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Test cricket ain't what it used to be
August 6, 2005
Test cricket ain't what it used to be. You used to be able to stroll around the ground, meeting a friend or two, trying out the local beer and sampling a pie. There was even an unofficial press tradition of a nap after lunch, when nothing much tended to happen. But in this amazing series, if you take your eyes off the middle for a couple of minutes, you're going to miss something.
Keith Stackpole, the former Australian opener, is over here in charge of a group of Aussie tourists. He made the mistake of going for a stroll during Shane Warne's first over last night, and missed that ball. He had to ask his fellow travellers what had happened to it: had it gated Andrew Strauss, gone through his legs, or right behind him? There were votes for all three versions, and Stacky had to wait for the TV replays this morning to find out the behind-the-back truth.
All this has implications for us Roving Reporters, since it's suddenly a bit dangerous to rove without missing the Ashes-turning moment. You have to leave that sort of frippery for something less frenetic, like the closing stages of a Twenty20 game. Even the Birmingham beer was not enough of a pull.
If you are going to be rooted to the spot, the Edgbaston press-box is not the worst place to be. It's planted right behind the bowler's arm at the City end, at an ideal height - which, until the recent developments at Old Trafford and Trent Bridge, and the Lord's spaceship, was fairly unusual. The Birmingham box is unique in another way, too: it was actually donated by a newspaper - the Coventry Evening Telegraph - in time for the return of Test cricket to the ground in 1957.
Back then there was plenty of time for roving, and probably even the odd nap: even from behind the arm the sight of Colin Cowdrey and Peter May padding away Sonny Ramadhin, who toiled through 98.1 overs in that '57 match while the two Englishmen put on 411, was probably not the most exciting of entertainment.
But now, there's Shane. When the man himself is bowling from the City end, the people on the right-hand side of the press-box have the best seats in the house, straight down the pitch behind the Warne arm. Or, more accurately, behind the Warne shoulder.
Warne bowled throughout the third morning, and for a legspinner many rungs down the ladder (many ladders down, actually) it was still an education. Sometimes the shoulder dips, which means there's something different coming. The big-rolled legbreak is suddenly easier to spot from here, and these days there are more and more glimpses of the slider, the one that shoots out of the front of the hand, hurries on to the batsman, and doesn't turn as much as the others.
It is fascinating stuff, and after two hours of close observation you're emboldened to think that you can pick Warnie's variations. As long as you're sitting behind him, 80 yards away, anyway. I still wouldn't fancy trying to decipher those little signals from front-on and 22 yards away.
Warne's a one-off, quite simply the best legspinner there has ever been. If this is his last tour here - and he might still be good enough in four years' time, if his phone-text finger hasn't needed an operation by then - it's time to sit down and watch him, and cherish him.