A genuine expression of 21st century joy


I HAVE never understood those dullards - mainly public school-educated reporters and English cricket board officials with a similar background - who claim that one-day international matches are somehow inferior to Tests.

Snobbery comes into the equation and so does that very common human dislike of change. So let us nod our heads in a compassionate way and agree that those who rail against the excitement, the colourful clothing, the bright lights and the urgency of one-dayers are missing a lot in their lives.

The traditionalists, as they would call themselves, think in their Brecht, Bolshoi and Beethoven way that Test cricket is grand opera and one-dayers are modern jazz; but there are many times when Dave Brubeck's quartet is a more enjoyable option than La Boheme.

Cricket began back on the village green, the military parade ground and the Outback as a one-day game. Start at noon, take lunch at 2 o'clock, home made tea and cakes at 4.30 and finish in time to repair to the nearest inn for a refreshing pint and a spot of supper.

A gentle social game, played at a leisurely pace and interspersed with stoppages for meals. That made it unique, and immensely pleasurable for those semi-athletes, the middle-aged and the nearly pensionable drawn from their sedentary jobs each week-end.

Its descendant is the modern, raucous, action-filled, Mexican Waved, floodlit, all-the-fun-of-the-fair international one-dayer; vulgar, common, dirty even; but a genuine expression of 21st century joy.

Sadly many impressive voices have denigrated limited overs matches in the last 30 years.

I remember one. He stood at Melbourne Cricket Ground and watched with visible dislike as Australia put together a huge score. Then he went into the pavilion and expressed his view that one-day cricket was fit only for those low-lifes from the terraces who lack taste and discretion.

An Australian asked what was his objection and he fairly spat it out: "Well, it's not first-class, is it?"

"They hit seven sixes in 50 overs," came the reply. "I'd call that first class, even if you don't."

There was another too. I had written something about the changes brought by the arrival of Packer, principally through the one-day game. "I bet you cannot tell me a single benefit," he sneered in a voice that assumed I would fail.

I suggested increased crowds, better finance, more sponsors, higher player involvement, higher wages, greater athleticism, improved fielding, more positive batting, and a slow evolution in strategic thinking. "If that has benefited cricket, you may be right," he said. Clearly he believed all change was for the worse.

I thought of that phrase throughout the day as India beat England by four wickets in the third one-day international at Chennai. Even from 5,000 miles, with a log fire the only heat on a cold English winter's day, with the rain streaming down and the wind howling, the drama was obvious.

What more could you expect from any match? Here were two teams tied 1-1, both looking for World Cup success as a long-term aim. Nasser Hussain, the England captain, desperately wanted to triumph on the ground where his father played, not to mention this being the city where he was born.

Sourav Ganguly was stricken by a hamstring injury, giving Anil Kumble the chance to show whether he might lead India when - not if - the selectors grew impatient with Ganguly's inability to work miracles. No wonder Ganguly looked pensive, sad even, whenever the cameras turned towards him.

England were off to a flying start but soon the bounce - "on an Indian pitch we have the ball going through elbow high," you would see them mouthing to one another - reduced their total to 217. They did not even use their full allocation of overs, a criminal offence beyond treachery in one-day cricket.

But they had in their minds the two great truisms in Indian cricket. The middle-order often collapses; and once you are rid of Sachin Tendulkar, who has been producing one-day runs at 86 every 100 balls for 12 years, a collapse is imminent and victory a possibility.

At first it seemed Tendulkar's thunderous innings had won the game as he and Virender Sehwag put on 107.

The first Little Master almost purred into his BBC microphone as Little Master Mark II hit good balls for four. "I couldn't do that," he said although he could score 3,092 one-day runs in 108 matches.

In a flash the game was a contest again. Sehwag, so much like Sachin that I began to think of him as Little Master III, bludgeoned a four to reach fifty and should have gone steadily towards a century and a Man of the Match award.

Instead, he lobbed the next ball to a legside fielder and set off an avalanche of wickets that caused England to fantasise they might win. Too late, England put up a fight.

English professionals learn to pace their passion. "You can't kill every day," Steve Davis, the great snooker player, used to say after he had lost to some ordinary club player in an exhibition match; but as six world titles suggest, he could commit murder when the right moment came. So it is with the county pro.

Once they scented success England threw themselves body and soul and voice - the personal abuse was abominable - into their hopeless cause and India's stroll was turned into a tense crawl, won late by Ajay Ratra, 20, who has played just three one-day games. We must watch that boy.

Both camps had serious questions to answer. India need to find batsmen fit to act as substitutes for Rahul Dravid and Ganguly; England must debate the mindset that kept Graham Thorpe and Andrew Caddick on the sidelines. It is already a worry to the bosses at Lord's.

The Australians would not have been found wanting if, for instance, Mark Waugh and Ricky Ponting had been injured; the experienced and skilled Darren Lehmann is just one waiting in the wings. Nor would they have adopted the sentimental approach and kept old campaigners in the cold. Steve Waugh's quick return after a thigh strain in the Ashes series last summer proves that point.

On the other hand the Australians, the same braggarts who thought they could test out their rotation system and still qualify for their own tri-series final, have met their match in the shape of a vibrant New Zealand team whose next opponents are England.

England have always treated New Zealand with casual arrogance but they will deserve a cheer if they come out of the land of the Long White Cloud with their minds intact at the end of their two-month tour. They will certainly not win if they make any more errors in selection.

New Zealand have been threatening to emerge as world beaters ever since they put Stephen Fleming in place as captain during England's last tour. They have won a Test series in England and in Australia they gave the cocky home team scare or two on way to drawing the three Test series 0-0. Watch them and be very, very afraid.

I must have seen around 400 one-day internationals and, much as I love the best, there are plenty I could not distinguish from 399 others.

Some have wonderful memories. At Sydney one morning I received a phone call from a colleague. He was in the city to visit his daughter - with a view to emigrating when he retired - and desperate to see England play Australia that evening. Could I get him a ticket?

Of course I could. I sat with him throughout the match but late in the England innings he grew despondent. "Look at 'em, throwing it away again," he kept saying.

Finally, when the last over was about to start, he gave up. "They are never going to score 18 off six balls. Useless, the lot of them. I don't know why I came. Thanks for the ticket; I am sorry you will have to write such a damning report of this dreadful display. I'm going to get my bus."

Off he strode, a disappointed man. I don't know if he had left the ground when the over began, nor whether he paused on his way out to watch Allan Lamb snatch victory off the fifth ball of that final over. I don't even have any idea if he ever found out the result. By the time I got back to England he had gone off to live in Australia.

Because he relished the excitement of their one-day games, no doubt.