Feature

Opening credits

The first session of a match is Test cricket at its most compelling: the hard new ball against the men who have to see off its threat - or, as is common these days, send it packing

Mike Selvey
12-Jul-2011
The main event: fast bowler v opening batsman  •  Getty Images

The main event: fast bowler v opening batsman  •  Getty Images

Let us liken the first morning of a Test match to a theatre where a new play is to be performed by great actors. The audience arrives, chattering. What will the play bring? What interpretation will the players put on it? It is about the anticipation, and sometimes this is the stronger element. The lights dim, the audience hushes and the curtain rises.
At its best, Test cricket is a theatrical production, and the anticipation like in no other sport. From the buzzing decorum of the first morning at Lord's or the Boxing Day ballyhoo at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, to the joyous cacophony of the Eden Gardens and the clamour of the Kensington Oval in the glory days. Each and every person looks out on the ground and 22 yards of pristine untrammelled turf and wonders what the day will bring, what great deeds will be performed.
All things are equal until the first ball is bowled. But cricket has its variables. The possibilities are endless. How will the pitch play? Why has Brown been included at the expense of Bloggs? Should they not have a spinner? Will it turn? Will it seam? The imponderables. Each and every Test match is a journey into the unknown. The anticipation rises.
When, 16 years ago on a Birmingham morning, Curtly Ambrose sucks in through pursed lips in that Caribbean way and tells Michael Atherton, "You have a nice day, now", as his first ball of the match flies from a length straight over the batsman's head, clears the keeper and careers first bounce to the boundary, the spell is broken. We get the picture, just as we did on the same Edgbaston strip five years previously, when John Wright put England in, and, to a collective dropping of heads, saw Richard Hadlee's first delivery bounce twice before reaching the keeper.
Central to all this is the contest between new ball and openers. There is something gladiatorial about this, one of the few constants. Generally we know who the protagonists will be. There is a ritualistic element to both sides of the contest here. The new ball is cricket's holy relic, a revered object on which hinges seniority in a hierarchy. When an umpire takes a second new ball from its wrapping and holds it aloft, it is as if a priest is performing a sacrament.
Within the game, the status that goes with being regarded not just as a new-ball bowler but the new-ball bowler is immeasurable. In a team of great fast bowlers, Clive Lloyd threw the ball to Andy Roberts. He became the senior man. Later Viv Richards accorded the status to Malcolm Marshall. When the great Michael Holding was demoted from new-ball bowler to a supporting role it was a tangible acknowledgement of waning powers and it hurt him deeply.
It is this leader of the pack who will gaze into the box of balls before a match and select the one to be used, like first pick from a box of chocolates. Bowlers have their ideas. They will look for the deep tone, the one that makes it shine like a dark, sweet cherry rather than scarlet. Batches of balls are dyed the same but some, the darker ones, appear to take the dye better than others. Bowlers believe these polish better and swing more. It matters not if it is true as long as they believe it to be so.
We remember the great bowlers as individuals, but equally we recall them as associates, as pairs. Only a few became great on their own. For the rest, the partnership was essential. There was a balance. And the names trip from the tongue, from Gregory and MacDonald, Larwood and Voce, Lindwall and Miller, Trueman and Statham and Hall and Griffith, into a modern era that began with Lillee and Thomson, and graduated, through any combination of West Indian giants, to the most prolific pairing of them all in Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis (although their most profound work was done with the old ball), and on to Donald and Pollock and McGrath and Gillespie.
Against them come the openers, the vanguard of the batsmen. They too are treading into the unknown when they walk onto the pitch. These are the pathfinders, the ones who pave the way for those that are to follow. They are there to weather the assault but to lay down a marker too, to set the tone. Their task, according to the rulebook, is to ensure that the hardness has disappeared from the ball by the time the strokemakers join the fray; to "see off the shine" in that hackneyed cricket phrase.
Like parents and policemen, teachers and politicians, the new ball, revered once, does not command the respect it once did. It doesn't stay new for very long these days
What do they feel as they stand in the dressing room, padded, playing their air shots? On practice days and on match mornings, they can often be seen standing in the crease, doing their visualisation, seeing in their mind's eye Ambrose striding in, or Shoaib at full tear-arse tilt. No batsman wants to go into the fray nervelessly or without adrenaline. On one occasion Atherton, who opened the innings more times than any other Englishman, deliberately picked an argument with a close fielder for no reason other than he felt uncommonly relaxed and was uncomfortable as a result. And when the contest starts, at its best, it is the most compelling spectacle of them all, the salvo from the quick men, the riposte from the batsmen. Duck and sway, cut and pull, scamper the singles. Between them, pacemen and openers set up the contest.
The nature of the task has changed over time, though. Once it happened discreetly, stealthily. Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, the most silkily productive of all opening partnerships, dissected the opposition, wore them down. There was no hurry, no frills or frippery. First see it through to lunch without mishap. By then the pitch will have quietened, the rage of the fast bowlers doused, the ball no longer polished, the gold lettering no longer glistening.
But sport evolves. Conventions get tested. There was an old adage in Yorkshire that said "no cutting before lunch, no hooking before August", and it served good purpose in principle. Risk nothing, it was saying, while there is sap in the pitch and devil in the ball and bowling. You are the protectors.
Nobody appeared to have told Gordon Greenidge, the most ferocious cutter of a ball the game has seen, or Roy Fredericks, the happy hooker who sent the Perth scoreboard into meltdown. No mention was made to Desmond Haynes, Marcus Trescothick or Michael Slater, Matthew Hayden, the giant piratical bullying paradox, who with, his faithful parrot, Justin Langer, on his shoulder, formed the most formidable of the Australians. Or Chris Gayle, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Tamim Iqbal. And most certainly the message failed to get through to Virender Sehwag, for whom every delivery from the very first is not a battle for survival but a challenge to score. Vandalism against the new ball is the new stoicism.
Between all of these and their peers the rule book has been shredded. The old ways still pertain, like pockets of resistance. Watch Alastair Cook tot up his runs in the credit column and you witness a throwback: he could have played in any age. Sehwag? A chancer, they would say back then. This is not how you play Test cricket. Save it for the village green. Like parents and policemen, teachers and politicians, the new ball, revered once, does not command the respect it once did. It doesn't stay new for very long these days.

Former England and Middlesex bowler Mike Selvey is cricket correspondent of the Guardian