October 10, 2009

Spaghetti Bolognaise with a side of moral quandary


Andrew Strauss played the good cop in recalling Angelo Mathews after a mid-pitch collision led to a run-out © Getty Images

In the all-you-can-stomach fashion of modern cricket, no sooner has one major (or, more appropriately, quite major) tournament been whisked off your plate, than another is slopped onto it. The Champions Trophy left the customer neither wanting more, nor regretting his meal choice. It was an adequate spaghetti Bolognese of a tournament, befitting the current adequacy of international cricket. The fleeting hope of England fluking a major one-day trophy was snuffed out like the cheap imitation candle it was. Australia were excellent – the divots in their scalps from the head scratching they must have endured over how they lost the Ashes must be reaching close to skull level.

The absence of so many top players from all or some of the competition left it appearing a little mundane, and the fact that a new-look Australia won their semi-final and final so easily raised questions about the overall standard and depth of the world game. This year’s ICC World XIs are not exactly replete with must-see legends of the sport. A generation of modern greats has been gradually leaving the game in recent years – the new as-yet-unspectacular generation of cricketers understandably feels a little pedestrian by comparison.

For Mitchell Johnson to be named cricketer of the year, having flunked his biggest exam, shows that that the cupboard of cricketing greatness is largely bare. Paul Harris is rated the seventh best bowler on the planet in the ICC Test rankings. Yes, he is a steady performer, underrated by much of the cricket media, unfairly lampooned by English commentators in 2008. But the seventh best in the world? If Harris was playing an impromptu game in the street outside your house, would you watch? You might take a peek through the window, but you probably wouldn’t actually go outside.

Ten years ago the top eight bowlers in the rankings were, in order, Donald, Pollock, McGrath, Ambrose, Murali, Walsh, Kumble and Akram. All greats of the game, all bar Kumble averaging in the mid-to-low 20s, all bowlers who made batsmen pick nervously at their lucky omelette on the first morning of a Test.

This week, the top eight are: Steyn, Murali, Johnson, Ntini, Harbhajan, Clark, Harris and Zaheer. All good bowlers, but today’s batsmen wolf their omelettes down with relative confidence.

The batting (perhaps understandably) is in better shape, but to illustrate the lack of invigorating young blood being transfused into cricket, only one of the top 30-ranked Test batsmen is under the age of 25 (number 27, Alistair Cook, another who is not the kind of player to cause turnstiles sleepless nights). Perhaps more revealingly, only nine of the top 30 are under the age of 30, and just five have made their debuts since the start of 2005.

At some point, if time, work and wife permit, I will see how this compares with previous points in cricketing history – perhaps this is not unusual, perhaps it is just a slight quirk, but it seems to me that cricket urgently needs some new world stars to emerge in the threatened Test arena. For now, I challenge you to list 10 players currently under the age of 25 who will be welcomed to the wicket in their final Test with a guard of honour in recognition of their immortal services to the game. Anyone who correctly predicts all 10 will win a papier-mache macquette of Lalit Modi counting a colossal pile of Twenty20 cash in his garden shed. Results to be confirmed in the year 2029.

The Champions League Twenty20 has instantly replaced the Champions Trophy. To be honest with you, I had forgotten about this tournament. To be fair to the CLT20, however, I have forgotten many things in my life, including:

− almost everything I learnt at school and university − almost everything I have ever learnt that is neither a sporting statistic nor the name of one of my children (the latter being an impressive feat, bearing in mind that I have not had them tattooed on me, so have to rely purely on my capacity for mental recall) − where I left my keys this morning − my own birthday − why aeroplanes work, and − who ultimately admitted to being afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.

As a neutral with no particular allegiance to any of the teams involved, and insufficient space in my diary and brain to invite another cricketing tournament to roost, my interest in the tournament is largely restricted to any evidence it may offer regarding whether Test cricket is doomed, and if it is, how soon that doom may loom.

For me, the highlights of the Champions Trophy were the complex moral and philosophical quandaries Andrew Strauss had to confront. Strauss played good cop in recalling Angelo Mathews after a mid-pitch collision led to a run-out, but bad cop in refusing Graeme Smith a runner after the poor big lambkin pulled up lame after a long day outdoors running around a bit. I think he was right on both counts, although I would have liked to see the England captain demand that Smith find a runner of near-identical build. Or that AB de Villiers be forced to put on extra clothing until he reached the same weight and girth as Smith. This in turn could have led to highly entertaining disputes about exactly how chunky the South African skipper currently is, with umpires having to measure with calipers the exact span of Smith’s tummy.

Cricket has always been a moral maze – should you walk when you snick one to the keeper? Should the fielder appeal for a catch when he knows that the ball bounced three times before it reached him? Should the umpire give a leg-before-wicket decision against a batsman who he thinks might be sleeping with his wife, even when he knows: (a) that the ball pitched marginally outside leg stump; (b) that his wife’s infidelity is the direct result of his own obsession with umpiring, leaving her feeling unwanted, unloved and used (how many evenings a week can a husband reasonably expect a wife to stand with pads on putting her legs in front of moving objects?); and (c) that the alleged Lothario batsman was at the non-striker’s end?

Over the weekend I will concoct some hypothetical scenarios to test your cricketing morality, including whether or not you should tell an opposition bowler that he is about to be eaten by a bear.

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