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The first day of the Test summer. The unquestioned highlight of the British and European year. For English cricket fans, at least. A day when cricket lovers in this country bedeck their souls with psychological bunting and wave metaphorical flags with bats, stumps and balls on at themselves in joyous celebration that humanity’s greatest single creation, the crowning glory of all civilisation, the thing described by Abraham Lincoln as “the last best hope of earth” ‒ Test cricket ‒ is back. (Not all scholars agree with my interpretation of Lincoln’s words from his address to Congress in 1862, a decade and a half before the birth of Test cricket. But if you try reading that speech out loud with the old BBC cricket theme blaring out of your ghetto blaster, I think and hope that you will reach the same conclusion I did.)
Over the years, the beginning of the summer’s Test cricket has lost some of the excitement it had when I was a child in the 1980s, when innumerable questions would swirl around the crickosphere as the first Test loomed. Who would be left in the team from the previous summer? Who would be captaining the side? Who would be captaining the side in a month’s time? Who would be the first player dropped, how quickly, and how needlessly? How gruesomely would England lose? And which county stalwart would be speculatively picked in a moment of crisis, then summarily discarded, whilst the selectors consulted tea leaves, ouija boards, the entrails of freshly slaughtered animals and (on rare occasions) the first-class averges?
Few of these questions still arise in the more stable, well-organised 21st century world of England cricket. Most of the media discussion to date seems to involve wild speculation on what may or may not be going on inside Kevin Pietersen’s head.
However, this summer is particularly appetising, with Sri Lanka and India promising strong opposition and exciting cricket. Last summer and in the winter, England’s bowlers did not merely have Pakistan’s and Australia’s batting line-ups on toast, they sliced them into soldiers and dipped them in an egg. They are unlikely to find this summer’s tourists quite as pliant, but with home advantage and strength in depth they will be confident of further success.
The questions arising in advance of today’s first Test might not be quite as quirky as their 1980s predecessors, but they are intriguing nonetheless. Will England’s near-flawless Ashes performance prove to be the pinnacle of their achievements, an unrepeatable concoction of collective and individual form on one side and collective and individual uselessness on the other? (Last time England won in Australia, in 1986-87, they proceeded to win just one Test over the next three years. There would be a full mutiny in the Barmy Army if they do so again.)
How will Sri Lanka win without Murali? Removing a bowler with 800 Test wickets under his belt would adversely affect most teams, and in the two Tests Sri Lanka have won in England, Murali has taken 27 wickets at an average of 13, whilst the rest of the bowlers have mustered 11 scalps at 58. This is their first away series since Murali joined Eddie Hemmings in the ranks of retired Test offspinners, and in their five home Tests in that time they have struggled to take wickets and have failed to win.
Will Alastair Cook maintain his recent elevation to leviathan of modern-day batsmanship, or return to his previous state of toddling along adequately? Will Eoin Morgan prove to be a genuine Test batsman, or were his struggles against Pakistan last summer, when his one successful innings was scored primarily off low-to-medium grade spin, indicative a technically flawed one-day wizard?
And, perhaps most pertinently of all, will the Royal Wedding have inspired England’s players or distracted them? Will it have fired them with an even deeper sense of national pride and duty, or made them spend all their spare time thinking about dresses, crowns and Pippa Middleton’s Rumpelstiltskin rather than practising cricket?
(As a side issue, as an Englishman I think it is a national tragedy that Prince William married for love. For what is the point of having a royal family and the princes who come with it if you cannot marry them off to people from other countries to make strategic political alliances? Surely that is the historical raison d’être of royalty. If William had a shred of patriotism in his body, there are only two women in the world he would even consider marrying. 1: the daughter of Chinese President Hu Jintao; and 2: Angela Merkel.)
The official Confectionery Stall prediction: England to win, Pietersen to do quite well, and no Sri Lankan bowler to take 16 wickets in the match this time.
Sadly, Barack Obama, the 49-year-old professional president from Washington DC, concludes his state visit to the UK this morning, and is, one assumes, distraught that the buffoon responsible for the scheduling did not factor in a couple of days at the Cardiff Test. (A White House spokesman yesterday confirmed that the President is “gutted” to be missing the chance to see Thilan Samaraweera bat, and whilst “grateful that he could at least sample some of the build-up”, made “desperate last-minute pleas to postpone the Deauville G8 meeting, or do it via a conference call in the Swalec Stadium car park during the tea interval”.) (If anyone remains in any doubt about Obama’s obsession with English Test cricket, he married a woman whose forenames are Michelle LaVaughn. Case closed.) (Admittedly, they were married in 1992, before the English, male Michelle LaVaughn had even made his debut for Yorkshire, but Obama is a man of vision, so let us assume he knew what was what in early 1990s youth cricket.) (Besides, the first lady’s maiden name was Robinson – meaning that the president has never married a woman whose passport was not bedecked with the name of a former England opening batsman.) (I digress.)
The ICC has announced that, following its successful use in horse racing, a handicapping system will be introduced to international cricket on a trial basis. An ICC spokesman explained: “In recent years, several teams have fallen behind the stronger nations of world cricket due to a combination of financial inequality, crass organisational incompetence, and not being very good at hitting and/or bowling cricket balls. In order to re-levelise this increasingly non-level playing field, from September, the lower-ranked teams will be able to use wider bats, and the higher-ranked sides will have to defend wickets that are up to 60% taller and feature a fourth stump, to be located at the discretion of the fielding captain.”
If the trial is successful, consideration will be given to allowing the weaker teams to claim one-hand-one-bounce catches, and capping the innings of the world’s top 10 batsmen at 50 runs.
The ICC spokesman, speaking exclusively to The Confectionery Stall concluded: “The changes promise a dynamic and competitive new era in Test cricket, at far less cost and much more quickly than, for example, trying to make the West Indies good again, or teaching Pakistan to catch.”
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.