India February 9, 2010

The battle for No. 1 (sans the shouting)

Marigolds on the players’ balcony

Amla adds just the touch of modernity to his old-timer’s mien with a Powerade bottle © Getty Images

Sometimes it is worth reminding ourselves how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy the Victorian anachronism that is Test match cricket. The best team in the world are taking on their nearest rivals in what would, if it took place in the English Premier League, be labelled a “top-of-the-table clash” and be played out in a maelstrom of tripping, diving, rolling, gesticulating and screaming. And that just from the coaches.

India against South Africa has been a treat so far. Awesome laser-guided fast bowling from Steyn; impossible jagging bounce from the gangling Morkel; Sehwag restraining his instincts in a clammy-palmed innings that almost rescued his team, before cutting loose and falling into a trap. And all this on top of Amla’s Old Testament batting and the delights of watching Mishra’s delicate but unrewarded curvers and dippers.

Yet it has been devoid of bile and belligerence. Perhaps that is partly due to the surroundings. The stadium in Nagpur has the atmosphere of a sleepy provincial town square. The polished white steps up to the pavilion are covered with a graceful summer awning. Spectators eat ice cream and chat to one another at leisure. There are even potted marigolds on the ledge of the players' balcony.

And for once, the commentary has suited the occasion. Danny Morrison, in particular, seems more relaxed than when I last listened to him, during the IPL. Perhaps because his Test duties do not require him to plummet down an inflatable slide, play at being a DJ or turn up to the coin toss wearing a cheerleader. He is merely expected to sit in a chair and talk about cricket. Gratitude has been evident in every syllable and so far he has been rather good.

Still, whilst I’m not one for unnecessary hype, I’m not sure that the official title of this heavyweight bout really conveys the significance of the contest. No disrespect to Mr Jaypee or his distinguished colleague, Mr Infratech, but the modern cricket fan has come to expect a hyphenated brace of legends for these things. I’m guessing the Cronje-Azharrudin Shield might not create the right ambience, and the Gavaskar-Procter Vase probably isn’t a goer either. How about the Pollock-Prabhakar Prize? The Kirsten Cup? The Ganguly-Cullinan Chalice?

Meanwhile, over in Australia, Chris Gayle surprised many people when he predicted a 4-1 victory for the men in maroon in the Haigh-Cozier Trophy. On the face of it, it could be said that Sunday’s 113-run defeat in Melbourne casts some doubt on the wisdom of the prediction. But the Jamaican plays a long game, you see. Now that they have swiftly dispensed with the 1, big Chris and his men can start work on the 4.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England