Day Three: A love letter to Test Cricket

For most of the summer we’ve been fed a diet of white ball cricket, of limited interest and importance, and giving rise to a sense of frustration that the best part of the summer was being wasted on cricketing frippery.  In some ways it was unfair, the white ball build up to this series was perfectly reasonable, but the insertion of the five matches against Australia undoubtedly led to ennui amongst those weird extremists called cricket fans.  And then the Tests began.

T20s and ODIs are an essential part of the cricket framework.  It may be largely a financial matter, but nevertheless they are, and they always should be.  But nothing, absolutely nothing at all, reminds everyone that Test matches are the apogee of the game more than a genuine thriller, twisting one way and then the other, despair and delight alternating between the fans and players as a battle is played out over days in varying conditions.  Individual players can turn a game in a manner beyond the raw figures of runs scored or wickets taken; the crowd can become an additional player on the field, as they roar their chosen heroes on, and the sense of tension can be palpable thousands of miles away as every single ball desperately matters.

The ECB may argue that the Hundred is a financial imperative, that the funding of the game (the professional part, anyway) is reliant on them introducing yet another competition, and yet another variation on the rules and laws of a sport in desperate trouble.  But above all else, they have given off the stench of an organisation that not only doesn’t care for the game, but one that doesn’t even like it, that constantly apologises for it, and tries desperately to make cricket less crickety wherever possible in order to sell it to a mythical hidden audience.

Sit them down.  Put them in front of this match from start to finish (whoever comes out on top), and remind them that cricket at its best remains a stunning game, a brilliant sport.  And Test cricket is the one.  That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with ODIs or T20s, but not a thing can approach a truly titanic Test match, being wrestled one way and then the other; with brilliance, errors, mental resilience and yes, mental fragility too.  Test matches have always been beautifully named, the stress of sporting combat writ large over several days, and when they are at their absolute best, as has been the case here, there is nothing to touch them.  Nothing in cricket, and not much in other sports either.

Cricket is not a game that doesn’t appeal to people.  Cricket isn’t a game that has to be ripped asunder and re-constructed for a 21st century audience.  It is a sport that offers its own cadences and rhythms, but can offer nerve-shredding tension like little else.  It’s not like this is unknown either – the 2005 Ashes became a national obsession not because of the detailed knowledge of the millions watching, but because the basic principles were simple and universally understood.  The intensity and fascination derived from that, not from gimmickry.  This is not to say that the answer to cricket’s woes lie in the Test arena, but it is to repeat the bleeding obvious that the ECB appears to have forgotten.  Cricket is brilliant.  Cricket is fantastic.  Cricket needs to sell itself as cricket, and the highest level is the one that is the most enthralling, most memorable, and needs to be seen by the widest possible audience.  For that is how a game succeeds, by inspiring others through showing the best of itself.  Cricket can be dull, Test matches can be dull. T20s can be exciting.  It can be every iteration within that too.  It is a sport in the round that offers a vast amount to anyone with even a passing interest should anyone care to reach out to them.

Stop apologising for it.  Embrace the sport, because it is capable of extraordinary heights, as with both yesterday and today.  For this has been a sensational match, a low scoring one (as the best ones so often are), where the batsmen have had to work hard and where the bowlers have been hunting, rather than being ground into the dust.  That is why Sam Curran’s innings today, only 63 runs that might merit barely a footnote in other circumstances became a hat to hang hopes upon as the England innings disintegrated around him.  It’s why Virat Kohli, all at sea in the early stages of his first innings knock, defied the England bowlers in the final session of the day to give his side every chance of knocking off the further 84 runs needed for victory, with half his side already in the hutch.

Tomorrow’s play will be brief – a session at best – yet it is evenly poised, with small errors on either side, or brilliance from an individual the difference between victory and defeat.  Two hours.  Less than a match in the putative Hundred, yet with a Test like this, it will cause players and supporters on both sides nervous flutters this evening about what is to come.

For today had an abject England collapse, of the kind that has become endlessly familiar recently, but it also had an Indian collapse, as Broad threatened to bowl one of “those” spells, and Anderson dredged up from the past his uncanny ability to make even very fine players look totally out of their depth.  The subplot of Adil Rashid providing sterling support for Curran, of Ishant Sharma ripping the heart out of England’s batting with skilled swing and seam.  The dropped catches of a player beginning to come under pressure for his place, among a slip cordon suddenly brittle.  And at the end of it all, seesawing one way, then the other, the teams remain evenly locked, just as they were at the start of play.

Details, details, details.  At one stage, with a crushing England defeat imminent, tonight’s post might have been a lament to the repeated failures inherent in this England team that haven’t gone away.

But sod it.  And sod the chronological blow by blow account of the day too.  This is bloody marvellous.  Go well tomorrow, you twenty two in white.  The worries about the game can wait another day.

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Dmitri Old and the Real T20 Experience (and an American’s first game of cricket)

You know I’m not a fan of T20 cricket. It’s like those 30 second clips you get on Amazon of songs off an album (no, I don’t like streaming, kiddies(. Sometimes you get the important part, the chorus, the hook, the key verse. Sometimes you get the boring guitar solo or nothingness of an instrumental. You rarely get the full picture of a sport not meant to be played like this. To give the potential opportunity to bat for hours, days in pursuit of the undetermined. The variation in conditions, grounds and weather interventions, that form part of the tapestry of the long-form are eliminated more or less from the T20 genre. It’s not what got me into cricket, test matches did, and prominently Viv Richards in 1976 with his double hundreds, but it is still cricket. At least I think it is.

So off I trotted to Surrey v Essex on Wednesday night. Before some might carp, these tickets were bought well before Kevin Pietersen announced he was going to play for Surrey, but the primary purchase was to take my American colleague, we’ll call him Stan, to his first cricket match. It would be his entry point to the sport I bang on about. He also has kindly written his comments on the occasion in a quintessentially American way for us. I hope you find them interesting. His last paragraph is particularly interesting – “even the brash version of the game was unassuming” – didn’t exactly resonate with my experience.

I have been to Surrey T20 matches before, but the last few have been in the Pavilion. This time I was in Block 9. I was in among the legendary Surrey T20 evening crowd. The reputation was of hard drinking, abusive support, and a disregard for the game in front of them. I am a Millwall fan. I’ve been home and away, in fact my 20s and early 30s saw me travel the country watching them. A Surrey home game in the T20 would be a walk in the park. Hardly the razor’s edge.

First of all, getting to the Oval from anywhere in rush hour is an total pain. The Northern Line is a horror, and we had to walk from Kennington Station, which isn’t a massive problem, but symptomatic of some of the sporting difficulties we encounter when a venue has no parking. There’s little point in expanding the Oval to 30,000 if the transport can’t cope with 20,000. But we put up with it. The contrast with my visits to baseball in the States is stark. Once at The Oval the bag search was laughable. I mistakenly left a half-full bottle of water in the bag. She ignored it (it was 1.5 litres so couldn’t be missed), and now I’m sad there wasn’t alcohol in it! Already the concourses were rammed, the queues for beer lengthy, the extortionately priced food less congested but doing (un)healthy business. There is a definite buzz, but not the one you get before a football match. There seems little investment in what is about to unfold. It’s ultimate entertainment. People want to be entertained, far and above caring about the result. Sure, there are Surrey diehards there, like me, but do I care if we lose? Not really. Do you really care if you win the competition?

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Surrey won the toss and batted. This I understood from being told by John, who had bought the tickets and had met his son. In common with most of the night, I didn’t glean this from the public address system which was hopeless. Or it could be that someone sabotaged it because Colin Murray was on the mic. My suspicion is that Jonathan Liew might have done that. He likes Colin Murray. The teams were put up on the scoreboard, and when Ollie Pope was shown, I went “who”? They didn’t have his name and I couldn’t hear the announcer!

Surrey came out with their fearsome looking opening partnership of Aaron Finch and Jason Roy. Essex opened with a spinner. It didn’t work as Finch tucked in to him. I advised Stan that 10 an over through the powerplay (I also explained the 6 over restrictions on the field, after explaining what an over was) was probably a minimum given the high scoring games seen at the venue thus far. Progress was good until Jason Roy somehow hit his own wicket (I couldn’t really see how it happened on the replay) and while expecting Kumar Sangakkara to come in at number 3, we soon realised it wasn’t that maestro.

I have to say that the pervading noise around me was booing. Now I cannot tell how many of them were Essex fans, but I’ll wager they weren’t all from Essex. Now as you know, and as I once wrote at length on How Did We Lose In Adelaide, this thing absolutely pisses me off. Pietersen may be a hate figure, but you pricks wouldn’t have been cheering the parade, rejoicing in 2005 without him. None of your current heroes has done anything near that. Comma has. Freddie has. Ashley Giles has. They haven’t. How dare you boo one of our all-time greats? I wouldn’t boo Cook, and I’ll bet I feel like a lot of the anti-KP mob when it comes to him. It still “boils my piss” as Stan found out!

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KP and Finch dropped the pace a little as the former tried to get into his groove. Finch still let loose a drive or two, but then went himself. So to join 8181 test runs at the crease would be a man with nearly 27000 international runs to his credit. I tweeted about what a privilege it was to see them both at the crease at the same time. T20 in England still has its moments, and both these characters, for differing reasons, are irreplaceable.

Neither player could get into a rhythm and indeed Pietersen was dropped on the boundary when trying to cart Zaidi over mid-wicket. This seemed to galvanise Pietersen afterwards, and I have to say a couple of moments made the evening worthwhile. Simon Harmer came on to bowl, and Pietersen hit four sixes in the over. I’m trying hard and can’t remember ever having seen someone do that at a game I’ve been present at. What’s more, two of them flew straight over my head at long-on. I am a Pietersen fan as a batsman, as a cricketer (more about the lack of fielding later) and to think this might be my last chance to see him play in England made it more special. Even when a little over the hill, a lot out of practice, and seemingly at war with much of English cricket (who, never forget, started the fight), Kevin Pietersen still can surprise and delight with the bat. You’ve seen some of the pics.

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Pietersen was the only one who could get going, while for Essex the sight of Mohammad Amir was also something to behold. He seemed to be the main man to control the scoring as the runs seemed targeted off other weaker bowlers. Surrey kept losing wickets. Kumar holing out to square leg off a sweep shot; Sibley bowled by Zaidi, Pope caught off Walter. KP moved past 50, including 5 sixes, before himself teeing off and getting underneath a Walter delivery, seeing it caught by new England selection Tom Westley on the long-on boundary. The applause going off wasn’t deafening – too many people didn’t have a clue – but this writer appreciated seeing him play. Sitting underneath towering sixes reminded me of the sheer genius that the bloke possessed. Perhaps he still does. Off the golf course, no proper T20 play since the PSL, and he can do that. Yes, he was dropped early, but he capitalised. Only after the match with the next best score being 28, did you realise quite how good a knock it was.

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Surrey’s total was 150, after some stops and starts and no real fluency. You have no idea at the game how the wicket is playing, and although not lightning fast due to the storms the night before, the outfield was not slow. Boundaries were at a premium though. Sibley, Pope, the two Currans did their thing, but other than provide me with a spectacular pic (Sam’s Stumps Splattered), there were few fireworks. I tweeted at half-time that it looked a wholly inadequate score, but doing that I was basing it on the previous two T20 games played there. Where 200 wasn’t enough.

Before getting on to the second innings of the game, I thought I’d make my observations on the client base. I did not move from my seat for the whole game, which was cheeky as beers were being bought, and thus did not circulate. It’s bloody noisy – not that test match buzz which I sort of miss, the low hum of conversations around the ground, but something a level, several levels up. It’s not football match chanting but it is increasingly “weather-worn” folk shouting at each other from the seat next to their recipient of vocal intercourse. As usual, because I’m a grumpy so and so, I was getting more and more irate with the muppets behind me, and I’ll go into that more as the article progresses. But of more interest was to the right of Stan. It was a father with two young kids. Not a great guesser of age, but I’d say 11 and 8 years old. Now remember, this is the target audience for the new T20 competition. They are our future. It was good to see them there.

However, they were kids, and what they saw on the field did not captivate them one bit. First of all, the little blighters couldn’t sit still. We had to let them through on numerous occasions. Dad hadn’t taught them the etiquette that you don’t do it until the end of the over, but he was far from alone in that. When one did sit down he played with his Nintendo portable system for most of the game, while the other played on his tablet. They didn’t “engage” with the onfield action at all, as far as I could tell. It’s a small sample size, I know, but didn’t fill me with hope. Not sure if the Surrey Lions or whatever we might be called will be any different from a super franchise team (and Surrey have a lot of name talent in their squad), but the suspicion is that a new product needs more to win hearts and minds.

After a short interlude, and Stan relates what he thought of the T-shirt shooter, where I couldn’t hear Colin Murray, Essex came out to bat and got off to a decent start. It seemed very much to be a “new ball” wicket, where the batsmen had to make hay early on in the innings. I like Dan Lawrence, and think he has a big future, and he and Chopra set about the total. Sam went for a few in his opening spell, which meant that idiot behind had something to shout when he came down to where we were sitting. Sam had to take the most god-awful, stupid abuse from a tanked up imbecile who clearly was a lot less clever than he thought he was. Unrelated boundaries hit by an Essex batsman were met with “you’ve cost them the game, Curran” or “that’s your fault Curran” even when they went to the opposite part of the ground.

It was also dawning on us (as if it had been announced on the tannoy we’d never would have heard it) that KP wasn’t fielding. The murmurs went round that this was a classic case of “pulling up the ladder! We used to call this a HABAFO (Have a bat and….well work the rest out). He was replaced by Rory Burns. By and large Surrey were hungry in the field. They nicked out the two openers, and then felt they had to get the two real danger-men, Ravi Bopara (who nearly won Essex the game in the first contest) and Ryan ten Doeschate. Also, there was new test selection, Tom Westley, who didn’t stay for the duration. The run rate crept up, the wickets kept falling, with Batty very impressive. Ravi went, Ryan couldn’t hit the boundaries, and Surrey pulled the noose tighter and tighter. They ended up restricting Essex quite comfortably, with Tom Curran being particularly impressive at the death again.

And then 24000 tried to go home. At the same time.

Walking out of the ground is a chastening experience, Very drunk, very noisy and I’m not convinced that many gave a damn about the game or the result. It just seems like a chance to get on the lash, and Surrey are not ashamed to enable this. Service at the bars is efficient. You don’t wait long to get served at all. What I found slightly soul-destroying was the sight of grown adults scouring all parts of the ground for empty beer glasses to earn a pound a pop for returning them. It felt a bit tawdry. Maybe I’m just an old stick in the mud, in fact, I know I am.

Look, I’ll be honest. I’m not a massive T20 fan, and the experience was not as bad as I thought it was going to be (I didn’t see beer thrown, there were no Mexican waves, and the people standing up mid-over had to be excused). You can always get the idiot sat with you (he wasn’t in the league of the Indian fella at an ODI in the early 2000s. It was a miracle I didn’t clock him) but even he just made me mad because his abuse wasn’t funny, clever or, in fact, related to the truth in any conceivable way. Plus, you always have the feeling that he might have been you before. There were some mouthy cricket know nothings on the bus back to London Bridge, but again, I’ve been to so many football matches and met people like this, and it never compared to some of the plankton at the Adelaide Oval. I didn’t take an age to get home, either, but got lucky. I never saw a programmes seller, so never got one. I like that sort of thing. This ground is the exemplar in getting people to part with their money. £5.20 a pint was remarked upon on Twitter as being some horrific price. Do these people drink in Central London pubs? The £1 to return your cup is to deter beer snakes, but instead encourages other forms…. The beer isn’t undrinkable, but not far short, but I can handle Yardbird if it’s on offer. The leg room is garbage, and is why I don’t go to tests there any more.

Did I enjoy it? It’s not as bad as I may have portrayed. I found the cricket enthralling, and isn’t that the point? When Surrey scored 150 I thought this was 30 light, but they bowled and fielded hard. They made Essex work, and they couldn’t keep up the momentum. A game the following Friday followed a similar pattern. My colleague (not Stan) at work said he found both games boring, but they were both contests. The cricket on show more than made up for the duff stuff off it, but not for the reasons the ECB or TV want.

The star of the show, whether you liked it or not, was Kevin Pietersen. The murmurs and outright accusations that he was faking injury not to field were probably put into context by Friday night’s antics. KP is a divisive character, more so since retirement from the test and international arena, and he can say some obnoxious and stupid things. He can also be incredibly prescient. I saw a lot of rust in his play, but then he hit Simon Harmer for 4 sixes in an over. That’s Pietersen. Box Office. You can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t say T20 doesn’t matter, that it’s just entertainment, and then get huffy when he acts like a diva, but plays shots out of heaven. It was amazing the Twitter response to both matches – the plaudits, the hatred, the defenders, the vitriol. I like him. You know that. For what he does on the field.

It was also a real pleasure to see two quicker bowlers on the top of their game – Mohammad Amir and Tom Curran. This game was not a batting parade, but a chance to see the skills of pacemen in a batsman’s game. Their ability, pace and cunning were on show. Amir tied KP up, as well as not providing the width or length to allow Roy and Finch to really get the game off to the flyer (although they went quickly enough). Curran, T has come on as a death bowler and although I hate that “routine” celebration, preferring spontaneity to something over a prep piece for #39’s lamentable advert, he has real nous now. Jade may well be a very good teacher for all we know. I have to be nice to Jade, he blocked me on Twitter ages ago.

We also got to see two legendary keepers. James Foster is a joy to watch behind the stumps. Utterly capable, smooth, no rough edges. Surrey had Kumar in the gauntlets. Hell, if you are going to retire from a sport that punishes your knees, finish them off with a spell of keeping. Still, he completed a stumping in the game.

Chris, Sean and I have purchased tickets for the 4th August match against Glamorgan. If you are there, or in the vicinity, please let us know and we’ll try to catch a drink or chat with you. T20 isn’t for everyone, but a bad day at cricket is better than a great day at work, and if Surrey are still in the running to make it through, as they should be, and if Colin Ingram is in form like he has been, it could be a really nice night out. If you can put up with the others around you.

And so, to Stan…..

Hey, where’re the Surrey City Dancers?

By Stan

Wednesday I attended my first cricket match ever. More accurately, I attended my first British sporting event ever. I’m an American. Having lived in London for a year now, I had yet to immerse myself into local sport, preferring to keep track of sports across the pond. Fortunately, I work with one of the authors of this blog and I was invited to The Oval. Although I had months of warning, I made a conscious decision to not learn about cricket in advance. I knew that even the most exciting description of a sport would pale in comparison to the experience. (They call it a bat, right?) I wanted a raw first impression. The event, the T-20 Blast, sounds like something pulled from a Red Bull commercial. The name should be partnered with EXTREME! and IN YOUR FACE! and things that are neon and shooting flames. This event was decidedly not that. (Though there was fire, which was cool.) For an EXTREME sporting event, I was expecting more music, and noise, and three jumbotrons, and a team of dancing girls. Nope. To belay the point, even the t-shirt cannon, which is normally designed to knock out the person in the back of the top deck – WHOMP! – barely got past the 6th row – pfft...

However, I learned that the name was not completely inappropriate. This was as IN YOUR FACE! as cricket gets. The T-20 matches are designed to be fast and furious.  The teams are allotted one inning each, with 20 overs, curtailing the game to 3 hours. If you’re reading this blog, this is not news. It was to me. But, realising this, I began to appreciate this sport. This was not a showy sport, and trying to turn it into one could only go so far. This was a restrained game. There were exciting moments, to be sure. There were plenty of sixes hit. (Not home runs?) It was a close game, going down to the last few bowls. However, the ratcheted down environment encouraged fans to appreciate the game for what it was: an opportunity to see some of the best players in the world up close without the extraneous frill that other sports peddle. (He now knows Kevin Pietersen’s back story, as told by Old, D. – Ed)

The stands were filled with business types in rumpled suits drinking beer after a day at the office. Many seemed only casually interested in the match. I was informed that these were not fans that would be at a proper test match. The guy behind was eager to show off his knowledge of the game, taking Sam Curran’s proximity to us as an opportunity to repeatedly critique him with, “Hey, Curran, you suuuuck!”.

In short, this was a less than pure cricket experience, and I liked it. I like that even the brash version of this game was unassuming. In a world that is overcome with a barrage of noise, it is a pleasure to find a sport that is not given to excesses. I hope to see more.

Four Sessions, 30 Degrees, Two Currans, One Sanga

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I used to be a Surrey member. I’ve been a supporter since the 1970s, when I followed my deceased grandfather’s teams rather than my Dad’s (Dad was Kent), and thus can’t be accused of the old “bandwagon” tag. But I did become a member for about six years from 2001 onwards, and spent some great days at The Oval, as well as going to Guildford and Whitgift over the years.

I had some leave to take and thought the Lancashire fixture looked like one to be at. For me Surrey v Lancashire will always bring me back to a magnificent tense Day 4 back in 2002, when Ramps took us home against a pretty decent Lancashire attack (Chapple, Flintoff and Hogg). This year’s match saw two teams looking up and down, as the table is very congested in the middle, with only Middlesex, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire really sure of their fate (safety/relegation). All eyes look at Hampshire and what one win might do to the competition, so although Surrey lay in third place, they had played more and could not afford a slip-up. A win would guarantee survival, more or less.

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