Sangakkara a maestro in convoluted drama
Here are the facts. Five good days at Lord's finished in a stalemate. That is the nature of the Test match beast. There are more results these days than there ever used to be primarily because batsmen look to play more shots and therefore make more mistakes. Had England had the common sense to pick a specialist spinner, even one of county standard, the missing wicket would probably have been found. It is very difficult to play for five days without that variation. The chosen ones gave their captain every ounce of themselves but the match summary records their efforts as worthless.
Yes, those are the facts. What cannot be so easily explained is the almost unbearable tension that accompanied this stalemate. What absolutely must be explained is that Test cricket is a unique and irresistible thing. It is many, many games within a game. Yes, the moderns tend to bat as if catching a train. Their genius on the final day at Lord's was to bat as if waiting for Godot. Test cricket is a convoluted emotional drama that tells us things about the people who play it in a way no other sport possibly can. How can one contest last for five full days and come down to the very last ball bowled without providing a winner? How can the protagonists deal with that, never mind the audience? It is plainly ridiculous and all the more wonderful for it.
The two teams are well matched, neither being from the top drawer but still containing players who have something special. First among them is Kumar Sangakkara and without him in this game Sri Lanka were done for. His career record when chosen not as the wicketkeeper is remarkable and second only to Sir Donald Bradman's. In those 75 matches, he had scored 8242 runs at the stratospheric average of 70.44. There are nine double hundreds in those figures, again only Bradman with 12 has made more while Brian Lara with nine is a peer. Notwithstanding the fact that he has plundered both Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, the time has come to include Sri Lanka's finest batsman in the pantheon of an age that includes Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis and Ricky Ponting.
Indeed, so fast did Gary Ballance learn from Sangakkara that signs of the Sri Lankan maestro were in his own superb hundred. The unhurried construction of the innings, the relaxed shoulders and hands in defence, the freed spirit in the strokeplay and then, finally, the joyous expression at the achievement. The next thing Ballance can study is the ability to start each innings as if it were the most important of his life. Sangakkara's pride, both in his own performance and in his country at large, is an irresistible motivation to those around him. He plays the game as if he owes it to his people.
But even Sangakkara gets out. That's the thing. You might be the best ever, Bradman, but you still cannot make 4 when you need it. It required canny thinking for James Anderson to finally get the better of Sangakkara yesterday afternoon but it took more than four hours to do so. It was the wicket that finally opened the door for England, a door they could not quite slam shut in Sri Lanka's face.
Both Anderson and Stuart Broad are in a merry band of five who have taken 50 wickets at Lord's. Sir Ian Botham tops the list, a tad ahead of Anderson. Behind them, but in fewer matches, is Fred Trueman. Then, on exactly 50, is Stuart Broad. The best record belongs to Bob Willis, who in nine games at Lord's took 47 wickets at 18.76 each.
During the first innings Anderson bowled a little short, as he has done for a while now. It is as if he is protecting his stats, an idea lost on the young but which creeps up on those with miles in their legs. But in the second, he sprinted in to bowl a full length and as the ball aged so his wizardry with reverse swing began to make Sri Lankan batsmen disappear. Broad helped wizard away nine of them but the tenth was beyond even the wizards.
By the end the pitch had beaten them all - which one suspects would have included those wizards Botham, Trueman and Willis had they been there. The experts in the media centre went back in time and could not remember a surface at Lord's that had deteriorated so little. Even the groundsman, Mick Hunt, was perplexed. Maybe pitches are like us, he mused, as they get older they lose something of their zest for life. Or maybe, a spinner among English ranks would have changed the perception.
In the search for a balance between bat and ball, groundsman need support if a pitch that offers help to the bowler leads to an early finish. While we all promote the primacy of Test match cricket we must relate to the needs of a modern audience who don't get much of a buzz from a five day draw. Or we must ask them all to Lord's for a last afternoon like this one. Selectors should create balanced teams, not a pack of seamers who become increasingly irrelevant as the game moves through its various stages.
Hang on a minute please. We have time for a memo to N Srinivasan, Chairman of ICC and Alastair Cook, Captain of England (cc W Edwards, G Clarke).
The players need a rocket for the over rates. The average for the first three innings of this match was below 13 over an hour and that is with numerous allowances. The required rate is 15, thus each day's play not only went the maximum half an hour beyond the scheduled close but finished with supposedly mandatory overs not bowled at all. This cheats the public and allows a struggling bowling side unfair respite. The time has come to add runs to the financial penalties that the well paid modern player could not care less about. A cost of ten per over would sharpen them up, alongside an increase in fines that must surely apply to every player. Notably, England bowled at almost two overs per hour faster on the final day when the smell of victory was in the air.
The mid-session drinks break is unnecessary and takes longer than it should. This is a game that breaks for lunch and tea for goodness sake, they don't need elevenses too! Glove changes, unscheduled drinks, the movement of sight screens, tardy captains and a general lack of urgency and ambition are combining to irritate the spectator and take a sense of purpose out of the spectacle. As we move into the guts of the 21st century, Test cricket has enough to worry about without this issue of over rates encouraging the critics to use it as ballast in the argument against the game's long term sustainability.
But forget all that for a minute and consider this. England failed to complete 13 of their allotted overs for the game. Such tardiness surely cost them the match. Over rates damn well matter.
While having a grumble, there remains nothing, nothing, that gets everyone going like the television replay of low catches. Matt Prior took a perfectly clean catch to dismiss Kaushal Silva in the first innings but one replay angle - out of about five incidentally - suggested the ball may have bounced. This replay is a magnified two-dimensional image, foreshortened by the camera lens. It flattens the image, suggesting that grass, glove, shadow and ball are as one. It is utterly misleading and mainly wrong. Not one former cricketer canvassed thought the ball bounced but Prior is immediately mistrusted for claiming the catch because the decision was given against him.
There is much talk of the spirit of the game and, in this case, television technology is working against it. It is a great pity that the captains of each Test playing nation cannot find a common moral ground or that the umpires in the middle cannot back their judgement without fear of the same recrimination from technology. If a player deliberately cheats by claiming a catch he knows has not carried, those same replays will soon expose him. Almost anything is better than the present situation, which all too often has everyone muttering their disapproval.
A final word for Angelo Mathews, whose embattled fortnight ended with a match-saving vigil while England threw the kitchen sink at him. The Mankad incident brought the name of the Sri Lankan captain into the public consciousness. Suddenly your Mum knew who he was and reacted with shock when you said he had done the right thing at Edgbaston. "But it wasn't a very nice thing to do, was it dear?" "Well, I think I would have done the same Mum." "Good heavens!"
Mathews had an intelligent answer to the question "Would you do the same again?" He said "I hope not, but if the batsman keeps stealing an advantage and we warn him about it, what else are we to do?" By applying the Laws of the game the Sri Lankan captain was accused of breaking the Spirit of Cricket. That cannot be.
Since then, Mathews has ushered his team to victory in the deciding one day international between the teams, made a splendid hundred in the first innings of the Lord's Test and, in the second, gone most of the distance in ensuring the safety of his team in the same match. He is a formidable man. Charming to meet, granite to play against.
I could go on but Headingley is around the corner and plenty will go off there as they say in Yorkshire. All hail the 22 Lord's cricketers of the past five days. The game lives on through your performances. Just bowl your overs faster.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK