January 12, 2012

Beauty? I'll take edge, thanks

Rivalries become interesting when there's spice in them. Let's hope England and Pakistan won't disappoint like India and Australia have this season

If life, as in the esteemed estimation of Forrest Gump, is a box of chocolates (presumably one shorn of any guide to contents), sport is a Neil Young gig. All you know for sure is that you'll get a bit of everything. Collisions will resound: cinematic storylines and sweet melodies with fuzzy feedback and discordant chords; wise words with angry tone and grizzled voice; love and peace with the rugged and the ragged - the beauty meets the beastly.

At its best, and even at its second-best, spectator sport, for non-combatants, dances between those same poles, swaying to the rhythm of happenstance. The inner game, the tussle between mind and matter, brains and body, does much to make the competitive arts so compelling, keeps us glued to field and screen for nights and days on end, keeps us coming back for more. Ultimately, though, for all that victory for one's favoured team is a fix capable of supplying the highest highs, it's the keen, steely edge of rivalry that we remember longest and cherish most. The incredible comeback or last-gasp win over a traditional bête noire; the unique frisson of physical competition. Much as we love the art and marvel at the science, we crave the edge. Three guilty cheers, then, for Brad Haddin's allegation that nothing short of a spine transplant can revive India when proceedings begin in Perth tomorrow.

Cricket is luckier than most sports in that Dr Beauty doesn't need Mr Beastly around to bathe him in a rosy glow. Take last week's Sydney Test, where the quality of players and pitch conquered all, amid a tranquillity that encouraged beauty - the matchless orthodoxy of Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting and the enduring felicitousness of VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar all flourished - albeit the latter nowhere near long enough for India. In this, it could be construed, they were aided by an atmosphere in which giggle far outweighed niggle (even Virat Kohli's excessively punished riposte to the crowd's baiting was entirely forgivable). Which is not an observation one ever imagined making of a modern Australia-India series. Which, in turn, for some, may prompt a somewhat shameful thought: where, oh where, are my Symonds and my Harbhajan?

There was a decided lack of frisson to Sydney 2012. For all the splendour of the batting and the pace bowling, the edge had gone AWOL. That Australia had things pretty much their own way throughout was no coincidence. Instead of lashing out at umpires and/or opponents, Indian pundits and fans alike could only turn inward at their weary, ageing heroes. Until Haddin spiced things up, the much-hyped Border-Gavaskar series had been rather tame. With two Tests to come, it is tempting to wonder whether he was under treasurer's orders.

Of course, the spectre of Sydney 2008, where beauty and beastly met head-on as seldom before, remains far too vividly awful to have wished for an encore, least of all for the SCG's 100th Test. A ripping, gripping, last-gasp-win of a scrap between fierce foes, it was ruined by dishonesty (okay, cheating) and disrespect, for opponents, umpires and game; the vibrancy of the contest, even the result, was buried beneath the rubble of the fallout. Yet Malcolm Speed, then the presiding ICC chief executive, claims the respective boards colluded over "Monkeygate". The price of peace was principle: the on-field exchange between Harbhajan and Symonds would not, after all, become a test case for racism. Sometimes compromise is the evil.

FORTUNATELY, FOR THOSE WHO DEMAND more fizz and zest, even a few more snarls and growls - the best guilty pleasures are always the guiltiest - succour is at hand. Next Tuesday, after all, sees hostilities renewed by Pakistan and England, albeit against the slightly surreal backdrop of Dubai's Sports City. Australia and India's bristling enmity dates back only to Sourav Ganguly's insistence - barely a decade ago - that nice guys don't beat Australians; Pakistan and England have more than half a century of disaffection to draw on.

Here, arguably even more than the Ashes, is the ultimate duel between master and uppity ex-servant. It didn't help that the only guests England failed to beat in a series from 1951 to 1960 were Pakistan, who had the gall to ambush them at The Oval in 1954, Fazal Mahmood tattooing his name in lore. Soon afterwards, a vengeful prank played on umpire Idris Beg by Donald Carr's MCC tourists traded injury for insult. If the 1960s passed comparatively quietly, David Constant, Shakoor Rana, Mike Gatting, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Allan Lamb and Ian Botham's mother-in-law soon sent the antipathy soaring to toxic levels.

Is Broad beginning to distinguish between the sort of aggression that stokes physical fear and the sort that intimidates minds, that cows opponents by consistently doing its homework, executing its strategies and having a Plan C? Let's see

Last year's World Cup warm-up passed uneventfully, but that was one day. This time, with three Tests, four ODIs and three T20s in store, the antagonists will lock horns for up to 22. And custom, of course, more or less dictates that every minor dispute will explode into a full-scale diplomatic row. This time, moreover, these happen to be Test cricket's form teams. Ian Bell, for one, reckons the three-match series in the Gulf poses as stern an examination as any Andrew Strauss' chart-toppers have faced. He is by no means being ultra-cautious. Or, being Bell, polite.

The phoney war has certainly been gathering a promising head of steam. Pakistan have recalled Wahab Riaz, setting up the enticing prospect of a rematch against Jonathan Trott, who, at Lord's two Septembers, ago took such a liking to the left-armer's throat. Saeed Ajmal has achieved the considerable feat of out-hollering Graeme Swann, his chief rival as world's toppermost spinner; he's even gone and done a Warne by boasting of a brand-new delivery, the teesra (no, don't titter!). Meanwhile, at a PCB function celebrating Pakistan's splendid 2011, Ramiz Raja urged Misbah-ul-Haq and his team to "assume themselves to be in a state of war". Beating England, he reasoned, "is the best way to cool down the anger and frustration that Pakistan fans felt after the spot-fixing scandal".

As for the tourists, they've been selling their peacenik line just a little too hard, and not just by batting limply. While Strauss has been doing his characteristically level-headed best to douse the fires of history, Stuart Broad not only highlighted the need to put past spats behind, but actually proposed that "aggression and anger" be left at home. Coming from someone whose own aggression never appears to stray beyond his jockstrap, this seemed a bit much.

For all his professed belief that grudges are self-defeating, Broad couldn't quite help reminding us how livid the England dressing room had been when the spot-fixing scandal overshadowed on-field success. And it was Broad who, at Edgbaston, before the saga kicked off, flung the ball so petulantly and damagingly at the obstinate Zulqarnain Haider: the latest in a succession of irritable and regrettable eruptions that might have seen a lesser player banished to Coventry if not the farthest wilderness.

That Pakistan have long been the Asian collective likeliest to needle and trouble Australia and England is decidedly not happenstance. This has plenty to do with talent but perhaps even more to do with aggression, as Ramiz tacitly acknowledged. Yet while aggression, controlled and channelled, is undoubtedly a sporting asset, Broad hasn't always known how to deploy his own abundant reserves of the stuff.

"I love his aggression and that streak of nastiness in him," enthused Swann last July, gallantly offering public support for a colleague on the brink of being dropped. "I don't want to see our bowlers opening a kitten sanctuary. I want to see them running up, bowling bouncers and breaking people's fingers, because if you have seam bowlers who can do that, it makes life easier for the spinner." If anything, it worked as a double bluff: Broad turned his form around against India by pitching fuller.

Recovered from the shoulder injury that prevented him from touring India, he has been England's sharpest bowler in the Gulf to date. The question is whether the beast in him can continue to be harnessed productively.

For champions, and those who aspire to such heights, there is often no greater spur than the sour stench of failure; Broad, a budding Kapil rather than a wannabe Kallis, seems to be one of those competitors driven primarily by sheer lust for success. Maybe it's just a father-son thing. (Intriguingly, among the notable Englishmen to have pursued the family trade over the past 25 years, Alec Stewart, Dean Headley, Mark Butcher, Ryan Sidebottom, Chris Tremlett and Broad himself have all outstripped their dads - which surely says only good things about our evolution.)

Even so, the evidence of that apparent non-aggression pact is suggestive, if not yet persuasive. Is Broad beginning to distinguish between the sort of aggression that stokes physical fear - while upsetting us genteel old-fashioned souls who stick stubbornly to the belief that behaviour matters - and the sort that intimidates minds, that cows opponents by consistently doing its homework, executing its strategies and having a Plan C? Let's see. It is difficult, nonetheless, to envisage him ever forgetting that a little bit of beastly can go a mighty long way.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton