July 16, 2013

A Test that enveloped the soul

With sinuous curves and shuddering jolts, no less. And lest we forget: all hail Ashton Agar

There is nothing like a good Test match. Or at least, nothing that I have encountered in my 38.78 years on the planet. Admittedly, I have spent an unhealthy proportion of that time watching, listening to, talking, thinking and, latterly, writing about Test cricket, at the expense of what some observers might consider rather more important pursuits. Perhaps I might have better devoted myself to understanding the principles of global economics, or mastering conversational Latin, or finding a cure for tattoos, or learning how to karate-chop a concrete slab in half. Perhaps such accomplishments would have made me happier, wealthier and of greater utility to the planet. But to be honest, I have never been very good at multitasking, and realistically, I had to choose one. After the five days of sporting magnificence at Trent Bridge, I am happy with my choice.

A Test such as Trent Bridge envelops the soul with the sinuous curves and shuddering jolts of its narrative, with its ratcheting tension, its personal and collective triumphs and failures, the refined skills of the sporting elite sharing a stage with taut-sinewed schoolboy-level bloopers. This was one of the finest cricket matches ever played, intriguing from the start, unpredictable to the end, and containing one of the most remarkable passages of play in the history of the game.

A neater ending would have been preferable, as would a little less squabbling about the rather randomly applied and expediently summoned "spirit of cricket". Fewer forays into the Forest of Umpiring Quirk might have dulled the edge of fractiousness. Or, conversely, it might have snuffed out the drama early on. TV umpire Erasmus was roundly slated for saving Agar and triggering Trott. Let us give the man some credit. He sensed the building brilliance of the match, and did everything in his power to facilitate it. He sacrificed his own reputation on the altar of the Good of the Game. Or perhaps he simply did not want to watch Trott bat for a day and a half.

A good Test match is often compared to a gripping novel. The difference is that the novel's pages do not materialise as you read it. The story and climax have already been decided. You can skip to the end to discover, for example, [SPOILER ALERTS] whether Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy finally snap and gun down the interfering Mrs Bennet and the rest of the Bennet family in a hail of bullets, before escaping on a motorbike and fleeing to Mexico; whether the lion and the witch end up getting it on in the wardrobe; whether Willy Wonka ever gets his deserved legal comeuppance for breaching all manner of employment and health-and-safety regulations; or whether the gruffalo is finally shot by poachers and its body parts sold as decorative ashtrays; or what happens to caterpillars with serious eating disorders.

To my mind, Ashton Agar's innings, and his record-splattering mind-bending 163-run tenth-wicket partnership with Phillip Hughes, elevated this game into the highest bracket of cricket's greatest contests.

It was the fifth-highest score by a teenager in his first Test innings. It was the fourth-fastest debut innings of over 80 for which balls faced have been recorded. And he was batting at 11. It was more than twice the previous highest score by a debutant batting at No. 11 (and the previous record holder, Warwick Armstrong, who had held that honour since scoring 45 in the second innings of his first Test for Australia 111 years ago, was only batting 11 because his team had promoted its tailenders due to a rain-affected pitch).

Not only was it the best score ever by any No. 11, overtaking the 95 that Tino Best joyously clouted against England last year, it was the highest by a teenager on debut batting at eight or lower. And of the 137 teenage Test players to have batted at six or lower in their debut, only one has ever scored more than Agar - Dougie Walters, who hit 155, batting at six, against England in Brisbane in 1965. In fact, only one teenage bowler or allrounder had ever scored a fifty in his debut innings - Tapash Baisya, 52 not out, for Bangladesh against Sri Lanka in 2002.

The partnership was not only the highest-ever in Test cricket for the tenth wicket, but in the 327 Tests between England and Australia, it also beat the best-ever ninth-wicket stand, and has been exceeded only by two for the eighth and one for the seventh wickets. Agar came to the wicket at 117 for 9 - only once before had a tenth-wicket pair added more than 80 after coming together with the score below 140.

And Agar churned out this unprecedented statistical extravaganza: (a) with his team in dire first-innings trouble, turning a major deficit into a significant lead; (b) in the first innings of an Ashes series that had been hyped to smithereens, in which many were predicting a sound thrashing for his country; (c) against an attack containing four proven Test bowlers, including three of the world's current top ten, with a combined total of more than 800 Test wickets; and (d) in a style that must have had Victor Trumper and Frank Woolley somersaulting with approval in their long-occupied graves, applauding wildly and waggling their sponsored "4" and "6" placards.

If he had scored the two runs to take him to the hallowed three-figure mark, he would have given cricket one of its most extraordinary moments. Even so, it was one of cricket's most extraordinary individual performances. For which we can, in part, thank the generosity of Mr Erasmus, and his innate sense of impending stupendousness, for giving Agar "possibly not out" (which was not as unreasonable a decision as many suggested, I felt).

If any 19-year-old, batting anywhere, had played this innings, people would have gone berserk. If any No. 8 or 9, of any age and experience, had played this innings, people would have gone berserk. If they had done so in a dead game, with nothing at stake, they would still have gone quite berserk. The fact that Agar did what he did, when he did, and how he did, has rightly boggled cricket's mind, gasted its flabber, and boozled everything it once confidently bammed.

● Nevertheless, England prevailed. They were victims of some umpiring injustices but beneficiaries of one massive one, as well as several extremely marginal decisions that could reasonably not have fallen in their favour. Finn was England's only significant concern. Many players made useful contributions, but the decisive ones were by Bell, returning to form with a critical innings of patience and craft, after a year and a half of moderate and often turgid batting - he had averaged 32 in his 19 Tests in 2012 and 2013 (having averaged 89 in his previous 19) - and Anderson, with a supreme display of skill and persistence.

While Dale Steyn this decade has taken 160 wickets in 31 Tests, at an average of 21.2 (to go with the 172 he took in 34 Tests last decade, average 23.9), he has a very poor record in Ashes cricket, which must surely be counted against him

Anderson became the first England bowler to take two five-fors in an Ashes Test since Freddie Trueman at Headingley in 1961, and the first pace bowler from either side to do it since Bruce Reid at the MCG in 1990-91. (Ian Botham took 6 for 78 and 5 for 98 against the Aussies in Perth in 1979-80, but that was not an Ashes series, and therefore, under the 21st-Century Law of the English Cricket Media, it does not count.)

Over the past three and a half years, Anderson has been as good a bowler as England have had since Botham's statistically phenomenal, pre-back-injury early years. He was disappointing against South Africa last summer, and in New Zealand. Otherwise, he has been somewhere between effective for England in every series they have played since 2010. Before the turn of the decade, he averaged almost 34.8; since, 25.1, whilst taking 169 wickets in 39 Tests.

(A statistical coincidence: Darren Gough, in many ways a similar bowler to Anderson, if a little quicker, capable of new-ball swing and old-ball craft, at his peak, from the 1996-97 winter until May 2001, took 168 wickets in 39 Tests, at an average of 25.4.)

Is Anderson the best bowler in the world? Yes. It is still too early to judge the 16-Test 17-averaging non-veteran Vernon Philander. And, while Dale Steyn this decade has taken 160 wickets in 31 Tests, at an average of 21.2 (to go with the 172 he took in 34 Tests last decade, average 23.9), he has a very poor record in Ashes cricket, which must surely be counted against him.

● There have been some staggering Test matches played over the last couple of years, particularly in a giddy six-week period late in 2011, when Zimbabwe almost chased down 366 to defeat New Zealand in their first match back in the Test arena, South Africa and Australia each scored a dramatic win in an unforgivably short two-Test series, India and West Indies played out a scores-level, nine-wickets-down draw at the Wankhede, and the Kiwis snatched a low-scoring nail-biter in Hobart, winning by seven runs despite Australia's David Warner, an assumed limited-over biff specialist playing his second Test, carrying his bat for 123 in one of the finest innings of the decade so far.

The second Test of that South Africa v Australia series was a match of similar nerve-tightening, momentum-shifting magnificence to Trent Bridge, albeit without the mind-bending extravagance of a teenage No. 11 hitting a run-a-ball 98. It did feature another teenage debutant blasting himself into the cricketing world's consciousness - Pat Cummins took 6 for 79 in South Africa's second innings, as his more experience pace colleagues failed, before seeing his country over the line with 13 match-clinching runs. Racked by injury, Cummins has not played a Test since. He has not played a first-class game since.

● Following the ethical furore over Broad's refusal to walk, which was simultaneously both justifiable and unjustifiable, and illustrated that England have developed a rather more relaxed attitude towards the Spirit of CricketTM since the Ian Bell Run Out SchemozzleTM in 2011, I think it is time for the game to agree on a strict definition of the Spirit of CricketTM in order to avoid any further confusion. I suggest this:

"A nebulous, multifaceted phantom that is summoned and worshipped sporadically, when expedience, convenience or unavoidability request it, but is otherwise treated rather like the fading black-and-white photo of Great Uncle Neville that hangs in the upstairs toilet, gathering dust. 'Did you ever meet Neville, Dad?' 'No, boy. But I think Granny said that he once saved a monkey's life in the jungles of Borneo. He must have been a truly remarkable man.'"

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer