When cricket is like being in love
In CS Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy steps into an everyday wardrobe and discovers Narnia, a vivid world of fantasy. When people have asked me about this cricket season, Narnia is the first word that comes to mind. Starting a Test career was like entering a realm of dreams made real. I was the same person, yet I was in an imaginary world where everything was epic and over the top. Somehow this quickly became a way of everyday life.
Like many, I grew up on a diet of Test cricket. The ritual of attending the SCG Test with my brothers was my richest memory of each summer, neatly contrasted with many a cold winter's night staying up well past my bedtime to see my heroes do battle in faraway lands I hadn't visited. In recent times, I have watched knowing many of the protagonists as friends.
There is unsurprisingly a significant difference between this and getting the opportunity to participate yourself. A much more poetic man than me, when I tried to describe to him the differences between watching Test cricket and first playing it, suggested it could be likened to that between reading a romance and experiencing it. It did make sense to me, for all the sensations had the similarity of the early throes of a love affair - exhilarating, aching and all-consuming. Every memory seemed unexplainably clearer - the moment heightening your sensory experience, stimulating you purely because your heart and head tell you that it is the pinnacle of the game, that there is simply no greater litmus test for you as a cricketer to take.
What makes Test cricket so special and distinct from any other format or level? Above all else, I think its defining dynamic is the fact that the winner is determined over a series - with drawn-out and repeated skirmishes and rivalries often decided over 20 days of cricket. This summer it was as though I played an innings of almost 12 hours and 432 balls (longer if I were to count the preceding tour game), across four magnificent grounds, over six weeks that at times felt like months. Of these, I chose not to hit many, and only did manage to hit 24 for four. Six of those 432 balls dismissed me.
It is this ongoing battle that makes Test cricket like no other examination - certainly drawn far enough out that the state of its participants' minds and bodies must be exposed. Each game of the series is played on a different surface, with its individual character testing the technique and temperament of bat and ball. This variety provided the greatest thrill - knowing individual players held the cards of advantage in certain conditions, but seeing them have to simply make do in others.
I knew Zaheer, with all his skill of wrist, would attempt to get me out lbw on the slower wickets of Sydney and Adelaide, having dragged me across my stumps before unleashing a wicked inswinger. I would be looking for any width. I knew in Perth that his natural late outswing into the wind would force him to try to take the outside edge. He knew I would be sweating on him getting too straight. Let the staring match begin, mano-ē-mano.
Strangely, this intimate contest and laying bare of character took place between two people who have never spoken a word - probably never will - knew nothing about each other barring relative cricket prowess and not once recognised that the other may have succeeded. It was for others to decide the winner. A lengthy timescale in such psychological battles also allows for the pronouncement of "bunnies". I now understand how the disintegration of Daryl Cullinan by Shane Warne took place. There was simply nowhere to hide.
It is also for this reason that two-Test series don't even whet the appetite - they do not differentiate Test cricket from a usual back-to-back home-and-away domestic fixture. No time to assert yourself, no time to redeem. If this series had been such, think of the questions that would have been left unanswered, the duels not completed. We would have missed David Warner's fireworks and Zaheer's fine retribution days later, the payback smirk plastered across his face: "Not today mate, today was my turn." We would have been denied watching Michael Clarke's insatiable appetite for runs only grow, a legend made from the series rather than just a solitary record-breaking innings. Virat Kohli might have found himself out of the Indian team for the next series without his Adelaide masterclass.
Paradoxically this ongoing challenge is broken down in micro-seconds of concentration, in which, oddly, I found it easier to perform with clarity. A little counter-intuitive considering how many off-field distractions there are, how intense the scrutiny is, and how much you imagine the high-pressure bubble of international cricket will thin your oxygen intake. Perhaps simply because it was my first series, I felt as though there was no other concern but the present - no more wondering if I needed more runs to be picked, or whether or not I deserved an opportunity to play. Here the opportunity was - the pinnacle - with nothing left to do but to compete. The simplicity of the situation struck me like a lightning bolt from the heavens. No peripheral thoughts, no second-guessing.
A few times when I was settled at the crease, and in a meditative-like batting trance, the crowd felt like white noise, and the bowler merely running in against a painted backdrop of figures - delivering with an action I had seen thousands of times on television with comforting familiarity. That is not to say there were not the moments of looking up, usually from the non-striker's end, and noticing - the crowd, whose murmurs were all of a suddenly audible; the cameras, and the realisation that people were watching and judging; the greats who I was now allowed to share the field with. I almost made myself have those moments, just to remind myself that it was real. Sometimes the realisation jolted you into involuntary dry-retching.
What else struck me, when it was all said and done, was that it was just one series. And that had completely exhausted me mentally and physically: the limited days off between Tests, which made switching off virtually impossible. It gave me an enormous appreciation for the rare talents whose careers span decades across multiple formats. Series piling on top of each other, rivalries stretched out over a lifetime. I am sure at times it feels to them like they could be starring in The Truman Show, never really allowed to emerge from the bubble.
After that last day in Adelaide, I experienced an adjustment period of my own, like a diver resurfacing, needing to slowly decompress to avoid the bends. There was also a longing for more, as though nothing else mattered or compared to the thrill of emotion that had been in constant supply. Thankfully, unlike some relationships, I get to control if this romance continues.
Ed Cowan is a top-order batsman with Tasmania and Australia and the author of In the Firing Line