Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ashes - the ultimate "test" battle...

They say that the ships were ready to sail through the English Channel with the English team on board and herald the beginning of a new era in cricket with the first international contest to be played – between England and France – when the news of the “French Revolution” set stop on any such occurance. This may seem curious to the onlooker that the first international contest be played between nations other than England and Australia. And rightly so. Even when the fact is that the first international contest was not played between England and Australia – US and Canada share the honour – it is cricket between the two ancient rivals that made the game truly international and took it beyond English shores in real measure.
No one can accurately ascertain the era of the genesis of cricket or any of its postulated ancestors such as club ball. But fortunately, the accounts of cricket between Australia and England are candid and confirm. It is known that cricket was played as a leisure time pursuit amongst the British officials in India, SA, West Indies and Sri Lanka. It was likewise boosted by the patronage of the officials of the likes of Lord Harris and also the maharajas in India. In Australia however, due to the huge influx of the gold-rush gentry and of course the British convicts, cricket assumed popularity even more swiftly.
The first English team arrived in Australia in 1861 as part of a privately sponsored tournament. The fledgling Australian cricketers suffered royally at the hands of the English, although they played 18 Aussies against 11 Englishmen then. But the tour was a major success. However, it was only in March 1877 in Melbourne that Alfred Shaw bowled the first ball to Charles Bannerman of Australia in what can be termed as the first test match which Australia won, although it can be fairly adjudged that it was a near fluke. Fast forward to 1882 and the Oval test between the two sides and we would witness history in the making.
It was not that England had not been defeated by Australia earlier, but there was something teasing in the defeat on a damp Oval pitch that led the Sporting Times to publish its now legendary mock obituary. To start with, the English were favourites to win the contest. And they looked on course when the OZ were bundled out for just 63 runs in the first innings. Their second innings total of 122 as well did not augur well for an Australia win. But, “the demon” Spofforth proved to be the undoing of the English and took 14 wickets in the test. It was a genuine fickle-fortune cricket story which resulted in an Australian win and left the English with a sour taste. Many regard the match as the turning point in the cricketing Psyche of the people in England and Australia, in that the Australians were now deemed competent to defeat England. The events that ensued led to the genesis of the test cricket’s most fiercely contested rivalry- “the Ashes”, when the honourable Ivo Bligh brought back the small urn and the English pride.
And for most of the time, the legend has lived up to its name. It has been the backdrop for the run scoring feats of Hammond. It has witnessed the genius of Hobbs, the wizardry of Ranjitsinghji, the grace of Compton, the elegance of Trumper, the spite of Lillian-Thompson, the guile of Warne, the endurance of Arterton and the enterprise of a Waugh or Border. And it has witnessed the sublime Bradman. It is acknowledged that the leg theory or candidly the Bodyline phenomenon, was devised as a mechanism to counter the Bradman genius. After Bradman’s prolific run scoring in 1930, Jardine was keen to prevent any such occurance in the 1932 rubber when he initiated Larwood, Voce and company to terrify Bradman into submission. Many were injured , geniality was lost forever in cricket as CLR James assesses and Woodful, the Aussie skipper was quoted against the English captain through someone who leaked the altercation outside the dressing room. Some claim the guilty to be Bradman. This is also assumed to be an era when professionalism is said to creep into the game to the extent that the pure joy of playing the game seemed to give way to an aspiration to succeed at any cost. It is evident from an observation by CLR James. He makes his case based on the occasion of the hundredth ton of sir Don in first class cricket. The Don alludes to this particular innings when asked about the most satisfying innings, not technique wise maybe. The Don said that he felt incumbent upon him, to give to the crowd which had so cheered his achievement some reward after he had hit the run to complete the hundred. He went on to hit 71 runs in the subsequent 45 minutes. He added that he would have liked to bat likewise always had the circumstances allowed.
Thereafter, CLR James makes an enquiry into what those inhibiting circumstances were. It was the ruthlessness that crept into cricket which Ranjitsinhji, Shrewsburry or Hobbs were untouched by. Cricket was not just a pursuit for joy, enthusiasm and something meant to just entertain the audience with carefree exuberance. It was more of a war now. This sentiment and its true meaning can be ascertained in a more recent occurance. When Brian Lara was asked as to how he would like to be remembered as a cricketer, he answered – “as an entertainer of the crowds”. How much he would have been able to play just for the crowds is a different matter, but we get a glimpse of the aspiration of a player there.
Reverting to the main theme, and to cricket between the two nations, it is pretty easy to note that it has been rich in content and history. There have been players who have lived from “ashes” to “ashes”. Yet, it is appalling to see the current state of affairs as they stand. It has been easily a one sided affair for the last two decades and it is bad for cricket. So much so that it is threatening to loose its charm. Part of it can be ascribed to the dominant force that the current Australian unit have been. But, English cricket’s own inadequacy is no secret knowledge. There has been no one to fit into the shoes of a Gower or a Gooch frankly speaking. There has been no demonstration of the tenacity as was exhibited by a Botham in 1981 at Headingley or the terror that a Bob Willis inflicted on the Oz on the same occasion. The English cricket has just not found players to replace such masters – which they earlier had always been able to – while the Australians have always looked to improve ever since Border inspired them. Amid such cynicism however, there are the contests of the 2005 series where every match was worthy of an ashes gem. We thus hope that the contest would be revived in times to come and players would inject fresh vigour and enterprise into this mother of all sporting contests. And any such thing would be immensely gratifying for the cricket fan.


Abhishek said... ran into some Cricket history book or what...I've still not read the content completely and will give my comment for that later on.

utkarsh said...

its a potpourri infact....