Changing patterns

The unpalatable truth emerging from the Cardiff Test is the fact that neither the Aussie nor the England side possesses the fire power to dismiss its opponent twice in the space of five days, writes Frank Tyson.

Shakespeare, speaking through the mouth of Julius Caesar, just about got it right when he said:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

In other words there is a ‘moment psychologique’ for every successful action. As it was with Caesar’s battles, so is it with cricket innovations — and recent times have proved to be the ideal window to bring the ancient format of a traditional game and modern marketing ideas together.

Over the past decade “a new boy on the block”, the game of Twenty20 has made its bow on the international, first-class and club stage. And with its introduction it has added a new dimension to the universal sport.

That dimension amounts to entertainment: a quality which, sadly, has been lacking from most levels of the professional game for a few decades past. Recently, England played Australia in Cardiff’s inaugural Test, in what should have been the apogee of cricket’s attractive international standing. After five days struggle the best result that the two of the premier sides of the sport could produce was a draw! A close and exciting draw admittedly: but still a draw! No wonder the American comedian Groucho Marx was amused and mystified by a game which lasted for five days and was still inconclusive!

The unpalatable truth emerging from the Cardiff Test is the fact that neither the Aussie nor the England side possesses the fire power to dismiss its opponent twice in the space of five days. The bowling talent is simply not there. The selectors on both sides must recognise that basic truth. Nor would it be beyond an extension of that truth that the batting ability on both sides is also so thin that, should the teams find themselves trapped on a pitch which assists the ball, the batsmen will find that technique is an essential ingredient of good batting.

Many revisionists have tinkered with cricket. Some experimented with the length of the game. For instance, before World War II, timeless Tests were tried. The outcome was Durban’s 10-day Test of patience and still no result! Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket experimented with 50-over games and, to a certain extent, speeded up the limited-overs game. Other reformers fiddled with the laws of the game and the size of the equipment. The ball was reduced in size, to the advantage of fast bowlers Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. The easier interpretation of the lbw law was tried. Boundaries were shortened but still the game refused to come to heel! The trouble is that cricket is a complicated game which needs a simple straightforward interpretation. The beauty of Twenty20 cricket is its simplicity. Simply put, it is based on the elementary description of cricket given in the Oxford dictionary: “a well-known open air game. One side strikes a ball projected by its opponents and scores runs by running between wickets. Its opponents attempt to dismiss its rivals by putting down their wickets. The side scoring more runs wins the game.”

Compare this brief explanation with the labyrinthine description of cricket’s 41 laws detailing every aspect of the equipment, the personnel, the finer points of the game, and its conduct.

By embracing the uncomplicated version of the sport, cricket has transformed its shortened version into a world-wide entertainment easily appreciated and comprehended by the man in the street.

It is appreciated, not just by the expert enthusiast, educated by an upbringing in generations of participation in the game, brainwashed by the media hysteria but widely acknowledged as the national game of England, Australia, India and the former British dominions.

This total immersion in the sport brings with it the reward of an Australian Pandora’s box, rich with batting as meritorious as Brad Haddin’s, Phillip Hughes’, Marcus North’s and Simon Katich’s: bowling as cutting as Mitchell Johnson’s and Ben Hilfenhaus’. These are players the equals of those who have gone before and unveiled Australia’s depth of talent, and the proven and comparative weakness of the rest of the cricketing world.

The reconstitution of the pre-2000 Aussie cricket team reminds me of the recruitment of the crowded fast bowling squads of the English midlands counties in the 1930s. It was then said that selectors had only to go to the top of any pit head and whistle for a dozen craggy, raw-boned trundlers to come to the surface to jostle and vie for places in the elite squad.

The Aussie pseudo-reserve XI has already displayed that it not only has the requisite, innate talent but also that it commands a lively appreciation of the respective revised batting and bowling methodology, embracing the necessity of scoring quickly — or the need to prevent the opposing batsmen from upping the scoring tempo. Thus a batsman who favours front foot driving for his runs will be confined by the bowler whose modus operandum is constantly short of a length and his direction close to the batsman’s body. Bent elbows and a shortened front arm lever will restrict the free swing of the batsman’s arms, denying him the full swing of the bat so necessary to hitting the ball hard.

Consistently forcing the batsman on to the back foot prevents him from transferring his weight on to the front foot, and in consequence, hitting the ball hard. More important than hitting the ball hard, however, is simply making contact with it. England proved this point in the inaugural Cardiff Ashes Test, where its batsmen persisted in hitting across the line of the ball against a straight but mediocre Australian attack and, in consequence, made the inevitable sacrifice. The game of cricket is difficult enough without such illogical and unnecessary complications, especially when the hitting implement is a bat measuring less than 10 cms long by 5cms wide.

The marvel of cricket is that it continually throws up a variety of individualistic problems for solution by singular minds. Thus Bosanquet’s “googly” of the early 1900s evinced the riposte of more pad play; and the Jack Iverson “bent finger spinner” of the 1960s caused England’s opener Len Hutton to treat it exclusively as an off-spinner. In the 1950s, the West Indian mystery spinner, ‘Sonny’ Ramadhin reduced England’s batsmen to pure defence in one frustrating Birmingham Test: men who kicked the ball rather than play Peter May and Colin Cowdrey out of the bowler’s “rough”. For every action, it seems, there is a reaction.

Recently, international cricket has been introduced to Twenty20 cricket and its slogging tactics: moves which prompted the surprise selection of batsmen some of whom had no previous experience of life in the first-class lane. I wonder what will be the reaction and response of the orthodox game to Twenty20 will be? Will the new game open up new windows of opportunity for some players with idiosyncrative methods of playing? This could be the beginning of something big! — as the song goes!