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Mark Nicholas

Why Southampton was a good advert for Test cricket

Superb, sun-kissed action, drama, and generosity of spirit - what more could you ask for?

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Hour upon hour, session upon session and with a resounding capital T, Test cricket made its mark on the sporting genres at a ground where the dreamers have long imagined such an occasion feeding their soul and selling their wares. Across four sun-kissed days at the Ageas Bowl, the best cricketers in England and India were pulled and yanked and stretched in directions hitherto rarely seen - well, not since Edgbaston a month ago anyway - and, in the words of the Indian captain, the braver of them won through.
We are often told that modern life will make Test cricket unsustainable. No way. The only thing threatening Test cricket is cricket itself. Get the game right - the pitches, the balls, the over rates, the distance, the laws, the promotion - and the formats will take care of themselves.
From the point of the parlous mid-afternoon scorecard on the first day - 86 for 6, remember, after winning the toss! - England played some superb cricket; so superb indeed that the margin of victory suggests India were squashed. Not so, for Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane kicked and screamed like tired children resisting bedtime's inevitability until the masters of their destiny switched out the light. Kohli was later to add the interesting observation that England were more confident in the tougher situations and that "cricket is not always defined by the scorecard". Never a truer word...
Come the third afternoon, the questions echoing around the Bowl and shifting through SMS corridors were: "How many do England need to lead by?" and "How many can India chase down?" The pitch was wearing every bit as fast as it was drying; the bounce was uneven; the ball was spinning plenty and seaming enough. A hundred and seventy-five was the answer to both - what a match-up that would have been; 225 the end game for both - assuming the multipurpose England attack was somewhere near its best. It was.
Stuart Broad led the way, pounding in as if possessed: these rumours of demotion work wonders. Say what you will, 431 Test wickets aligns him with Sir Richard Hadlee. Of course, Broad has played many more games. Of course Broad has not carried an attack with the hopes of a nation on his shoulders alone. Of course, Broad is not Hadlee. But, say what you will. A man who takes 431 wickets for his country knows what he is doing. Hadlee had a raft of wonder days at Trent Bridge but he didn't scalp eight Australians at the cost of 15 runs anytime, anywhere. Here, at the southernmost tip of England's home-advantage ambition, Broad hit those proverbial straps with swingers, seamers and cutters delivered at good pace and with splendid accuracy. Through periods when Jimmy Anderson, his pal and partner, couldn't quite locate the magic, Broad accounted for three out of four openers; Anderson nailed the other, of course, as well as Cheteshwar Pujara in that second innings - a wicket that if not priceless, then certainly worth a purse.
These old dogs led the pack but were beaten to hero status by Moeen Ali's remarkable return. When the top order fell apart in the first innings Moeen helped Curran the Younger stitch it back together again with typically fluent strokes and pride-driven resolve. He still cannot quite tie down his sense of batting as adventure but 40 was a whole lot better than anyone before him and only passed by Curran after him.
Then, when the ball spun from the rough outside the right-handers' off stump, he took aim and fired as if trained in the skill since birth. Ball after ball left his fingers with menace, asking questions of the game's most vaunted players of spin. These sometimes flighted and otherwise flattened deliveries had revs that were the envy of his opposite number - the spinner considered the best in the game - R Ashwin, whose hip injury prevented full use of the body in an action that depends greatly on its power. Moeen took nine in the match. He might have taken a dozen or more, so consistently did he threaten, limit and ultimately torture even Kohli, the world's greatest living batsman. When he got him in such a plain and orthodox manner - caught at pad playing defensively forward - the shock was everywhere, the celebration ecstatic.
The suggestion of Saqlain Mushtaq was everywhere in this bowling, doosra excepted. Control of length, understanding of line, the courage of flight; the fizz of the fingers, the snap of the follow-through, and most tellingly of all, the expectation of success. The work they have done together can become more than just profit, it can be life-affirming.
And so to Sam Curran. When Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes were battling away in the second innings, Geoffrey Boycott - in jest, though not entirely - remarked that England's best batsman hadn't come in yet. Allan Lamb, who knows the family well, has been banging on about this for a couple of years. "Sam is a batsman who bowls!" he reiterates time after time. Fair call, Lamby. Boycott's point is that Curran plays the ball calmly and late, with a straight bat. He defends "softly" with his hands close to his body and attacks the bad ball with a first reference to placement and timing. It is what you are supposed to do, isn't it? "Aye!"
Back to Kohli again: "They have guys who are fearless down the order, they back their skills, they were braver in tough situations than us, they were more confident about what they wanted to do in those situations, and that's why they won this Test. Those contributions down the order have been significant in this Test, and in Birmingham as well." Here's the rub. "I would like to congratulate Sam Curran. He has been a nice find for England." Bravo, captain. Such generosity of spirit costs nothing and means more than many a sportsman of this selfish age might know.
A word too for Keaton Jennings, who may or may not be "good enough". These have been difficult pitches on which to open the batting, and as last year against South Africa, good fast bowlers have exposed his upright method and lack of movement. After acute embarrassment in the first innings, he made 36 good runs in the second, enough to repel the new ball and take the sting from Ashwin's initial advance. Alongside Joe Root's 48, this was fine batting - both thoughtful and dynamic in a way that reacted to the situation of the match. It should earn him another opportunity at The Oval, where the pitch tends to treat batsmen more kindly than any this far in this series. In fact, to replace him now would be cruel and, more importantly, unfair because whatever comparison was then made would not be based on comparative conditions. Jennings looks to shape well against spin: the Test match that follows the one at The Oval is in Galle. That alone should allow him some grace.
Well, there it is. The No. 1 team in the world beaten without a mention of Ben Stokes. Er... whoops. Batsman, bowler, slip catcher. Root got there in the end. Root and Stokes at slip, and guess what? These allrounders are really something, by the way: jewels in the crown of English cricket right now. See, T20 is not all bad.
"We went see-saw in every game apart from Lord's. It was a competitive and hard-fought series. We definitely pushed England to earn victory and they played better cricket than us for long periods." It's music this stuff, music. "There is an art to crossing the line, which we will have to learn. We have the ability and the belief in the ability. We must now work on reacting better to pressure situations."
As for Root, well, joy and relief in equal measure, but no arrogance. He heaped praise upon Moeen and Curran, noting that time away from the environment of Test cricket allowed for another way to see this insular world of ours, and that the confidence these two gifted cricketers brought to the match had been generated away from the spotlight in county cricket. In summary, Root said, "The way we approached the day and trusted our process was exceptional. No panic, just belief. If we can take that forward it will do us well, wherever we play."
He is a proud man, aware of weaknesses and not confused by the paranoia of life on the road. He learns on the job, leans on a couple of fine lieutenants, and desperately wants the England cricket team to be widely respected and admired. Victories such as this are helping his cause. Come to think of it, in victory and defeat the two captains have shown cricket in its best light. This kinder game is no bad thing.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK