Faster, stronger, uglier
Every blue sky has a cloudy lining. From where I'm sitting, cricket, despite the indecently manful efforts of its administrators, is as thrilling and watchable as it has ever been during my lifetime. The variety of formats and spread of global talent (who'd have guessed that the best allrounder in 2009 would hail from Bangladesh, or that the most promising young seam attack would be Sri Lankan?), allied to a greater awareness of what it means to be in the entertainment business, have seen to that. Yet as the game has improved as a spectacle, it has deteriorated in aesthetic terms. What was once opera is now rock. For Verdi, Sacchini and Rossini read Presley, Holly and Tom Petty. Roll over Beethoven and tell George Headley the news.
This is not to decry rock music. Far from it. Give me rousing lead guitars, rumbling basses and pounding drums any day over overweight, overwrought tenors prattling on about jealousy and homicide in Italian. The best rock music, though, possesses subtleties and nuances, and all too often contemporary cricket reminds me of its most monotonous offshoot, heavy metal, or in its more inventive days, substandard prog.
How can we not rejoice that batsmen have shed those ancient shackles? How can we not cheer those broader palettes and minds? How can we not rejoice in the freedom and enterprise that has seen risk embraced, orthodoxy shunned and scoring-rates climb to un-glimpsed, unimagined heights? We can't, or shouldn't. There is, however, a small, arguably unaffordable price to pay for such enrichment. Aside from a precious few - Mahela Jayawardene, VVS Laxman, Mohammad Yousuf, Michael Clarke, Ian Bell, Brett Lee, Danish Kaneria, Sachin Tendulkar - the current game is virtually a style-free zone. Where are the bowling actions that inspire schoolboys? Where are the forward-defensives worthy of being sculpted by Henry Moore? The nearest most Tests get to elegance is when Jeremy Coney is spouting his lyrical wisdoms from the commentary box: Chris Martin the "android steam train", Daniel Vettori the "home-baked batsman", Australia "slowly moving from that chrysalis of caution".
Spurred on by the sometimes manic requirements of the 50- and, especially, 20-over formats, batsmen have been even further emboldened by something rather less desirable, namely brick-thick blades. But these bludgeons and biffing machines are not exclusively to blame for this gradual erosion of finery. As new strokes have been conceived and alternative scoring avenues explored, so risk has been greeted with flair rather than fear, switching the emphasis from ground to air, from fours to sixes. The aim of every shot should be to repel the ball and, ideally, beat the field, but the most pleasingly executed tend to be those that succeed while minimising that risk - by ensuring they cannot be caught.
Think of the exquisiteness of a cover-drive painted by Michael Vaughan or an on-drive signed by Tendulkar. In hands such as these, every joint seems synchronised and harmonised, bat serving as an extra limb, an extension of self. In Vaughan's case, the crowning glory was a flamboyant flourish of a follow-through that wouldn't have looked out of place in the hands of a symphony conductor or prima ballerina. Gems such as these, though, are rarer than steak on Zimbabwean dinner tables.
Effortlessness should not be confused with elegance. Virender Sehwag sends the ball colossal distances without exerting himself. Likewise Chris Gayle, who embodies languor and never does anything quite so uncool as break sweat. Yet neither is what I would call elegant. Both, crucially, disdain footwork. Both, therefore, get high marks for productivity and low ones for artistic impression. Such is the new industry standard.
In fact, it takes a great deal of effort to look effortless. David Gower spent his teens in the nets. It may be more apparent in left-handers (if only because most of us are not), but elegance, by and large, is only possible if the basics are obeyed; Gower's footwork may have been lacking but he found ample compensation in impeccable timing. What we loved about him was the fluidity of movement, the beauty. Zaheer Abbas had it too, so too Jeff Dujon, Carl Hooper, Brian Lara, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mark Waugh. Yes, they made it look impossibly easy, but that serene, often feline felicity was all grounded in crucial if often barely perceptible movements. In some cases there was a touch of vanity about it all, but so what? We're talking showmen here, not laboratory assistants.
It's not unlike those fighters v boxers debates that have divided readers of The Ring for decades. This is the era of the batsman as streetfighter, as personified by Sehwag and MS Dhoni. The stakes dictate it. Garry Sobers was Muhammad Ali and Viv Richards was Sugar Ray Leonard: violence as dance. In the blue corner of late we have had Matty Hayden as George Foreman and Graeme Smith as Sonny Liston, all bully-boy power and lumbering gait; in the red corner bobs Shivnarine Chanderpaul as Roberto Duran, all awkward angles and ungainly effectiveness.
The same, if not more so, goes for bowlers. Who, right now, has an action that ravishes the eyes and hoists the spirits in the manner of a Michael Holding, a Graham McKenzie or a Jeff Thomson, much less a Bishan Bedi, a Phil Edmonds or a Hedley Howarth? Brett Lee is as fluent and compelling a sight as any, a monument to coordination and smoothly uncoiling menace; Danish Kaneria's curls and curves suggest a chap auditioning for the Dance of the Seven Veils; Amit Mishra has all the makings of the first topless model to grace an MCC textbook. But who else feeds the senses and seduces the soul? Beyond lies the crab-like, the jerky and the neanderthal. For every Lee there's a dozen Morkels, Nels and Martins pouring out of academies, all chest, knees and flailing arms; for every Kaneria there's an endless queue of Clarkes, Shoaibs, De Merwes and Samits, all low arms and non-existent arcs.
The growth of the mixed action, to counter strain and protect the spine, is undoubtedly a factor for fast bowlers, who seem to have more freedom to bowl as they see fit, as comes naturally, rather than contort themselves into some sort of idealised norm. How else, pray, was Andre Nel able to rise through the ranks without submitting his action to the sort of reconstruction usually seen on Nip/Tuck? So be it. Their health is more important than our gratification. Besides, beyond trips to the barber (sorry, hairstylist), how many players have time for mirrors these days?
"THE SPEED OF LIGHT does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalisation is the speed of light." So reckoned Paul Virilio, the cultural theorist responsible for coining the expression "accelerated culture". Soccer and rugby, the other two main transcontinental team sports, are no different to cricket in the way professionalism has brought about acceleration. With heightened fitness has come a repellent breathlessness. There is less space and even less time for the ball-jugglers and body-swervers, less inclination to take chances. With the two codes now distinguishable almost exclusively by union's potty persistence with lineouts, I now find rugby virtually unwatchable. Cricket is still by far the most leisurely of these trivial pursuits, but the acceleration in the emergence of new skills has been accompanied by an erosion of one of the game's chief marks of distinction and distinctiveness.
Robin Daniels knew what he was doing when he entitled his wonderful new memoir of Neville Cardus "Celebrant of Beauty". For that, indubitably, was the Guardian laureate's function: to celebrate what he experienced, whether music or cricket. And whereas today's correspondents celebrate the art and heart of competition, Cardus' priority was to celebrate beauty. He admired Don Bradman's genius but had more time for Jack Hobbs' grace. After seeing Wally Hammond bat at Lord's, Cardus attended an opera at Covent Garden and felt "a distinct lowering of the aesthetic temperature". He was, however, prone to the fanciful and the exaggerated. "I didn't invent Emmott Robinson; I enlarged him," he admitted unapologetically of the Yorkshire spinner he turned into a folk hero. "Guilty to fiction, m'lud, if it serves a higher Truth."
He couldn't get away with it now, of course. Television, websites and newspaper sports sections have made expert, undeceivable, mostly unromantic witnesses of us all. No longer are we obliged to believe what we read (I'll never forget how deflated and swindled I felt the first time I saw footage of Frank Woolley). The price of that evidence and enhanced understanding has been a lessening of expectation. To bemoan a lack of beauty is thus somewhat petty. Of course substance is preferable to style. Of course unorthodoxy is more important than orthodoxy. How can a game move forward unless it rejects elements of the past? And yes, it's not as if there is a solution on its knees somewhere out there, hands clasped together, begging to be discovered. Demanding that players try to bat more elegantly or come up with more pleasing bowling actions is a bit like asking Grand Prix drivers to take bends with greater panache. It's not exactly a key aspect of the job description.
All the more reason, then, to celebrate when beauty does avail itself. And lo and behold, on that final afternoon at Edgbaston, it was firmly present and resolutely, absolutely correct. Their cause may have been safety yet Michael Clarke and Marcus North carried out their job with style and grace, techniques embedded in purest orthodoxy.
North's defensive play was both object lesson and joy - full stride, head over the ball, bat and pad locked together, nose sniffing out danger as a bloodhound might scent a fox's trail. He also penetrated the covers with precision and ease, the ball gliding across the turf as if drawn to the boundary by a magnet. Overcoming a growing tendency to half-leave harmless balls and offer slip catches off the full face of his eloquent blade, Clarke was his right-handed, prettier doppelganger, building his innings brick-by-immaculately-laid-brick, the footwork worthy of Fonteyn, Baryshnikov or Ali, encouraging all Australians to believe that here is Ricky Ponting's successor as both captain and technical maestro. Bar that cocky pull at Ravi Bopara's second ball, aerial shots were about as visible as burkas at a British National Party rally, yet this scarcely left us bereft.
As the afternoon wore on, as England's victory prospects thinned along with the crowd, there was still much to relish. Cardus would have loved it. "What we want art to do for us is to stay what is fleeting," he reasoned, "and to enlighten what is incomprehensible, to incarnate things that have no measure, and immortalise what has no duration." By turning the quest for survival into an exposition of batting's most essential arts, Clarke and North made time stop, immortalised the effectiveness of their centuries-old methodology and reincarnated the game's innate beauty.
And to think that there are those who would send the honourable draw the way of the dodo and the woolly mammoth. Philistines.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton