Wednesday, January 7, 2015

New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, 4th day, Basin Reserve

As I have grown older I have become less certain about stuff. No longer do I believe, as I once fervently did, that Mr Gladstone had the solution to the Irish Question. I am not as sure as I was that gherkins are the ideal complement to a roast dinner, and I concede that it is worth spending more than $10 on a shirt.

But on one matter I will not be shaken. That test match cricket is the finest public entertainment that could be conceived of, and that its existence is sufficient of itself to mark us out as a sophisticated civilisation.

That belief has been reinforced by today’s play at the Basin. One day I will write about the best days’ test cricket I have had the privilege of attending. This day will be on the list, no doubt about it.

The facts are these: Kane Williamson and BJ Watling, having batted throughout the final session of play yesterday, kept their wickets intact until well into the final session today before withdrawing unbeaten with their respective highest test scores of 242 and 142.

More than that, together they put on 365 for the sixth wicket, more than any pair has managed in any of the 2,156 test matches that have been played since 1877. Remarkably, the previous record was set at the Basin last February and BJ Watling was involved then too, with Brendon McCullum. I would have to check Bradman’s record more carefully to be certain, but a quick perusal of CricInfo does not produce any other example of a batsman breaking his own world partnership record.

And I was there to see it. Watching a world partnership record being set has always been a spectating ambition of mine. I had thought that being there for the first 150 or so of the McCullum/Watling record would be as close as I would get.

There were not a huge number of ravishing shots. Between them, Williamson and Watling hit only 27 fours (and one six for the latter). A death-march slow outfield did not help, but the beauty of the batting was in the discipline and tempo. After an hour’s play today I wrote a note questioning if they might be a bit slow, it being too soon to bat just for time. They knew what they were doing: ensuring that the foundation was absolutely solid. When the pace quickened in the afternoon, it was not through big hits, but precisely placed shots for one and two. So very clever.

Williamson’s concentration is extraordinary. He could sit through the Ring Cycle followed by a reading of War and Peace without showing the least sign of weariness. Nine test centuries and he is not 25 until August. Watch him bat and remember that you are watching one of the greats.

On the radio Allen McLaughlin has been making the point that BJ Watling featured in none of the World XIs picked by various pundits at the end of the year. Most pick AB de Villiers as keeper. De Villiers is a fine batsman, but a manufactured custodian. Watling is a superior keeper and, as a double world-record breaker in the last twelve months, has the batting credentials.

Conventional wisdom would have it that New Zealand—one up in a two-match series—should bat on well into the last day, so as to remove Sri Lanka’s chance of winning completely. Some of us hoped that McCullum would be bold enough to give Sri Lanka four or five overs at the end of the day, chasing a target of 450 plus.

But Brendon McCullum likes to roll the dice. He is interested in winning test matches as much as test series. The declaration came earlier than we had dared to hope (or in some cases, feared). It was thrilling, audacious and so smart. He set Sri Lanka 390 in 107 overs. Very tough, but possible, with Sangakkara in the line-up. And Sri Lanka have to have a go if they are to save the series, the risks they must take thus increasing New Zealand’s chances. Test cricket needs captains prepared to be as bold as McCullum.

Contrast with Steve Smith, grimly batting on at the MCG last week until India were completely shut out, cutting his own chances of victory off at the knees.

What will happen on day five? Boult and Southee might swing it like the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Sangakkara might emulate Arthur Fagg and score two double hundreds in the same game. Or it might peter out into a tame draw. The uncertainty will quicken our step down the Kent Terrace on the way to the Basin on Wednesday.

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