Thursday, September 22, 2005

212. When The Ashes Came Home

(Viewed from the outside the game of cricket remains a baffling mystery to most outsiders. In this Guest Column JD of Kobe - aka Captain Braindeath - explains what all the excitement is about).

"The fellows were practising long shies and bowling lobs and slow
twisters. In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of the
balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound
of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a
fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl."

This quotation, the last two sentences of Chapter One of A Portrait
of the Artist as a Young Man, is one of the most vivid pieces of
imagery in the whole canon of English Literature. Stephen Dedalus'
recollection of the scene summons up to the mind that most
quintessential of English summer activities--cricket. Never mind that
James Joyce was Irish--it misses the point.

The sound of a 'corky' leather ball on willow, pick, pack, pock,
puck, JJ captured it all in that little inspired flash of
onomatopoeia. The game is played on a pitch of 22 yards, or one
chain, which itself is a tenth of a furlong (a furrow-long). The
furlong came into being when the pre-1066 Saxon farmers optimised the
length of one ploughed field as 220 yards, this being as far as a
team of oxen could reasonably be driven before turning and ploughing
back in the opposite direction. History does not relate why the width
of a Saxon field came to be the length of a cricket pitch. Nor is it
very clear why we have 3 sharpened sticks (the stumps) stuck in the
ground with two round pieces of wood balanced on top (the bails) at
each end of the pitch and the whole unit called a 'wicket'. There
must always be two batsmen on the field at one time, which is why No.
11 never gets to bat very much and the bowler must deliver his balls in
sequences of six at a time, called an 'over'. The two teams play all
day for five days stopping only for lunch and mid-afternoon tea
(except when the umpire calls for drinks) and it can still end all up
in a draw. If one team is batting very successfully, the captain will
usually 'declare' and take his team off to give the other side a
sporting chance. One of the most damning utterances an Englishman can
make is "Dash it all sir! It's just not cricket!", meaning that the
spirit of fair play is not being or has not been followed.

(A good example of this is the way G.W. Bush gained the presidency of
the USA in 2000 -- What a cad. He'd never be accepted at the MCC.)

Growing up in England, one never questions any of this--it's just
cricket and has always been cricket and always will be bloody
cricket, so you don't argue if you know what's good for you.

The major cricketing nations in the modern world are the previous
colonies of the old British Empire, which as we all know, the sun
never set on. Australia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, The West Indies
regularly play England in international matches (Tests) and usually
beat the pants off them. My take on this is that the former colonies
get better weather than we do and so 'rain stopped play' is heard
infrequently, they get more practice and so on. So why don't we play
the game indoors in a Tokyo Dome-like edifice? Indoors?!?! "Dash it
all sir! It's just not cricket!"

One of the most famous series is 'The Ashes', played bi-ennially
between England and Australia. Take a look here for a full history
Prior to commencement of play, one of the Aussie pace bowlers, McGrath, predicted that Australia would sweep the series 5-0 and retain the Ashes yet again. In the British mind-set such arrogance is just not cricket, even though it was probably warranted--no Aussie teenager can remember a time when the Ashes were not in Australia's possession.

But--the best laid schemes of mice and men, gang aft a-gley as Rabbie
Burns noted and England prevailed in 2005 after one of the most
competitive and hard-fought series in Test history. In the final
match, England only needed to draw to take the series as the results
stood at England 2 Australia 1 one match drawn. On the penultimate
day inclement weather and bad light halted play several times,
allowing only about 3 hours play all day. This was to the great
delight of the English fans as the early innings performance of both
teams meant that the more time was lost, the greater was England's
advantage. So we had the bizarre sight of supporters, who had paid
£50 each and more for their seats, cheering and clapping every time
the players trooped off. Bizarre? No--it's just cricket...

On the final day the Aussie pace bowlers McGrath and Warne were in
sparkling form and England were wobbling. Our much-vaunted batsman
Flintoff had been clean-bowled for only 8 runs. Then our new man
Kevin Pietersen (born in South Africa) stepped up for a magnificent
'knock' of 158 before he was finally bowled out by McGrath, taking
the leg-stump clean out of the ground. His 5 1/2 hour stand included
seven 'sixes' (like a home run) and fifteen 'fours' (like a 2-base
hit) -- a new Test record. By the time England were all out it was
too late--there was time for only four balls before the umpires
called 'stumps', Australia had lost and the whole of Britain went
collectively barmy. I myself was like a dead man having listened to
the BBC on Internet radio till 2 am for each of the five days. But I
was a happy dead man!

The Oz captain Clive Ponting and the rest of his team were gracious
in defeat. They had also played magnificent cricket and there should
be no shame in losing such a tremendous series. It matters not to win
or lose--but how you play the game. That's what I always thought anyway.

Just one sour note was the reaction of the Aussie public when their
brave lads got home. Similar to when they lost the Rugby World Cup
final (to England) a couple of years back. Time for them to grow up
and become men I reckon--and part of being a man is knowing how to
take a beating. It's only a bloody game.

To close--some words from Rudyard Kipling:

"If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!"