Do not go gentle into that good night…

 

by Nick Withers

Two facts I did not make up: Shane Watson has a book, and it is titled Watto. And you thought Australian cricket was on the mend? I’m sure Watto means well, but it’s a bit early to be crying bright about frail deeds, isn’t it? Crying bright about your frail back perhaps; but to his credit, therein lies its gen. However, if you want a tale about adversity, read about Keith Miller first. He flew fighter planes in WWII. Like Miller, Watto tells us he did not go gentle into that good night. However, overcoming the psychological and anatomical pressures of modern-day cricket doesn’t quite compare. As Miller said, “Pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your arse.” I tend to agree.

If, like me, you’re not all that excited about Watto, then there are other joys to anticipate: Test cricket is here for the summer, and its going to be a great series. Their squad boasts experience, dash and flair. They have proven performers and weighty prospects; our countries’ recent clashes are cricketing folklore, and they tell us that there will be some spice, no matter who is selected. This series might not be rated at three chillies, but it’ll get hot, at least by a degree or two. It will be summer after all, and the Indians are coming.

In the meantime we get Australia A versus New Zealand in Brisbane. Yes, I’m talking Gabba, not Allan Border Field. What happened at the latter will not please AB, and does not bode well for an enthralling series. (Then again, if recent two-test series are anything to go by, I could be very, very wrong.) There are likely to be five replacements in the Australian Team for the NZ clash… I say clash, I probably mean pillow fight; it feels like the neighbours are dropping in for a sleepover.

When I heard that Johnson had some metal in his foot, I worried that it may have been a bullet, so unpopular is he at present. When my wife heard that ‘Rhino’ Harris was injured, she thought they’d called him Wino. The name has stuck, in our house at least; after all, the guy is prone. Between Watto, Marsh, and Clarke, Australian cricket has more back issues than National Geographic. So, given that our first XI’s replacements will be drawn from bowlers that struggled at AB’s, and an opener who can’t decide whether he’s left or right-handed, who loses the trans-Tasman Trophy will probably be more telling than who wins it.

The New Zealand-Zimbabwe series earlier this month had a similar air. Zimbabwe, unranked, lost by thirty four runs. Glory be the loser, that they got so close. With a hundred needed for a win, Zimbabwe still had six wickets in hand and an extended last session on the fifth day in which to do it. Their batsmen didn’t rage against the dying of the light, but they took the back claps out of the Black Caps for the best part of the last day.

Martin Guptill has announced that New Zealand need to show some aggression against Australia. No offence Martin, but the words Guptill and Aggression are discordant in my dictionary. It’s true: I looked it up just after I googled ‘the opposite of white-line fever’ and the words Rage, New, Zealand, and Cricket (no hits). Still, I live in hope.

Another Martin, Chris, has suggested that the pressure will be on Australia. No doubt, but that’s test cricket; there’s always pressure in one form or another. Keith Miller’s definition aside, I imagine that the pressure Chris Martin’s talking about will be a little different from that being felt in South Africa at the moment, failing yet again to win a series at home against Australia in the modern era. And it will be different again from the pressure facing Australia from Boxing Day; Australia and India do not go gently.

Take Sydney, 2008 – an example drawn from countless options. A little bit of my heart was left out on the SCG after the five days of its 2008 test, where the Australians raged against the dying of the light. Clarke’s 3 for 5 to win that match nearing stumps on day five were echoed by the recent Jo’berg heroics. India didn’t snuff out Australia’s light back then, but they huffed and puffed enough to worry us about that test series, and, moreover, what life would be like in a post-Hayden, post-Gilchrist world. Our concerns appeared justified at the time; we now understand why.

India’s stars arrive here in a similar situation to Australia’s then. They are supernovae: They shine brighter than ever, and are burning out because of that very fact. Tendulkar and Dravid’s places in the Indian side remain unchallenged, and, after Kolkata 2001, Laxman will be selected against us even if he loses a leg. But their ends beckon, and they’ll be looking for one last great explosion before it sets in. Old age should burn and rage at close of day…

It will, no doubt, be their swansong tour of Australia; reminiscent of McGrath and Warne all those years ago. But after this week’s astonishing Mumbai test between India and the Windies – a match drawn with scores level, 724 runs apiece – India’s rage may be tempered. The Indians are not aiming at sixteen consecutive test victories (as were Ponting’s team in Sydney 2008) but their stars are as daunting as were Australia’s five years ago.

It is the way of many great sports teams with a core of elite players: They are all consuming. They are destined to implode, but to outshine all and sundry before they do. This era’s Indian team has neither imploded nor outshone, but either outcome can never be written off. For so long Australia held the implosion at bay; it seemed unthinkable that any team – even the incredibly talented side Ponting inherited from Waugh – could ever again string together sixteen on-the-trot. The dying light of that Sydney test clinched this absurdity in dramatic fashion.

Like all good tests, drama was the theme of the match. Following his day-three altercation with Symonds, Harbhajan Singh’s hearing was postponed until after the test. Whilst the Australians were incensed off the field, the Indians were incensed on it, thanks to several umpiring decisions given throughout the match. At the time, a Cricinfo writer suggested that the pairing of Benson and Bucknor should come with the same kind of health warnings normally associated with Benson and Hedges. We got the Decision Review System instead, but so great was India’s dismay at the umpiring that – four years after the fact – they don’t want a bar of the DRS. Confused? You obviously haven’t spent enough time in India.

The real question is: What will we get this time? The answer: At least we’ll get crowds. Crowds at the Mumbai test were disappointing, except for on the morning of the fourth day when, on 67 not out, Tendulkar aimed for his hundredth international hundred. Thousands turned up (like the IPL, it was a sell-out), and when Tendulkar went out for 94 before lunch, they all left to have theirs somewhere else. How many were there to see a test drawn with scores level after the last ball on the fifth day for only the second time in test history? You can guess.

In that Mumbai test, the West Indies raged against the dying of the light, and – as can only happen in a game of cricket – they raged and left satisfied with a draw. Try telling that to Nicks Maxwell and Riewoldt.

Draws like that played out in Mumbai are, like the Cape Town and Jo’berg tests¸ antidotes to the T20 phenomenon: They are hugely satisfying, especially for the few spectators who turn up hoping to be so. Thus, test cricketers are generally doing their bit to shield cricket from commercial corruption; from death-by-a-thousand-cuts (often over point for six). Here in Australia, as spectators we generally do our bit too. Now it’s up to the rest of the world to rage against the dying of the test cricket light; to fight for test cricket by turning up to matches in droves. May their blind eyes gaze like meteors.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Nick, in a strange way I’m looking forward to reading Watto’s book.

    Can’t be worse than Punter’s diaries. Can it?

  2. pamela sherpa says:

    Is Punter’s diaries a bedtime story JB ? Does it put you to sleep?

  3. John Butler says:

    If you’re lucky Pamela.

    If you aren’t, you have to read it.

  4. Nick Withers says:

    Watto: more door-stopper than show-stopper in my book, but still better than Punter’s diaries – they don’t even get this side of the front door.

  5. johnharms says:

    More back issues than Nat Geog. I like it.

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