Australia October 31, 2009

A plea for Fifty50


Dino alert: Ishant does his thing © Getty Images

After the sweaty, rustic charm of the Champions League, the resumption of international festivities has brought about a welcome elevation of tone. Wednesday’s clash of continents was full of good things, and whilst Sunday belonged to Australia, India struck back to stir the sediment of our jaded imaginations with the enlivening possibility of a genuinely suspenseful series. Dhoni, of course, was immense but it was the reinvigorated Ishant Sharma whom I most enjoyed watching, his angular, bent-forward lope to the crease putting me in mind of a velociraptor, ball perched between claws, intent on savaging the batsman’s knuckles (battered and swollen metacarpals being the tell-tale sign of an Ishant attack).

And with two of the game’s greatest batsmen on the same field of play, it was an ideal opportunity for the collector of cricket images to acquire more pieces for the memory. The batting displays in the Tendulkar and Ponting wings of my mind’s museum are already pretty crowded, so during the current series I have been on the look out for cameos, intriguing Tendlya or Punter-related items of sentimental or curiosity value.

A good collector has to be patient and wait for the right moment. On Wednesday it came in the 62nd over, when Lord Sachin was called upon to take human form and intervene at square leg. His stooping, tumbling dive was the everything-falling-out-of-pockets scramble across the platform of a portly businessman whose briefcase has become trapped in the door of a departing train. Yet he reached the ball. Returning the offending item to his captain with underarm disdain, he dusted down his suit and reassembled his composure. It was Tendulkar encapsulated: successful yet free of swagger; whole-hearted yet dignified.

Perhaps the same could also be said of the one-day format, still packing them in after forty years. Fifteen overs into the second innings, with the Aussie run-chase beginning to sigh like a yellow dinghy with a slow puncture, the atmosphere had eased from febrile raucousness to contented hubbub. But the double-tiered Vidarbha Cricket Stadium, an immense bowl of light, remained packed throughout. This summer’s Natwest Series, another 50-over bash assailed from all quarters as a motion-going-through exercise was also played out, under autumnal skies, to full houses.

It seems counter-intuitive then, that when cuts in the Future Tours Programme are being contemplated, so many people in the game seem to favour the end of a format that has remained so popular with the public. But then there has always been a perverse streak of anti-populism in our game, going right back to the 19th century. Those Victorian gentlemen of the MCC who reluctantly organised the county championship preferred sparsely attended three-day mid-week cricket to the popular weekend matches of the northern leagues. And a hundred years on, the English cricket establishment looked down its nose at the spectators who flocked to the Gillette Cup and the John Player League. The aristocratic distaste for making a profit may be long gone but the high-handed tendency to overlook the preferences of paying spectators lingers.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England