The legacies of Maynard and Kaneria
We could dub it the Cronje curse. Ten years to the week since cricket's ultimate Faust settled his debt, the game suffered two grievous body blows: the death of Tom Maynard and the lifetime ban for Danish Kaneria. The brain bleeds nearly as freely as the heart.
While the departed occupy opposite ends of the compassion scale - and at the risk of offering sympathy for the perceived devil - I find it impossible not to mourn the loss of two formidable talents, one budding, the other mostly fulfilled but largely self-wrecked.
As only the second Hindu to represent Pakistan, and having appeared in 52 more Tests than his sole predecessor of nearly 30 years past, Anil Dalpat (then one of a herd of stumpers stampeding to be Wasim Bari's heir), Kaneria shouldered a hefty if sorely and perhaps unjustly neglected burden.
That he never kicked on quite as anticipated (no less an authority on the art of wristspin than Richie Benaud once hailed his googly as one of the most deftly disguised he'd ever seen) pales beside the fact that no Pakistani spinner has scalped more Test victims. Sure, the late blossoming of Saeed Ajmal made it possible to drop Kaneria for the medium term, yet suppressing the suspicion that he suffered for being different is difficult.
Ten years ago Dalpat turned down US$13,000 as one of six proposed beneficiaries of a tri-nation tourney in Morocco, then alleged that his career had been sabotaged by a chap never shy of expressing his opposition to non-Muslims, Imran Khan. "Ridiculous" was Imran's description of the charge. "I don't know why his memory has been jogged now, and how come he raised this after such a long time. I don't want to say much on that because it doesn't suit my stature." (Draw your own conclusions about that use of "stature" and how it might sow all sorts of misapprehensions.) Nothing ever came of the spat, though conspiracy theorists might have a ball with the grubby coincidence that Dalpat is Kaneria's first cousin.
To connoisseurs of fluid, flowing bowling actions, Kaneria was a gem. At Essex he was a nugget. From 2004 to 2009 (minus 2006, when he was on tour with Pakistan) he headed their four-day wicket-takers four times and finished second once (and then only by dint of playing in just seven games). Not since Mushtaq Ahmed had a legspinner enjoyed such fat pickings in the shires. Many will now wonder whether it was all part of a right royal scam. But did he stoop to such subterranean levels because his confidence had been eroded by his own countrymen? Even if he did, of course, he still wouldn't deserve a zillionth of a gram of our sympathy, but it might enhance our understanding.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL, then, were demanded of Sunday's T20 international at Trent Bridge. Fortunately, stage and actors were up to the challenge. On the sort of pitch batsmen would gladly pack next to box and jockstrap for safekeeping, the Dwaynes, Smith and Bravo, flung down the gauntlet, whereupon Alex Hales and Ravi Bopara grabbed it, setting up England's most convincing T20 pursuit yet: they had also chased down 170 at The Oval in 2007, against the same opponents, losing two more wickets in the process.
To see Smith propel the ball repeatedly into orbit - nothing if not democratic in his savagery, he drove four bowlers for six - was to conclude that Marlon Samuels is not the only erstwhile Caribbean batting prodigy who can look back on a collectively torrid tour as one that saw him grasp his umpteenth and final chance with grateful and often graceful hands.
To see Hales come closer than anyone to a T20 century for England - and by such a distance - was to wallow in distinct and delicious hints of a more aggressively muscular Michael Vaughan (whom I unaccountably overlooked in a recent homage to crease stylists). He favours the off side - always a handy thing in the aesthetics game - and two cuts off Darren Sammy were thrillingly divine, although he might have to intensify those press-ups if he is going to hook in Perth or Melbourne.
That all-too visible, almost operatic dismay at falling on 99, though, engendered a mixed response. Yes, it was heartening to see an up-and-comer caring so much about failure, however relative, but it also suggested a lack of proportion and perspective, even respect. Was he so immersed in his own bubble that he was unable to appreciate how, less than a week after a fellow England Lion and Gunn & Moore client had died on a railway track, such emoting might be construed? Of course he was. He's young. He also has the narrowness of vision essential for success. Much narrower, one suspects, than Maynard's.
Nottingham, in fact, was creaking with ghosts of the fallen. Hales' breeze-fresh blast was nearly as vivid a demonstration of the fearlessness of youth in an England shirt as when Ben Hollioake monster-mashed McGrath at Lord's in 1997: an innings Maynard, too, might easily have played.
Up in the commentary box sat Nasser Hussain, whose final innings for Essex, at Sophia Gardens in 2004, found him in the same batting order as Kaneria. With thoughts turning to South Africa, it was four Julys ago, while Graeme Smith and Co were halfway through the series-sealing victory that prompted Vaughan's tearful resignation, on the same Edgbaston strip where Andrew Flintoff bowled the deathless over that culminated in Jacques Kallis surrendering his off stump, Kaneria was in Southend twirling away to a Glamorgan tenderfoot, name of Maynard.
THIS IS NO TIME, THOUGH, to de-accentuate the positive. The rousing fare at Trent Bridge, nonetheless, was more than simply a tonic for cricket's bruised troops. It was an affirmation of the game's standing on Planet Sport.
Sporting consolation comes easier to a Pom than anyone. What other nation could field representatives in the three most traditional team sports on the same weekend, against top-notch opposition, and fancy their chances? Spoiled, that's us; have been for a century and a half. Then again, inventing games can be just as much about spreading and preserving customs and values and hierarchies as finding somebody to play them with. Last weekend, furthermore, was yet another reality check masquerading as an embarrassment of riches.
A couple of hours after Eoin Morgan had cuffed the winning runs on Brian Clough's favourite mudless pitch, Roy Hodgson's painfully limited England f***ball team lost their European Championship quarter-final to an immeasurably superior Italian side, one inspired by a player with the brass-bold self-belief to convert a critical penalty with a nonchalant chip. Thirty-six hours before that, an only slightly less constricted England rugby union team averted a series whitewash by drawing with South Africa. In both cases, English enterprise, for all its New Zealand and South African additives (in the case of the rugger buggers), was as conspicuous as bratwurst at an Amsterdam boat party.
Wherein lies one of cricket's most compelling saving graces. In f***ball and rugby, such are the unprecedented standards of fitness and stamina, it is becoming ever easier to frustrate, spoil and negate your way to victory - or, at the very least, non-defeat. New Zealand held Italy to a draw at the last FIFA World Cup; New Zealand, to whose inhabitants f***ball holds roughly as much appeal as a Crowded House tribute band from Canberra.
Chuck ten men behind the ball and scamper about like Usain Bolt's marathon-running imaginary brother and you can not only come within a couple of fluffed penalties of reaching the last four of team sport's most competitive multi-national tournament, but - a la Chelsea - win the most vigorously contested of all major collective ball debates, the Champions League. Play ten-man rugby, wrestle like a WWE show on wheels (but without the fake submissions, natch) and provoke the opposition into the occasional punch or poke in the eye, et voila, you can nick a few penalties and a result. For the past 41 years, since the birth of the ODI triggered the crossing of the philosophical rubicon that the hatching of T20 would complete, defending your way to victory at cricket has become increasingly untenable.
In the long term, for all the bumps beneath the carpet, this can only be a blessing. Souped-up but still setting its most searching tests via its most venerable engine, contemporary cricket encourages vigour and self-expression - which is why it attracts, and should continue to attract, the young and the adventurous.
Like Maynard, whose physique and power, but for a formidable cricketing father, might have spurred him down the path followed by an illustrious Whitchurch High School classmate, Sam Warburton, currently captain of the Wales rugby union XV (at which sport Maynard helped win a Welsh schools cup). Or even another, Gareth Bale, the Tottenham and Wales multi-purpose giant-in-the-forging. Instead of setting his sights on Cardiff, Wembley or Twickenham, Maynard trained them on Lord's and the MCG.
In the days and nights of grief that lie ahead, one can only hope the bereaved derive some comfort from Maynard's legacy - optimism. Whether it outlasts the one bequeathed by Kaneria only time will tell.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton