Michael Clarke and Aleem Dar have been here before. On Sunday night in The Kia Oval gloaming the Australia captain confronted the umpire because he wanted to go off. Two years ago in Brisbane the Australia captain confronted the same umpire because he didn’t want to go off. Rules are rules and in both cases off they went, accompanied by howls of protest from supporters and, later, the home side’s administrators. You win some, you lose some, Michael. That is except the supporters, that dwindling global band who pay to come and watch Test matches, the elite form of the game and simply the greatest form of the game.
This has not been a classic Ashes, far from it, but there have been moments that will resonate far beyond anything that happens in the slew of forthcoming one-day internationals, or for that matter any one-day international there has ever been. Take Ashton Agar’s glorious first-timer’s smile and classical swing of the bat as he swished his way into the history books at Trent Bridge; Ian Bell’s textbook, timeless batting, a style of batsmanship that would have had Don Bradman nodding approval; Shane Watson’s ball-magnet of a front pad (Tests one to four); Shane Watson’s ball-magnet of a broad bat (Test five).
In Britain the Ashes provide one of the few moments, possibly only moments, when cricket can demand everyone’s attention, and the memory that will accompany us back to the endless high-protein diet of football over the next 20-plus months – there is a World Cup next year so cricket and the rest will not have the summer to themselves – is the sound of booing, disgruntlement and an insistence that everybody was only following orders. It’s a mess of cricket’s making.
It has not been a good summer for those who run the game. Despite what C L R James famously asserted, there is a case to be made that cricket is fortunate to stand out among sports in the involvement of former players, those who have played at the highest level, in helping to manage the game once bats have been laid down and whites folded away.
Dave Richardson, the South African chief executive of the International Cricket Council, played Test cricket relatively recently. The playing conditions and regulations under which the umpires acted at The Oval were not drawn up by a roomful of faceless bureaucrats or time-serving blazers, as can be the case in other sports. Anil Kumble recently succeeded Clive Lloyd, the great West Indies captain, as chair of the ICC’s cricket committee, the body that came up with the current ruling that once teams have gone off for bad light that measurement becomes the determining factor for the remainder of that Test.
It is a body, as is its host, that is well aware of the threat to Test cricket, and both are trying to do something about it. But the sport needs stronger governance from the top and that has been lacking in recent months, for all the willingness to slap a fine on Darren Lehmann’s ample behind. Cricket has been praised for its willingness to use technology but the whole Decision Review System process is now becoming as complicated and distracting from the actual playing of the game as the scrum in rugby. It’s a shambles, and it’s a different shambles in different places. There is talk of the BCCI, the Indian governing body, agreeing a “compromise” with the ICC to allow use of DRS in Tests in India. What global governing body allows different countries to pick and choose how they play the game? You can’t appease all of the people all of the time.
If that is the realpolitik of the sport – India gets what India wants – it can also be used as a reason to change the one-rule-fits-all approach to bad light that ruined Sunday night at The Oval. Cricket is unique among major sports in that conditions vary massively from country to country and continent to continent. A football pitch is a football pitch whether it is in London, Buenos Aires or even, God forbid, at a winter World Cup in Doha. Cricket pitches are flat, dusty, green or bouncy. Sometimes even verging on dangerous. In some cricketing parts of the world, darkness falls abruptly, in others twilight lingers. In an English summer all four seasons can contribute and every day is different.
Last year there were rumblings of discontent at Edgbaston when play against West Indies was ended prematurely for similar reasons. It may seem like a Luddite cry to halt progress but there needs to be a return to the umpires, with the aid of the match referee, having greater control over proceedings in front of them. Umpires appear increasingly emasculated, technicians following orders. Instead they should decide whether play should be stopped on their judgement of what is happening there and then; until the DRS can be universally applied and to a standard that is universally accepted, leave it to the umpires. Give the umpires greater powers to combat shoddy over rates, a crime no side is above committing and one that is hugely damaging. For example, a sin-bin penalty, a team losing a fielder for an hour if it falls behind the required over rate for successive hours. More former players are becoming umpires, so that should help with the natural authority and knowledge, both formal and informal, required.
Cricket needs Tests. They are the bedrock of the sport, and its future. The Indian Premier League is an implosion waiting to happen, and one that has opened a scarcely needed new frontier in the struggle for the sport’s integrity. It is a relief that India have unearthed some exciting new batsmen, Test-playing batsmen, and are promising to play the longer form of the game well. Test cricket, to fiddle the old English adage, needs a strong India. But it also needs strong umpires, and a governing body strong enough to let the umpires strike back on their own.
Now we know men in black are guys to beat
The rapture that greeted the Lions triumph over Australia this summer must now be placed in a more appropriate perspective, given the accomplished trampling the men in black have performed on the Wallabies over the past two weekends. The All Blacks are without Dan Carter and a number of other front-line picks – on Saturday their debutant No 10, Tom Taylor, was fourth-choice – but having run in 47 points in Sydney and then won 27-16, a score that did not reflect the balance of the game, last weekend, they remain the team to beat. The power of four, as the Lions marketing men liked to trumpet it, was enough to beat Australia, but not by much. The power of the fourth-choice was enough for New Zealand to beat Australia. They remain the benchmark.
By the logic of 2005, it must be Simon Kerrigan MBE
A final thought on the Ashes. It was difficult to spot poor Simon Kerrigan in the celebrations around The Oval on Sunday. It has been impossible not to feel for the young Lancastrian over the course of his troubling debut, but sport at the highest level is ruthless. Over the weekend Mike Selvey made a compelling case to suggest why, given Kerrigan’s basic technique and the severe restrictions placed on his action by his height, he may not play Test cricket again.
But in these days when bandwagon-sensitive politicians are loath not to reward any British sportsman who has a whiff of success about them, Kerrigan, now an Ashes winner after all, should surely receive an MBE à la Paul Collingwood eight years ago, if only to see the reaction of Shane Warne and all those Australians who seem to think their men have ended the summer occupying the game’s moral high ground.