Captains happy to raise the pitch
While celebrating the Lord's Test as a spirited contest between bat and ball nobody should forget the services rendered by Matt Prior, Sreesanth, Ryan Sidebottom, Sourav Ganguly, Kevin Pietersen and Michael Vaughan. Their contribution with bat and ball was crucial; their contribution with the lip more so.
Contests work well with a bit of needle and watching cricketers react to provocation is a stirring spectacle in any sport. West Indies created history by chasing 418 at Antigua in 2003 but what stuck in the memory was Ramnaresh Sarwan's squabble with Glenn McGrath.
India v England has historically been a battle of the milk-sops. Pakistan v England matches regularly touch boiling point, West Indies v England has had blackwashes and batteries of raw pace, India v Pakistan an air of sibling rivalry. India v England has seen some tiffs, like the famous Vaseline controversy surrounding John Lever in 1976-77, but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of genteelness. Gundappa Viswanath even called back Bob Taylor in the Jubilee Test of 1980, after the umpire had given Taylor out. Now that's just not cricket.
After a largely bland first two days at Lord's, Sreesanth added spice on the third evening when he fielded a straight-drive from Andrew Strauss and flung it right back at the batsman. Smack, flush on Strauss' backside. The response from Strauss, backing away to the next ball when Sreesanth was halfway through his run-up, produced giggles. On such skirmishes does the character of a match hinge.
Sidebottom chipped in with his share of aggro, shaking his head and the mop of hair above it, but it was really Prior who raised the bar. On the fourth evening, with Dinesh Karthik moving towards his fifty, Prior decided to step in, chirping "Come on Dhoni" every time he was within earshot. When Karthik blocked, Prior didn't approve: "Let's get the entertainer in." Karthik, as if he were at prep school, thought of complaining to the umpire but he was lucky that Sourav Ganguly, that notorious streetfighter, was at the non-striker's end. Ganguly pulled him back and took on Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen on his own, a verbal joust that carried on even after stumps.
"It wasn't a great deal," Vaughan said today, downplaying the chit-chat, "just a bit of talking after play seeing how he was going to play in the morning, that was all. I didn't hear Karthik say anything. It was just a bit of playful banter. You're always trying to put the batsman off, but it was nothing really."
What of Prior's superlative effort behind the stumps? "Most keepers are of a pretty similar character. He's doing well at the moment and I guess it's part of his armoury to try and get one up on the batsman. I don't think many batsmen listen but it's certainly part of his armoury."
The seeds of the current generation's rivalry were sown by Ganguly, Andrew Flintoff and Nasser Hussain; two of them bared their chest, all wore their heart on their sleeve. Ganguly's stint at Lancashire, when he appears to have rubbed up many the wrong way, was when a largely peaceful bilateral relationship turned interesting. Hussain's stubbornness helped. At Headingley in 2002, when India were 500 for 3 with Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar slaughtering the bowling in the dark, Hussain decided to turn on the sledging. The retort: "We want to hear you talk the same way when you go to the Ashes in December, don't keep quiet there."
Vaughan, it is said, built on the cricketing platform laid by Hussain. He seems to be following suit in the bantering as well. "We are trying to play our cricket with a real intensity about it," he said, "and that involves being a little bit aggressive. It's nothing that we haven't done in the past, it's just something we're doing well at the minute."
Even Rahul Dravid, that ultimate diplomat, didn't seem to have a problem. "There has got to be a bit of that [chit-chat] in international cricket, especially in close games like Lord's," he said with a smile. "The team knows they've got to give everything to win or save a match on the last day. Tempers can get frayed, but the relations between the two teams have been good, off the field as well. I was happy with the spirit in which the first match was played. I don't think it went across the line, a bit of that is good for the game." In an era of clichés and plastic PR, it probably is.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo