Full homage to the nail-biting cricketing miracle in Sydney, while bearing in mind that miracles, like lightning, rarely strike twice and it’s a toss-up whether England’s Test team or Novak Djokovic was more deserving of deportation from Australia earlier this week. But only Test cricket could conjure up such a climax after five days of fierce competition where one of the greatest batters the world has seen had just six balls to try to dismiss one of the greatest bowlers. Cricket eh! Bloody hell.
Breathtaking tension — think Arsenal having to beat Liverpool in 1989 by two clear goals, or Verstappen vs Hamilton in the final lap of the last Grand Prix — but it’s really just a sticking plaster on the otherwise somewhat gangrenous state of English red-ball cricket. What’s clear is that Test cricket is hugely important to the countless thousands of fans who were glued to those last few overs on their phones as their Sunday morning was rudely interrupted. And Joe Root’s haunted look throughout this series shows what it means to him. But there are problems: playing conditions that are unique to this country allow purveyors of medium–pace dobbers like Tim Murtagh (lovely man as he is) to be a highly successful county championship bowler, yet he could bowl for ever in a Brisbane Test without success. The BBC’s shameful near-total desertion of red-ball cricket has played a major role in dislodging the game from its place in English culture. Red-ball domestic matches have been marginalised to the fringe weeks of the season, so that high summer, when great players can develop their craft, has been dedicated to simply an exercise in six–hitting. Too many state schools have lost their cricket pitches, and the great reserves of sporting talent in our inner cities are now drawn overwhelmingly to football.
Above all, cricket needs new people at the top. Ashley Giles may be a decent bloke — though only fleetingly visible — but has he the charisma, intelligence and clout to make big changes? Likewise Tom Harrison. A dream ticket to run the game would be Sir Andrew Strauss and Richard Thompson, currently chairman of Surrey. The former is hugely respected for what he has achieved on the pitch and for his hard-earned wisdom. The latter is popular, loves cricket, has a superb commercial track record, and has turned Surrey into a financial and cricketing power-house. He has already talked about what might help: for example making England’s 50-over competition a knockout — the FA Cup of cricket — and involving the minor counties, giving the possibility of some white-ball giant killing.
There’s a superb three-part Sky documentary just out called The Man Who Bought Cricket, about the Allen Stanford affair. Don’t forget that the idiots who then ran English cricket fell for Stanford’s corrupt bollocks hook, line and sinker. Richard Thompson didn’t: he was suspicious and thought it was a very bad idea from the off. He understands the soul of cricket and saw that $20 million on the pitch at the Nursery End wasn’t a good look. Had he been running the game back then, his commercial nous could well have avoided one of the most embarrassing fiascos in English cricketing history. For all the courage of Ben Stokes, the determination and fight of Jonny Bairstow, and the spectacular batting of Zak Crawley (at long last), the drama of Sydney cannot mask the wounds of English Test cricket.
Every front row forward in the Six Nations must be rubbing their giant mitts together after seeing how easy it is to wind up Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge. They don’t like it, and England could be propless in fairly short order if someone is clever.
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