An outbreak of excellent cricket
Finally, after weeks catching snippets of cricket on highlights programmes, intermittent blasts of radio commentary, morsels of Cricinfo’s text commentaries, and infinitely more news bulletins than would have been ideal, I actually sat down to watch a cricket match, live, on a television. During that accursed cricketless time, I have conclusively proved that work and family commitments can seriously impinge on a man’s fundamental human right to watch more televised cricket than is medically advisable, and that seven weeks without live cricket is more than flesh and blood can stand.
The media outrage has continued. Earlier this week I heard a radio sport commentator who specialises in boxing and athletics bemoaning the fact that, due to the alleged spot-fixing, the action on the international cricket field was no longer believable. He may be right, at least partially, but to hear a boxing and athletics commentator make this complaint was rather like listening to famous flamboyant cooking starlet Heston Blumenthal whinge about overcomplicated recipes, or paint-splattering art wiz Jackson Pollock grumble at a picture not being realistic enough.
The Lord’s game yesterday began under the now-traditional shadow of match-fixing allegations, as England responded to the latest inane witterings of PCB Chairman Ijaz Butt with furious threats of legal action, damnation and teeth-gritting. A slowly extended middle finger would probably have done the job more promptly and equally effectively.
Butt, a man who has evidently not fully mastered the delicate arts of diplomacy, claims that he merely claimed that he had heard some bookmakers claiming that England threw the Oval game. This claim about claims that may or may not have been claimed in itself raises a number of questions:
1) Why was Butt talking to bookmakers? At this time, of all times, you would have thought he might have made an excuse for not talking to them – dinner with the wife, or polishing his new Kawasaki 750cc motorbike, or translating The Iliad into Australian. Let us cut him some slack – perhaps he was eavesdropping like the ace private detective he has always dreamed of being.
2) Does Butt think every England collapse in history has been prompted by bookmakers? If so, he must imagine that all England cricketers of the mid-80s to late-90s live on enormous yachts and smoke gold-plated cigars.
3) Is Butt trying to start a rumour in the hope that, in accordance with the rules of the modern media, if that rumour is repeated in more than four newspapers, and/or printed in unusually big letters on a front or back page, it becomes a fact?
And 4) Is Butt unaware that attempting to play the “no smoke without fire” card is less convincing when you are obviously holding and operating a smoke machine?
It was, therefore, in the circumstances, a delight to watch an excellent cricket match break out amidst the morass of allegations, counter-allegations, garbage, counter-garbage, assorted bickerings and the general sensation that cricket is not merely going to the dogs but actually arrived at the dogs some time ago, and is now operating undercover as a dog.
Both teams played intermittently well and not well, which is often the recipe for an exciting game, and Pakistan won largely thanks to Abdul Razzaq catablasting 40 from 10 balls in the last two overs of his team’s innings, and Jimmy Anderson failing to do the same for England.
Both teams are potential World Cup winners, if only by virtue of the fact that they might win three games in a row against other teams of roughly equal ability, which is, in essence, what will be required to triumph in Mumbai in April. The final 10 days of the six-week tournament should be thrilling – all of the top eight-ranked teams have displayed potentially fatal flaws, and all possess the capacity to lose at least one of those three matches.
With a longer group phase, it is likely that at least seven of those eight will progress, and a three-game hot streak from a couple of key players, or even a three-game lukewarm-streak of not doing anything idiotic, could be enough to win it, or at least not lose it. Who knows what the format will be next time – probably something at least a bit silly – or whether Australia will have recovered their previous dominance; 2011 offers a golden chance for a team from outside the Big One of 50-over cricket to win the trophy.
The series, and this most bizarre of English cricket summers, reaches an unexpectedly exciting climax at the Rose Bowl on Wednesday. Whatever happens will always be a footnote in a cricket season that will, sadly, not be remembered for cricket. Even if Tim Bresnan rips through the Pakistan batting to take 9 for 13 in a spell of fast bowling unmatched since the halcyon days of Alan Igglesden, even if Mohammad Hafeez follows up his second ODI fifty in seven years and 42 matches with a blazing match-winning 65-ball double-century reminiscent of a young Asif Mujtaba in his non-existent pomp, even if a spaceship lands on the outfield and deposits a fully padded-up WG Grace to smash England to victory with his magic beard, the cricket will always be a footnote.
This is, to everyone apart from inveterate cricket-haters or lifelong lovers of the impact of illegal gambling, a great shame. It has been among the lowest-scoring English summers since 2000, and the fourth-lowest in the last 50 years. After a decade in which bowlers have been increasingly reduced to jelly, this was (even allowing for the landmark ineptitude of Pakistan’s batting) a refreshing change.
Mohammad Amir should have been the unquestioned star of 2010 – 30 wickets in six Tests at 19.80 gave him the biggest haul ever by a left-arm fast bowler in an English Test summer. No teenager had previously taken more than nine wickets in an English season, and of bowlers under the age of 22, Amir’s total was second only to Alf Valentine’s 1950 record of 33 scalps. Cricket is full of stories of unfulfilled promise, careers cut short by injury, politics, war, underachievement, or the misfortune of having been born before cricket was invented (how good at cricket might Shakespeare or Joan of Arc or Jesus have been?). If Amir’s career is ended, or severely curtailed, by his being caught up in a piddling if highly illegal little no-ball scam, it would rank amongst cricket’s stupidest wastes.
I had the unquestionable pleasure of watching the first half of yesterday’s match in the company of the fine, cricketous gentlemen of TestMatchSofa.com, a noble battalion of cricket nuts who seem to have, rightly, decided to devote their lives to watching, commentating on and talking about cricket and related subjects, such as, for example, life and more cricket. Whilst sitting on a sofa. And intermittently complaining about a lack of beer. Heroes. I commend their highly entertaining live commentaries to you.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer