Three days on and Sri Lanka’s collapse to 82 all out on the final day at Sophia Gardens remains astonishing. What should have been a routine voyage ended in disaster. One minute the Lankans were supposed to ease their way to a comfortable, even dull, draw, the next they were holed below the waterline and then, within minutes, broken-backed and disappearing into the murky oblivion of the deep. Such is life and such is cricket and test cricket still enthralls. The old dame still has some songs in her pipes.
It’s not uncommon in other sports – golf, snooker, tennis – for a competitor playing poorly to drag his opponent down to his own impoverished level. And of course these sports, golf most obviously, offer ample opportunity for an individual’s game to collapse most pitifully. There’s sometimes a whiff of this in other team sports too. But a football or rugby team is rarely afflicted by a sudden and mysterious crisis of confidence in the midst of an otherwise routine match. Even when this does happen, a lack of faith in a goalkeeper’s ability to handle crosses on a given afternoon can, to some extent at least, be compensated for by denying the opposition the opportunity to move the ball into wider areas from which to target a goalie. Or, of course, the keeper may be substituted.
Of the many nuances that make cricket such an interesting sport, the tensions produced by it being simultaneously an individual and a collective endeavour are among the most fascinating and unpredictable. Each batsman’s contribution to the greater good is, notionally at least, distinct. That two wickets have fallen in rapid succession ought not, again notionally, make it more likely that a third will follow in swift order. Every batsman has the chance to make his stand and set the innings on a new, sustainable course.
It doesn’t work like that, does it? A batting collapse is a terrible virus passed on from the departing batsman to his replacement. Pretty soon and almost before you can believe it an epidemic has become a pandemic. Panic begets fear which begets still more panic. Confidence, a priceless commodity, evaporates.
There’s resentment too. What should have been a simple task – build on a decent beginning or bat out the afternoon for a comfy draw – is complicated by human frailty. And with frailty comes that resentment. As wickets fall the new batsman arrives at the crease in a surly mood: he may try to banish unworthy thoughts about his predecessors but they flourish despite those best endeavours. As John Emburey might put it: why the fack have those facking fackers left the facking job down to facking me?
This is mixed with fatalism – if he couldn’t survive what hope have I? – and brews a mental state ill-equipped to deal with the task at hand. Rushed and unready for combat, he succumbs to a form of madness, often playing shots that might work in calmer, saner times but that with all around losing their heads are akin to an act of self-immolation. Perhaps that too can be construed as a protest against the infirmities that reduced the innings to this grim, even farcical, predicament. The shame of it all is tinged with self-loathing too and the answer to the great question Why? is rarely encouraging.
There’s something comforting about seeing the greatest cricketers struggle in this fashion. Since, as is also true of golf, so much of the battle is a mental struggle one of cricket’s greatest qualities is that the essential challenge remains the same whether you’re playing at Lords or on the Village Green. Limited in ability though we may be, we’ve all been there.
Technical matters aside, batting is a question of willpower and self-restraint. At every level of the game the batsman is most often the author of, or at least a contributor to, his own downfall. If it is in many ways a batsman’s game, cricket compensates for this lop-sided arrangement by stacking the odds against the man with the willow.
The bowler only needs to be lucky once; the batsman must survive six tests every over. And he must do so while judging the correct balance between attack and defence, prudence and risk, his own instincts and the needs of the team and much else besides. Is it any wonder that failure is more common than success? Hardly. You’re on your own out there and it’s a test of nerve and patience and discipline and fortitude. Mastering the bowling is one thing; mastering yourself quite another.
The Sri Lankans are hardly the first or last team to be found wanting in this regard. My own club, alas, is no stranger to mental and technical frailty. Still, at the highest level there’s something thrilling and appalling about an honest-to-goodness, there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-we batting collapse. There’s a terrible beauty to it and no small measure of melancholy too. It’s a metaphysical game, right enough.