December 18, 2013

Cricket on a fault line

The most important lesson from the Perth Test: Australian horticulture is strange and dangerous

Large enough to swallow everything but Bob Willis' torrents if criticisim © Getty Images

One of the glories of Test cricket is that it manages to combine the adrenaline rush of sweaty, heart-pounding, ruthless, high-tech modern sport with the gentle pleasures of amateur horticulture. For an entire working week, 22 and a bit yards of earth are scrutinised, analysed, poked, trimmed, prodded and agonised over with the diligence of a retired postal worker hoping to retain the Market Snodsbury Biggest Root Vegetable Trophy.

Australia being a hot foreign country, their horticulture, like their wildlife, is strange and dangerous. As the third Test went on, the strip of turf upon which Australia were regaining the Ashes began to resemble something from a geography textbook, illustrating what happens if you play sport on a fault line between two tectonic plates. It wouldn't have been a surprise to see molten lava bubbling up onto the surface by the final day.

In fact, close-ups of the pitch were far more scary than Mitchell Johnson's bouncer or Mitchell Johnson's moustache. Pundits took it in turns to insert various objects into these ground-openings in a series of eye-widening sequences. Keys, fingers, mobile phones, laptops, Chihuahuas and small children disappeared into the chasms, along with the England team's hopes, their dignity, their contact lenses, and a small brown virtual urn.

At the time of writing, we're only 60% into this series, but the interest is sighing out of the thing like hot air escaping from a punctured Giles Clarke balloon, and I think we are at that stage of an international crisis when we can indulge in glib talk about lessons. So, what have we learned from The Ashes Episode II: Collapse of the Clones?

1. That listening to English pundits grumbling about England losing is far far more entertaining than listening to English pundits drooling about the magnificent manliness of Jimmy Anderson's grimace or the resolute certainty of Alastair Cook's jawline.

Bob Willis has been in his element, his punditry so caustic it could be used to clean the insides of ovens, while Geoffrey Boycott's podgrumbles have on occasion attained the brooding sweep and dark majesty of a Wagnerian opera. There are few things more cathartic for an English cricket fan than hearing an ex-Test cricketer explaining, in cricket's native Yorkshire accent, just why everything is so bloody rubbish.

2. That Australia is hot, at times unnecessarily so.

3. That the nature of modern cricket is permanent change. We cling to certainties, but there are no certainties. In the space of six months, Australia have analysed, planned and executed a complete reversal of fortune, and as we speak, England will be plotting to do the same.

Only awful teams and all-time great teams can escape this endless cycle of form. We have a few of the former, but we have none of the latter, and so England, Australia, South Africa, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka will continue to take turns to beat and to be beaten in a mind-boggling ebb and flow that makes no sense whatsoever.

I only mention all this by way of explanation for my recent decision to place a bet on India to beat South Africa 2-0 at a price that is greater than the series batting average of each of England's top four batsmen. On paper, it is extremely unlikely that India will win 2-0 in South Africa, and therefore, by the rules of modern Test cricket, it is an absolute certainty.

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