Standing In The Door Of The Pink Flamingo – The Fifth Test Preview

“It was a kind of so-so love, so I’m gonna make sure it never happens again” – Soft Cell

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The Original London Test Venue – Accept No Substitutes

July 2012 – It was half an hour before the end of play. England had been chased around the Oval by Hashim Amla, en route to a mammoth 311 not out, and Jacques Kallis, with his death by relentlessness. The only wicket to fall was Graeme Smith, for a century. I had had enough. Enough of being kicked from behind. Enough of getting up, and sitting down, getting up and sitting down. Enough of not being able to take pictures because stupid idiot that I was, I had forgotten to put the charged battery in the camera. A fact I discovered when I tried to turn the camera on at 11 am. I had had enough of the test match “experience”, the fan who had had his fill of going to watch test cricket with the personal space diminishing. I got up, and I walked out.

That was 2012. Tomorrow is the first time I’ve gone back to the Oval for a test match. What was once an annual pilgrimage now has a sense of novelty returning to it. I’m almost excited about it. And then.

England go into this test match 3-1 up against the number one team in the world. I am a cricket fan who sat through the 1980s and 1990s and saw England struggle to win any long test series. Now I take this 3-1 win and feel somewhat cheated. Every test match in England has to prepare a result wicket. That’s pretty clear these days. Let’s look at this year’s tests:

Lord’s v Pakistan – Ended after lunch on Day 4

Headingley v Pakistan – Ended towards end of Day 3

Edgbaston v India – Ended early on Day 4

Lord’s v India – Ended midway through Day 4 with Day 1 being washed out

Trent Bridge v India – Ended 10 minutes into Day 5

Southampton v India – Ended after tea on Day 4

To me the test match experience is one where all results are possible, including the most thrilling of all – the race to take wickets against time. Now grounds appear so terrified of producing a wicket where real hard work is required to take scalps and being branded a “Chief Executive’s Pitch” that things seem to go the other way. Now the draw only seems to come into play when it rains. The broadcasters, supposedly speaking for me say that the best test wickets are the ones we have been watching. Batting is being effected by T20 revolutions and all that, we know that, but England players especially have stopped making big scores. We have two centuries in this series. Two. By an all-rounder and a bloke batting 7. I loved test matches for the batting. I wasn’t a great fan of bowling as a bad club player, but I watched the game for batting. The eccentric and the orthodox, the pretty and the ugly, the attacking and defensive. Now we look at the batting in tests and think enjoy it while it lasts in England. A knock like Pujara’s should not be an oasis in the desert – not should it be too common – but it’s rare now. Rare here.

So England play in a test match which could end with us 4-1 up in the series. The team we are playing is the number 1 team in the world. When England played India in 2011, on the cusp of taking the number 1 mantle from India, we were 3-0 up going into the final test of the summer at the Oval. At that time India had just been slaughtered in a four day test where England won by an innings and many, racked up 700, saw Cook fall short of 300, and Sehwag get a king pair. Now we go into this match with the team struggling to make 300, a batting line-up with more holes than a colander, a question mark of balance, a wicket-keeper debate, a retiring pit prop and a captain who has finally stamped his feet and said “I’m not batting three”. And somehow, someway, the vanquished have “enhanced” their reputations by not capitulating meekly like the last two Indian test sides to visit our shores. This seems to be because their bowling hasn’t been atrocious, far from it, and Kohli and Pujara have made centuries. The fact is, with the draw out of the equation apart from rain, tests are going to get a result. 4-1 just doesn’t seem as impressive (to me) when the draw is pretty much a non-starter. Some see this as progress.

Of course, tomorrow isn’t really about a contest between England and India now. It isn’t about trying to prepare for a winter where we are going to get slow and low tracks, turning or just dead. It isn’t about seeing who has it, who hasn’t and so on. It has become a valedictory for an England legend, a personal farewell to a man who stood above it all and came out on top. The tributes have been fulsome. The gushing prose forged through misty eyes hangs over the English cricket world. Every praise ratcheted up, eulogies that people want to hang their name to.

I remember the celebration last test for Sachin Tendulkar, who, by common consent was at least two years past it when he had his farewell. Every replay was met with a brief screen saying “Sachin’s Last Test” or something. It was teeth-itching in it’s cloying manner. I thought when he was dismissed for the final time that the catcher might get a death threat for denying him a ton. Steve Waugh’s farewell seemed to follow similar, if lower key lines, but then the oppo pouring 700 on you does that to a man.

I’d seen worse. Derek Jeter, of the New York Yankees, last home game at the New Stadium barely took the camera off the man for the three hour broadcast. There was an actual sporting contest, a close, if not overly meaningful one, going on but you could have been forgiven that no-one gave a stuff. I sincerely hope Sky and TMS get the formalities out of the way, comment at the appropriate time, and keep the test match as the focus.

There will be more on Cook post test, and I am sure you’ll have your say on the coverage of the match. As a test event, England sealing the series has rendered this into “dead rubber” territory so any messages, form or results need to be considered in this context. For example, would a Keaton Jennings hundred mean as much? What about a fifty? We’ve been there with the dead rubber thing, but look, I’m a fan and the tension on the game between us being 3-1 and it being 2-2 is palpable. The former feels like a semi-exhibition, the latter meaning a huge amount. It speaks volumes for that relative importance that Cook felt he could announce a retirement with a 3-1 lead, but not if 2-2, for fear of distracting from the task at hand. Says a lot, Melbourne Manics, doesn’t it? From his own words.

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Pitch preparations going well. Little bit in it for the spinners. No, this isn’t Taunton.

At time of writing there is no outline on either side. I’m rather hoping India pick Shaw as he is an exciting talent, and I would love to see him play. There may be other chances. From the England perspective, Stroppy YJB, Jonny the Teenager (the media have gone to town on this, haven’t they) is set to reclaim the gloves, and Buttler becomes the batsman. Ali is set to ruin his batting stats further by taking number 3 – Newman, for one, not happy that Joe is pulling up the ladder on that role – and is now back firmly in the fold. Jennings has one last chance to nail down one of the two opening vacancies. Woakes, Stokes, Curran can’t all play unless they drop Rashid? 12 into 11 don’t go. I know. I know. As soon as I press send, they’ll announce the team. That always happens.

Finally some Cook thoughts:

  • His statement of “regret” about KP is nothing new. That it is being dressed up as something it isn’t adds to the dishonesty around this long festering story. I’m sorry if I think it is still important. There’s something like this being stirred up for someone else. Look at YJB’s media in the past week. Open season.
  • His statement that he won’t reconsider is also worthless, but also file it under “what else can he say”. He can’t say he will consider un-retiring a day or two after he announced he was retiring. Also if he does score a hatful of runs, our opening crisis is not solved, and people asked him to play, if he said yes, would we stop him because he retired. Of course not? On past evidence of form, maybe, but not because he announced it.
  • I made an error jumping on a Jimmy Anderson “no ego” tweet. My fault. But let’s face it, it’s not as if nonsensical overblown statements have never been mentioned in the same breath as our opener.
  • When it is over, I might move on, but probably not. I’ll carry on writing an “Anti-Cook Blog” despite hardly writing about him all year (one pet peeve – a blog is the collective writing on an online site. An individual piece is either a “piece” or a “post. Not a blog. No correspondence entered into). There may be a sense of no off limits players after this (perhaps Anderson on his retirement) and we will see how the media deal with Root’s rough patches. What has been enlightening, and why I wrote at such length on the previous post, is the whole circus around Cook (including me). For such a dull, non-social media, cricket man, he invokes passionate discussion. It’s one of the oddest, yet easily explainable things. Establishment stooge v England legend. There’s the rub.

Enjoy the test, I hope my camera works, and although I doubt I will write tomorrow, I’ll be sure to do a test day experience piece, possibly in concert with Trevor (Bogfather) next week in the long run up to the next test.

Thanks, and especially thanks for all the nice words and comments on the Cook piece. This makes me want to do more. It’s reassuring.

Peter (Dmitri)

Oh! And Comments below, of course…….

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