Sunday, July 28, 2013

Random Thoughts on the Ashes: Lord’s

A few hours before the start of the fourth and final day’s play in the second Test I got an insight into what it is like to be Shane Watson. It was when an earthquake struck Wellington, 6.5 on the Richter Scale. Measured by the alternative fast bowlers’ scale of earthquake power it was at least a Glenn McGrath—penetrating, disconcerting and getting movement where it was least expected. It may even have been a Jimmy Anderson, with dangerous swing a threat. One day  Jeff Thomson will open from the Harbour End while Shoaib Akhtar steams in from the Island Bay End, but not this time.

I was in the gym at the time, which, as friends have been kind enough to mention, means that two exceptionally improbable events coincided. The MCC Civil Defence Manual is clear enough on the course of action in these circumstances: drop, cover and hold. Which is all very well, but on the day of the game conditions are never quite as ordered as they are in the coaching book. There was no desk or table to dive under; my treadmill was next to a large, shatterable window, so dropping where I was did not seem a sensible option.

So I attempted to make my way across the undulating floor towards the shelter of the doorframe. This is the civil defence equivalent of plonking your leg down the line of middle-and-off and playing across right across an inswinger. You know it won’t work, that you’ll be plumb lbw, yet you can’t stop yourself. I feel your pain, Shane.

Besides, even had I made it, I would have taken space that others coming after me might have made better use of. A bit like using up a DRS review on a decision that even someone in the bar at deep square leg can see is out. Moral of the story: don’t stand next to Shane Watson in an earthquake.

Watching a Test at Lord’s has an added pleasure quotient, even on television from this distance. The first match I watched there was the Gillette Cup final of 1967 between Kent and Somerset. From the early seventies until I left for New Zealand in 1997 there can only have been a handful of seasons in which I did not visit the ground. I watched three World Cup finals there, plus numerous domestic one-day finals, plenty of Tests and a good deal of county cricket (which was always a bit odd, like a busker playing in the Albert Hall, but it was an opportunity to watch from the pavilion, even if was necessary to put on a jacket and tie to do so).

Lord’s has changed a good deal in the 16 years since I was last there, much more so since my first visit thirty years before that; the new grandstand and the media centre have both appeared since ’97, but seem so familiar thanks to television coverage. MCC has done a fine job in modernising Lord’s while retaining its character as a cricket ground. Compare that to the Australian experience. The Gabba and the MCG have been turned into characterless bowls, and the SCG and the Adelaide Oval are on the way to being so.

Another reason why Lord’s is by some way the best Test venue in the UK is MCC’s intolerance. “Intolerant since 1787” might be the motto of the club, translated into Latin obviously (my Blean Correspondent will assist here), and for much of its history it has been an entirely reprehensible characteristic, shamefully racist, sexist and class-ridden. But now the MCC grandees have learned to use their intolerance for the common good, and are exercising it purposefully, for among its targets are ersatz patriotism, fancy dress and community jollity.

The playing of national anthems at the start of the game is fairly new to cricket. The Australians are to blame I think; I recall standing for the anthems for the first time when I attended the final Test of the 1998/9 series in Sydney and thinking how odd it was. It doesn’t suit the rhythm of cricket, especially for opening batsmen about to face a Test attack. For unfathomable reasons, the ceremony as often as not begins with the two teams walking onto the ground with each player hand-in-hand with a child. Invariably the cricketer is at a distance and bearing an expression that suggests the suspicion that the child is carrying leprosy, while the child has the sullenness of any contemporary youth who is a) awake and b) deprived of their on-line gaming device. Nothing could be further from the idyllic spirit that it presumably is intended to symbolise.

MCC sees this for the nonsense it is. Lord’s spared us God Save the Queen and gave us instead…the Queen. We also managed without the Jerusalem, Parry’s arrangement of four stupid questions from Blake about whether Jesus visited Glastonbury, the answer to all of which is clearly “no”. As the TMS commentator Don Mosey pointed out years ago, it is poorly chosen for community singing as it contains one note—on “built” in the penultimate line—that few untrained singers can reach.

And fancy dress (the sporting of which is defined in my dictionary as “a sad attempt to fabricate wit by those who have none”) is also out, unless, of course, it is in club colours and purchased by members from the Lord’s shop. The result is a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere characterised by an intelligent murmuring, a sound recently described by Simon Hoggart (about the House of Lords) as being that of “a basketful of puppies waking up”.

No wonder tickets for Lord’s Tests sell out faster than anywhere else, even though they charge the national debt for them. A pity that all the good cricket came from the home team this year. The Australians could pray for an earthquake.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Random Thoughts on the Ashes: Trent Bridge

Let us peer into the mind of Alistair Cook at around midday on the second day of the opening Ashes Test with Australia 117 for nine in their first innings.

“This is easy…all over in three days…five-nil…letter from the Palace…hire a top hat…limousine down The Mall…”

Enter Ashton Agar, No 11, 19 years old, Test debut, ten first-class matches, not even selected for the touring party. To watch over the following two hours was to look over the author’s shoulder as a famous story was written, a story that will be re-told as long as cricket is played. The first session of the second day was as gripping as any I have seen.

Whether Agar is any cop as a bowler remains to be seen. As a Test batsman he was nerveless, fluent and as replete of technique as a cordon bleu chef. In looking at once so at home, Agar put me in mind of the young David Gower on debut against Pakistan in 1978, pulling Liaquat Ali for four first ball. “Oh what a princely entry” said John Arlott on the radio.

Agar’s was proper batting, not hitting, let alone slogging. He played one late cut that was a thing of beauty, a shot beyond many established Test batsmen. That he missed a century by two runs only added to the romance. To witness a Test partnership record being broken, even on TV, is quite something.

When Agar passed Tino Best’s 96 at Edgbaston last year, Sky UK showed a list of the highest scores by No 11 batsmen in Tests. Two of these, in particular, resonated.

Of the many sessions of Test cricket that have challenged the endurance and mental fortitude of the New Zealand cricket fan, the last of 20 November 2004 and the first of the following day were among the most distressing. When Glenn McGrath joined Jason Gillespie at the Gabba, Australia were 471 for nine, 118 ahead of New Zealand’s first innings total, but not out of sight.

As McGrath and Gillespie carved, hoicked and larruped their way to a partnership of 114—McGrath’s 61 was the only half-century of his distinguished career in any form of cricket—we New Zealand fans had a sense of being in a submarine that was diving to uncharted depths; Gillespie’s bizarre celebratory imitation of a jockey whipping a horse home as he left the field seemed to signal that we had reached the ocean floor of our hopes.

But no. New Zealand were shot out for 76 in the second innings, 38 fewer than the Australian tenth-wicket pair contrived, the margin of defeat an innings and 156. That’s the effect that a last-wicket partnership can have. It’s not just the runs, it’s the stuffing that it takes out of the morale, the humiliation of a heavyweight unable to deliver the knockout blow to a featherweight.

The first time I appreciated this was during the final Test at the Oval in 1966. The first great West Indies team—Sobers, Kanhai, Hunte, Butcher, Hall, Gibbs included—had dominated England all summer, leading three-nil going into this final Test. England sacked MJK Smith as captain after the first Test, and Colin Cowdrey after the fourth. The Old Bald Blighter (as Alan Gibson called him) Brian Close was called up to bring Yorkshire obstinacy to the leadership.

At 166 for seven (103 short of a first-innings lead) damn-all difference it seemed to have made. Then Tom Graveney and wicketkeeper JT Murray both scored centuries as they put on 217 for the eighth wicket. Opening bowlers John Snow and Ken Higgs were together for the last-wicket partnership. Snow was at the start of his career as one of England’s most fluent fast bowlers. Higgs was the only Englishman to play in all five Tests of the series, an indication of the fickle approach of the selectors of that era. Higgs retired to run a boarding house in Blackpool before returning for several seasons with Leicestershire as cricket’s most rotund bowler. They put on 128, two short of the England record set by Foster and Rhodes at the SCG in 1903, and unbettered by an England partnership since.

My memories of that hot August Saturday afternoon are of listening to the commentary of Arlott, Robert Hudson and the Jamaican Roy Lawrence on a transistor radio as I accompanied my Dad as he delivered groceries to customers around Herne Bay. Arlott’s lyrical, romantic interpretation was one of the most pleasing of the many discoveries of that formative summer, the germination of a notion that cricket and words belong together.

It was perhaps the best way for a young enthusiast to follow the progress of the partnership. The scorecard reveals that this was far from the bash-crash approach of McGrath, or the more cultured urgency of Agar and Hughes. Neither Snow nor Higgs scored at much more than two an over. Yet the unfolding improbability of events at the Oval were enthralling, a window on the possibilities of cricket’s infinite variety.

Back in the present, that two different batsmen came within a whisker of stealing the Trent Bridge Test with another odds-defying tenth-wicket stand challenged credulity. For the good of the series it might have better had they made it, as there appears to be a canyon separating the batting quality of the two teams. It was a fine Test to start the Ashes marathon that stretches joyfully before us.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...