Lessons from the long game
Time for young Ashton Agar’s last-wicket fairy tale in the Trent Bridge Test, a story that couldn’t have been properly told in a limited-overs match because his heroic rearguard would have ended the moment the moment Australia passed England’s 215.
Time for Jimmy Anderson’s epic thirteen overs spell before lunch on the last day that stopped Australia inches short of the line; if this had been an ODI, the ten over bowling ration would have meant that Stuart Broad or Steven Finn or Graeme Swann would have bowled some of Anderson’s overs and Australia might have won. Instead, Anderson returned after lunch and scalped Brad Haddin to win the match for England.
Test cricket allows a great bowler the time to impose himself on a match. This is why a Test match batting record counts for more than its limited-overs equivalent for measuring the worth of a batsman: the bowler’s freedom to bowl till he drops in Tests means there is nowhere for a batsman to hide. It is this uncompromised contest between bowlers and batsmen that makes a good Test match feel like the Mahabharata while the most thrilling ODI seldom rises above the dramatic potential of a one-act play.
Take the nail biter at Port of Spain where Mahendra Singh Dhoni smashed Shaminda Eranga for 16 runs in the last over to win the Tri-Nation Series final. In a marvellous account of Dhoni’s gift for brinkmanship and his nerveless self-belief, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan explained why the Indian captain is the best finisher in limited-overs cricket:
“This was classic Dhoni. He bides his time until the game reaches a boiling point, plays out the best bowlers, pushes the required rate higher and higher, and then backs himself to win the face-off.”
The difference between Test and one-day cricket is summed up by one phrase in Vaidyanathan’s piece: “He…plays out the best bowlers…” The last over at the Queens Park Oval was bowled by Eranga, Sri Lanka’s least experienced bowler, because the better bowlers—Lasith Malinga, Angelo Mathews, Rangana Herath and Ranasinghe Lakmal—were bowled out. Dhoni’s masterfully conceived and brilliantly timed last over assault was launched not against the Sri Lankan team’s most frugal and successful bowler—Herath—nor its greatest ‘death’ bowler—Malinga - but against a rookie because the iron law of one-day cricket, the ten overs limit, ruled the others out.
Now, those are the rules of the game and it is a tribute to Dhoni’s strategic genius that he manoeuvres the opposition into shootouts which he backs himself to win (and does more often than not), so isn’t this just old-codger carping? Perhaps it is. It is difficult for cricket’s middle-aged followers to break themselves of the habit of contrasting the long game with abbreviated versions of it, generally to the latter’s disadvantage, and there is a case for saying that we should stop because apples and oranges can’t be compared.
But the comparison is useful in two ways. First, it helps us appreciate the vintage pleasures of Test cricket at a time when our palates have been debased by a steady diet of limited-overs plonk. And second, it might help us reform the formulaic tedium of ODI cricket by incorporating into it the strengths of the long game.
Let’s return to the Queens Park Oval final to understand why Dhoni’s final over flourish lacked, despite its climacteric excitement, the epic quality of the Trent Bridge denouement, why it was a back-street shoot-out, not the Mahabharata. ODI rules made sure that the final over wasn’t the clash of Titans that it should have been. Dhoni, with his two kilo club, was clearly Bhima, but Sri Lanka, instead of sending one of their great champions, say Malinga or Herath, to play Duryodhana, sent a boy, a novice auxiliary, who was overwhelmed by the occasion and Bhima’s fearsome bat. So while Haddin squared up to the magnificent Anderson (as Alastair Cook bowled his strike bowler into the ground in a desperate bid to stop Australia), Dhoni teed off against Sri Lanka’s weakest link. It was great spectacle but, as a French general once said of another battle, it wasn’t war.
How can this be set right? Provoked by new fielding restrictions during the recent Champion’s Trophy, Shane Warne argued that ODIs were over-regulated and he would rather that the bowling captain was left free to handle his resources as he wished. In principle it is hard to fault Warne’s recommendation but since the ICC is unlikely to endorse revolutionary change, more modest reforms might stand a better chance.
Take the ten overs rule. It must have been designed to prevent selectors from packing teams with batsmen, but when you consider that Anderson nearly broke down after a dozen overs on the trot, it is hard to see a team taking the field with just two bowlers prepared to bowl twenty five overs apiece. Once we accept that every team will play three or four bowlers for its own good, what is the rationale for a rule that forces a team to use at least five bowlers because no bowler can bowl more than ten overs in an innings?
Most Test match teams play a much longer game with just four principal bowlers. So what cricketing logic leads to this rule of five for ODIs? If you took it upon yourself to tell Michael Clarke or Cook or Dhoni during a Test match that they had to give five bowlers roughly equal spells, they would have had you escorted off the field in a straitjacket. So how does this lunatic stipulation become sane in the context of an ODI? It doesn’t. It makes about as much sense as insisting that a batsman be allowed strike for no more than ten overs or sixty balls.
If the ICC feels that quota-free bowling is too radical a change, it could consider a compromise. It could rule that so long as a bowler doesn’t bowl more than fifteen overs in an innings the ICC is unconcerned with the captain’s deployment of his bowling resources. This would have the merit of guarding against freakish team composition or the tedium of one bowler locking up an end for the length of an innings while at the same time allowing the bowling captain some discretion in the matter of who he bowled and for how long. It would acknowledge that not all bowlers are born equal and therefore a captain ought to be able to discriminate between them while planning his bowling permutations.
And if that were to happen, limited-overs cricket might supply us with passages of play as full-blooded, as epic as the final hours of that glorious Test in Nottingham. Imagine the last over of that Port of Spain thriller played under the new rules. Not much would change. Dhoni would call for his monstrous club, swing it about and settle into his stance. Only this time it would be Malinga slinging in yorkers at speed. I can see Malinga sliding one under the bat and Dhoni walking off impassively. I can also see Dhoni helicoptering a yorker for six and winning the series (and walking off impassively). Cricket’s gods would be pleased in either case…because two champions had contended and the best man won. This sounds corny but it’s better than the alternative which goes ‘the best bowlers weren’t available so Dhoni caned the rookie.’
Great Test matches remind us why we came to love cricket in the first place. They demonstrate why Test cricket is the game’s defining form and they explain to us (if we are prepared to listen) why limited overs cricket should take its cues from the principles and practice of the long game. Test cricket’s great gift might be time but the lesson of the first Ashes Test is that cricket’s more abbreviated forms can learn from its expansive example.
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