A glimpse of 21st century cricket

TED CORBETT

GRAHAM THORPE and Nathan Astle gave a glimpse of 21st century Test cricket in the New Zealand-England Test at Christchurch: strident, exciting, colourful and exotic. Mind-bending in some ways but also a signal that the methods that have stood the test of time can be improved to bring back a new generation of young fans.

V. V. KRISHNAN

The old-timers, the conservatives and the traditionalists will call it quick-fix cricket but there is nothing wrong in fast solutions.

When I first watched snooker at the highest level it needed a week to complete a world championship final. Now the final fits into two days and yet the most elegant of games has lost none of its subtlety, its variety or its charm.

Snooker's governing body - interestingly enough composed largely of active players but advised by television professionals - decided that if the game was to stay vibrant it must answer to the needs of modern society.

Cricket can tread the same path and emerge stronger in people who will want a wider set of leisure activities. I welcome new age cricket and so should we all.

In a month before this Test Ian Botham's 1982 record double century against India - until that moment the quickest in balls faced - has been beaten comprehensively by Adam Gilchrist, approached by Graham Thorpe and smashed to smithereens by Nathan Astle. All against good attacks but using imaginative and aggressive batting.

The boundaries have been peppered with fours and sixes so that one of the commonest sights anywhere has been either of a young - usually Australian - fan taking a spectacular catch or elderly spectators trying to avoid the ball cannoning around the terraces. Time to increase their insurance cover.

While Gilchrist's assault on the South African bowlers might have been expected from a wicket-keeper batsman who has given ample evidence of his ability to destroy Test attacks, the two at Christchurch were a shock.

The first, an undefeated 200 which won the match and the Man of the Match award, came from Thorpe who has for all sorts of reasons not been at his best for a couple of years.

V. V. KRISHNAN

He has been in and out of England sides because of injury, taken time to recover, been injured again and all the while suffering the mental agonies that are associated with the breakdown of his marriage.

He must have understood the near certainty that if that private matter became public knowledge he would be subject to trial by media on a daily basis.

There were plenty of people ready to write off Thorpe's career, to say that as his middle 30s came round he was on the wane; and that he had never realised the potential of a lad who began his Test career with a century in his second innings. He had been spoken of as an international player since he was 12, sent on five England 'A' team tours, nursed and cajoled and pushed and tested before he was given his Test chance.

Instead of blossoming, Thorpe was good one day and indifferent the next.

We all began to question the number of injuries, the times he had quit a tour early, the strain that he must have been under and his lack of ambition. A highest Test score of 138 is hardly an indication of a great batsman, nor is an average below 45 and just 10 centuries in 4,800 runs.

I was particularly concerned that he made so many half centuries and turned so few into hundreds. He seemed to believe that if every batsman made 75 it would produce better results. In saying that, it seemed to me, he misunderstood the very nature of cricket and his own part in the England scheme of things.

He had certainly not played his full range of innings over the last nine years in England sides that have been often badly led, poorly selected and lacking the stars. All the more chance for Thorpe to shine, you might think.

Yet out of all that angst came a glorious exhibition of uninhibited stroke play that appeared to have taken the Test so far out of New Zealand's reach that you wondered why they bothered to play the second innings at all.

We forgot about Astle, who provided the second shock. That is not difficult. He has made most of his Test runs unnoticed until his assault on the Australians this winter and on England during the one-day international series.

"He came here a few years ago, after our regular overseas pro broke down and, frankly, we were not that impressed," a voice from Nottinghamshire told me. "He did not produce a single innings for us that had even a hint of the way he played at Christchurch."

Those who know him best say he is unwilling to talk much, almost shy in the dressing room, a man who keeps himself to himself; although he is willing enough to help youngsters. And in a changing room where Cairns has an opinion on everything, where Fleming is not afraid to express himself and Adam Parore is clearly a strong-minded individual there is no need for another talking head.

Like Thorpe, Astle has played in poor Test sides, been on the wrong end of a match too often and never had the support when he needed it. Until Fleming came along the side also suffered from poor leadership and too many captains.

So as Astle walked out to bat, as he went past 50 and then 100 we still paid no heed. At best New Zealand could put up a decent score, keep faith with their supporters.

In the end, despite the limping Chris Cairns' arrival at the crease - mainly because Fleming wanted to watch more of Astle's batting, so the story goes - the target of 550 was too big for New Zealand but that late furious display of stroke-making should have opened more captains' eyes to the new way the game can be played.

Since the Australian revolution under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh - and more particularly under the coaching of John Buchanan - the game has changed dramatically.

We have seen bowlers of all types in one-day cricket attempting to take wickets as a first priority and that is a welcome change after years of careful field placings and line and length monotony.

Next came the outright assault led by men like Gilchrist and following the pattern laid down by Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva in the 1996 World Cup. That too owes a nod to the Sri Lankan coach Dav Whatmore whose general principle was that 120 for four off 15 overs was a good score and that 110 for one in 15 overs probably was not.

What else will come along to turn staid old cricket into a thriving game with a bright future?

More teams will see the advantage of opening with two left-handed batsmen, especially if they play their shots as Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer have for Australia and Mark Butcher and Marcus Trescothick for England.

There will be more attacking instincts, the Academies will teach their batsmen to leave the crease more often, the bowlers to set the sort of field that faced Astle against Matthew Hoggard - three slips and no-one else within shouting distance - and captains to be more imaginative.

These innovations have already begun in one-day internationals but now they have arrived in Tests; proving that there is a value in the limited overs game beyond the usual talk about better fielding and greater fitness.

After 126 years of Test cricket and 31 years of one-day internationals with 1,594 Tests and 215 double hundreds - not to mention 300 years of village, town, county and provincial cricket - there is still room for improvement, innovation and a reworking of the old ways.

If the umpires can have earpieces and direct communication with the pavilion, will it be long before Bob Woolmer's plan to put the captain in contact with the coach returns? He was told to scrap that idea when he tried it during the 1999 World Cup but there is no reason why it should be considered cheating. Especially as the technology is available to everyone.

A society becoming increasingly used to computers, instant access to New Zealand, Alaska and Timbuktu on the world wide web and seeing telecommunications satellites in the stratosphere will not be offended by a short wave radio. ICC seem to be moving in the right direction and the Woolmer radio will complement traditional methods before long I am sure.

The great principles of accuracy from the bowler, good footwork from the batsman and an alert mind in the field still remain but if Astle's innings proved anything it is that, at last, one-day cricket has made a major contribution. It has freed men's mind, opened up new paths.

If what we saw at Christchurch is 21st century cricket we are in for an exhilarating ride over the next few years.