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Subtleties of the Greatest Game

It was after a round of low quality, high scoring golf (my golf) that I found myself trying to explain cricket to a Croatian called Vladimir over a comforting glass of wine. I was supported by a Dutchman, Matt who knew the bat and ball game well and together we were able to agree on two unique facets of cricket as compared with similar games, and with baseball in particular. Such are the arcane trivia bandied about in the cosmopolitan Cote D’Azur to pass the time.
The paramount importance of the Captain was one. The option for batsmen to score through 360 degrees was the other. Comparing a “fly ball” with a thick edge over gully was comparatively simple. Explaining the importance of the cricket CAPTAIN compared with football or rugby or, indeed baseball, was a whole lot harder. I am not sure whether they even have Captains in baseball.
So I want to describe the circumstances surrounding just a single ball in the Sydney Test in the hope that something of the complex role of the cricket captain can be understood – even by Croatians, perhaps,
It was in the Australian teams first innings, after their Captain had won the toss and decided to bat first. It was the last and decisive 5 day Test match of a 5 match series. Both teams still had everything to play for.
Losing their regular Captain and most experienced batsman Ricky Ponting through injury was already a major blow to the home team even though, to the surprise of some, Ponting was to be seen busying himself around the dressing room. Was Michael Clarke, happy to have his predecessor in such close proximity? Did the two of them agree on the decision to bat first when there was at least a strongish counter argument? The England Captain, Andrew Strauss had won the toss and bowled first in the previous match and won handsomely. Ponting in sole charge might well have done the same in Sydney: but advising a first timer to do the same might have been to blight his career prospects as leader if the plan backfired. There is even a time honoured saying in cricket that it might be "a good toss to lose" This is simply shorthand for avoiding resposibility.
As the match progressed to a final crushing victory by England it was clear that the decision by Clarke/Ponting to bat first on a more than usually green and well grassed pitch was incorrect. The idea that the surface would respond to spin or be subject to uneven bounce later in the game turned out to be a false assessment. The England spinner, Graham Swann, who is no mean tweaker of the ball, barely got a single ball to deviate, taking just one lower order batsman's wicket during long spells of bowling on the 4th and 5th days of the match.
So I have already blundered my way through a few paragraphs on vital aspects of Captaincy and that is before a ball has been bowled. Of course the Captain – or Captains in Australia's case – would have made their wishes known to selectors in the make-up of the team which included two debutants, Khawaja and Beer. The presence of these two, and a debutant Captain to boot, hardly boded well.
Fast forward to a few hours into the first day's play. The young Khawaja, a stylish left-handed batsman was impressing the TV commentators and ex-player pundits with his technique and poise. The ever probing cameras strayed to his anxious parents sitting in the stands watching their son bat with the expectations of all Australians resting on his shoulders. His mother's reactions varied from covering her face, as though unable to watch, to putting her hands together as in prayer. They were indeed anxious moments.
Now the notoriously fickle Sydney weather threatened to intervene with darker clouds and the imminent prospect of rain. Andrew Strauss, who has a far more phlegmatic approach to captaincy on the field than leaders of other national teams, now quietly took control.
Against the run of play, he called up his slowest bowler Graham Swann and took his time in setting his fielders. There was only one close catcher on the off-side. Three balls passed with Khawaja happy enough to defend efficiently. Now Strauss intervened again, spending time talking to Swann, increasing the tension before posting a second close catcher on the leg side.
Khawaja reacted immediately to this new threat with a sally down the pitch. All the time he was aware that a leg-side boundary fielder was no longer in his normal position but nearer, leaving the boundary undefended. The 5th ball was again defended but giving the close catchers the impulse to crowd a little nearer.
Just as a fly fishermen needs to place the lure softly and invitingly in front of the hungry but also wary trout, so was it imperative to bowl the perfect ball to invite Khawaja to accept the bait. Unlike the trout Khawaja did not have the option of simply ignoring the invitation. The ball rose higher in the air and would therefore bounce a little higher. He had to play the ball with his bat.
But there is as ever in cricket only a split second to make a decision. A wiser, older head may have known that the “dead bat” option was the percentage play. A youthful brain, fuelled with more testosterone, may naturally trigger a more positive response to danger. Alas! For Mrs Kawajha, who peeked from between her fingers only to see her darling boy take a risky swish toward the open country, miscuing a gentle catch to the fielder posted exactly for such a stroke.
As the young batsman dropped his head in disappointment and set off on the slow walk back to the dressing room, so the rain began in earnest and all the actors followed him off the stage and into the wings. I could write in a similar vein about most batting dismissals with the team Captain intimately involved in the planning thereof. I desist in the hope that I have already whetted the appetite of the non- believers in the mysteries and intricacies of the Greatest Game. I say to my friend Vladimir – come along for the ride – there are riches galore to be gained but a hell of a lot to learn along the way.