Anyone who has talked to me about cricket, and hasn’t drifted into an irrevocable catatonia by the end of the second sentence, will know that I am the stuffiest of stuffy, elitist and insufferable cricket supporters. For me, cricket isn’t really cricket unless interspersed with a couple of meals really not fit for a professional athlete, accompanied with polite applause (no chanting, please, save it for the Oval day-nighter), and, if you feel entirely comfortable, peering at the five days’ or so action over the top of a broadsheet newspaper. In short, I’m the classics student who takes all their options in Ancient Greek because Latin is too new-fangled. Calling one-day cricket (pyjama cricket, if you’re a connoisseur of cricketing jargon) cricket is about as warped as saying Persian and Arabic are related because they have the same alphabet.
My belief in the inherent superiority of the five-day game, however, is coming under scrutiny the more I watch it, particularly at the moment. No, not because Bangladesh are unworthy of Test status; my elitism doesn’t extend to membership of what needs to be a more inclusive club. Not because England have a poor side; granted, it has holes in it, but the makings are there for a top-class set of young players; even Alistair Cook, the team’s great patriarch at well over a hundred tests, has only recently nudged past thirty. No, my problem lies in the fact that the great intrigue of Test cricket, namely watching a world-class spin bowler tease, torment and bewitch supposedly highly capable batsman, is starting to fade out of the game as attention spans decrease, and one-day tactics start to seep into the very fabric of cricket’s most prestigious format.
Cricket combines the staccato refreshing of the game after every ball, with a sense of momentum, ebb and flow
You see, part of the reason why Test cricket is so arcane and alienating to the outsider is because of the extent to which it relies on tension over excitement. There isn’t much low-hanging fruit for the new observer, when compared to the rough-and-tumble of rugby or the feats of human endurance and reflexes inherent in top-level tennis, for example. You really need to watch it early, and a lot, to start to appreciate its appeal. Cricket combines the staccato refreshing of the game after every ball, with a sense of momentum, ebb and flow, which matches that of any other sport. The state of the game can take hours to change, or can reverse in a matter of minutes. This particular appeal is perhaps crystallised most perfectly in the discipline of spin bowling, which lends itself strongly to this sense of intrigue and tension without excitement and awe. Spin bowlers are not usually great physical specimens (just look at Warne, Murali, or Phil Tufnell) but are simply clever. They coax, cajole and compel the batsman into making mistakes in order to pick up their wickets, often by exercising a degree of control which many fast bowlers cannot. Even when they produce a ripping, unplayable delivery, there is more a sense of subtlety and genius than with watching fast bowlers who, with some honourable exceptions, can look like battering rams.
In short, I essentially believe that spin-bowling, great spin-bowling at any rate, is an art, an intellectual challenge, as opposed to a competence. I also believe that artistic talent is essentially un-learnable in the way that graphic design is learnable. Perhaps anyone who has wasted a term studying aesthetics will disagree with me, but it explains my view of spin bowling, which is that the current English approach of sticking a few bit-part, part-time and/or mediocre spinners in the team in order to chip in with a few wickets each is damaging my experience of watching them, no matter how necessary it might be. It seems to me like getting graphic designers to replace Botticelli. The intrigue, the sense of the noose tightening around a hapless batsman has been lost due to Moeen’s and Rashid’s lack of control: their enduring tendency to throw down just enough long-hops to relieve the pressure. They also, Rashid admittedly less than the others, lack enough variation to really challenge to watcher to anticipate their next move. For me, this has sucked the very essence out of spin bowling, turning it into an exercise which just happens to be effective because it’s Bangladesh. Their own spinner, a mere teenager, has already displayed far more invention and precision than any of our lot. Once, Graeme Swann would have kept England fans on the edge of their sofa with his expertise in Subcontinental conditions. The fun of watching England bowl has gone for now; I really hope the ECB are cultivating a genuine artist, rather than another imitation or Batty-esque blast from the past, at the county level. Although, at this rate, even good old Monty, who as Shane Warne once said played ‘the same Test match 33 times’, might be a useful option.
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