Test of this series, England were struggling at 43-3. Joe Root, currently the best English batsman, was on 2. He edged the ball, and the Australian wicket-keeper, Brad Haddin, dropped him. Root went on to make 134, and England won the match. If he had been caught, the result could well have been different. We do not know what effect this had on Haddin’s confidence, but he is no longer in the Australian side.

Martin Donnelly, one of the greatest New Zealand cricketers, once gave a pep talk to a team that he was captaining. “Now, fielding. We have all dropped catches. It’s a horrible experience, but if – when – it happens to you, don’t worry. Put it out of your mind. Just concentrate on holding the next one. And if you drop a second catch, again, don’t let it get to you. Concentrate on the catches to come. And if you should drop a third catch, there’s still no point in worrying. You’ll never be playing for me again.”

Very few cricketers go through their career without experiencing a run of poor form. That can be a crushing experience. The player worries whether something has gone wrong with his technique: will he ever recover? The press can be cruel. A couple of bad games, and there will be calls for the player to be dropped. If he is past thirty, there will be speculation as to whether he is washed up. The strain that all this imposes is known only to those who have endured it.

There is another cause of long-term strain. A top-class cricketer gets used to a diet of adrenalin. The inevitable day comes. It is time to retire. A fortunate few will become commentators, but in most cases, there is no easy substitute for the adrenalin. Quite a few former cricketers have committed suicide.

Cricket is also famous for humour. In recent years, that has been overdone. “Sledging” – crude abuse usually of a sexual nature – should have no place in this beautiful game. Psychological pressure is legitimate. If a batsman plays and misses, or is hit on the pads, there will be an almighty roar as every close fielder implores the umpire to raise his finger and give the man out. Fair enough. After all, batsmen have their tricks. That great sardonic Yorkshireman Jim Laker was once commentating when a batsman was hit by the ball, which was then caught. The fielders appealed, claiming that the ball had come off the glove: that would have meant “out.” While they were shouting and gesticulating, the batsman was vigorously rubbing his elbow.”Aye” said Laker “Seen a few do that in my time and then miss next game wi’ a broken finger.”

Humour also means the Barmy Army, who follow England all over the world, living up to their name. There are gems, such as singing “you all live in a penal colony, penal colony” in Australia or – also in Australia – “If your grandad was a convict, clap your hands.” But much of the chanting is repetitious, also often crude, and it drowns out any chance of really witty heckling. Len Hutton, the England Captain, is facing Ray Lindwall, a very fast Australian, at Headingley in Yorkshire. He is hit on the box, an apparatus designed to protect a sensitive region, but of limited effectiveness against a bowler of Lindwall’s pace. Hutton moves towards square leg, massaging the afflicted area. A voice comes from the cheap seats: “Stop pleasuring thyself, ‘utton, and get on wi’ game.”

During a Sydney Test, an Ozzie batsman top-edges the ball, which soars into the heavens, and then begins a gentle descent, straight towards a braced English fielder; let us call him Smith. An anguished voice comes from the Hill, cheap seating notorious for raucousness even by penal colony standards: “Drop it, Smith, and you can sleep with me daughter.”

So: tension, grace, wit, athleticism – and we can also add unpredictability. A single match can swing backwards and forwards, as can a Test series, especially when it is played over five games. Americans find this impossible to grasp. A game which lasts for five days, and can then end in a draw: how absurd. It is no use explaining that some matches ought to end in a draw, because that it the most appropriate, most satisfying outcome. One only adds to the incomprehension by pointing out that though a match can last for up to five days, it could be over in two. For a few moments, that seemed a possible outcome in the current game, but the stricken Australians did manage to hang on until the third day.

There is one sadness. Test cricket used to be broadcast by the BBC, which introduced generations of schoolboys to the game. But Sky outbid the Beeb. Yet if there is any justification for a licence fee, it is the public service that would be delivered if the BBC bought back the rights. It is a pity that such a glorious game is not universally available. But it is still glorious. Roll on the final Test.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator