August 3, 2011

Spirit of cricket? Surrender of series ...

The current contest ought to have been the best and closest Test series in England since that epoch-defining summer. Instead England are dormie-two at the halfway point

On Sunday, August 7, 2005, England's cricket writers sat in the press box at Edgbaston, united in their disbelief as they watched the wreckage of yet another Ashes series turn instead into the most nerve-jangling result in a generation. Had Michael Kasprowicz's leg-side flinch off Steve Harmison zipped away to the boundary, or been (rightly) adjudged not out by Billy Bowden, England would not have won an incredible contest by two runs, and instead of a 1-1 scoreline with all to play for, Australia would have finished with a 2-0 cushion and surely closed out the Ashes for the ninth series in a row.

Six years on, there's none of that existential angst in the air - however, for the neutral cricket fan, the sense of deflation that England averted on that occasion is set to play out in the coming two Tests against India. The current contest ought to have been the best and closest Test series in England since that epoch-defining summer. Instead England are dormie-two at the halfway point, with a victory aggregate of 515 runs after a pair of crushingly effective performances at Lord's and Trent Bridge. The tussle for that World No. 1 status keeps the series spark alive for at least another game, but that long-promised humdinger is now unlikely to materialise.

Clearly, none of that need bother England's players or fans in the slightest. Assuming their team does not squander their two-game advantage, England will soon savour that rarefied atmosphere at the summit of the Test game. Besides, as India are being made to realise, maintaining a world-class standard is as tough, if not tougher, than attaining it in the first place. With away series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka looming in the winter, the crown will not be allowed to rest easy if it does indeed end up residing with Andrew Strauss's men.

In the meantime, all manner of reasons have been given for India's inability to compete on equal terms in this series. They've suffered a glut of untimely injuries, with Virender Sehwag missing the original plane, and Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Gautam Gambhir all going lame mid-contest; they've been stuffed by their own schedulers, with the demands of the IPL draining their squad of fitness and freshness, and the recent tour of the Caribbean offering little insight into England's bowler-friendly conditions.

But, perhaps most critically, they've lacked the desire shown by their English counterparts, and, dare one say it, their best opportunity to ramp up the intensity flew through their grasp at Trent Bridge like an uncontested edge past first slip.

The flashpoint that wasn't was, of course, the stroke-of-tea run-out of Ian Bell on the third afternoon of the match. MS Dhoni's decision to withdraw India's appeal has since been lauded for the manner in which it upheld the spirit of cricket, and it earned him the Test Match Special Champagne Moment, among other less tangible plaudits. However, it was also the precise moment at which India's challenge in the series was extinguished, and in all probability, their hold on that coveted No.1 slot was surrendered.

Was the retraction worth it in the bigger picture? That all depends on how ugly you like your bar brawls, but when England's lower-order butchered 187 runs in the final session of that third day, it was clear their opponents had given up throwing their haymakers

Was the retraction worth it in the bigger picture? That all depends on how ugly you like your bar brawls, but when England's lower-order butchered 187 runs in the final session of that third day, including a first-ball long-hop from Suresh Raina to Eoin Morgan, it was clear their opponents had given up throwing their haymakers.

Sometimes a team has to "create its own intensity". Those were the precise words that Andrew Strauss used to explain England's miraculous victory in Cardiff at the start of this English season, when 922 punters turned up to watch a wash-out against Sri Lanka, but were instead treated to a 25-over rout. Similarly, in an adverse situation at Trent Bridge, India needed something upon which to galvanise their challenge, and Bell's freak dismissal could have been the catalyst they were looking for. At 254 for 4 with the rock of their revival sawn off, England's lead of 187 suddenly looked less formidable.

Consider what might have happened had Dhoni stuck to his guns and insisted that Bell was sent on his way. The chorus of boos that greeted India's return after tea confirmed how drastically the dynamic of the contest would have shifted, but given how listlessly they had performed up to that point, any change would surely have been to their benefit. Besides, as the "naive" and "stupid" Bell himself admitted afterwards, the fault lay entirely with the batsman who effectively walked before the umpire had given his say-so - a direct contradiction of the received wisdom in modern-day international cricket, which states that you stand your ground at all costs.

Praveen Kumar's half-hearted fling from the boundary wasn't a patch on Ryan Sidebottom's body-check on Grant Elliott at The Oval in 2008, one of the recent precedents for a retracted run-out appeal (and one in which England's then-captain, Paul Collingwood, actually stuck to his guns). When you watch the replays of the incident, there does seem to be a moment, as he breaks into a jog mid-pitch, when Bell realises he's wandered into trouble. But, having spent the summer of 2007 working on his "body language", he brazens it out superbly. Never mind his 159 runs, this little passage of play could be the definite proof of his maturity.

Had Dhoni not backed out of his appeal, it's almost certain that the series would have kicked off, big-style - conceivably on a par with the rancorous India-Australia confrontations of recent vintage. Naturally, not every aspect of that would have been welcome, but it's a fallacy to suggest that gentlemanly behaviour is a prerequisite for top-level sport. One of the few exceptions that prove that rule is the summer of 2005, when Australia were extraordinarily matey with an England team that they recognised as worthy adversaries. However, the gloves were off in the return series 18 months later, when England were pummelled in one of the most compelling slaughters in Test history.

Beyond that 2005 example, the game is littered with proof of the value of needle at the highest level. In 1994-95, Australia beat West Indies in the Caribbean to present themselves as the new sheriffs in the world game, but the changing of the guard was epitomised, and personified, by Steve Waugh's eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with a livid Curtly Ambrose. In 1998, when Allan Donald subjected Mike Atherton to one of the most hostile spells of pace bowling of all time, his rage was fuelled by Atherton's refusal to walk for a gloved catch to the keeper.

And even at Lord's last month, when Kumar Sangakkara earned a standing ovation for his MCC Spirit of Cricket address, he cited the influence of that arch-pugilist, Arjuna Ranatunga, as the critical component that turned Sri Lanka into world-beaters - in particular his masterful harnessing of the Muttiah Muralitharan chucking controversy.

And if you want an extreme (and undeniably unhealthy) example of the benefits of bad blood, look at the ill-tempered ODI series between England and Pakistan in the aftermath of the spot-fixing scandal last summer. It finished 3-2 to England after a passioned-fuelled decider at the Rose Bowl, and was arguably the most compelling sporting drama of the season, as two bitter opponents scrapped desperately for the spoils.

Unwittingly or otherwise, India may have pulled off a very shrewd PR coup. Cricket's recent history is littered with references to their "bullying" nature, be it the fiscal power of the BCCI or the player power that hounded umpire Daryl Harper to an early retirement in the Caribbean last month. In that sort of context, a high-profile reminder that cricket is just a game is laudable.

However, when it comes at the crunch moment of the biggest Test series of the year, is it really the place to let nebulous sporting values hold sway? Personally, I'd have taken a scoreline of 1-1 with two to play, Sehwag to return, and blood at boiling point in opposing dressing-rooms. That sort of confrontation really would have been something to behold.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

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