Lightweight fare of ODI leaves a fleeting memory, but Tests are remembered for years

2010-07-17 00:00

DOUBTLESS it sounds as old-fashioned as a trilby hat, but the Test match between Pakistan and Australia played at Lord’s this week has been a lot more exciting than the lightweight fare on display in recent 20-over encounters. By the way, crowds for T20 matches in England this season have shrunk enough to make officials splutter over their bacon and eggs.

Throughout the first two days at Lord’s, the batsmen struggled for runs as the ball darted round as unpredictably as children running in playgrounds (it’s a well established fact that laaities don’t have eyes and teenagers don’t have ears). Appeals rent the air every 20 minutes or so — thereby outstripping convicted policemen — batsmen groped like drunkards trying to find their shoes, wickets tumbled and fortunes changed. Oh yes, and scalps were claimed by a variety of speedsters and one of the three leg-spinners taking part.

In other words, it was a proper cricket match with most of the elements that attract the thinking follower (as opposed to the chap with the attention span of an inebriated ant). About the only thing missing was a high-class innings from an expert practitioner, the sort of exposition that Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis and other masters of technique might have produced.

Cricket is not an entertainment; it is predominantly a game of skill. To survive in the marketplace, to appeal to youth, it is obliged to put on a red nose and indulge in a bit of slapstick. Actually that is not a bad thing. Like the rest of us, until the wine starts flowing anyhow, cricket has tended to take itself too seriously. All too often it has allowed statisticians to rule the roost. No other game is as beholden to figures. No other game elevates a few matches between a few nations to such a high plateau. Cricket’s growth has been limited by the supposed sanctity of Test matches. Historians are supposed to record events, not dictate their course. Cricket’s problem has been that it fell in love with itself.

Still, one-day cricket in its numerous incarnations and ever-shorter lengths (they used to ask Twiggy whether skirts can get any briefer; now they ask cricketers how short a match can be) has demonstrated that the game is not all about sawdust, tea breaks, bad light, leg byes, maiden overs and the other mysteries. Fifty-over cricket reminded us that cricket can be fun. Twenty-over cricket proved that it does not disdain frivolity. Of course, it would be silly to be sensible the entire time. Shakespeare wrote as many farces as tragedies and histories; fellows turned into animals, lovers swooned and chaos reigned.

Cricket has never known its best length. Perhaps it has been lucky. Exhaustion restricts other recreations. Cricketers can go off for a mug of rooibos or a night’s kip and resume refreshed. Matches can last an eternity. Test matches take five days to complete. No other team game gives players as much room for manoeuvre. In one-day cricket, the tempo is dictated by the rules. In Tests they can play at dawn and at dusk five days later declare the proceedings finished. It is an open arena, and that stirs the embers of greatness.

Moreover, Test cricket requires and rewards skill. Admittedly, it is fun to watch a blaze of brilliant shots produced by an accomplished performer. Sometimes the strokes are so beautifully executed that the craft is raised to an art. At its best, though, cricket pits bat against ball in a no-holds-barred battle for supremacy.

Happily the contest at Lord’s has provided numerous attractions. Mohammed Asif probes away like a dentist. From a distance he seems to amble to the crease and send down a few gentle medium-pacers. Closer inspection reveals a subtle operator, a fox in the guise of a rabbit. He takes wickets by outwitting his opponents. Riding their luck, village batsmen can clout bowlers of his sort because they do not understand the difficulty they present. Yet Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai and their successors often show them the utmost respect. It’s not the style that counts, but the quality.

None of the batsmen at Lord’s produced a truly satisfying innings. Some looked rusty; others had been playing 20- and 50-over contests and hadn’t had the time to adjust. Modern batsmen need to have three games at their disposal. It was easier for previous generations.

Still it was fascinating to watch the struggle. Bowlers nagged away, wobbling the ball about. Younger batsmen looked alarmed, wizened artisans cobbled together a few runs against a rainy day. It was as old-fashioned as a double-decker bus, but it was real and revealing. Naturally the hosts were watching closely. The Poms did not see anything to make them think the Ashes cannot be retained this winter. Everyone can remember the 2005 and 2009 series. Can anyone recall anything about the recent ODIs between the same sides?

Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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