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England v India T20 – Cricket Almost Without Fear

A game of cricket was played on Wednesday at Old Trafford between an Eleven of England and an Eleven of India.  25,000 people attended and enjoyed the fairground atmosphere of forgetful abandon.

This sentence echoes ones from the earliest days of organised cricket when for example an Eleven of Hambledon played an Eleven of Dartford on the 18th August 1756, and a similar number of people might have made their way to Broadhalfpenny Down, which Third Man once likened to a mixture of Glastonbury Festival and a car boot sale, to enjoy the stalls, the food, the drink and the betting

An unintended consequence of Twenty20 cricket has been the rediscovery of the raw ingredients of the game as played a quarter of a millennium ago.

By reducing the resources available to the fielding side whilst maintaining the resources available to the batting Eleven, cricket has rid itself of much of the fear and cultural inhibition that batsmanship has collected in its evolutionary adaptions since those days.

Once, the ball was ‘bowled’ literally along an uneven strip of turf towards a wicket that was formed from two thin stumps placed wide apart, relative to the size of the ball, which might therefore pass through without disturbing the long single bail that bridged them.

The chances of the ball striking those stumps and the batsman being out ‘bowled’ were small.

Bowlers were artful in trying to exploit the terrain to the extent that a pin-ball player may be artful.

Batsmen relied on a good eye, good timing, a good swing and their own power to swipe as far as possible the hapharzard missile, hopping and skipping towards their shins like a canon ball on a battle field.

Surely they knew little anxiety above the trepidation of being bested by a social inferior or, worse, by a rival for the charms of some village girl.  Their attitude to the random was as fatalistic as their attitude to illness, poor harvests, gamekeepers and the vagaries of their landlord: “if God wills it”.

On Wednesday night there were a number of debutantes, to international T20. The first was Ajinkya Rahane  whose innings typified this rediscovered cricket without fear.  The twenty-three year old gloried in England’s short pitched bowling strategy and its under-resourced leg side field.  As well as hooking with authority, his blade scythed elegantly through anything of length on the off.

At 39/1 in the 5th over he was joined by the debutante Dravid.  Not since 1996 has anyone been able to write that phrase; ‘the debutante Dravid’, but here the veteran was tasting the apple of liberty without the worry of expulsion from Eden.

It took his genius seventeen balls to find its timing and the thought arose that this was one responsibility that should not have been requested of him.  But any concern vanished with the execution of three successive and sublime maxima.

Artful bowling at the death by Jade Dernback, pearls in his ears, recalled David Harris in its innovation, manipulation of speed and practiced skill.  His ‘back of the hand’ deliveries arrived with little to distinguish them from, but two yards later than, his orthodox deliveries that might clock 90 mph. 

India, who had earlier been rampant, found themselves restrained to 165. 

The third debutante to note was Alex Hales  who took first strike for England, driving the initial in-swinging delivery from Praveen with confidence and missing his second, a straighter one that cut down the juvenile in his prime with scoring.

As England began the last over requiring 10 to win, the fourth debutante,  Jos Buttler , was next man in.  Third Man, worn down by time and manifold anxieties, feared for this stripling having to come out with only a ball or two with which to force the issue, and hoped, as indeed it turned out, that his first innings would come another day.

When Third Man described this timid view to a 17  year old, the youth protested, “No, he’d have wanted to go out there no matter what, to prove that he could do it.”

Just like Dravid, his fellow debutante.

England won by 6 wickets with 3 balls remaining. 

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Portraits of Impermanence – England v India Test 3 Scrap Book

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Knight-time at Trent Bridge

Cricket is a game of bat and ball and therefore, if a side is to lose, it must be beaten twice-over.  This is cricket’s erudite expression of the adage, ‘It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.’

During the course of the third day of the second Test between England and India, the Indian bowlers were well and truly beaten. 

England began what for them should have been an anxious day 43 runs behind India with one wicket down and an important batsman, Trott, hors de combat.

But they ended it having scored 417 runs for the loss of only 5 wickets with a total of 441 for 6 – giving them a startling and commanding lead of 374 with more to come.

After Strauss had been unhorsed with the lost ground yet to be retaken, Bell first and Pietersen later made a mockery of the perceived difficulties of the batting conditions.  

There followed a day of carnage and mayhem. 

As soon as India had unseated one opponent his replacement picked up the fallen lance and took forward the advance with yet more zeal and vigour.

In England’s list the pugnacious Swann comes into the tilt-yard at 10 and the belligerent Broad, who transformed England’s fortunes in their first innings, has yet to bat.

It is the interminable belligerence of the batting, with its ricochet of the West Indians and the Australians in their pomp, that will have done so much psychological injury to India.

Theirs was a weakened bowling attack.  Not only is Khan missing, but Singh was unable to bowl more than 9 half-hearted overs at a stage in the match when a physically and mentally robust spinner should have bowled 30 or 40.  

Yet, the dismissal of Trott caught off the gloves from a steeply rising delivery from Kumar that was a repeat of one earlier in the day which bounced over the gloves of Dhoni standing up to the same bowler, is evidence that the spite has not been rolled and baked out of this wicket entirely.

However, the day will be remembered for an incident that occurred from the final delivery before tea when Morgan hit the ball to the midwicket boundary and, owing to a mixture of the confusion caused unintentionally by the boundary fielder, Kumar, and the tiredness and sudden break in concentration on the part of Bell (137 at the time), the batsman left his ground for the sanctuary of tea, believing the ball to have gone for four and thus to be ‘dead’.

Kumar unsure whether the ball had reached the ‘ropes’ returned the ball in leisurely fashion, via the wicket keeper, to short leg who calmly removed the bails and appealed.

Bell was given out amid the taunts and jeers of an unattractive crowd whose belligerence easily matched that of England’s batting.

Foot soldiers will say that the valid appeal should have stood.  The cavalry will say that Bell’s error was a misunderstanding and therefore, in the spirit in which cricket is played, the appeal should have been withdrawn.

Following a visit to the Indian dressing room by Strauss and Flower, Dhoni, with the support of his side, chivalrously withdrew the appeal and Bell resumed his assault on the Indian bowling after an interval extended by this diplomacy.

Whether this incident adversely affected the performance of India in the final session or whether it was plain exhaustion, England plundered 187 runs after tea with Prior hacking 64 in 55 balls and Bresnan 47 in 66.

Rahul Dravid, acting as spokesperson for Team India, had evidently been reading The Waning of the Middle Ages in which Johan Huizinga identifies the source of the chivalrous idea to be ‘pride aspiring to beauty, and formalized pride giving rise to a conception of honour, which is the pole of noble life’, told reporters, “It is nice to play the game in the right spirit.”

But chivalry is also a social mechanism for the avoidance of blood-and-treasure-sapping feuds, and the maintenance of dignity amongst a self-preserving elite.

Without questioning the upright motives of India’s senior players, who clearly felt a deep unease at the nature of Bell’s dismissal, the decision was made against the background hubub of a crowd making naked its aggressive intent and the buzz of half the commentariat who were already challenging the honour of this tourney’s visiting combatants.

After his innings of 159, Bell can place his lineage without presumption beside that of Tendulka, Dravid and Laxman in the Peerage – a high rank indeed.

The prospect is dark for India, but these esteemed knights and their fellows will tell themselves that in cricket the batsmen must be beaten too.

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Bernoulli is Key to Second Test

It is possible to comprehend a game of cricket in terms of resource management. 

The 101st Test encounter between England and India reached the half way stage in terms of wickets available to each side shortly after five o’clock on day two of five possible days – that is, in a touch under two-fifths of the available time.

Cricketers talk about a game being ‘in a hurry’.  This game is in the type of hurry that the hare was in when, wakened from a deep slumber beneath a shady tree by an intruding sense of unease, it spied the tortoise up-ahead a human foot from the finish line, and sped off flustered and unsteady, disorientated by the unfamiliar condition of the pursuing rather than the pursued.

The batsmen in this Test have been similarly disorientated and taken into unfamiliar territory by the nature of the Trent Bridge wicket that they are playing on and the characteristics of the liquid (air) through which the ball is travelling.

Help was at hand thanks to the presence in the ground of Professor Julius Sumner Miller.  (Third Man, on calmer reflection, may have been deceived by some fiendish impersonator in fancy dress.)

“Why is it so?” the batsmen could have asked the good Professor when the ball swung late or did not do so, or when the ball reared with the force of a Harrier jet taking off from aircraft carrier in a heavy sea or did so next delivery with the feebleness of a Tiger Moth.

With what passion Sumner Miller could have demonstrated in either dressing room the principle of Bernoulli with its commonsense-defying effects of pressure and temperature on liquids!

“My view is this,” the Professor might have explained to those Project Managers, Flower and Fletcher, “We teach nothing. We do not teach cricket nor do we teach cricketers. What is the same thing: No one is taught anything! Here lies the folly of this business. We try to teach somebody nothing. This is a sorry endeavour for no one can be taught a thing.  What we do, if we are successful, is to stir interest in the matter at hand, awaken enthusiasm for it, arouse a curiosity, kindle a feeling, fire up the imagination.”

Professional batsmen rarely show their emotions.  They discover early in their career the value of inscrutability.  They show no pain when hit.  They communicate no admiration when beaten by the bowler’s guile.

However, in this match we have seen more expressions of shock and awe from the batsmen than in a whole career, such has been the volatility produced by the extraordinary playing conditions.

Stuart Broad took six wickets for 46 in 24.1 overs.  He even took a hattrick, a rare enough event in Test cricket.  Yet long after his feat has been forgotten, the memory of VVS Laxman and Raul Dravid batting in these conditions in the morning session will remain etched on the memory.

93 runs they put on, most of them in boundaries.  Dravid, taming the willful ball as he shepherded it through an imaginary gap in that hurdled fence made by the slips and gully, went on to make 117.

Laxman, driving square through the covers with a languid bat or picking up the ball with the apparent effortlessness of a boy scrumping an apple in an orchard and tossing it over the wall made by midwicket for his friends to enjoy, will have been disappointed to edge a loosener from Bresnen to Prior for 54.

Interviewed after the end of the day’s play, when England remained 43 runs behind India’s first innings total of 288, with 9 of their available resource of wickets remaining, Dravid explained, “What we do, if we are successful, is to stir interest in the matter at hand, awaken enthusiasm for it, arouse a curiosity, kindle a feeling, fire up the imagination.”

So, it had been Sumner Miller.

It is therefore with awakened enthusiasm, curiosity and imagination that the resumption of play is awaited.  Resource Management be damned.

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In Praise of the Duke, in Praise of the Wall, in Praise of the Broad: England v India Test 100 Day 3

The quality of the cricket on view on the third day of this classic Test lived up to expectations.  The best batsmen faced the best bowling and the ball moved sideways.

Sideways, not ‘sideways’.  ‘Sideways’ is a term normally reserved for exaggerated movement in the air or off the pitch.

Yesterday, as indeed on all three days of this match, the movement was not extraordinary, but it was distinctive.  It was the result of skill and it could be countered only by matching that skill with batting technique of the highest order (or in the case of Pietersen with peerless innovation).

There was a passage of play when the Master and the Wall, Tendulka and Dravid, batted together for 81 runs against twenty or so overs from Anderson, Tremlett and Broad, and there can never have been a better contest at this special venue which has staged over a hundred Test matches since the first in 1884.

Dravid triumphed, undefeated on 103.  Tendulka perished.  The former played as late as was humanly possible against a ball moving across him at 85 mph – surely the optimum speed for swing at pace. 

Dravid opened the face of his bat and played the ball square into the off-side with the blade angled backwards, his hands well in advance of the rest of the bat.

Tendulka playing a foot earlier, much straighter and with the blade perpendicular was often beaten and in truth never looked capable of surviving to make that first century at Lord’s which was palpably his prime ambition.

India may have expected to face two such bowlers with Anderson capable of well disguised swing in both directions and Tremlett trading extra bounce for such disguise, but they were to come up against a Broad determined to pitch the supply of last year’s Duke cricket ball being used in this series at a fulsome length.

It was Broad who dismissed Gambhir with a perfectly drawn French curve to trap the left hander, LBW.  It was Broad who, with fortune at his side, tempted the promising Mukund, anxious to reach ‘fifty’ to drag a wide half volley back onto his stumps for 49. 

It was Broad who might have had India five down for 159 had Strauss and Swann been able to cling on to straightforward slip catches from Dravid and Laxman in the same over.  It was Broad who finished his day with 4 for 37 in 22 overs; half as frugal and twice as potent as his companions.

As it was, no other batsman was capable of staying with Dravid, no other capable of playing the moving ball so consistently well.

India were able to save the follow on but are in a parlous position 193 runs in arrears, all second innings wickets standing and with two days of cricket remaining.

The day’s play heightened the value of Pietersen’s innings  and intensified the importance of the third umpire’s decision not to allow Dravid’s catch when the double-centurian turned Kumar to backward short leg.  This decision has made the difference between the two totals.

But the true star of this Test has been ‘the red’ used in this match with its tenacious, proud and hand-stitched seam – the product of two hundred and fifty year’s of artisanship.

It is said that Test cricket is dying, it is also said that Test cricket is prized by those who play it.  If so, then, a cricket ball must be developed that has a seam that withstands the harsher surfaces found in other countries and the players must insist on its adoption – such a development cannot be left to the politicking of the administrators.

It is the seam that creates the turbulence, and the skilful positioning of the seam through the air that creates the differential patterns of air flow that produce the movement which, when exploited by bowlers and countered by batsmen, so enthrals and entertains.

Spinners appreciate it too.

For cricket of the quality on show in this Test match, there must be a balance between bat and ball – bats have developed, so now must cricket balls.

England 474 for 8 dec and 5 for 0, India 286

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VVS Relaxman

“Not in his fascinating collection of strokes, nor in his frank and open execution merely, lay the charm; it was a man playing away a power which was himself rather than in him …”

That was how, a hundred years ago, A.E. Knight of Leicestershire and England described Victor Trumper, but who would disagree with it as a description of Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman, with or without the back injury that forced him even further down the order, restricted his range of movement and caused him to use a runner in the dramatic  run chase in the final innings of the first Test against Australia in Mohali that took place earlier this week.

It is a bright star indeed that can find notice in a constellation where Ganguly, Dravid and Tendulka shine, but Knight’s definition of Trumper’s difference explains why Laxman nevertheless illuminates the sky. 

Eyes looking through the back of the bat to the contact point like a Federa

“Dada”, “The Wall” and “God” all in their way and to the highest degree play ‘away a power that is in them’.  The one with no ‘nick-name’ plays ‘away a power which is himself’ – an intriguing and discerning difference.

Here are some observations:  at the crease Laxman is perfectly still.  If we must find a trigger then it will be in something as imperceptible and miniscule as a blink, a discrete tightening and relaxing of the grip or a slight cock of the wrist. 

He sees the ball early and well, judging length to perfection and therefore moving without hurry into a precisely positioned and wonderfully firm base in which skeleton and musculature form a bastion of a two legged tripod worthy of any Zen master (as illustrated by the photograph at the top of the page).

He times the ball extremely well, demonstrating that the fine motor movements that direct the detailed execution of shots are as skilful as the large ones which have built the strong foundation. 

He watches the ball at the point of contact through the back of the bat, a surprisingly important technique adopted by the best tennis players and explained by Third Man in a posting on see-thru bats here.

A top of the handle batsman, a rare sight in modern 90 mph cricket.

He plays more shots than most modern batsmen with a dominant top hand and with both hands at the top of the handle in a way which increases the length of the levers, but is used now by very few batsmen who reply much more on the bottom hand.  Yet from that grip he still has the strength to whip the ball with the that bottom hand when necessary to find wider angles of the leg side.

He is able to make the telling fifty as well as the huge score. His 281 against Australia at Kolkata is justifiably celebrated but less well remembered were the two fifties scored in the final Test of that series at Chennai and the 51 he made on debut when he came in against South Africa in Ahmedabad at  61 for 4, watched Dravid depart soon after.  There are countless more match-saving or match-winning sub-hundreds played on tormenting surfaces that had dismantled the top order.

Which is not to say that he entirely forsakes the bottom hand, but he knows its place in an innings.

He can bat with the tail in a way that perhaps only Sobers has equalled.  It is a special person who has the self belief, phlegm and dedication to his team to accept and relish the No 6 position. 

In the Ahmedabad match mentioned above he inspired and empowered the tail in taking the score up to 190 when he was eighth man out on a wicket where the Spring Box were subsequently bowled out for 105 in the final innings.

All this was surely but a preparation for the innings on 5th October.  He came in at 76 for 5 when India required 216 to win.  Had a partnership with Tendulka of 43, which appeared to be taking India to victory. Watched as 4 batsmen went meekly at the other end and when India looked beaten still a daunting 92 runs short of their target with only Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha to keep him company.  Went quietly, resiliently, even angrily at times when the running looked fraught with confusion, but always capably about his task in a trance-like state of focus. Watched  as, with just 6 to win, Ojha, bewildered by a huge Australian appeal, appeared to wander down the wicket giving Steven Smith just yards away the chance to run him out.

Time appeared to stand still, then, the ball missed the stumps and gifted India four overthrows.  Two balls later it was all over as Ohja played it down to third man for the two that sealed victory in one of the closest and most dramatic Tests of all time.

How thoroughly Relaxman, then, that VVS did not at the end score the winning runs nor was he named Man of the Match which went to Zaheer Khan for his 8 wicket haul in the match.

If Test cricket has moved a step closer to regain the support of Indian spectators over shorter forms of the game, it will be because of this relaxed man playing away a power which was himself.

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