When the weak can resist the strong
I woke up on Saturday morning fully expecting England to be well on the way to losing the first Test. There was something disconcerting about finding out Jimmy Anderson was not only still there but had scored a half-century. My first reaction, I confess, was irritation: all these years of watching him bat, all the years of arguing that he should be scoring more runs, that he was a No. 11 in name only, and vindication came when I was on the other side of the world, in a time zone four hours behind, covering the football World Cup, with no way of watching him.
I had a shower and he was still in. I had breakfast and he was still in. I wrote a lengthy piece about German youth development and he was still in. I decided to follow online after lunch to see if he could get his ton and, of course, he was out immediately. Still, the resistance of No. 11 batsmen in this game seemed relevant to a discussion I'd had with a US journalist earlier in this World Cup.
He suggested that basketball was better than football because the better team always won. I suggested that made it an inherently flawed sport: one of the things I love about football is that a lesser team can, through diligent defending and organisation, hold out against a superior team and perhaps even nick a winner on the break.
Usually the better team wins, so the game isn't simply a matter of chance, but because the significant scoring moments are so infrequent, there is enough of a possibility of the weaker team prevailing that every game - or at least every game in a major competition - carries an air of unpredictability. To try to put that in numbers, imagine a scenario in which one team is good enough to have a 75% chance of scoring the next point/goal. In a game of just one point/goal, the weaker side will win 25% of games. In a game of three points/goals it will win 15.6% of games. In a game of five points/goals the weaker team will win only 10.4% of games. By the time you get to the sort of scores involved in basketball, the chances of the weaker team winning are minuscule. There is something in-built in football that makes it possible for weaker teams to compete.
Cricket, similarly, allows lesser players to fulfil their role - or, in the case of Anderson, and Mohammed Shami before him, for players gifted in one facet of the game to play their part in another. No. 11s can block, can frustrate, can, as in the case of this Test, make their own version of batting work.
That's perhaps even more true at the amateur end of the game, particularly in timed matches. The innings I remember with the greatest fondness came in 1998, for my college second team against a local church. They had scored nearly 250 and we were 60-odd for 6 with two hours left to bat when I went in. The groundsman, Jim, had opened the innings and was still in on 30-something.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked our captain.
"Get it over quickly or get a draw," he said, tucking into a can of lager. "But if you block, don't you dare muck it up. I'm not hanging around here till half seven for a defeat."
The first ball left me off the pitch and took a thickish edge but, fortunately, I'd played with soft enough hands that the ball squirted through a vacant third slip. We ran two. "Easy," Jim cautioned, as though he thought I'd deliberately played the shot. The next ball I let go. The next ball I blocked.
Time went by. After every ball I wandered off to square leg, trying to make out who was winning a tennis match on the court that lay just beyond the boundary. I refused to look at my team-mates getting lagered up on the boundary. Quickly a strange sense of calm settled. They crowded men round the bat. I left or blocked, then wandered off. They began chirping in a most unchristian way. "If you're trying to get in my head," I said, "then I'm already inside yours."
The umpire called the last hour. Block, block, leave. Block, block, leave. Always wandering off. The tennis players finished their match. I started concentrating on the way the sun reflected off the windows in the accommodation block in the corner. Block, block, leave. block, block, leave.
Jim started playing more naturally. "Come on," he said. "They've got nothing left. Have some fun."
I was having fun. Jim completed his century in the second-last over. With five balls to go, he ran a single. One more block and we were safe. It was a floaty legbreak. I came forward and smothered it on the half-volley. "At least hit the thing now," said the exasperated short leg. I didn't. I couldn't. Block, block, leave. We finished on 150-something. I'd taken 76 balls to score 2 not out, the last 75 of them dots.
Were the bowlers better than me? Of course. On most given days, would they have got me out? Obviously. But that day they didn't. And that seems to me a key aspect of sport, or at least of sports I like: what opportunity does it give the weak to resist the strong? Football scores highly, and so too does cricket.
Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here