T20 or Test?
Rather like a Glyndebourne devotee at his first Glastonbury Festival, I approached the Rose Bowl in Southampton (I refuse to call it the ageas Bowl – so corporate and besides, that lower case ‘a’ offends me) to watch the recent T20 international between England and Sri Lanka with a mixture of curiosity and ambiguity. It is no secret that I prefer the ebb and flow of the longer game but this was my first foray into the more crowd-pleasing version and I was determined to keep an open mind.
First and foremost, get Buttler into the Test team. That would be my unequivocal message to the selectors. He has a natural timing, he hits the ball with effortless authority, he finds the gaps, he’s an excellent judge of a run and when he decides to clear the ropes, you just know that the boundary fielder posted there for that very shot is going to crick his neck watching the ball sail over his head. He has class and you cannot ignore class. Furthermore, he enjoys the big stage. He’s played many fine white ball innings. The only way to find out whether he has the temperament for Test cricket is to put him in the team. Mind you, I’m not convinced by his keeping; he can be a bit careless at times. But neither am I by Bairstow’s. Play them both and let the captain decide who he prefers to don the gloves.
Back to the game. I hesitate to call it a match because Sri Lanka were so poor. We pitied them touring the northern outposts in a chilly and wet early English summer but they were not so long ago world champions and must start rebuilding quickly and effectively. It was a relief to see the stadium full. Hampshire have had some bad luck with the weather recently, especially with the big matches. And it was a warm, mid-summer’s evening, just perfect for the occasion. The razzmatazz, the flag waving, the anthem singing, the fireworks, the trumpet calls to arms, the jingles, the adverts, did not disconcert me unduly; this was, after all, show time. “I suppose we have Packer to thank for all this,” remarked my companion, not unkindly. The acrobats were pathetic, I thought, and totally irrelevant to what was going on out there in the middle. Besides, I’ve seen better forward rolls at my kids’ junior school sports day. Sometimes, the loud music did grate, particularly when you had just started a sentence commenting on a particular passage of play with your neighbour and had to give up with a resigned shrug. T20 is what it is, a snack more than haute cuisine but a snack can be tasty too.
What was of more interest to me was whether the cricket on display out there was worth watching. Was it skilful? Was it absorbing? Was it recognizably the same game, albeit squeezed into bite-sized chunks? On balance, I would say yes. The eternal verities still hold. Bowl a bad ball and it will get punished. Pick the right ball to hit or you will come a cropper. Find the gaps in the field - don’t hit it straight at a fielder. Catches win matches. And good fielding creates pressure just as misfields and dropped catches release it. The power of the modern day batsman takes the breath away. Whether you ascribe this to helmets, bigger bats, larger muscles, shorter boundaries or poor bowling is an argument for another time but there is no mistaking the more aggressive mindset of the current generation. Who’d be a bowler these days? But that is true of the four innings game too and cricket is all the better for it, I think.
In short, there is a place for T20 in the cricket calendar, domestic and international. But that’s the point – it needs a place. And it needs to keep its place. That is to say that the game’s administrators have a duty to think carefully and act wisely – and so far, they have given me little cause to be confident in this regard – to protect and promote Test cricket as the purest and most demanding expression of our summer sport. That’s why it’s called a Test.
For, in the end, T20 is not that relevant. Who won the last series between England and Australia? I would guess Australia (it was) but I would not be sure and I would care even less. But I do know, and care deeply, who currently holds the Ashes. Not everything in life has to be relevant or meaningful, of course, but we ought to recognize the difference between pleasant distraction and genuine emotional satisfaction. You wouldn’t want to see King Lear every day of the week but you ought not to be gorging on a daily diet of Eastenders.
“Why has Morgan posted a sort of longish silly mid-off?”
“What? Can’t hear you.”
“Was that the theme tune from Eastenders?”