April 24, 2013

Why Gayle's sermon is the beginning of the end

You can't just block a couple and then start swinging in a five-day game, they say. But why not?

Ladies and gentlemen, I have seen the future.

"I wasn't really thinking much to be honest; I had a few plans field-wise, but other than that I just tried to clear the ball that came my way."

On Monday, David Miller of King's XI Punjab explained it in 30 words. On Tuesday, Chris Gayle spelt it out in 30 balls, though he used his own special language based around the numbers four and six, punctuated with the occasional stroll.

We assume that people don't bat T20 style in Test matches because it isn't possible. Even when Sehwag and Gayle bat like Sehwag and Gayle in a five-day game, we write it off, shake our heads and say, well that's just Sehwag and Gayle. When we consider the perfect Test opener, we still secretly imagine Geoffrey Boycott leaning into a forward defensive so flawless that Michelangelo would have wanted to render it in marble.

But Sehwag was a prophet, or rather a warning, a tubby Halley's Comet streaking across the statistical sky, signalling the doom of Test cricket. Now we have the second coming of Viv Richards, only taller. But still people don't believe.

You can't just block a couple and then start swinging in a five-day game, they say. But why not? Pitches tend to be flat these days, so any restraint is down to politeness and etiquette. Like wearing Bermuda shorts in a cathedral. It might be rather vulgar to smash Stuart Broad for six sixes in the second over of the day, but is there any reason why you can't? Careful accumulation, Trott-style, might be a risk-free way of scoring runs, like putting your money in a low-rate savings account, but why bother if bank robbery is legal?

In my vision I see the baseballisation of Test cricket. A series of rotund men will plant their size twelves in the Bankrupt Bank Hitting Zone or Sugary Carbonated Bashing Box, biceps twitching, and proceed to dispatch every spherical object that enters their airspace to the extremities. Unlike in baseball, they won't have to lumber a few yards in any direction, and they will be able to use a proper plank of wood instead of a glorified table leg.

It's already happening. Batsmen of the 1950s would be horrified by the obscene rates of scoring in modern Tests. I'm sure that both the number of boundaries before lunch on the first day at Lord's and the average number of spectators hit on the head by sixes at a five-day game have increased in the last 20 years. I am sure of this and one of the advantages of being both lazy and not a journalist is that I don't feel guilty about not checking it.

Soon five days will seem like an extravagant amount of time for a game. Rather than dying because of lack of interest, Test cricket will just shrink. When everyone realises there's no particular reason why you can't go at it like Gayle, a Test series will be done in a week. Five-day Tests will become one-and-a-half day Tests, renamed Ninety90, then finally split into limited overs one-innings contests of, say, 20 overs a side.

That's the true lesson of Gayle's thunderous sermon of ball-smashing in Bangalore. I have seen the future ladies and gentleman, and now I'm off for a lie-down.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here