Mike Holmans February 21, 2009

Another win for Test cricket

West Indies on song bring joy, the pure joy of exulting in excellence, the feeling that nothing can be so much fun as being good at cricket, and that is a joy we need in these otherwise depressing days

It is at least amusing that in the week that Allen Stanford fell from grace, the two teams whose affairs he has most disrupted should produce a match exemplifying all the features of Test cricket that he professes to dislike but which was so absorbing that it will live in the memory longer than most quickfire thrashes.

It’s not that Twenty20 isn’t very good, just that it gets rather samey. Our local kebab shop does some wonderful variations on grilled lamb and chicken but man cannot live by shish alone – there is also a time and place for lobster thermidor, sweet and sour pork or macaroni cheese.

And what you cannot get at your local Twenty20 outlet is cricket reduced to its primal essence, as occurs in a last hour when the batting side has no chance of winning and only a couple of wickets left. The outfield is empty and irrelevant, the only figures on the scoreboard which matter are the wickets and the overs remaining, and the only point of each ball is to see whether the batsman can prevent it hitting his stumps without giving a catch to one of the ravenous mob surrounding him.

The electricity in the crowd has the crackle of static, the batsmen’s fans squawking their approval as a ball is safely fended away and yelping their fear at misses or miscues while those supporting the fielders catch their breaths at each run-up and snort their disappointment at each survival. And at the end, whichever way it goes, there is overwhelming relief for those who succeeded and agonising disappointment for those who failed to reach their objective.

That is the cricket of pure emotion, not played or watched with the brain, but felt through the heart.

At the end of the ARG Test, I felt both the disappointment and the relief, since I have realised that I want this series to be drawn.

I don’t want England to lose, mostly because it will unleash a torrent of tedious doom and gloom articles which we will be swimming through for months – and all of them will drone on and on about the internal workings of the ECB and none will acknowledge that West Indies played well. But I don’t particularly want them to win either because I want West Indies back as a major power.

Every country has their own style. A good Australian team is ruthlessly tough, a good English team displays the virtues of classicism while a good Indian team does the same for the baroque, a Pakistani team will be furiously aggressive, good South Africans functionally efficient and good New Zealanders will be patronised for punching above their weight and given a lollipop. But the West Indies on song bring joy, the pure joy of exulting in excellence, the feeling that nothing can be so much fun as being good at cricket, and that is a joy we need in these otherwise depressing days. It’s no surprise that Usain Bolt played cricket in Jamaica before taking up sprinting: showboating to the world record in the Olympic 100m final is something only a West Indian cricketer could do. (I apologise if Sri Lankans feel left out of the above, but the only thing that has so far characterised good Sri Lankan teams is Murali taking hatfuls of wickets – they need some more history yet.)

As every team which has had to pick itself from the floor has discovered, the first step is becoming hard to beat. Allen Stanford may affect indifference, but right now even he ought to be able to see the pleasures in getting out of jail as Chris Gayle’s men did at the ARG. They have probably gained more from this whole-team backs to the wall effort than they did from the win at Sabina - which came off a once-in-a-lifetime performance from a single bowler and an English batting order in outright panic, a recurrence of which one can dream about but not plan for.

Test cricket’s image has suffered because too many recent games have been mismatches, the eventual result predictable by tea on day one. Yet though the boards are doing their best to distract us by ostentatiously sacking coaches, captains, stadiums and financiers, this series is advertising why Test cricket remains the game’s most fascinating form.