The revival of the beautiful game
First, a warm thank you to England and Australia. For close to two months, they have touched us and moved us, roused our senses and stirred our souls, made us live through their joy and despair and feel good about ourselves. Sport at its best is high art, and as escapism, it is higher than cinema for nothing is make-believe. For so many hours in the last three months, these two teams drew us in to their captivating world, away from our worldly strife and drudgery. A pity that it had to end.
But above all, by playing out the series of their lives, they have dignified our beautiful game and furnished the most emphatic and compelling argument in favour of Test cricket. Cricket does not need to clothe itself in superficiality to remain attractive and relevant. What it really needs is to maintain its standards. The appeals of cricket are unique, and Test cricket, undoubtedly the highest form of the game, grows on you slowly. But played at a high level, it showcases cricket's central appeal. It is futile for cricket to try to appeal to all.
Cricket will never be football; for all of the ICC's expansionist ideas, it will never spread to 100 countries. It's a game that reveals itself in layers, it's a game that demands commitment and not fleeting indulgence. And, as this series has demonstrated, Test cricket, when it's a real contest, can keep large audiences thoroughly absorbed for days. What it cannot afford, however, is trivialisation and mis-matches.
What cruel irony it is to watch India and Sri Lanka engage themselves against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh immediately after we had been indulged by a series that bordered on the divine. Watching Muttiah Muralitharan torment clueless Bangladeshi batsmen on a raging turner, or Irfan Pathan smile away to a five-wicket haul against Zimbabwe, is a hollow and dispiriting experience.
On the second day of the India-Zimbabwe Test, we were treated to a television interview with Pathan on the occasion of his 50th Test wicket. It has rarely been beyond television channels to invent occasions, but consider the shallowness of this one: of his 50 wickets in 13-and-a-half Tests, 23 have come in two-and-half Tests against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Pathan is a swing bowler with promise, but let's get real: his six wickets against Australia in four Tests have cost 72.33 and despite his success in Pakistan, his 18 wickets against them have come at 41.77. For the moment, his career figures merely deceive.
The complexity of its format and its length are often held out to question the congruity of Test cricket in the contemporary world. But that's missing the point. Cricket's real allure is centred on its format. The real threat comes from reducing it to a charade. It's a miracle that a smattering of the faithful still turn up at games which shame the very concept of a contest. But Test cricket cannot afford to test the patience and loyalty of its followers. Are we expected to care for this tripe? Can we bring ourselves to?
The Ashes have done much more than re-ignite the passion for cricket in England, though that itself is an immense achievement. The bleak 1990s, when the most entertaining aspect of English cricket was the self-deprecating humour of English broadsheet writers, steadily chipped away at the game's support base. Cricket is a small society, and England is one of its big members. A weak English team hurt the game.
And Australia needed reining in. They had gone so far ahead that, barring India in two series, no other team came close to matching them. Australia have always been spectacular, but watching them in recent years had become a one-way affair - you felt awe and admiration for them, and pity for the other team. After a point, watching Matthew Hayden pulverize mediocre bowlers and Glenn McGrath dismantle batting line-ups became predictable and boring. Only India, with a combination of glorious batting and crafty spin, managed to look them in eye and subjugate them. But it was too little.
The most important outcome of the Ashes is that Australia have been beaten at their own game. True, they look a side in decline and some of their batsmen are ageing, but their failure cannot be explained away as a collective slump. Nor did their batsmen get caught out on turners. They were busted by pace and bounce, swing and seam. Their batsmen looked fearful, uncertain, awkward and entirely mortal.
It was a reality test for many of them; for the first time in their careers, they came up against a pace attack without an obvious chink. The Australians have been hustled by Shoaib Akhtar and Shane Bond before, but they have had easy runs to pick at the other end. With England, there was no getting away. Harmison pinged them; Hoggard kept them tentative; Flintoff challenged them incessantly; and Simon Jones kept them pinned to the crease. The big unanswered question during the West Indian reign in the late-'70s and mid-'80s was how great the West Indian batsmen really were. After all they never had to test their skills against their own bowlers. After they have been put through the wringer, we are now able to venture a guess about this Australian batting line-up.
For far too long, too many batsmen all over world have been able to plonk their foot down flat pitches and stroke away to big averages before coming undone against Australia. Now, with the rise of England's bowlers, the possibility of real contests between bat and ball has doubled. That calls for celebration.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo