The Last Word: Let virtues of the long game flourish in Indian summer
T20 desecrates the game’s essence, absolving batsmen of all responsibility
The concept of a "last stand" has natural resonance to any cricketer, never mind one whose forefathers would occasionally defend besieged compounds with three rusty bayonets, a ceremonial musket, and a silver hairpin belonging to the vice-consul's wife. Most of the time, of course, the odds were loaded rather more cheerfully in their favour. Only the Empire's most flagrant abuses, however, were inadequately redressed by its greatest bequest: not democracy, but a game that can permit two men to neutralise even the most prolonged ascendancy with a sufficiently bloody-minded stand for the 10th wicket.
Now, in turn, Test cricket stands over its own last ditch. For the narcoleptic pitches expected in India this winter – in bespoke revenge for the home loam of 2011 – will inevitably be represented as a final embalmment for the five-day game. The ball will not so much be delivered, when the series begins on Thursday, as interred; laid to rest, as in some velvet-lined casket, right at the geographical and commercial epicentre of the T20 revolution.
And that's going to suit some of us down to the ground – down to its very dust. For T20 desecrates the essence of the game, absolving the batsman of all responsibility to maintain that exquisite tension between vigilance and risk.
Test cricket requires him to explore some mystical margin of his nature, deferring the indulgence that urges him to thrash ecstatically at every ball. T20, in contrast, obeys the fatuous instinct of these times for instant gratification. Its misjudgements never obtain a ruinous quality, but merely allow the next of your mates to essay the same breathless, orgiastic smears himself. In short, the batsman who abandons discipline after an hour of Test cricket may find he has involved the vicar's daughter in scandal; while exactly the same offence in T20 will be laughed off as some meretricious, meaningless tangle with a harlot.
Yet the Test batsman must still harness his forbearance to romantic aspirations of conquest. England aren't going to win this series by prodding the ball away with a pad for three and a half days. In withering heat and tension, batsmen will need to combine stamina and improvisation, alert to every nuance of danger or opportunity. Ravichandran Ashwin, in fairness, first made his name – and his doosra – in T20. For the purist, however, it is over five days that he becomes literally entrancing.
The same purist will know that the first tour of India was an amateur affair, in 1889-90, under George Vernon. Born a year before the Sepoy Mutiny, Vernon ended his career with a first-class average of just 19.10, and Wisden's obituary conceded that he never played "with quite a straight bat". Indeed, he bagged a pair, courtesy of Spofforth, in a notorious MCC capitulation (33 and 19) to Australia at Lord's in 1878. Nonetheless, Vernon was a typically accomplished cog in the imperial machine: a barrister, rugby international, and cricket evangelist to the colonies. He also toured Australia before his death in Ghana, of malaria, at 46.
Vernon had played alongside the first man to captain England in both rugby and cricket, Arthur "Monkey" Hornby – whose Lancashire partnership with Dick Barlow was immortalised by Francis Thompson: "As the run stealers flicker to and fro, To and fro: Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!" Hornby named his first son George Vernon, but would lose him at just 26 in South Africa. (He also lost two other sons prematurely, in imperial adventure: one in the trenches of France, another exploring arctic Canada. Only Albert survived, to play 283 times for Lancashire himself.)
Momentously, Vernon's first tourists lost a match to the Parsees of Bombay – their first encounter with the terrifying pace of Dr Pavri – but India would not play a Test until they came here in 1932. "Bodyline" followed that winter, after which Douglas Jardine would conduct only one more tour: England's first to India, the land of his own birth, in 1933-34.
It is not hard to surmise what these various pioneers would make of T20; never mind of Kevin Pietersen. These were men trusted to share the same length of perspective at a time their superiors were literally months away.
Nostalgics will be gratified, anyhow, to see the name of Compton back in Test cricket. Denis never appeared in a Test in India, albeit he evidently played a bit when posted there during the war. His grandson, plainly, is not in the same swashbuckling mode. If anything, Nick might sooner borrow the surname of his rival, Joe Root. But he represented his native Natal at tennis, football and hockey, and his antecedents duly have a broader sonority than the one everyone has always pestered him about. Denis, after all, would presumably have been a roaring success at T20. But Nick bats like a man who will defend the garrison until they melt down the last candelabra.
India and Britain may have rather transposed their roles on the world stage since Vernon's day. But young Compton seems to recognise that this series preserves too timeless a legacy, for anybody to be in too much of a rush.
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