Cricket’s Superpowers

David Runciman

It would be nice, particularly after this summer of summers, to think that the Ashes remains the pre-eminent contest in world cricket, and that Anglo-Australian rivalry is still one of the most significant in all sport. But it is not true, and it hasn’t been true for some time. The rivalry in international cricket that counts at present is the one between Australia and India. If this were geopolitics, then Australia would be the United States, the one unquestioned superpower for over a decade, used to getting their own way ever since they saw off their rival superpower, the West Indies, in the early 1990s (the West Indian cricket team, like the Russian state, now seems to be in a condition of permanent and rather squalid decline). India, meanwhile, would be China, the superpower of the future, with all the resources needed to beat the Australians at their own game – the manpower, the talent, the raw nationalist passion – so long as a way can be found by their often corrupt and incompetent administrators of harnessing these obvious advantages. And England? England would be the EU: once the centre of the world, but currently engaged in an urgent and not always pretty attempt to modernise in order not to get left behind.

The insular English press tends to think that any cricketing spat with the Australians, like any political spat with the Americans, has the rest of the world on the edge of its seat. But although this year’s Ashes series has had enough tension and drama to sate the appetite of any cricket fan, it cannot compare for global impact with what happened in India during March 2001, the series that really changed the world. The Australian cricket team arrived in India that year having won a record 15 test matches in a row, and duly made it 16 by crushing India in Mumbai in the first test of a three-match series. (England won a much vaunted eight tests in a row last year, but it is worth remembering that winning 16 in a row is much more than twice as hard as winning eight, just as winning the toss 16 times in a row isn’t twice as unlikely as winning eight times in a row, but 256 times as unlikely.) Australia looked on course for another easy victory in the second test in Calcutta, when having scored 445 in their first innings they bowled India out for 171 and forced them to follow on.

That decision by the Australian captain Steve Waugh to enforce the follow-on, one to which he would barely have allowed a second thought, given the Australian philosophy of always trying to keep your opponents on the back foot, turned out to be the most fateful he ever made. India went on to score 657-7 in their second innings, with the previously unheralded V.V.S. Laxman making 281 of the runs. The Australians, unused to being so comprehensively outmanoeuvred, then collapsed when trying to bat out the game on the final afternoon, and India won by 171 runs, taking the last wicket, of Glenn McGrath, with only six overs to spare. This was just the third time in more than 1350 test matches that a team had won after following on (the previous occasion had been the legendary Headingley test of 1981, during Botham’s Ashes).

The third test of the 2001 series, which took place in Madras, was almost as exciting as the second, and just as tense as the recent thriller at Trent Bridge, which it somewhat resembled. It ended with India winning by two wickets, having almost lost their nerve while chasing a paltry 155 in the final innings. The result meant that Australia went home having lost not just the series and their previously unshakeable sense of destiny, but also any chance that Waugh, the most successful captain in test history, would fulfil his one overriding ambition, which was to win a test series on the Subcontinent – he had long since tired of simply lording it over England every couple of years. Waugh eventually retired three years later, and his final innings was a cussed, match-saving 80 against India in Sydney, which rescued Australia from the unthinkable, a series defeat against their arch-rivals in their own backyard (the series ended 1-1). India should have won the match against an Australian team severely weakened by the absence of the injured McGrath and the suspended Shane Warne, but after his team scored 705 in the first innings and then bowled Australia out for 474, the Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly, perhaps mindful of Waugh’s chastening experience in Calcutta, failed to press home his advantage by enforcing the follow on, allowing the Australians to bat out the final day.

Thus when Ricky Ponting replaced Steve Waugh as Australian captain at the beginning of last year, his mission was clear: to avenge his predecessor for all his Asian torments. (Ponting also had some avenging of his own to do, his personal contribution to the 2001 series having been scores of 0, 6, 0, 0, 11.) His first series in charge was against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, which meant confronting Muttiah Muralitharan on his own pitches. Muralitharan is the only bowler who can rival Shane Warne’s status as the greatest spinner in the game’s history. He is also despised by the Australians for what they see as the doubtful legitimacy of his strangely jerky bowling action (they suspect him of achieving his extraordinary bounce by chucking the ball rather than bowling it). Muralitharan didn’t disappoint either his supporters or his critics, but the Australians had the last laugh. Ponting’s team won 3-0, despite the fact that they conceded a first innings lead in each game, and despite Muralitharan’s taking 28 wickets in the three matches (Warne more or less matched him, taking 26). After this improbable and deeply satisfying triumph, Ponting’s men then confronted their moment of truth, an away series against India at the end of last year. Ponting himself was injured for the first three of the four tests, but it didn’t matter as Australia, under the temporary captaincy of their other all-time great Adam Gilchrist, won two of them, to achieve their first series win in India for 35 years. As the players made clear (and most of them are the same players who have been struggling in England this summer, barely nine months later), this was the greatest achievement of their cricketing lives. After so many battles, they had finally won their war.

Of all the explanations for the recent travails of the Australian team, this surely is the most obvious: they arrived in England this summer with no new worlds left to conquer. It is true, as the English press never tires of reminding its readers, that no Australian captain wants to be the one to return home having lost the Ashes. But it is also true, as even the most partisan commentators have noticed, that this series, despite its nail-biting tension and occasional moments of resentment, has been played in a remarkably genial spirit, with plentiful displays of mutual respect and genuine sportsmanship from both sides. There has been none of the real fear and mutual loathing that has marked Australia’s recent encounters with India. The Australians seem to find India’s captain, the magnificently prickly and disdainful Ganguly, particularly loathsome, whereas one gets the feeling that they reckon Michael Vaughan to be a thoroughly decent bloke – more or less one of their own. Cricket has undoubtedly gained hugely from the friendly rivalry of this Ashes series, particularly by way of comparison with other sports, above all football, which seems a petulant and malicious game by contrast. But at the risk of sounding churlish, it is also worth pointing out that this Ashes series probably represents the only place where it is still possible to watch two teams consisting entirely of white players competing at the highest levels of international sport.

The modern Australian cricket team have never, to my knowledge, fielded a non-white player. But England used to have lots, including their previous captain, the magnificently prickly Nasser Hussain (whom the Australians didn’t much like either). Since Hussain’s retirement, and injuries to Mark Butcher, no non-white players have come close to being selected for England’s test team (though Middlesex’s Owais Shah may get the call-up for this winter’s tour to Pakistan). Is there any other sport in which black players, having overcome years of prejudice and contempt to make the breakthrough to international representation in the 1980s, have gradually been frozen out again? Much has been made once again this summer of Norman Tebbit’s absurd cricket test, which demands that immigrants to this country support the England team. What makes it particularly absurd is that cricket, a game with genuinely multicultural appeal (unlike football, which despite its popularity in all sectors of society is now monocultural, the culture it celebrates being celebrity), should be the only sport whose national team harks back to the racial uniformity of the 1950s. Which is not to say that the current England team is not a diverse one. It contains a Welshman (Simon Jones), an Australian (Geraint Jones), a South African (Kevin Pietersen), even a genuine public schoolboy (Andrew Strauss), all coached by a white Zimbabwean (Duncan Fletcher), many having previously been schooled by an Australian (Rodney Marsh). No wonder the two sides get on so well together.

The one moment this summer when genuine antipathy seemed to spring up between them came at Trent Bridge, after Ricky Ponting had been run out by one of England’s substitute fielders, and left the field mouthing obscenities in the direction of the England dressing-room in general, and Fletcher in particular. Australia’s struggles have made Ponting the most compelling figure in this series, a man who seems permanently on the cusp between complacency and mental anguish (in truth, his run-out at Trent Bridge was complacent, as he ambled the first part of the run; hence the anguish that followed it). He cuts a curious figure on the field, compact, self-contained, quintessentially Australian in his weather-beaten baggy green cap, but also fidgety and uncertain, his close-set, small, deliberately blinking eyes striving to give off an air of preternatural calm while also hinting at a vacancy and a sense of drift underneath. I spent the first part of the series convinced he reminded me of someone, but unable to work out who. I have enjoyed the second part of the series all the more since realising who it was: the preternaturally calm, complacent yet anguished leader of the free world, whose close-set, small, deliberately blinking eyes give off exactly the same impression.

Ponting, like George Bush, is a bad boy made good, a brawler, drinker and gambler who turned a corner in his life when he realised that he was squandering his gifts, and that the path to the top lay open before him. There have been four Australian cricket captains during the twenty-year period of their ascent to global domination, just as there have been four American presidents during the same time (if you go five back, to the years of bleakest underachievement, you also find similar figures – Jimmy Carter and Kim Hughes, both decent, well-intentioned, golden-haired outsiders, and both utterly useless). None has had to carry greater burdens than the present incumbents, who not only have had a father (or in Ponting’s case, father-figure) to avenge, but also have taken over at just the point when their inherited empires were starting to show the first signs of mortality. There is also a suspicion that both of them, particularly by contrast with their predecessors, have been over-promoted. In neither case is this entirely their own fault. Both Ponting and Bush reached the top because they were the best of their generation at what has traditionally been the primary qualification for the top job: in Ponting’s case, run-making; in Bush’s, vote-getting. But just as the best electioneer doesn’t always make the best president, so the best batsman doesn’t always make the best captain.

Ponting’s captaincy has tended to rely on gut instinct over tactics, and a blind faith in the ability of the Australian team to dig themselves out of any hole, simply because they are Australians. In Sri Lanka, this faith was triumphantly justified, but against England, when his team started to come up short, Ponting has seemed unsure what to do next. He is inflexible in the field, despite endlessly discussing little changes with his bowlers, and he moves very quickly from attack to blanket defence, bypassing any more subtle variations in between. Above all, he shares with Bush a reluctance to dispense with the services of his loyal lieutenants, even when they are obviously past their sell-by dates. It is perhaps understandable that the Australians should have persisted with Jason Gillespie, despite his obvious lack of form, since he was in the form of his life when they defeated India only months previously. But nothing except sheer obduracy can explain the blind faith of the captain in Matthew Hayden, whatever his rearguard efforts at the Oval. He was for a long time the world’s most destructive and bullying batsman, yet one who has given the impression for the best part of a year that he would no longer know how to bully his way out of a paper bag. Ponting, like Bush, seems almost superstitiously afraid of facing up to changed circumstances, or of tinkering with what was once, but is no longer, a winning team. This must in part stem from a sense of his own limitations, and a fear of the unknown.

Yet despite all this – the complacency of the Australian team, the inflexibility of their leadership, the poor form of so many of their best players, the injuries to McGrath – the miracle of this series is that it has been so close. The excitement has come from watching a well-trained, well-balanced team, confidently ‘executing’ all their plans (in the hideous modern jargon) but seemingly terrified of delivering the coup de grâce, against a tired, bemused, rudderless team of satiated superstars, who don’t know when they’re beaten. If any of the Australian batsmen who excelled during the previous 12 months had performed to that level in this series, Australia would have won, comfortably. (McGrath has been much criticised for stating in the aftermath of Australia’s victory in the first test at Lord’s that if his team performed to their true ability, England wouldn’t be able to touch them; a foolish thing to say, but true nonetheless.) Gilchrist and Damien Martyn in particular have had trying summers, Martyn looking at the crease like a man who can think of much better things to do with his time. The only two Australian players who have performed consistently have been the peerless Shane Warne and the irrepressible Brett Lee: and it is no coincidence that Lee is the one member of this team who did not play during Australia’s Asian conquests last year, and so still has something to prove. For England, everyone has contributed something, even the hapless Ashley Giles, whose ball to clean-bowl Martyn in the first innings at Old Trafford encapsulated the whole series: one of the best players of spin in the world bamboozled by one of the weakest spinners he will ever have faced.

What this series has proved beyond doubt is that if you get an overachieving team that is frightened to win, and an underachieving team that refuses to believe it can lose, test cricket is the most exciting game ever devised. I have lost count of the number of times that a match this summer has seemed to be reaching its decisive session, only for the session to pass, and the decision still to be reached. The beauty of test cricket is that unless one team is much better than the other (witness the facile encounters between England and Bangladesh earlier in the summer), it is very hard for either side to stay on top for the whole of a single day’s play, never mind all four or five. This means that no game is ever done until it is done, and no team can ever feel entirely secure about the way things are going. The nerviness, second-guessing and never-say-die heroics that this produces are what give each game its intense drama. This has unquestionably been a nervy series, and its claim to be the greatest ever is somewhat undermined by the fact that no one has risen entirely above its jittery quality: not Vaughan, not Pietersen, whose hands seem to be made of concrete whenever a catch comes his way, not even Andrew Flintoff, whose dismissal by Lee in the unbearably tense final overs at Trent Bridge made him look not simply mortal, but deeply vulnerable. Certainly no one has attained the celestial plane achieved by Laxman in March 2001 (I write this before the fifth test, so you never know, but somehow it just doesn’t feel like that kind of series). Only Warne has seemed to be operating at a level of true greatness, but then Warne is truly one of the greats.

After a series like this, it is hard to see how anyone could doubt the renewed vitality and enduring appeal of cricket in general, and test cricket in particular. Indeed, the Ashes test matches have totally overshadowed the one-day series that preceded them, which now seems like a tinny, Radio Luxembourg sort of cricket compared to the operatic grandeur of the real thing. Yet there are reasons to think that the popularity of test cricket might not, in the end, be sustainable. First, the rise of test cricket as one of the world’s most exciting games has owed everything to this current Australian team, which now looks to be on its last legs. They have completely transformed the way test matches are played, speeding up the rate of scoring, always pushing for victory and more or less ruling out the draw as an option for any game not interrupted by the weather. It is true that the effect of this against weaker teams has been to blow them away, but it has also produced a plethora of classic matches over the past decade, against all sorts of opponents – the West Indies, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and now England. Surprisingly, only South Africa of the major teams have never really stood up to them.

England have finally managed to compete with Australia by copying them, batting as aggressively as possible, bowling with accuracy and a fixed belief that they will take wickets, and never giving up. It is perhaps possible that this England team can take over from the Australians as the dominant force in world cricket, guaranteeing the same level of relentless excitement. But it seems unlikely. England have one bona fide superstar in Freddie Flintoff, though even his performances this summer have not given his batting and bowling figures the look of anything more than decent mediocrity (compare his current batting and bowling averages of 33 and 32 respectively with those of South Africa’s Jacques Kallis – 56 and 31 – and Shaun Pollock: 31 and 22). What England don’t have is a roster of world-beaters, certainly nothing to compare with the incredible firepower the Australians have possessed in Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath at their peak. And England still have Ashley Giles, whose place in the team, for all his gallant efforts, is a permanent reminder that English cricket does not quite have the strength in depth required for global domination.

It is more likely that no team will dominate the sport in the near future, though India may eventually become the team to beat. Yet the rise of India as the centre of the cricketing world does not bode well for test cricket, for the simple reason that in India the one-day game remains much more popular. Most Indian cricket fans would far rather their team win the next World Cup than that they become the number one team in test cricket. When India beat Australia in their epic three-test encounter of 2001, the visitors then stayed on for a five-match series of one-day games, which threatened to overshadow what had gone before (especially since India lost 3-2), and gives a good sense of where the Indian administrators’ priorities lie. There is more money to be made out of the one-day game than out of test cricket almost everywhere in the world apart from England, where test matches still pull in capacity crowds. And even in England, satellite broadcasters have tempted the administrators to put on more one-day games than is good for anyone, in order to maximise their revenue from the sport.

That is the other reason the future for test cricket is not necessarily rosy, even in this country. A huge part of the pleasure to be derived from this summer’s Ashes has come from the superlative coverage of the games on Channel 4, who have done as much to advance the broadcasting of test cricket over the last few years as the Australians have done to advance the playing of it. Channel 4 have not been interested in one-day internationals, and have focused all their attention on bringing out the joys and subtleties of the five-day game. Now all that has been sold out by the England Cricket Board to Sky, which has been gorging on an excess of one-day games for years. Sky can afford to hire the best of Channel 4’s commentators (though not Richie Benaud) and it can replicate all their technical and other wizardry. But two things Sky can’t do. One is make test cricket available to people who stumble across a game on a whim, and get caught up in the drama of it all, which must be true of many of the eight million plus who tuned in to Channel 4 for the final stages of the Trent Bridge test last month. The other is to persuade people like me who need no inducement to enjoy test cricket to pay Rupert Murdoch for the privilege of watching it. More and more, this summer looks like a one-off, and the end, not the beginning, of an era.

6 September