West Indies in England, 2009 May 14, 2009

Test cricket needs Gayle

At last, the waiting is over. Again. A tortuous, seemingly endless five entire days with no Test cricket have finally wended their pointless way into the history books, and the long-awaited England versus West Indies rematch now marches towards its thrillingly decisive climax at the Riverside today. The Wisden Trophy is still literally anyone’s. The two captains have been at each other’s throats like two top surgeons in a one-on-one emergency tracheotomy competition. And the Ashes (not to mention West Indies’ forthcoming home clash with Bangladesh) loom with massively gargantuan enormity as the players strain every conceivable physical and mental sinew to touch the elusive heavens of cricketing immortality. Truly, the eyes of the universe are trained through excited binoculars on the green Durham sward, and it is hard to envisage that this will not prove to be the greatest match cricket has ever seen.

Perhaps I am guilty of talking things up a little. The advance ticket sales suggest I may even be guilty of talking things up more than a little. Following three days of medium-to-low calibre action at Lord’s, and with the West Indian captain essentially proclaiming that he would rather be doing something else somewhere else than spending a long weekend standing outside in the north of England in the middle of May, the cricketing public is showing little appetite for this game. In fact, it is pushing this game around its plate. It may nibble the odd morsel, but it is clearly watching its weight and saving itself for a far more satisfying main course – Ashes pie.

The first Test was an unsatisfying match, despite its nail-biting denouement. Admittedly, it was only nail-biting for the friend with whom I watched the evening session of day 3 – he had tickets for day 4, and would have missed out on his refund if the West Indies had resisted until stumps. The tension in his wallet was unbearable.

England played well enough, but the startling ineptitude of their opponents in the field and with the bat renders judgement largely irrelevant. If the Australians are not quite quaking in their boots, it is at least partially because the Ashes remain sufficiently far away that they have not yet put their boots on.

Here, then, are the official Confectionery Stall Conclusions To Be Drawn From The First Test:

  • England’s main concern will be about Ravi Bopara. He is clearly a good player, and, on the evidence of his last two Test innings, a lucky one. However, questions must be asked about his temperament under pressure. He had a chance to carve himself a unique place in the history books – he could have been the 700th player to be out in the 90s in Test matches. No-one could ever have taken that away from him. Instead, he played himself calmly to a century, the 3281st century in Tests, yet another name on an overfilled honours board. He had the chance to make his mark by throwing his innings away to any one of the 20 balls he faced after passing 90 before reaching three figures. And he blew it.
  • Graham Onions, after perhaps the most inept two-ball start to a Test career (100% bowled out by a full toss, then a long-hop demolished to the boundary), showed himself to be a decent bowler, and his giddy enthusiasm was magnificent to see. He prompted some slightly overexcited comparisons to Glenn McGrath. Other than a good action and a propensity for skittling teams out in Lord’s Tests, this may be a little premature. Onions’ first-class economy rate is 3.7, compared to McGrath’s 2.5. Onions has also thus far shown no capability for unleashing needless barrages of verbal abuse into batsmen’s faces. If he wants to match the Australian’s 563 Test wickets at 21, he will have to work on both of these aspects of his game. The McGrath-style batting is clearly almost there.

    However, the British media clearly do not consider Onions to be a long-term prospect. They blew every conceivable onion-related headline and wordplay at the first available opportunity, rather than pacing themselves over a 70-Test career. Already, journalists and sub-editors will be rifling through their recipe books trying to find more onion-based dishes in case the Gateshead Goliath transpires to be one of England’s greats.

  • Tim Bresnan will never be a Test cricketer. Unless he stops (a) being given out lbw when the ball was not even contemplating hitting the stumps, and (b) not having to bowl very much.
  • Those wickets in the West Indies really did flatter the batsmen and insult the bowlers. A boring five-day Test is much, much more boring than a boring three-day Test.
  • History will never know whether Chris Gayle would have played better or worse had he arrived more than two days before the game began. He would certainly have played in the same way. Arguably, he would have been stroppier for having had to leave the IPL even sooner. In fact, it is possible that Gayle had too much acclimatisation time. If he had arrived just in time for the toss, he might not have had time to remember that he doesn’t like Test cricket much any more.

On then, to the Riverside, the mostly empty Riverside. During his entertaining to-and-fro with Gayle, Andrew Strauss said: “The important thing is that Test cricket gets the attention it deserves. And that means that people prepare themselves properly for any Test match you play. You don’t want Test cricket to be devalued in any way, shape or form.”

These are noble thoughts, which all Test fans would support. But these words ring a little hollow before a Test at a ludicrous time of year against a team that had not been planning to be involved. Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game, but it is not always treated as such by its authorities. Teams (both home and away) are habitually underprepared, some are depopulated by the tedious political squabbling over the ICL, series are raced through at breakneck speed, and pitches are often designed to provide time-span rather than contest. Test cricket is increasingly often devalued in many ways, shapes and forms.

Gayle’s recent mutterings to the media also proved what a phenomenal entertainer the man is, both on and off the pitch. After encouraging Strauss not to “sleep with Chris on his mind” (sage advice at any time, unless the Chris to whom he was referring was Chris Tavare, who was often prescribed as an insomnia cure by the NHS in the 1980s), Gayle bemoaned how the demands of captaincy force him to go through innumerable onerous tasks. “There’s always something you have to go and do, you know, extra,” said the Kingston Cavalier. “Lunch or dinner, some other thing.” These, of course, are meals of which Gayle would normally steer well clear. He is very much a breakfast, elevenses, teatime nibbles and bedtime snack man. The fact that he is prepared to alter his dietary timetable for the needs of the team is a mark of the man.

England should win this game – they have beaten West Indies in 11 of the past 13 Tests in this country, and it seems unlikely that Gayle’s comments about wanting to give up the captaincy and not being particularly fussed about the future of Test cricket will serve to inspire his troops to follow their captain in a Test match. Let us hope it is a better game than Lord’s, however, and that Captain Chris enjoys it. He might not need Test cricket, but Test cricket needs him.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer

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