In Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his translation of the epic Beowulf, the Ulsterman justifies his interpretation of the opening word of the poem, Hwæt, as So rather than the conventional “Hark”, “Low” or “What!” He explains that in the speech of his relatives So “operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”
So. The first day’s play in this Ashes 2013 series obliterated all previous narrative and discourse, of which there had been oceans as wide as the whale-road between Denmark and Sweden. It demanded our immediate ATTENTION.
Cricket centres on the extinction of human resources. By its very nature it has the capacity to induce shock – a feature of the game that can so easily be forgotten when, as today, batsmen like Trott and Root appear to be making their way solidly with no alarm.
Dismissal can come out of nowhere like the monster in a Nordic Saga who picks a victim to devour like a crisp from a packet.
Siddle had been swatted away with contempt in his first spell from the Pavilion End. 27 easy runs had come from his first 24 spear-throws. Brought back boldly by his chief at the Radcliffe Road End, his first ball from there tore through Root’s defence, yorking, castling, and dispatching the young warrior in one disarming moment.
The event appeared to paralyse Root and left the watcher blood-drained by its abruptness.
England found batting easy – the trouble was that they also found getting out just as unchallenging. 75% of their runs came from boundaries. 10 of their wickets from frailty of a very human kind.
At Trent Bridge, this 10th day of July, all who looked on were reminded of that long-gone epic and the anonymous poet’s truth: “For every one of us, batting in this world means waiting for our end.”
Grendel Siddle struck five times for 50, Pattinson 3 for 69, Starc 2 for 54 in England’s 215. Post-Root, the crowd had begun to expect the unexpected and, like the Danes cringing in their heorot, inured themselves to loss. England’s game plan fell away – here was an old acceptance.
The kingly Lehmann at the dressing room door urged on his men, “Let whoever can … win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.”
But Grendel took the form of Finn, and then of Anderson, each striking twice on behalf of the monster who raids every cricket ground, gobbling greedily in tens.
In an echo of the Root dismissal, Clarke and all Australia will have experienced that visceral shock as a delivery from Anderson angled in, more than straightened and knocked back the off stump like a broken bone.
If Clarke can go so easily … what hope for others?
Cricket is epic. To take part or to watch is to be party in an elaborate elegy. The stinger creeps up and, when least expected, leaves but a single, two thousand year old thought:
Do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.
First Test, Day 1: England 215, Australia 75/4.