England is tranquil, there is a freshness in the breeze, nature is still a bit uncertain about whether to present summer in all its glory or to keep the suspense lingering. Accordingly there is the occasional nip to the air, an uncertain tug at the jumper, and joy at the gentle sunshine sweeping the land. And the talk is of cricket: of playing conditions and of pitches, of T20 lengths and ODI field placements; even a side-strain gets a mention. It is nice to talk cricket.
When I boarded the flight there was anger in the air. Cricket reporters were studying the BCCI constitution, back-room manoeuvres were talked about in the kind of detail the switch hit never got, volume was being seen as a like-for-like replacement for reason, Twitter was up in arms, news channels were up in arms, the front pages were up in arms. Cricket was meant to have delicate phrases and a gentle cadence, strong arguments articulated in measured tones. The situation was grim, it called for action, but theatre wasn't going to provide the solution.
Yes, Asia is in strife. The epidemic of fixing has seen minor outbreaks elsewhere in recent times, but its full impact has been felt in that part of the world. Cricket needs men of strength, integrity, and charisma; the strength to address the situation squarely, integrity to rise above it, and charisma to carry loyal cricket lovers along. In Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the three worst affected, there is a need for governance and systems, and neither of those seems to be the flavour of the month. Systems are ridiculed and looked down upon but when danger looms they save you. The danger before Indian cricket comes as much from unsavoury elements as it does from a disregard for systems. Indian cricket needs solid back-room boys to lay down stringent rules, not people seeking cameras to say, well, nothing. Indian cricket needs office bearers to agree to stringent codes of conduct, not people anxious to leak confidential information from meetings in progress.
Hopefully the cricket lover will see through the personal agendas and raucous sounds and retain the desire to enjoy a contest that is still largely noble. Test cricket started 136 years ago and the sport has survived two world wars. The misdemeanours of a few will not halt it. So let us ask questions but let us enjoy a cover drive to an outswinger; that is why we followed the game in the first place.
From that point of view, the Champions Trophy is a wonderful place to be. The best teams are here, every contest is open, and with two new balls and early summer conditions there will be a little bit of Test cricket on view and a little bit of the frenzy that T20 provides. At a presentation the ICC made to commentators, the first results of the changes in playing conditions were shared. While the sample size is still small, it is pointing towards more wickets, fewer singles, and a slightly higher percentage of boundaries; all of which are easily explained.
"So let us ask questions but let us enjoy a cover drive to an outswinger; that is why we followed the game in the first place"
With two new balls the fast bowlers stay effective for longer, ask more questions of the top order; with five fielders inside the circle, the singles are more difficult to get and those looking for boundaries to break out have a greater chance of getting out. It might favour teams that rely on new-ball bowlers, but it is producing a tougher contest between bat and ball. It is likely to produce the kind of cricket we saw in the eighties, where keeping wickets in hand was paramount and when 50 in the first 15 overs was perfectly acceptable. But here is a wonderfully modern twist to the tale. With the effect of T20, and only four fielders outside the circle, the number of runs teams can score with wickets in hand is now completely, and joyously, off the scale.
In the second one-day game against England, New Zealand had wickets in hand, and Martin Guptill and Brendon McCullum hit 118 in 8.2 overs. And in the warm-up game against Australia, India only managed 122 in the first 30 overs (even that constituted a bit of a revival) but amassed 186 in the last 20. I wonder if that will be the trend here; the start a little like a classical musician playing around delicately with his notes and the end, a splendid burst of energy, the notes now combining with great vigour to produce a stunning climax.
India will have to make friends with the DRS too. It's something they have opposed much but rarely explained why. The ICC is claiming high-resolution cameras will make the predicted path of a ball very accurate; only one unsuccessful referral means the top order cannot use it as a right to be conferred on themselves when faced with a 50-50 decision.
Part-time bowlers cannot get away with an over here or another there, and fielders in the deep will have to cover greater ground and send stronger returns in.
Hopefully the weather will hold, hopefully the summer that bestows on England such beauty will not be stingy, and hopefully for 17 days, the original sounds of cricket will return.