October 24, 2013

Time for a declaration treaty (and, no, I wasn't asleep on TV)

South Africa's remorseless progress towards complete domination, and the lack of a contest, made for tough viewing but I managed to stay awake

Of all the great philosophical quandaries of 21st-century life (including: "If a news story is not leaked before it happens, how do we know whether or not it genuinely occurred?"; "What is up with America?"; and "If I do not watch televised karaoke, do I still exist?"), the most earnestly disputed must be the question: "Can a Test match session of 139 runs in 26 overs be boring?"

Twenty years ago, the mere suggestion would have been barked out of court. During today's afternoon session in Dubai, when South Africa, in a position of almost totally impregnable dominance, cruised at more than five runs per over with a flow of singles and occasional slaps to the boundary, those in the "yes it can" camp were honkily trumpeting their cause.

Cricketing dullness is often attributed to scoring rates, style of play, the pitch, the over rate, or a general sense of social malaise. All of these can, obviously, be tedium-enhancing factors. But match situation is most often the primary culprit. When there is no sense of contest, or jeopardy, in the cricket, plonking along at five an over is far more dreary than grinding out a run or two here and there when every single is crucial.

The batting was not dull. Until the evening session, when they were restrained by fatigue and sought nothing more than unpressurised accumulation, South Africa played with purposeful control. Graeme Smith in particular played with high skill and sound strategy, AB de Villiers was less sound but more inventive. The bowling was not dull. Pakistan have a varied attack, and bowled reasonably throughout. Mohammad Irfan was a regular and rapid threat, but the pitch and the deficit blunted him, Junaid Khan and the two probing spinners.

The cricket, however, was dull. Certifiably dull. Or at least it was almost completely devoid of interest. Thanks to Pakistan's first-day masterclass in batting ineptitude, today's play had all the tension of a flaccid grey sock in an overcooked casserole, and all the unpredictability of a North Korean military parade.

The featurelessness of proceedings was exacerbated by the modern tactic of willingly conceding lots of runs in an effort to avoid conceding even more runs. Misbah-ul-Haq made no attempt at any stage to staunch the easy flow of surrendered singles, by bringing the field in and forcing the batsmen to hit through it. This is the modern way. It does not work.

This is not to say that more attacking fields would work. But boundary-protecting, run-donating fields do not work, especially against the highest calibre of batsmen, as England found in a similar situation against Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis at The Oval last year. Inviting good batsmen to accumulate generally results in good batsmen accumulating, not in them getting out.

As a spectator, the play in such passages sidles along in a snooze-inducing monotone. A solution that the ICC ought to be considering is this: when more than 50% of the crowd are visibly drifting off, UN-trained negotiators should be summoned to the square to hammer out some form of declaration treaty.

If, in the middle of today's afternoon session, the UN team had plonked onto the table a deal offering a South African declaration at 560 for 6 - sparing South Africa's batsmen from having to endure hours in the Dubai heat, actually scoring the runs, and releasing Pakistan's bowlers from the contractual obligation to keep running in manfully in the futile pursuit of meaningless wickets - both sides, all spectators and the TV broadcasters would have eagerly snapped it up. They could all have reconvened at 2pm tomorrow, after a relaxing afternoon in the shade and a morning lie-in, for the resumption of competitive cricket in Pakistan's second innings.

Admittedly, the UN does not have a flawless recent record at painlessly resolving squabbles, but I feel this level of compromise should be well within its hitting zone.


Eagle-eyed viewers of the TV coverage on the first afternoon may have seen a man who looked quite like me in an advanced state of slumber in the stands. I have been informed that the commentators scurrilously suggested that I, Andy Zaltzman, insatiable chronicler of cricketing history, was "asleep".

Nothing could have been further from the truth. My eyes were, I admit, shut. My head was, expensive lawyers would argue, first lolling around in a similar manner to a head in the process of losing a bare-knuckle bout with Mr Snooze, and then verifiably in a state of 0% attentiveness.

However, appearances can be deceptive. I was in the midst of the creative process, attempting to internally formulate a suitably lyrical poetic expression of the aesthetic beauty of a Graeme Smith cover drive.

Sadly, despite prolonged attempts, I was unable to do so. The Smith cover drive has all the elegance of a chainsaw-wielding maniac savaging a particularly-hated armchair. I return home to England tomorrow. I will not spend the flight wistfully recalling the brutal efficiency of his strokeplay.

But I may, whilst chomping on an alarmingly nondescript piece of chicken during the in-flight meal, consider that, in terms of his effectiveness as a batsman, his performances under pressure and his contribution to his nation's cricket, Smith is one of the greatest Test cricketers of recent decades. This was not one of his most important innings, but it was another trademark display of his iron will and formidable run-scoring talents.

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