Cricket, out in the middle, is a visceral sport. Its language captures the physicality that is its essence. Seam, crease, splice, toe, tail, cut, sweep, edge, drop, stump. Concise, direct, as close to concrete as English nouns will get.
To supplement these words, perhaps because of the multiple levels at which the game can be appreciated, abstract nouns become adopted, semantic shift occurs and great significance becomes attached to them.
Two recent examples. Both show the perils of imprecision innate in abstract notions. Appropriation and assumption lead to dispute and confusion.
A similar process may be happening to the term ‘context’. The word has attained a heightened status in debates about how international cricket can preserve and even develop a broad public appeal. These are important matters to those ardent for the game. Enhancing the ‘context’ of fixtures, in the sense in which the word gets used, may just play an instrumental part in international cricket enduring as a sport with mass appeal.
The vast majority of international cricket is played in bilateral series unattached to a wider competitive structure. Results are jammed into a simple algorithm to create official rankings, but they are treated partly as a thing of curiosity and partly as an irritant.
The ‘context’ argument runs that each match, and cumulatively the sport as a whole, would attract more interest if it had extrinsic value outside of the series currently in progress. Every result should feed into a transparent and finite tally of performance. The absence of this tally is what is meant when international cricket is said to ‘lack context’.
I agree, in that most narrow definition of context. But I disagree with the statement that international cricket lacks context, when the word is given a broader and more natural meaning. And I am unconvinced that feeding every result into a tabulation of teams will do much to alter for the good how cricket is perceived more widely.
International cricket is replete with context. Traditional rivalries need no further explanation. More recently established and rarer contests can quickly gain compelling context. The Oval in 1998 , Chittagong 2016 – famous first victories over England. Each fixture that follows is enhanced for knowing that the traditional order has been upset and will be again. Even drawn matches can be enriched by the history of great rearguards that have dug sides out of intimidating deficits.
Cricket may be unusual for having so little of its interest hanging on the final match result. Individual performances and great passages of play can lodge deeper in cricket’s collective memory than where the match spoils went.
I watched three days of play at Lord’s in 2016. One was heavily animated by the narrow version of context recommended for international cricket. The other two – days three and four of the 1st England v Pakistan Test – were not. There was intrinsic pleasure from the quality of play. On day 3 England’s seamers pushed and probed at the Pakistan batsmen. Day 4, led by Yasir Shah, Pakistan prevailed once Rahat Ali had knocked over England’s top three. And context elevated the spectacle:
- Cook matched Moeen Ali against Misbah, who had batted so freely against him in the series in the UAE the previous autumn. To his second ball, Misbah slog-swept to the Tavern, where Hales completed that most crowd-pleasing activity, the running catch. Remember Brearley running under a skier towards that same boundary 37 years earlier in the second World Cup Final? More context.
- Yasir Shah wasn’t just a leg-spinner baffling England batsmen. He demanded recollection of Abdul Qadir, Warne and Mushtaq who had also floated leggies and googlies past our best batsmen. And there was the context of England’s then looming tour to India and trial by spin.
- The whole match was suffused with the context of Pakistan’s prior visit to Lord’s, Mohammad Amir’s return to Test cricket and Misbah’s career nearing its end.
- From a personal point of view, I had the context of watching day three sitting with my father and older son – a landmark in my cricket-spectating history.
My remaining visit to Lord’s was for the final day of the County Championship. The destination of the title hinged on that day. In support of the narrow definition of context – as the relationship of the match to a wider competitive structure – it drew Lord’s largest crowd for a county championship fixture in decades. It also motivated both teams to pursue a result and so provided a climax fitting for the large crowd.
But the wider competitive framework into which this match fitted, created a day that progressed from combative play where neither side conceded anything in the morning; to a post-lunch drift; which abruptly switched to buffet bowling and unimpeded boundary hitting as the target was set; and ending with both teams throwing everything into achieving a result.
I felt the contrivance sapped the spectacle of meaning. It elevated one context above any others. It could have been the day that Somerset won their first County Championship title, 125 years after joining the competition. They probably would have become champions had the Middlesex v Yorkshire game run its natural course; had the wider competitive context not overrun all other considerations on its final day.
International cricket would gladly welcome record attendances and final day finishes as vindication for upsetting a fashion of organising Test cricket that has developed over more than 100 years. I do not oppose the upsetting of tradition by, in this case, bringing more structure to the game. I also recognise that the context that excited me at the Test at Lord’s is drawn from 40 years of following the sport. Competition, points, positions and qualification can give an additional layer of meaning and make the game more accessible. But bringing those features to Test cricket also presents a risk. I describe three situations, none of which will be the norm, but when they do occur, cricket followers, established and new, are likely to find them unappealing.
England and Australia are tied going into the final Test of the Ashes series. England, owing to results elsewhere are guaranteed a place in the Test Championship play-off; Australia have been eliminated. Both sides approach the match as a dead rubber, which in terms of the overarching tournament, is what it is.
India find themselves in a ‘must win’ match for their hopes of a play-off appearance to stay alive. Pakistan have a grip on the game and set India 440 to win on day five. The match is over by mid-afternoon as the Indian players throw away their wickets in a futile chase rather than opt to battle for a draw against their traditional foe.
South Africa rest key players from the deciding game of a series in Sri Lanka because the points they need to progress in the Championship will be more readily gained by fielding a full-strength team when they return home to face New Zealand.
The competitive context of a Test championship could, at times, damage the competitive value of individual matches. Battles will be sacrificed so wars can be won. There is also the concern that the championship itself may leak credibility owing to its structure. This is most evident in terms of the advantage of playing in home conditions, a benefit that teams have consolidated in recent years. Under the format currently favoured by the ICC, each team will host four series and travel away for another four. While the even balance of home and away play helps the competition’s case, the way those fixtures fall could still drastically skew teams’ prospects. Consider how India’s chances could be affected by these alternative itineraries:
|Option 1||Option 2|
|H v England||A v England|
|H v New Zealand||A v New Zealand|
|A v Pakistan||H v Pakistan|
|A v Sri Lanka||H v Sri Lanka|
|H v South Africa||A v South Africa|
|H v Australia||A v Australia|
|A v Bangladesh||H v Bangladesh|
|A v West Indies||H v West Indies|
In option 1, India would play just a single series outside of Asia. In the alternative, all their away fixtures are in nations where their players have traditionally struggled to perform to their potential. How credible would a world championship be when a major nation can be given such a leg-up, or be so shackled?
I made the point earlier that the appeal of cricket centres much less on the final result of matches than is the case with other sports. Quality cricket requires no context. Context, in the form of competition, acts as a prop for interest in lower quality fare. As an example, football’s World Cup qualifying campaigns feature many dreary matches, despite the incentive of a finals appearance. “Never mind the performance,” we’re reassured, “it’s the result that matters.”
If those words become associated with the Test Championship, we may look back fondly at the days of bilateral series leading nowhere in particular, but exciting us there and then.
It was a toot, like a brass instrument being tuned. Incongruously high-pitched. Strongly, warmly associated with cricket and companionship.
The first time I heard the toot it came from behind me. I had shuffled down the pitch to the off-spinner, mis-judged or deceived by flight. But I had laid a healthy edge on the ball which would be hurtling in the direction of many of my scoring shots as an undergraduate, to thirdman.
The toot was the prelude to a more throaty, but still high-toned chuckle. Turning in the direction of the laugh, I saw Nick, occupying a space between first slip and gulley, with his left arm out-stretched, hand wrapped around the ball, shaking with merriment and enjoyment at his own display of agility.
Three or four years later, I became a teammate of Nick’s. I was now an old boy and the broadest, deepest allegiance that traced back to my student days was being forged. Our group was always happier, ruder, funnier and more generous when Nick was with us. We worried more, mostly about Nick, when he wasn’t.
Nick soon opted to be a non-playing tourist on our annual August Bank Holiday weekend jaunts. His last game left him melancholy. He had taken four wickets, at least two of which were slip catches to his leg-breaks that turned and bounded some way back up to the heights from which they’d been delivered.
While the rest of the team tolerated a slow, uneven decline playing on for a further 15 years, Nick called a halt. The distinctive nasal laugh would have been absent that evening.
Nick had been an unusual and highly effective bowler. At over six foot four, he could spear wrist spun deliveries to a quick bowler’s good length. I only faced him in practice nets and found it almost impossible to play forward. Stepping back, my bat met the ball in front of my chest.
The tooting continued, particularly around cricket. Nick was the most rewarding of companions for a spell of cricket spectating. In 1995, we watched the West Indies together at Lord’s. Meeting in the Grace Gates queue, he was bubbling with anticipation at 9am. Understanding that the ticket was a freebie, Nick undertook to cater the day, which he did with an entire loaf of smoked salmon wholemeal sandwiches. We sat in the lower Warner from where I was despatched regularly to the bar for another round. Just as adjacency to Nick seemed to shrink cricket gear, so pints of beer in his hand looked like, and were treated as, tumblers.
The real pleasure of his company wasn’t the food and drink (although his knowledge of both were doctoral), but his enthusiasm and appreciation for the game. Lara came out to bat and Nick seethed with delight. “That back-swing, so high. Look at it,” he commanded no one in particular, but I and the dozen or so people in easy earshot complied. Nick wasn’t the kind of voluble spectator that cleared seats. His joy transferred. People in front of us turned and nodded. Those directly behind us didn’t curse this man obscuring their view but responded to him adding character to their day at the Test.
Lara and Hooper batted throughout the afternoon. The run scoring was slow. Peter Martin and Dominic Cork exerted a check so inimical to the pair batting. It was a tense session with few boundaries and fewer wickets. To be honest, it only lives so strongly in my memory because I shared it with Nick and glimpsed the game through his eyes.
A decade later, our old boys’ annual tour coincided with the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge. Since the series began in early July at Lord’s, my mind had been dominated by thoughts of how England might finally defeat Australia. At times, particularly the final morning at Edgbaston, it had been suffocating and it was regularly waking me at night as I computed scenarios and permutations. I was passionate for English cricket, not cricket.
Around our tour fixtures that weekend we gathered in our residence’s living room to watch coverage, live or recorded, of the Test. We came to will England to victory, roaring and cursing, if needed. However, we found an impediment to our partisanship. Nick, occupying the sofa, was cooing, purring over Warne’s bowling. “It’s the top-spinner,” he would divine as an England batsman was about to be hurried in a defensive shot. “Look, look at the wrist angle,” Nick would urge as super slow-mo dissected what Nick had already informed us. At the time of great national release, Nick was our conscience and our analyst, expecting more of us. His high nasal laugh signifying the great satisfaction of watching great cricket played by some great cricketers.
Soon the old boys will gather. There will be no toots and we won’t worry about Nick. There will be the formalities and then we’ll toast him and the pleasure that his company brought to our group and to each of us as his teammate and friend.
The first ball of a Test innings is long anticipated, quickly marked in the book and becomes a gradually reducing data point in the pattern of the innings. Ball two is less special and declines in significance at the same rate. Balls three, four, five and six are each still of note. Soon, though, the individual delivery is part of the greater ebb and flow without a given identity.
The batsman who chooses, or is assigned, to take first ball is the most exposed on the team.
Chris Rogers took strike on Thursday at Lord’s and was straight into action, defending Anderson’s first ball from the crease. The second, leaning forward, he steered to point.
Shortly after tea on Friday, with 10 hours in the field in his legs, Adam Lyth took strike. He also felt bat on ball immediately, dead-batting a short delivery from Starc behind square on the off-side. Lyth lined up the second on off-stump and offered another dead bat at it. But it curved away a little and lifted, drawing the opener’s bat, flicked the outside edge and through to the keeper.
Rogers’ read his third ball as full, stepped forward and drove. The ball swung, intercepting the edge of Rogers’ bat and lifted over the England slips, arms extending, hands grasping, and away for four.
Lyth looked down, recognised the option of staying didn’t exist and slowly moved back along the pitch. Past the umpire and Cook, he slowed again. A review had been called to check for a front-foot no-ball. But that provided no second chance and Lyth, head still down, had the pavilion ahead and a mobile cameraman pointing his device at the batsman’s face, retreating in step with the player, just out of reach should the subject want to take a swipe at the technology with his bat.
After a safe leave, Rogers sees the fifth ball pitched up again outside off-stump. His instinct is better this time and drives the swinging half-volley cleanly through the covers for four.
It took England 295 more balls, conceding another 26 boundaries, to dislodge Rogers. A single ball is all that might have separated opening over Lord’s ducks for Rogers and Lyth. Lyth will bat again in this match, with the chance to close the gap with his opposite number. He will face the first ball of an innings, the most exposed batsman.
I can well imagine going on holiday with Steven Smith.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Smith pats his trouser pocket, breast pocket, back-pack and bumbag, compulsively and repeatedly. Just checking. Just checking again. Checking again. Again.
Batting, between deliveries, Smith checks: helmet grill, right pad, left pad, box, helmet crown, bat twirl. Twice over. He’s a blur of manual reassurance. Fidget.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Taking strike, the bowler about to begin his run up, the batsman settles, steady and still, eyes level, energy conserved, ready to pounce. Not Fidget. He stands at the wicket. His bat wags towards gulley like the tail of a well-behaved dog, hearing his master return home at the end of the day. A dip at the knees, then another. A shuffle to the right, another dip.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Non-striker, Fidget rehearses front foot shots. Left foot forward, bat sweeps and his back foot drags, drifts or rotates. Without the ball, he practises his idiosyncratic technique, where most players emulate the text book. A solid base, the coach insists; au point, this twitchy ballerina practices.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Running. A forward defensive and Fidget is five yards down the track before bouncing back into his ground. When the ball is directed into open space, Fidget is away, looking for two, three, an all-run four at the very least. His body moves forward, at pace, his limbs scatter. He’s like a junior playing his first game in unfamiliar pads. The bat’s not tucked economically under his arm, but an extra limb, an unneeded crutch, as much in the way as helping him towards the other crease.
Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
All this energy and motion, critical to a one-day run-chase, to setting and maintaining a momentum. But this is day one of a Test match. He bats from mid-morning to lunch. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. All afternoon. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. And through to the close of play. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
Fidget’s at work, on tour. Batting hard on a pitch he might not take home, but would enjoy on holiday. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..
The ingredients of a meringue start loose and liquid.
Rogers is off the mark quickly. A waft over the slips, then smooth punches through the off-side, easy tucks off his pads. Comfortably out-scoring his more heralded opening partner.
As energy and activity are applied to the meringue mixture, it stiffens.
His fifty up and into the afternoon session, the sun is out and Rogers is trying to accelerate. Driving, the bat turns in his grip and the ball finds his instep, not the boundary. Cuts clatter into the ground beside him, not the sponsor’s boundary advertising. Meringue Man’s batting is becoming viscous. It’s sticky, slow work through the 60s and 70s, relying on the toe end and outside edge of his bat.
The meringue has a hard, if fragile, surface.
It is the delicate cuts from the slow bowlers that keep Meringue Man’s score accumulating. Just brushing the face of his bat and skittering away to the third man boundary. Fine deflections, not full-on impact, move him into the 90s.
Finally, a full connection with a straight drive takes Meringue Man to his 100. And now he’s transformed, shattering his crusty shell, middling the ball and speeding to 150.
A meringue crumbled and made fruity. An Australian Eton Mess?
The opening session of the opening day of the 2005 Ashes. Steve Harmison, bowling from the Pavilion End at Lord’s, hit Justin Langer on the elbow with the second ball of the day. A few overs later, Matthew Hayden tried to pull Harmison, missed the ball which continued its upward course to strike him on the helmet. Hayden fell shortly afterwards to Hoggard, bringing Ricky Ponting to the middle.
Harmison was bowling rapidly and with good rhythm. Into his sixth over, another pull shot attempted and missed. Ponting took a blow on the grill. For the second time that morning, the Australian physio was out in the middle, this time to staunch blood and patch-up the skipper’s face. Ponting batted on and in Harmison’s next over, drove at a ball outside off-stump and edged to be caught in the slips.
At the fall of each wicket that morning, and three more came before lunch, the crowd roared, rose to feet, arms up or fists pumped. The crowd’s response to each of the blows sustained by the Australian top three was just as unrestrained. Often, there’s a sense on the first morning of a Test, that the crowd needs to settle in, adjust to the pulse of a match due to last five days. That morning, though, there was a stronger alertness and anticipation. It was going to be a contest, closely fought, for the first time in years.
By batting first, Australia enabled England to lead off with their strong suit: four fast bowlers, varied in style and method. There was an anxiety, a yearning that England would, figuratively, draw first blood. The Lord’s crowd had sat and admired Australian batsmanship and rued hapless England bowling for years. This crowd on this morning wanted something different.
Alongside the anticipation for the game, there was a tension peculiar to this match. Cricket followers in England are cossetted, compared to their peers in some other countries, from the threat and experience of violence. Two weeks earlier, though, London had been struck by four suicide bombers. The city was on high alert and rumours rumbled like thunder. Bag and body searches were, if not introduced that year at Lord’s’ gates, stiffened. Sitting at Lord’s, watching Test cricket might feel defiant, or indulgent, but it also felt like being a juicy target for a terrorist intent on striking at western decadence.
Failed bomb attacks occurred that day in West London. On the second day of the Test, as Australia built a health second innings lead, police shot dead a mis-identified suspect in South London. This unsettling news swirled around the Lord’s crowd.
The hunger for England to finally knock over these Australians was the principal cause of the roars that greeted the blows to Langer, Hayden and, in particular, Ponting, that morning. The pent-up excitement at seeing England dictate terms, bursting out into shouts and displays of approval of violence. There was also a tension in the air, a mistrust and discomfort that may have infected the crowd’s response.
Ten years and almost twenty days of attending international cricket later, the first day of the 2005 Ashes series has imprinted the strongest impressions on my memory. The chain of incident of Ponting being struck, the crowd’s (and my) reaction, his removal of his helmet to find a trickle of blood, connects me closer to that intense morning than anything else.
New Zealand surged through the World Cup playing attacking cricket, stumbled in the Final, and picked up at pace again at Lord’s, even with a swap in format and hemisphere. Opting to bowl first, the New Zealand seam and swing bowlers dismantled England’s top order in the opening hour of the match. Two days later and the visiting side had passed the England total, with just three wickets down and scoring at four runs per over.
How will their defeat this evening, in a match in which they long held the upper-hand, affect their surging style of play?
Brendon McCullum is instrumental to their approach, and culpable in their defeat. On the first morning, to no-one’s surprise, he kept a populous slip cordon while Root and Stokes counter-attacked, giving the England batsmen the space to score runs quickly at a time when the pitch’s early devilry had abated. On day three, with the New Zealand lead building, McCullum continued to charge. A top edged swipe gave Mark Wood his first Test wicket with a catch on the third-man boundary. England’s bowling tightened and a lead that could have exceeded 200 was kept in check.
Of these two passages of play, McCullum’s batting was the graver mistake. England’s green middle-order was exposed on the first morning and the side could have folded for under 150 with another quick wicket. But on the third day, there was no equivalent benefit available from a rapid strike. New Zealand’s telling advantage would come from batting on, continuing to build a lead.
McCullum’s attacking conviction brings to mind another sports figure, from another decade in another sport. Kevin Keegan managed Newcastle United in the 1990s to play a kind of football that made the Geordies everyone’s second favourite team. ‘You score four, we’ll hit five’, was the ethos. But within a matter of months, without a trophy to mark their entertaining efforts, it became, ‘we score three, you’ll net five.’
Keegan was naïve. McCullum surely isn’t. As recently as February 2014, he batted for over 12 hours (scoring 302) to save a Test at Wellington against India when 200 behind on first innings. And his side has adhesive batsmen in Latham, Williamson, Taylor and Watling. The quick bowlers can also settle into long spells, building pressure through consistency, rather than gambling on unplayable deliveries.
What we have seen at Lord’s is McCullum’s deliberate approach, perhaps stirred by the praise he attracted during the World Cup. It’s what makes his next move so interesting. Will the chance of winning in a cavalier, popularity commanding fashion continue to tug, or will he sit back and allow the skills of his team to compete at a more conventional Test match tempo?
We may have found out the answer mid-afternoon today, when McCullum came in to bat, 280 runs from victory and four top order wickets down. How would he bat? But a stinging first ball off-cutter, from the player who benefitted most from McCullum’s determined offensive strategy on day one, struck the New Zealand skipper and deflected onto his stumps. Ben Stokes pushed England towards victory and kept McCullum’s next move concealed until Headingley.
Asked at the end of the second day’s play at Lord’s about the prospect of Brendon McCullum batting against the new ball on the next day, Moeen Ali said, “Yeah, he’s a bit of a hero of mine..”
Hasn’t the lad attended the ECB media management training?
What’s all this doffing the cap, mid-match, to the opposition captain’s style of cricket?
And the use of simple, clearly spoken words? It’s as if England’s whole vocabulary of performance development had been blown away.
It could be a watershed moment.
I am left to think that Moeen Ali is a bit of a hero of mine.
He didn’t even qualify the statement with an “obviously“.
I have been a Stokes sceptic. Muscles, tattoos and attitude, but never a telling or enduring contribution that would put him at the top of the county averages or even earn him regular use of the new ball for Durham.
His breakthrough at Perth was, I thought (ironically, as you will find, if you read on), just one of those things that happen. A bit of bold batting by a youngster on a day that things fell into place. But not a repeatable moment. Stokes’ bowling: the veering to the left in his delivery stride – a technical kink rather than an idiosyncracy from which he drew force or work on the ball. And the outcome was too predictable to bother Test batsmen.
Stokes’ 2014 made me feel sage.
Then yesterday, I switched. Above all, it was the on-driving: tight, measured and drilled to the boundary over and over again. Of the orthodox cricket shots, the most difficult to achieve because of the risk of imbalance: head in line with hands and ball, not tipping to the off-side to create the angle; top hand and bottom hand having milliseconds of dominance, with power exchanged from top to bottom at the precise moment of contact. Stokes’ muscle and attitude were deployed in controlled, balanced bursts.
The context was impressive as well. England four wickets down for thirty, New Zealand’s bowlers in the ascendancy. Stokes used the attacking field to his advantage, flaying short balls across open field.
This morning, thinking about all that Stokes’ innings meant for England, but most of all the future ability to pick the best four bowlers in the country, I remembered apophenia. Finding meaningful patterns in random data.
For all Stokes’ splendid, upright balance, why was he fed full balls on the leg-stump and long-hops? ‘The difficult first hour’ (itself a candidate for apophenic misapprehension) had passed by the time he came to the wicket, which showed itself to be true and good for strokeplay. Hadn’t there also been a few inside edges that could have seen Stokes fall before lunch?
Ben Stokes, apophenia and me: time will tell. I did, though, relish those on-drives.