Friday, 24 December 2010

The triumph of cricket

One of this year's great Christmas presents is the anticipation of the Australia v England Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, with every ingredient for a sporting contest you might remember for a lifetime. The absurdly melodramatic saga of three epic Test matches so far have converted this lifelong football obsessive to the view that nothing else in the sporting universe can quite match the depth and range of a great series of Test cricket.

I was never anything like as fanatical about cricket as my Dad.

He must have been one of the first few adopters of a Sky dish, when they had only cricket and not football rights to try to hook viewers in. However early I got up during the 1992 cricket world cup (broadcast live from down under), I could find him bleary eyed and glued to the game - just as likely to be Sri Lanka v Zimbabwe as India v Pakistan - albeit saying he'd just recently tuned in to catch up with the score.

My dad always failed the Tebbit "cricket test" with flying colours - and not only in India's interests. He isn't particularly hostile to the England team, but he is quietly rooting for Australia in the Ashes! (Working for the NHS for 35 years might or might not count in mitigation). No doubt partly in response, I always cheered for England v India - albeit with a bit of agonising over whether to carry on once Norman Tebbit piped up when I was 16. But not always: did anyone really "support" England when the great West Indies team "blackwashed" them 5-0 in 1984? (And what does "supporting" a cricket team mean anyway when a series is as one-sided as that?)

Cricket burbled along in the background while, between the ages of eight and eighteen at least, there was nothing I didn't know about football. I was very taken with the great cricketing metropolis of Somerset when they had Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Ian Botham in the same team when I was ten, though I preferred David Gower to Botham as I grew up. But part of the attraction of a day out at the cricket - whether Essex playing the odd game in the park at Southend, or going to the great grounds of Lords or the Oval for a one-day game or the occasional Test day - was that it never had the gut-wrenching feeling of mattering like football could at its worst.

I wanted England to do well - but it was never too surprising to hear that the middle order had collapsed.

So it has been difficult to adjust to the emergence of a different England.

It was the 2005 Ashes which did it. Perhaps even this series can never match England felling a team of genuine legends. For a moment, Australia were England and England were Australia, pursuing their task with such ruthless efficiency that retaining the Ashes down under almost risked becoming boring. You can not beat Australia like that. They make great sporting villians, but in the resilience of Michael Hussey and the recovery of Mitchell Johnson, they are worthy adversaries. We may well hear from the great Ricky Ponting in Melbourne.

Could it be only last year that Mike Brearley, one of the great thinking cricketers, wondered aloud that "maybe it will turn out that test cricket has no long-term future"?

Yes, there are probably two better Test sides taking the field in South Africa. But what could beat this contest between two evenly matched sides playing at the perfect time in the perfect setting (brilliantly described by Mike Selvey in the Guardian yesterday)?

The winners will receive a replica of a tiny trophy rumoured to contain the remains of a cricket ball. In a world saturated by sport of questionable meaning, Australia and England are playing the game for something that really matters.


Alex C-D said...

I think it's a bail, not a ball, in the urn. But great piece! Bring on tomorrow.

Alex C-D said...

Or Sunday, even...