James Lawton: Antigua’s epic finale provides a true test of cricket’s real worth

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The Independent Online

Given a little more time to observe and reflect, the great Caribbean patriot and political activist, C L R James, who died 20 years ago, might have written a supplementary to his haunting question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

It would, as a matter of urgency, have been directed to every administrator in every corner of the game. Most appropriately it would have been asked on the day cricket’s erstwhile champion Sir Allen Stanford was confronted by FBI agents and when the high command of the English and West Indian boards continued to wriggle away from the fact that they had leapt into bed with someone accused of an $8bn (£5.5bn) fraud with what can only be described as unseemly heat.

CLR’s other question, surely, would have been, “What do they know of cricket who only money know?”

What do they know of their responsibility to nurture the highest form of the wider game they have almost succeeded in turning into a catchpenny circus?

What do they understand of the physical and mental pressure they have so carelessly inflicted on the world’s best players by their insane, year-round pursuit of profit, by means of such banal corruptions as Twenty20?

Yet if it was depressing to see in Antigua this last week the lion of the English game, Andrew Flintoff, toil so desperately under the weight of cumulative injury and what at times looked pretty close to mental exhaustion – as it was the virtual disappearance as a front-rank performer of Steve Harmison – and nearly as much so as it had been to hear the sublime Brian Lara, at an unacceptably early age, complain of the effects of burnout, something astonishing did re-emerge in the hastily prepared battleground of the old St Johns Rec.

It was that you can do almost anything you like to Test cricket, bombard it with the imperatives of administrative spivvery, squeeze it into the ever-intensifying jamboree of instant, pyjama-clad, swipe-at-it-and-see gratification, except relax in the certain belief that you have snuffed out its glory, obscured in any way the indelible fact that it remains head and shoulders and heart above any other form of the game.

We saw that on Thursday when the missing West Indian spectators filtered into the Rec and began to challenge the mind-numbing, formulaic din of the Barmy Army. They had, of course, received a timeless call to the intrigue and the drama which lurk around so many Test match corners.

And as the locals were drawn to the rickety stadium like pilgrims, across the ocean a similar compulsion was as clearly stated. I’m told that in one trendy gastropub it was demanded that the management turn off the muzak and increase the volume of the television commentary. The wonder is that in 2009 the game in danger of death by skewered values and changed priorities should display, once again, such vital signs.

It was, some said from ringside, a kind of miracle and they were right. A week earlier, when proceedings at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium had to be called off because of the shocking dereliction of those charged with proper preparation, Test cricket in the Caribbean, once so ultimately vibrant and joyous, had roughly the status of a discarded piece of pork jerky.

Yet in the gloaming of Thursday night it was a familiar banquet of exquisite tension as the West Indians, who for so long had been reported to have lost their cricket souls, fought with unremitting determination to save the day. We had everything you want in sport; nerve, great accomplishment, terrible folly and the eternal question: whose gonna win, or whose gonna live to come back with renewed fortitude?

For Flintoff and his advisers, particularly, it was also surely something of a watershed. At 31, with a shocking record of injury, he has to ask himself quite what he plans to do with the rest of his career, one that will almost certainly be most warmly remembered for the excellence and the courage and the charm he displayed in the 2005 Ashes series. Injury may well shape the rest of his year, but if he does retain control of his destiny he has to be aware of the meaning of any decision to play in the India Premier League right up to the first Test of a fresh series at home to the West Indies – and then the immense challenge of another Ashes battle.

The Australian captain, Ricky Ponting, who also holds a contract with the IPL, has already made his priorities clear. He will not play in India. He will devote himself to the challenge of retaining the Ashes regained with much competitive rigour, and barely concealed contempt for ill-prepared opponents, in the wake of defeat in England.

It is no doubt ironic that the hero of English cricket, who represented all that was best in the game in the defeat of the Australians and then so much that was irresponsible when he was given the leadership of the team, is now, like it or not, required to make a clear statement about where he stands.

Will he be drawn to India and damn the consequences? Or will he step off the treadmill and attempt to save something of the best of himself for the Ashes challenge? After his anguish in Antigua, his brave but unavailing battle to inflict the true scale of his talent, it is almost as if he has been singled out to make some kind of personal judgement about where cricket really stands at the end of a week which unfolded like some great and twisted morality tale.

How he jumps, gingerly no doubt considering his physical condition, will inevitably make a comment about the state of mind, and the values, of the great cricketers.

The best hope is that his decision will still the worst fears of those who, as C L R James did, wish to believe that the meaning of cricket will always stretch beyond the boundaries of a single field – and certainly even the most opulent bank account.

Giggs and Vidic surpassed by Carrick’s great leap forward

Acclamation for the enduring ambition and team-building touch of Sir Alex Ferguson is, understandably enough, on a flood tide.

Inevitably, too, much of the praise has centred on the brilliant way the last of the extraordinary gifts of Ryan Giggs have been employed in what could prove the most successful season in the history of Manchester United.

Giggs deserves every scrap of the praise and is plainly a contender, along with his granite defensive team-mate Nemanja Vidic, for Footballer of the Year, which would also be something of a lifetime achievement award for both devoted service and impeccable dignity.

However, neither Giggs nor Vidic would be my first choice as the pivotal performer in United’s pursuit of an unprecedented five trophies, if we are counting the throwaway World Club championship. That distinction more properly belongs to the most improved player in the Premier League – Michael Carrick.

For a while Carrick’s place in the list of Ferguson’s successful transfer moves was far from assured. There were times when he looked something of a luxury. Lovely passing touch, but where was the influence?

The reservations have been swept aside this season. Carrick’s reading of a game has become virtually telepathic, his passing is rarely less than exquisite and his increased eagerness to go forward has brought a new dimension to the team. Even at £18m, he is beginning to nudge his boss towards the the dock on a charge of grand larceny.

Zola and Joan Rivers – separated at birth?

The revelation that for some time it has been impossible for me to watch Everton full-back Tony Hibbert without being put in mind of Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia, may have struck some as eccentric, but the response has been interesting – and quite reassuring.

Quite a lot of you, it seems, have been struck by lookalikes maybe not immediately obvious to the rest of us.

One reader linked Putin not with Hibbert but former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain. Another sees a lot of the young Frank Sinatra in Everton manager David Moyes. Still another rates Manchester United full-back John O’Shea a dead ringer for comedian Peter Kay.

The prize of a bottle of wine, however, goes to Martin Baker, who points out the remarkable resemblance of comedienne Joan Rivers to Gianfranco Zola. He also poses the question: how much would you pay for plastic surgery that made you look like Zola?

If this morning’s shaving mirror is a reliable guide, on balance, quite a lot.