High hopes as the grand old game is given new lease of life

Tim de Lisle, editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, searches for historical precedents of a great day

After 123 years and 1,483 matches, the grand old game of Test cricket yesterday turned into something else: a game of forfeits.

After 123 years and 1,483 matches, the grand old game of Test cricket yesterday turned into something else: a game of forfeits.

This caused a flurry of activity in the Wisden office in west London - in fact two flurries. The first consisted of people asking whether there was any precedent for these forfeitures, or if they were even legal.

Our work-experience person, Rob Smyth, consulted the scorecards of the first 1,482 Test matches. Half an hour later he emerged, blinking, to confirm that no, there had never been a forfeiture before, unless Bill Frindall had missed it, which was unthinkable.

We weren't sure about the legality either, so we looked it up. Law 14.2 states that "a captain may forfeit his second innings", Which implies that he may not forfeit his first innings as Nasser Hussain did. However, Law 14.1 says that "the captain of the batting side may declare an innings closed at any time during a match, irrespective of its duration". It implies he may declare before the innings has begun.

If Test cricket could not provide a precedent, county cricket could. One of the elders of our tribe - the deputy editor of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack - remembered that a special playing condition had been brought in a few years ago by the old Test and County Cricket Board, making first-innings forfeiture permissible. That implies that it isn't allowed normally. So, strictly speaking, what happened yesterday morning was against the letter of the laws.

But was it against the spirit? Not in a million years. When people talk about the spirit of the game, they're usually referring to the way the players treat one another - whether they cheat, intimidate, barge or sledge. But there is another dimension to the phrase, which ought to come first. It's about how the players treat the spectators.

Before it had anything to do with behaviour, the word "spirit" meant breath, or life. Yesterday's deal was all about trying to breathe life into a game that was as dead as Michael Vaughan's bat on a normal day. And which is better at the end of the day? To be kept alive by artificial means, or to die?

The proof is in the viewing. The second flurry of activity in our office came late in the day, as Vaughan shook off his corset and England's target, in the corner of the television screen, suddenly looked gettable. From then on we had more people round the set than Hansie Cronje had round the bat. "When was the last time you had a crowd in here?" someone asked. It was the first Test of the summer, against New Zealand - the last time England won.

Is this win any more significant than that one? Probably not. But there is a faint note of hope in the air, an echo from the far-off days when England last won an Ashes series. Thirteen years ago this month England, 2-0 up against Allan Border's Australians, lost the fifth Test. It looked like a mere consolation prize for a once-great team that had fallen on hard times. In fact it marked the turning of the tide. The next time the teams met, Australia won 4-0. Within eight years, they were world champions.

Well, I did say it was a faint hope.


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