Offside, 11 August
So England's cricketers can win – but can they stay the innings?
Cricket, bloody hell! England’s nerve-fraying two-run victory over Australia in the second Test at Edgbaston was certainly one hell of a game. Already this test is being hailed as one of the great cricket matches. ‘Was this the best Test match ever?’ asked the Daily Telegraph.
The match may turn out to be one of the most important for English cricket’s self-belief. The Antipodean cricketing hoodoo has been broken. Now we know that the Aussies aren’t the invulnerable übermensches we once believed them to be. Without Glenn McGrath the gulf between the two sides no longer appears as unbridgeable as it did after the rout at Lords. We also found out that this current English team are not just a batting collapse waiting to happen. England showed real character and fight. And what’s more, in the mighty ‘Freddie’ Flintoff, England have a genuine, solid-gold match winner.
So, yes, a vitally important Test match for England. But the greatest ever? I don’t think so. It was certainly one of the most exciting. It’s up there in the Top Ten Test Thrillers alongside the 1981 ‘Miracle of Headingley’. Personally my vote goes to England’s Botham-inspired victory over Australia in 1981 because England were staring at certain defeat until Beefy turned the game on its head with a thrilling century. And even then England only had a meagre 130-run lead to defend but managed to skittle the Aussies out thanks to an eight-wicket haul from Bob Willis.
Andrew Flintoff’s second innings onslaught at Edgbaston, which was reminiscent of Beefy’s knock, was fantastic to watch. It was undoubtedly the decisive batting performance in the match. But the fact that no batsman managed to score a century on what, let’s face it, was a fairly lifeless track, indicates that the quality of the batting fell some way short of greatness. Surely a great Test match requires at least one great century? VVS Laxman’s match winning 281 against Australia in Calcutta in 2001, when India were facing an innings defeat, is the sort of great innings I’m talking about. Okay, I know I’ll sound a bit curmudgeonly to pick holes in a victory that has rekindled the nation’s interest in cricket. But after the first two Ashes tests ended inside four days, I’m beginning to wonder whether our cricketers have the patience to play Test cricket.
Sure, the new attack-minded style of batting, pioneered by Australia, has transformed modern Test cricket. I’ve got no problem with that. But what really upsets my Inner Boycott is seeing batsmen give their wickets away cheaply. At both Lords and Headingley too many top order English batsmen got themselves out way too easily. The sight of batsmen not moving their feet or taking a swipe at balls they should have left well alone was distressing to someone like me, who was taught from an early age that not playing with a straight bat was a sin worse than masturbation. The inability of almost every English batsman, apart from Kevin Pietersen, to read Shane Warne’s spin was equally worrying. Of course, picking Warne’s slider is far from easy but the English batsmen need to learn fast or they’ll struggle on the spin-friendly Old Trafford pitch where Warne bowled the famous ‘Gatting Ball’.
The first two Ashes Tests both felt a bit like one-day internationals. Runs were scored quickly and wickets fell regularly – on average one wicket fell every 6.5 overs. It wasn’t just the fast-run rate that resembled the one-day game but the fact that the batsmen were prepared to take more risks in order to force the pace. Admittedly the batting didn’t degenerate into agricultural cowshots, but there were too many wickets lost through unnecessary attacking shots or poor defensive technique. Whatever happened to the art of occupying the crease? As Martin Samuel put it in The Times (London), ‘England’s footballers do not love the ball enough; England’s cricketers do not love the bat. The footballers give the ball away; the cricketers surrender their wickets’ (1). The root of the problem is that, apart from Test matches, England players are predominantly playing one-day cricket and consequently the limited-overs run-rate mentality has started to infect the five-day game.
Of course, one might argue that with Test matches as thrilling as this we shouldn’t worry about defensive batting. The problem is that you can’t keep relying on Flintoff and Pietersen to blast England out of trouble. The big hitters won’t always deliver, which is why you need top order batsmen to get in and stay in – for hours if necessary. Or, to paraphrase the Beatles, all you need is patience.
(1) Big Brother generation spells big bother for English cricket’s future, The Times (London), 27 July 2005
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