James Lawton: English cricket's triumph mocks tawdry offerings of the big kick-off

You might say it was the Premier League's bad luck that it should return so wretchedly quite so soon after another superbly grown-up performance from England's Test side

Click to follow
The Independent Football

It is not often the august Royal Automobile Club get it wrong but they did this time. They said the distance between Edgbaston cricket ground and St James' Park, Newcastle, was 208.78 miles with a driving time of three hours, eight minutes and 40 seconds. The cost of petrol, they added, would be at least £35.

That last projection seemed particularly suspect by the time Alex Song stamped on Joey Barton and Joey Barton dragged Gervinho up from the ground where he completed his dive and Gervinho gave Joey Barton a little slap across his cheek and Joey Barton went down as though he had been hit by an Exocet missile and Arsène Wenger complained about the referee.

At this point it seemed that the ground we had covered from the moment Sachin Tendulkar sucked in his disappointment at losing his wicket in the most draining circumstances was so vast and so dispiriting you had to doubt whether there was enough oil in all of Arabia to get the journey done.

You might say that it was just the Premier League's bad luck that it should return to the TV parlours of the nation so wretchedly, quite so soon after another superbly grown-up performance from the England Test side, which is now ensconced at the top of the world rankings.

But then in sport, as in life, you tend to make your own luck. It meant that what happened at Tynecastle seemed a bit more like the judgement of the gods than another serial instalment of football misadventure. It is certainly tough imagining a small knot of society more apparently impervious to events beyond their own touchlines than some of those wearing the shirts of Newcastle and Arsenal.

Never mind, for a moment, that down the road in Birmingham, the cricketers of England had again provided an unforgettable example of application and superior competitive character. This was, after all, the end of a week when the nation, which one way or another pays for the Premier League, was peeking through the smoke and the rubble of looting and burning. A time, you might have thought, for a slight lifting of the horizons.

Or, not to get too dreamy about it, perhaps we might have settled for the distraction of a few particles of decent football. Wenger, and the usual television huckstering, suggested we had some of this but if Arsenal's pretty-pretty version of the game becomes any more toothless and old-hat it might start shedding mothballs. Gervinho showed plenty of skill but had the overall impact of a marshmallow. Sound familiar?

Any comparison between the dynamics of cricket and football is in danger of being stretched but maybe there was a point which had as much relevance at Edgbaston as it did at St James' Park. It was that one team at least seemed to be operating from an extremely solid base of an ambition to achieve something of lasting worth, something which might not be spelled out entirely in the lines of a five-year-contract. Maybe it was about lasting achievement, something to warm your hands on in 20 years' time.

Newcastle-Arsenal's shelf-life, for sure, extended no further than the time it might take to submit to a cold shower. It was a match without bite or any other kind of redemption and what was so sickening was the speed with which even the most squalid behaviour is now absorbed by those who sell football as nothing, either more or less, than a prime entertainment commodity.

Back in Birmingham it would have been pointless to pretend, for all the English glory, that the infection of crass commercialism had not already taken its toll within the boundary rope.

England have now won three Test matches, which were supposed to be finely balanced, by the distance between here and Bangalore. Why? Partly because, under the leadership of Andrew Strauss, there has developed a brilliant balance of high talent and determination, the latest expression of which came from the masterful swing bowling of James Anderson on Saturday morning. Another reason is that Indian cricket shows every appearance of having sold its soul for the big rupees of Twenty20 cricket.

Belatedly, it seems that the humiliation which has engulfed great men like Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, and which seems to have hurt them rather more than some younger colleagues who have waxed so wealthy playing in the hit-and-miss Indian Premier League, is being grasped back on the subcontinent.

Unfortunately, there was little concern about the risks involved in sending the No 1-ranked team to England with minimal preparation and two of the nation's great players, the cyclonic opener Virender Sehwag and principal seam bowler Zaheer Khan, plainly unfit for serious combat. Khan broke down, irreparably, on the first day of the first Test. Sehwag arrived for the third match and the ultimate catastrophe of a king pair: two balls, two dismissals, and a little time to reflect on how it was he turned up for a major Test series so pathetically ill-equipped to show even a fragment of his talent.

There is one last hope now as the Indians make their way forlornly to last rites at The Oval later this week. It is that we see something of the best of what is left of the magic of Indian cricket at the highest, most meaningful level of the game. Dravid has scored one century, a masterpiece of patience and resilience against the heaviest odds at Lord's, Laxman has given brief reminders of his quality, and on Saturday Tendulkar might just have produced a diamond of an innings amid the ashes.

When he was run out while backing up you didn't have to be a traitor to wish for a WG Grace moment, when the old curmudgeon stood his ground and said the crowd had come to see his batting and not the upraised finger of an umpire. Tendulkar merely walked back to the pavilion, nursing how many regrets we could not be quite sure.

It would be comforting to believe that at least some of his angst was shared a few hours later by Joey Barton and Gervinho.