A marriage of disparate elements

ROHIT BRIJNATH

THE World may have been in their backyard, but Australians early on were not overly impressed. Bowled Vettori, caught Lara. Ho hum. Sehwag and Pietersen running for the same ball. Big deal. Teams own particular styles, reflect distinctive cultures, but this was a dinner of pies and curry. It jarred. This seemed a counterfeit brotherhood, a forced camaraderie, it was an encounter absent of history and bereft of rivalry. Or so it first seemed.

But cricket, sometimes pretentious, is known to be suspicious of newness. Perhaps there is something here worth nurturing, an idea that needs the oxygen of time to find its feet. Perhaps by the end of it we will be calling for encores, and anyway the single Test remains the real examination of this exercise, for over six days talent is allowed to stretch itself and competitive juices gradually come to a satisfying boil. In one-dayers, greatness is ephemeral, it is all too quick, street dance not ballet.

But it will not be an easy seduction. Sport has a clear divide between the contest and the exhibition (so many of which we have recently seen), and these cricket encounters are searching for an unfamiliar place in-between. Soccer occasionally gathers a Rest of the World, but they are fun fests; basketball has its All-Star games and while the competition is hard, it lacks an honest edge. Great players put in the same room do not morph into a team and cricket, for all its individual contests between batsman and bowler, derives strength from its collective spirit.

That said, cricket has rarely provided such a buffet, beauty in some isolation perhaps, but beauty nonetheless. Vettori and Murali bowling together, right arm and left, men from disparate shores, bonded by little that is obvious, yet scholars of spin bound tightly by a similar craft. There was, if you looked hard enough, something to relish.

Cricket has anyway too much sameness, not the game as it unfolds but the teams, which are too few, and this was a dash of a different colour, an illegitimate side if you like but not without its attractions. Perhaps Shoaib and Pietersen exchanged hairdresser numbers; perhaps Dravid and Kallis dissected the cover drive, mirror not required for they had each other; perhaps Sehwag and Lara discussed the pleasure of obliterating attacks. Cricketers can only learn from another culture.

In times of excessive nationalism, when patriotism as an idea has been mangled by politicians, there is a pleasure, however fleeting, in watching South Africans bellowing support for a Sri Lankan player and Indians finding a kind word for Englishmen wielding bats.

What perhaps stole some character from the one-dayers was the indoor arena, the closed roof producing the irony of stars being trapped on the ground. Some claim cricket particularly cannot be confined, that it is in its element among the elements (clouds bringing swing, Warnie drifting in with the breeze, sun in the catcher's eye), but that would be pompous; after all it is not just cricket, but sport in its entirety almost that is an advertisement for the great outdoors, about young people breathing fresh air and gamboling under sunshine skies.

Soccer indoors, to take but one example, is a dreadful vision and only those who have never slid into tackles and raised water and brought down opponent in one swoop would recommend it. In the World Cup in Mexico 1986, with matches held in the baking heat of the day to suit prime time viewing in Europe, players found their stamina and resolve challenged, and air-conditioned cocoons seemed only for wimps.

But nature also regularly plays spoilsport, and sport is a business that does not suffer interruptions with good humour. The roof at the Australian Open has been good for tennis, and tradition-bound Wimbledon's decision to follow suit suggests fans, too, want play to go on. Indoor arenas also make sport a possibility in every season; spring in Melbourne is windy and rainy, and no roof would mean constantly disrupted play.

In the first match itself, the World spinners conspired to undermine Shoaib Akhtar, six wickets between them advancing their cause and suggesting the fast bowler, short of breath and fitness, may struggle for a place in the Test side. Murali is a sure thing, and of Vettori's 12 five-wicket hauls six have been against Australia. Sydney's somewhat spinning wicket merely adds to argument.

One of the hindrances to this series has been the Ashes, not so much who won but how it was played. Even if the hype is stripped back it was one of the three best series to be played in 25 years, courage wedded to skill to give birth to a drama the game has craved. Even now the excitement lingers, and it asks too much of cricket for this Super Series to rival it, let alone transcend it.

At best, it has become a test of Australia, which once owned the world now must prove it against the World. Australia has lost series elsewhere before, not least in India in 2001, but such an uproar did not follow. But the Ashes have a different hold on the Australian, and pride has been lost and some bitterness has flowed. They, too, are not above over-reaction and calls for Ponting's head for instance have had a hysteria attached to them.

Australia is not unsentimental; it is occasionally said they are not worshippers of individual stars either, but that, too, is an awkward truth. What they are is more demanding of their teams, more insistent on performance, and more brutal when it comes time for the players to be shown the exit.

India has yet to get there, and it is why it is not a great team. Not an Indian bowler has made either world XI and in-between bursts of petulance Harbhajan Singh must ask himself why that is so.