Being a short, plump, dementedly impatient Jew long since diagnosed with Winnerial Disease – the antisocial disorder named after Michael – this writer is not equipped to cope with traffic.
When a delay on any of Her Majesty’s highways creeps close to a minute, the hackles rise, the head slumps, the fingers feel for the horn, and the mind turns to existential questions concerning the purpose of human life.
That self-indulgent confession in mind, you will appreciate the startling nature of the epiphany experienced shortly after 7pm on Monday. Driving to my parents’ home in north-west London’s star-studded Primrose Hill, I enjoyed a traffic jam for the first time.
A few minutes earlier, a young man with the straggly, moustache-less beard of the observant Muslim had miraculously pouched a red leather sphere in what a later viewing suggested was his right wrist. As a result, England had won the first Test against New Zealand, sending many thousands of spectators streaming out of Lord’s to clog up the roads.
On reflection, although it is the obligatory cliché for a mass departure from a sporting event, they weren’t streaming at all. They were ambling in a blissful daze, wearing the serenely joyful grins of people who have seen something they know they will never forget. Taking in their delight vicariously – while Henry Blofeld enthused on the radio like a boy of 11 trying to slip the shackles of a 75-year-old body – it struck me that in those beatific smiles lay a sign that Test cricket will survive.
For years, the received wisdom has placed the five-day game on death row, reasoning that its pace and infinite subtleties condemn it to execution by lethal indifference. Apparently, it is too slow, dull and complex for the truncated attention spans of an internet-reared generation which prefers the instant gratification of Twenty20. Yet this game illustrated why Test cricket’s alleged fatal weaknesses – the length, complexity, and the languors that punctuate it – are its saving strengths.
Before the juddering climax on Monday, the game had undulated wildly as only Test cricket can. England had begun hideously by losing four wickets quickly. Although they recovered well, the Kiwis again looked likely winners after taking the lead early in their first innings, before suffering what the late and indescribably lamented Richie Benaud knew as “collapso”.
England looked finished for a third time when they still trailed with three second innings batsmen back in the pavilion. But the captain Alastair Cook anchored the innings with magnificent doggedness, freeing the Durham all-rounder Ben Stokes to smash the fastest Test century ever seen at Lord’s. The pair gave England a large enough lead and enough time to bowl out New Zealand. After immediately snaffling three wickets, they seemed certain winners. It was the Kiwis’ turn to recover, before Stokes removed their two best batsmen with consecutive balls, the second (a gorgeous inswinger) drawing the most visceral roar from an English sporting crowd since Andy Murray won championship point at Wimbledon in 2013.
“Nothing happens for long periods” is a classic criticism levelled at Test cricket by the ignoramus – and for the next couple of hours as the Kiwi sixth-wicket partnership clung on like barnacles, “nothing” did. That’s assuming “nothing” translates to the absence of extravagant boundaries, flying catches and shattered stumps. In fact this nothing was something to behold, as the batsmen’s resilience suggested the five days would end without a winner (another alleged flaw that is actually a strength; some of the most thrilling Tests ever played ended in draws), and built the tension to the verge of intolerability.
It broke when the sixth wicket fell, swiftly followed by the seventh and eighth. Even then the New Zealanders threatened to hold out. But finally it fell to the lavishly bearded Moeen Ali to clinch victory with two catches, first plucking the ball an inch above the turf off his own bowling, and then impossibly holding on to it above his head on the deep-third-man boundary. The difference between these catches was one among the many stark contrasts (the rigid discipline of Cook’s batting, for instance, and the murderous flamboyance of Stokes) that are another of Test cricket’s unique glories. “We are so constituted that we can gain intense pleasure only from the contrast, and only very little from the condition itself,” said Sigmund Freud, and, as so often, the old boy was spot on.
Sometimes even a Test match is just a Test match, of course, but this one was something else, and something more, and the pleasure it gave was as intense as any played here since the 2005 Ashes (the Greatest Series Ever Played, and the outlandishly perfect British TV swansong for Benaud).
That was reflected in the faces I studied as the car crawled through St John’s Wood. They had earned their rapture from hours and days of fierce concentration – and not just as the pendulum swung from side to side, but especially during the languid hours when it stood static in the middle. They were sated in a way no one can be by the cheap McCricket thrills of Twenty20, which leaves you craving another portion of deep-fried nuggety sixes the moment it ends.
And by no means were all of those faces elderly or middle aged. A boy of nine or 10 tugged his hand from his dad’s, and grinningly flashed an exquisite imaginary drive through cover point. I did beep the horn as they dawdled on the zebra crossing, though for once from approval rather than irritation, and in the comforting belief that the demise of Test cricket has been greatly exaggerated.Reuse content