Posted by: tootingtrumpet | August 7, 2018

The anatomy of a great Test match

August is silly season in the Press – Parliament is not sitting, most of the Westminster Bubble’s occupants are in Tuscany or Edinburgh and stories can be tricky to find. But as sure as one reads the “One man and a dog watched the only County Championship match to escape the snow” pieces in April, one reads the “Good ol’ Test cricket – though it’s not what it was in my youth and how many more years has it left anyway?” articles in August.

The Guardian ran two such articles on the same day last week (by Kenan Malik and Mary Dejevsky) and, though I’ll limit my criticism of their tough love doom-mongering to inviting them to consider the “crowd” for English cricket’s most celebrated innings – see for yourself here – I want to take this opportunity to analyse how Edgbaston produced a magnificent Test match, the greatest of games’s alchemy spinning gold from wood, grass and leather yet again.

The multi-millionaires of India squared off against the millionaires of England and it mattered, it really mattered. The home side had surrendered The Ashes meekly, blown away by Australia’s sheer Australianess Down Under, then lost the series in New Zealand or drew at home to Pakistan. India had a number one ranking to defend and a dismal overseas record to improve – the game’s new financial and administrative masters needed the team that wore their crest to play like masters. What about those T20I and ODI wins  / defeats? On the first day of a Test series, such matters are of no relevance to anyone on the field or in the stands.

Test cricket is an accumulation of events from which sub-plots emerge within the overarching story. For such an antiquated, twee, terminally unsexy entertainment format, it’s remarkable how much the “box set” event television of Game of Thrones or Westworld owes to Test cricket’s narrative structure. Everyone expected James Anderson bowling to Virat Kohli to be one such sub-plot, but we were barely half an hour into the match when India’s leading spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin (a man with much to prove in England) stitched up Alastair Cook like a kipper. Ashwin repeated the trick in the second innings, Cook losing his off bail again, and the duel was set up for the series as a fascinating individual battle, with England’s leading run scorer’s career at stake. Just wait for the murmur-then-hush to descend on Lord’s the moment Kohli tosses the ball to his off spinner with Cook at the crease.

England were 216-3, the captain cruising to a century in the company of his batsman-wicketkeeper, Jonny Bairstow, the pair putting away four balls and pinching singles against a fielding side with too many camels. The two Yorkies had grown up together and had played matches all over the world, both of them super fit and quick (Root) and lightening (Bairstow) between the sticks. India, as they had too often on the last two tours (2014 lost 3-1; 2011 lost 4-0) were waiting for something to happen. And then it did. Kohli swooped and threw off balance, on the turn, his momentum going away from his target, but he hit the stumps at the bowler’s end and they lit up. And so did the contest.

That this India would play with the heart of its captain was now irrefutable, Kohli, without yet facing a ball, had stamped his personality on the match, on the series and, after too many one-sided Tests in recent years, we knew these tourists would not, once behind in a match, give up and coast into the next Test. England soon surrendered six wickets for 69 runs to close on 285-9, the day finishing even after both sides had enjoyed periods of dominance. It felt like a tone had been set – two sides reflecting their cricketing traditions, but evenly matched – what would separate them would be players’ willingness to embrace the unique challenge of five day cricket.

That theme was explored on a second day that nobody lucky enough to be there, will ever forget.

Like an opera, Test matches can include periods when you feel you’re allowed to take a break: the emotions aren’t quite as high; the big arias are yet to come; the heroes’ and villains’ characters not wholly developed. The morning of the second day felt like that for 90 minutes or so. England’s innings had been wrapped up swiftly and India’s openers had posted a largely untroubled 50.

England’s champion bowlers, Anderson and Stuart Broad had bowled well, but neither had enjoyed the bit of luck everyone needs and the shine was wearing off the new ball. Then, as would happen in the old Batman TV show, a KAPOW!! flashed across our vision.

Sam Curran’s selection had slipped under the radar amidst the whining about Adil Rashid’s transporting to Edgbaston directly from white ball cricket. The Surrey leftie is young, but otherwise (it seemed) largely unremarkable – not a speedster protégé bursting on to the scene like Patrick Cummins or Kagisa Rabada did a few years previously, nor a Southern African whose commitment might be open to question like, well, you know. He had a name to make – and he did.

Curran bagged the top three in the Indian order in the space of 17 balls to lurch the game forward again and received the ultimate mark of arrival as a bona fide international sports star – he was trending on Twitter. Lunch, which had looked like a rather relaxed affair in which speculation on whether India might enjoy a small lead at the end of the day might have been the main topic of conversation, turned into a scrabble through the databases to find other 20 year-olds who had taken three wickets in an innings for England – and there weren’t many. Cricket had a new face – a baby-faced assassin – to talk about, the sport renewing its cast before our wide eyes.

Not for the last time, the focus of millions zoomed in on the Indian captain, a man who has lived his entire adult life under such scrutiny, revelling in the attention, a man who embraces pressure and feeds off its seductive ego building energy. England bowled brilliantly, Root captained perfectly, but England fielded badly, Kohli dropped in a moment that prompted everyone, on the field, in the stands or at home, to whisper to themselves, “He’ll make them pay for that.” The scoreboard was largely static – appropriately, as nobody was moving in the crowd nor in the Press Box.

In any endeavour, greatness is bestowed across a career, the perspective required in order to capture its breadth – but not now. In these hours, we would see greatness embraced, established, underlined as Kohli fought to get himself into a match that was sliding rapidly away from the grip of his iron will, then forge on to get his team into the series. Some claim that such innings do not deserve the description “great” as they include flaws – the dropped catch, frequent plays and misses, edges not quite carrying – but such incidents merely add to the lustre. It was never easy for Kohli, indeed it was often very difficult indeed, but the application of skill, the control of temperament and the calling upon of immense reserves of concentration got him through. I have no hesitation in putting the innings in the top five I’ve been privileged to see, live or on television.

Somehow, day two also finished level, England 22 ahead, but Ashwin 2-0 up on Cook. Too slow, you say, for the T20 generation?

Few expected England to find a batsman who could match Kohli’s 149, but few expected to see a scoreboard that soon screamed 87-7, the match, if not gone, very much standing in the hall with its coat on. I wondered about England’s chances – 500/1 crossed my mind – but Ian Botham seemed as absent in spirit as in physical presence.

Curran didn’t know about 1981 and all that – he was born in 1998 – and he seized the moment like a caricature of youthful innocence. Unfazed by a restive crowd, some of whom had had just about enough of England collapses, he played each ball on its merits, defending with a plumb straight vertical bat, not always moving his feet into textbook positions to attack, but trusting a hand-eye coordination that lay within the spirals of his DNA. He looked like he was playing in a schools festival, not rescuing a crucial Test match against the best team in the world.

Then he opened up, stroking the ball to the boundary off the front foot, bludgeoning it off the back foot, rousing the crowd who, once again, couldn’t believe what was going off out there. His 63 prompted another flick through the record books (fifth youngest to make a half century for England) and set India 194, tough, but clearly gettable if someone (and we all knew who) could play a major innings.

The Saturday crowd arrived early knowing that every ball mattered, as the Test had been reduced to the simplest of challenges (with the widest range of possibilities): England needed five wickets; India needed 84 runs. Dinesh Karthik went early, but the crowd barely noticed, all eyes on Kohli, whom England surely needed to dismiss if victory were to be secured. Root was brilliant, starving Kohli of the strike through fields that invited him to take the single early in the over, but maintained the slips that showed him his jeopardy, while attacking Hardik Pandya, who, to his credit, played with much of the nous and verve displayed by Curran the previous day. But India were creeping towards their target and showing no signs of the anxiety that England’s pressure was intended to provoke.

Root had to make something happen, so he tossed the ball to the man who makes things happen – Ben Stokes. England’s all-rounder had looked gaunt, a little hollow-eyed, like a man who wasn’t sleeping too well – and everyone knew why – but, like so many sports stars with problems, Stokes came alive in the cauldron of competition. Having been set up by the first two balls he faced from the England man, Kohli lost concentration momentarily and, perhaps knowing that he had to take the fight to England’s most combative player, fell slightly across his front pad essaying a whip to leg, palpably pinned LBW. Stokes was The Man again.

As he left the field, taking India’s hopes with him, the crowd rose to Kohli, the applause loud enough to be heard in Delhi. England’s fans had enjoyed baiting him as a pantomime villain after his first day send-off for Root, but they recognised what he had done for his team and the entertainment for which he, with 200 runs set against his compatriots’ 214 between them, was responsible. Kohli had quietly clapped in the direction of Curran after his game-changing innings, but England couldn’t do that with the tail still to mop up, but I like to think that they would have if they could. God knows he deserved it.

The scorebook says that England won the First Test by 31 runs – the expected result, if a closer call than most would have predicted four days earlier. Test cricket had also shown its hand: a topsy-turvy match, the balance shifting hour by hour; great players demonstrated why their reputations are deserved; youngsters forging the early chapters in their Test stories; and Test match cricket entralling its audience once again.

There’s plenty that’s wrong with cricket just now (something that’s been written pretty much every day since 1877 I’d venture) but does anything in life provide its canvas of possibilities, its simple complexities, its bloody-marvellousness?

Not even close…

 

 

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Responses

  1. I thought it was a wonderfully exciting Test, but on the whole the batting was too bad and too many wickets were given away for it to be genuinely a great one.

    • I see your case, but sometimes the vulnerabilities make the match.

  2. Moments, extended or fleeting, of brilliance, plus many weaknesses exposed and the uncertainty of the outcome. The whole unfolding, a phenomenon which arguably doesn’t happen in any other sport in quite the same way. These are some of the ingredients of a great test match, and they were all present here. Perhaps, to be mildly churlish, in the interests of pedantry, a truly great match would have the time factor too. The fading light and the whispered urgency of the umpires. Re-setting of fields and tying of shoelaces. The feeling that it has to all happen here, and now…

  3. Lovely article, Gary. I somehow missed reading it till today. Just shared it on my FB timeline.

    I feel these are two flawed sides, but probably among the top 4 sides in Test Cricket at the moment. The flaws have made the test more dramatic, and at times, it was much more nerve wracking than any thriller.

    • Thanks!

      It was the contrasts between the flaws and the brilliance that helped make it such a Test – it makes for great sport!

  4. […] “Looking like more off than on here today, even with Lord’s fabled drainage. If anyone is up for whiling away the hours between inspections with a bit of analysis of what made the first Test a great one (if not quite an all-time great one), I scribbled lots of words here.” […]

  5. […] “Looking like more off than on here today, even with Lord’s fabled drainage. If anyone is up for whiling away the hours between inspections with a bit of analysis of what made the first Test a great one (if not quite an all-time great one), I scribbled lots of words here.” […]

  6. […] “Looking like extra off than on right here nowadays, even with the fabled drainage at Lord’s. If someone is up for whiling away the hours between inspections with slightly of study of what made the primary Test an excellent one (if now not relatively an all-time nice one), I scribbled lots of words here.” […]

  7. […] “Looking like more off than on here today, even with the fabled drainage at Lord’s. If anyone is up for whiling away the hours between inspections with a bit of analysis of what made the first Test a great one (if not quite an all-time great one), I scribbled lots of words here.” […]

  8. […] “Looking like more off than on here today, even with the fabled drainage at Lord’s. If anyone is up for whiling away the hours between inspections with a bit of analysis of what made the first Test a great one (if not quite an all-time great one), I scribbled lots of words here.” […]

  9. […] “Looking like more off than on here today, even with the fabled drainage at Lord’s. If anyone is up for whiling away the hours between inspections with a bit of analysis of what made the first Test a great one (if not quite an all-time great one), I scribbled lots of words here.” […]


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