It would take a heart of stone not to laugh when reading about Australia’s latest cricket crisis and, reader, I’ve no heart of stone. Much more of this and we’ll have to wonder if the Aussies really deserve a five test series these days. The present crew are, apparently, "The Lowest of the Low". To which one can only say: not while anyone who played for England in the fiasco of 1988 is alive they ain’t.
But this is the thing about Test cricket: its habit of sneaking up and whacking your senses when you least expect it. This was a humdrum, low-key Test in tiny, sleepy Hobart (of which more later) designed as a useful warm-up for the Australians before the Indians arrive for the main event of the antipodean summer. The Kiwis were only granted a two test series because, well, they’re a willing but limited and rather dull side of little commercial appeal. Or so Cricket Australia, that dreadful, desperate organisation, would have everyone believe.
So there’s plenty to relish when it comes to contemplating New Zealand’s shocking, magnificent seven run victory in Hobart. There’s the victory itself, just the Kiwis’ eighth win against Australia and merely the third on enemy territory. Like the West Indies for a long time now, New Zealand have been a side good enough to create winning opportunities but rarely good enough to make the most of those chances. They deserve this, though, and not just because they did it without their best player, Daniel Vettori. Better still, this match restates the case for Test cricket as the kind of drama that can erupt, like some beautiful dormant volcano, even when there’s ostensibly little at stake.
I don’t blame the cricketing authorities for milking the shorter versions of the game for much more than they are worth and, like the Alternative Almanack* I don’t blame people for preferring limited overs cricket. It’s more convenient and, sure, sometimes a Happy Meal is what you want or think you need. But at the international level, almost none of the 50 and 20 over stuff actually matters. The only exceptions to this otherwise iron rule are the knock-out stages of the World Cup and the World 20/20. Only then does the tension count; only then are the conditions right for history.
Test cricket is, as we saw this week, different. No New Zealand cricket fan will forget these four days in Hobart; one hopes few Australians will be able to. It was the kind of game for which, though access to them remains preferable, you don’t actually need television or even the radio; the cricket fan can picture the drama, the tension, the exquisite ghastliness of it all just by reading the scorecard. That tells you all you need: hope and dread mingled with two types of disbelief – the happy sort and the appalled kind. There’s an audience for this kind of thing, you know.
Try it: Australia only need 241. Against New Zeland. Warner looks like the guy we’ve heard so much about. Rocketing along, so he is! Shame about Phil Hughes. Never mind Usman Khawaja, your day will come. 122/2 is nothing to worry about. Besides here’s Punter. Taking his time. That’s good. No rush, after all. Aw Ricky! Caught Southee bowled Bracewell for 16. 159/3. Time’s catching up with the Great Man. What the hell? Pup’s bagged a duck? Mate, that’s not leadership. 159/4. Here’s Mr Cricket. Man meet Crisis. Well, just half a crisis but you never know. I don’t believe I’m seeing this: Hussey’s gone first ball! 159/5. This is looking pretty ropey. Bracewell’s on a hat-trick! Thank god for David Warner. Cometh the hour and all that and, anyway, Haddin will scamper along and see us home. Happened before. Hmmm, but maybe not this time.Can you believe this is fucking happening?
And then, naturally, the final act: Lyon comes in, last man jack, with the score on 199/9. Australia need another 42 to win. Advantage New Zealand! But it ain’t finished yet (and that’s before you consider near misses and umpiring calls) because this last act drags on for 43 minutes. That’s how long Lyon stands his ground, protecting his wicket. The very last act of this match takes as long as half a rugby or football match. That’s one way to ratchet tension, right enough. Lyon only makes 9 runs but, with Warner, adds 34 runs before, just 7 short, he’s bowled by Bracewell. Australia have lost 8 wickets for 74 runs, Bracewell has six for 40 and New Zealand a mighty, marvellous victory. Australia’s second innings has lasted five hours and 17 minutes. Beat that Mr Wagner.
Of course one day cricket pays many of the bills; of course there’s too much test cricket too but when matches such as this (and Australia’s splendid recent series in South Africa) come along they’re to be treasured as fondly as a much-loved novel or Old Master.
Norm alerts one to a typically excellent piece by Gideon Haigh in which the greatest Australian cricket-writer of our time writes:
A Test match is both great and immaterial. It changes everything and nothing. Australia remains fourth in the world, New Zealand eighth. The structures of their cricket remain unaltered. They are as rich and as poor as they ever were. The New Zealanders are even off home to play in their domestic T20 tournament, the HRV Cup, which like the Big Bash League carves their first-class season in half. But when the Sixers host the Heat on Friday, and the Auckland Aces host the Wellington Firebirds a couple of days later, how will it feel?
For the last four days, a little stall by the entrance to the members stand here has been selling membership packages to the local BBL franchise, the Hobart Hurricanes, beneath the panting slogan: ‘Nothing Hits You Like a Hurricane.’
It does, bollocks. Test cricket leaves traces on the mind, the memory and the mood of a nation of which the marketing mavens can only fantasise.
20/20 is fun but it’s not serious; Test cricket is not always fun but it must usually be serious. Cricket Australia these days make the ECB seem a respectable organisation. The mawkish sentimentality of the whole "Baggy Green" fetish is bad enough but it’s accompanied by such a cheap and grasping commercialism that you despair of the whole thing. It’s one thing to be pestered by a used-car salesman; quite another when Tony Greig’s the salesman. What is the "Big Bash League" anyway? Some inter-city masturbation competition?
Which brings us back to Hobart. The crowds for this Test were pretty pitiful. There are many reasons why, though there’s still a large audience for Test cricket, the grounds aren’t always packed. One of them is that one rather fancies that the authorities devote little energy to promoting Test cricket (one suspects something similar could be said of the County Championship or Sheffield Shield). In this instance, there was the lure, one would have thought, of seeing Ricky Ponting, Tasmania’s greatest ever cricketer, play in what might well be his last test on his home island. That should have been enough to attract a public. But perhaps not. (Similarly, in India, playing Tests over the weekend and making it easier – not just cheaper – to purchase tickets would help.)
Consider this, however: the stands must be full for One Day cricket because limited overs played in an empty ground is a souless, depressing, business. The noise is needed to distract attention from the fact that much of the time nothing very interesting is happening on the field. All that shouting and rawk music is a ruse.
Test cricket does not need to be an "entertainment experience" because, damn it, the thing’s an experience anyway, trading on the nature of the test itself and the accumulated weight of 130 years of history. It has bottom. The final day of a keenly contested Test is a gripping visual (or audio or even imagined) experience even if there’s no-one in the ground to watch it. It stands on its own merits in ways other forms of the game do not. The players, bless them, still appreciate this. (At least, most of them do.)
Perhaps this is why so many cricket administrators seem to dislike Test cricket even as they are compelled to concede that it must be "protected". Despite protestations to the contrary one cannot quite rid oneself of the thought they find it an inconvenience getting in the way of the proper business which is, of course, extracting the maximum amount of cash from the cricketing public. Certainly they rarely seem to do much to promote or make it easier for people to actually watch Test cricket. From this one concludes that their desire to protect Test cricket is often bogus. (England, again, is a welcome exception to this. The ECB are better than some other boards. This does not make them great.)
A two Test series can never be as satisfying as a good four or five Test series but even in these least likely circumstances the old girl can flourish. That’s part of her charm and so is her resilience. She’s been around a long time and she doesn’t need to be tricked out or gussied up to find her audience. The "product", provided proper pitches (such as the one in Hobart) and the correct spirit are supplied, is still bloody marvellous.
*Link via Ducking Beamers.