One of my early wanderings into the once-enchanting re-alm of cricket writing was a rather intemperate article by the British playwright, Terrence Rattigan, in which he traced the parallel histories of what he described as Britain’s two perpetual invalids—theatre and cricket. Rattigan claimed that “in the 1920s, Somerset Maugham killed theatre by writing too many bad plays and in the 1930s, Bradman killed cricket by making too many runs”. I had recently read Bradman’s Farewell to Cricket and had instantly been converted. I was loath to concede that my new hero had done violence to a game he had graced with such mastery. But now, almost half a century later, I can begin to understand how one could kill a game by being overwhelming and overbearing.
The Australians have managed to do it. Cricket commentators talk about the game’s “glorious uncertainties”. The pitch acts up, or is docile, the ball moves in wild arcs or not at all, a bit player dons the mantle of a gallant while a great one scratches around before departing ingloriously. Favourites are knocked out, precocious pretenders bask in glory. Such are the legends. But the modern game, like modern capitalism, is risk-averse.
In tennis, they used to call it the game of percentages. And, at a time when the game of percentages was threatening to stifle tennis, there came the exasperatingly irreverent John McEnroe. But tennis is an individual’s game and it has been lucky in producing at crucial junctures a Nastase and a Leconte, a Santoro, a Nadal and most gloriously now, the ineffable Roger Federer.
In cricket, such brilliance is, at best, a sideshow, similar to a stirring soliloquy in a play. It is to be memorized, savoured, quoted; the play does not stand or fall by it. “Did I entertain you?” asked Lara, making his curtain call, and a roar answered him. Great players in a failed production, a Tendulkar or a Lara, could never save the bad plays in which they were cast. Their performances stand alone without the benefit of their supporting cast.
“We play for our team and for our country,” they were careful to say correctly, but genius is not a timeshare; Shakespeare is not written in committee.
The present Australian team is the triumph of committee work. The Academy has it all charted; nothing is left to chance, all spontaneity is crushed. One Matthew Hayden innings is very like another Hayden innings. In fact, one Australian innings is much like another Australian innings, and much of it is ugly to watch, with one notable exception.
In this team, fine-tuned to robotic precision, Adam Gilchrist is the wild card; he is the stubborn individualist who restores unpredictability to this so-called game of uncertainties. Having come to international cricket late, he is a man in a hurry. At the wicket, he taps suspicious-looking spots on the pitch and, like a doctor with a stethoscope, listens for lurking dangers. But he had not been doing well. In 20 ODI innings before he unleashed the attack on the Sri Lankans in Barbados, he had averaged under 24 runs. His two 50s had come against Ireland and Bangladesh. All too often, he had flattered to deceive.
But by the time Gilly finally goes, he would have settled the argument about nice guys finishing last. Substituting as captain a few years ago, he had conquered the “last frontier”, winning a series in India. At that time, a major newspaper wrote admiringly of the “Gilchrist difference”, referring to his habit of “walking”. For a while, even fast bowlers, not known for niceties, followed him. Again, captaining in England, he declared an innings, allowing England a sporting chance, and lost. Even the great Sobers could not survive such a gamble. That Gilly did is testament to the measure of respect he commands in the Australian cricket fraternity.
One can now see why it was easy to like the Australians even six months ago. Along with the explosive Gilchrist was the irrepressible Warne. His genius would not bend to the Academy’s dictates. He was a man full of mischief, a vulgar genius; on a cricket field, his trickery enchanted the men in the grey suits; off it, he was an embarrassment. He couldn’t be saved from himself, but nobody seemed to care much as long as he could bowl Mike Gatting round his legs any day of the week. Then there was the ever-smiling Andy Bichel, the walk-on who stole the show from the stars, twice saving his team from ignominy after both New Zealand and England had them against the ropes in the 2003 World Cup. Darren Lehmann was the angry old man, full of cricket intelligence, grand vizier to Captain Gilly in the India campaign. They are all gone now and have been replaced by the programmed extras from the acting school. You can have them, the Hoggs and the Hodges, the Shauns and the Shanes; for my part, as W.C. Fields said, it is time to milk the elk.
Predictability comes at a price; sometimes, the price is heavy. As more teams follow the guaranteed regimen of the Australians, cricket will become dull and stolid and go the way of hockey. Argentina, a late entrant to international hockey, has managed to bring some swing and sway to a game now dominated by European heavy- footedness. The fleet-footed but erratic Indians and Pakistanis are still the best teams to watch, but they have to win more if the world is to tap to their subcontinental rhythms. If cricket is to be saved, the Mohammed Yousufs and Yasir Hamids and the Suresh Rainas will have to do it for us.
As for predictions off the field, where men with dark glasses and darker designs demand sureties and enforce them, the price can be life itself. If this World Cup has taught us any lessons, it is that these diversions are best left to children and the young at heart. It is only a game, after all.
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