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.

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