What I’ve Learned This Summer: Nicko Hancock
The 2011/2012 summer of cricket is quickly drawing to a close, and in years to come, we’ll look back with sepia-tinged goggles and reminisce fondly about Pup’s three-hundred, KP’s return to form, and Doug Bracewell’s spell at Hobart. At The Sledge, we get nostalgic about things very quickly; as such, we’ve asked some of the brightest cricket writers from around the world to put together pieces on What They’ve Learned This Summer.
Spicier pitches make test cricket more interesting.
In the last five years, there have been 204 test matches contested by ten teams. 58 of those have been draws, and to me, this seems too high.
By… well, about fifty-eight.
Okay, so I’m excitable. I’m Generation Wikipedia – I like bright lights, fast editing, and sports that give us results. When I’m invested in something, I need closure, especially if that ‘something’ runs for five days.
I don’t want to ride an epic five-day test rollercoaster for five days, only told that my heart-pounding experience has been rendered null and void.
I abhor results that aren’t; at least the Duckworth-Lewis System, for all the pain and drama and head-scratching it creates, gives one day internationals a finality.
To me, a drawn test match is the cricketing equivalent of your prep teacher telling your class that “everyone’s a winner!”, even though you’d spent five days making a paper mache you were damn sure was better than everyone else’s.
Test cricket on dull pitches is like Die Hard minus the guns, the explosions, and the fist-fights. It’s like Oceans Eleven minus the cunning heists, or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly minus any of the above.
Worse: it’s like Avatar without any special effects. That’s right: just a blank screen. It’s boring, it goes for what feels like forever, and you leave without really seeing anything.
So, I put it to the ICC that they should help to ensure we see exciting test cricket (read: there’s a result at the end) by giving the bowlers a bit of rope to play with. It’s the Age Of The Batsmen. Twenty20 is slowly but surely whittling down bowlers through fielding restrictions, shorter boundaries, and bats the size of children.
The big, barrel-chested fast bowlers of yesteryear have been replaced with gaunt, wiry figures, used to being slapped for six with disdain. I say: help them, and help the game.
After all, cricket is a contest between bat and ball. Zippy pitches merely help to balance the scales.
Hobart was seaming and Michael Clarke was seething as Doug Bracewell took six wickets and New Zealand upset Australia. Likewise, Perth had pace and bounce, and pitted two top-quality groups of fast bowlers against one-another: Zhan, Sharma, Vinay Kumar and that ferocious Yadav versus Harris, Hilfenhaus, Starc and Siddle, the People’s Champion.
The test matches between Pakistan and England were carnage for batsmen, with the spinners on either side dictating the results. Saeed Ajmal seemed to have the ball on a piece of string, and it was mesmerising to see him bamboozle Eoin Morgan, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell innings after innings. He was the puppet master; the theme was a farce.
Those test matches listed above were wars of attrition, as is the best test cricket. Warner, twice, was the batsman who rose above the bowling, and his two centuries in tough conditions are marks of his ability; likewise, Virat Kohli sweated over each and every one of his 119 runs in the Perth test. It was very much a case of the lone warrior holding off a horde.
Pakistan versus England? It was more like a shelling.
I am a firm believer that test cricket needs to add some spice for taste. Barren pitches are okay on odd occasions, and high-scoring games can be engrossing provided that there is still a result that’s not a “draw.”
I’m not saying that every test pitch needs to be loaded. International batsmen would be retiring at 27 with post-traumatic stress disorder, muttering “carrom ball, carrom ball” through chittering teeth.
But I adore the idea that when international teams come to Australia, Perth will bounce, the Gabba will seam, and Sydney will spin. Moreso, when test cricket is played in the West Indies, the ball will rocket off a good length, and when teams tour the subcontinent, the ball will spin at right angles.
I dare you, cricket: thrill me.
Playing T20 cricket is an acceptable warm up for test cricket. In the eyes of the Australian selectors, anyway.
During the Indian test series, the selectors were faced with a quandary: first class four-day cricket was on hold for the duration of the Big Bash League, with a Twenty20 window running throughout January.
This raised a bevvy of questions, and chief amongst them: What if the Aussie team failed? What if the team was defeated emphatically in the Boxing Day test, and sweeping changes had to be made?
Heaven forbid, what if there were injuries? Where would the selection panel source their players from?
Would they pick the players whom had been in form during the Sheffield Shield, or whom were in form during the BBL?
Australia would doubtlessly have under immense felt pressure and scrutiny before the first test, because India had named a fantastic squad on paper and had looked in dangerous form during their two warm-up games against the Chairman’s XI.
Plus, Australia were shaken after being beaten by New Zealand in Hobart, and had been humiliated by South Africa at Johannesburg, being dismissed for 47 in one innings on a green pitch.
Add to this pot the new selection panel, headed by John Inverarity, whom were making waves across the all three formats. They began their test duties by naming a relatively new-look team for the series, with Shaun Marsh replacing Usman Khawaja and Ed Cowan coming in for Phil Hughes.
Hughes, however, wanted to fight for his place, and the best way to do that, he reasoned, was through first class cricket for New South Wales. So, in a stunning declaration of his intent to return to test cricket, he reneged from his contract to play T20 cricket for the Sydney Thunder franchise, and instead decided to focus on first class cricket to break back into the side. Which was strange, considering that New South Wales wouldn’t play first class cricket until February, which was just under two months away.
But this year, the selectors have gotten away with it. The players they bought into the test side during the Indian whupping all performed at the right times, with only one or two exceptions.
Ryan Harris returned to the test side having played three underwhelming games for the Brisbane Heat. Mitchell Starc, who played in the third test in lieu of James Pattinson, performed more than adequately after playing for the Sydney Sixers.
As staggering as it may be to state here, these sort of success stories actually breed bad habits.
On the flip side, Shaun Marsh was batting at the all-important number three position in all four tests, and managed just 17 runs in six innings.
The Australian public were confused. “Geoff’s Son” was underperforming consistently in a critical role.
Their diagnosis? Drop him.
But who could replace him at number three? Nobody who’d played first-class cricket for a month.
And why was he persisted with for the whole series? Because shortly before the Boxing Day Test he pounded an unbeaten 99 off 52 balls against the Melbourne Renegades in a Twenty20 match.
And then there was Brad Haddin’s form. Again, his batting was slow, and laboured, and his keeping was never better than moderate. Having won the first three test matches, the Aussies entered the last game with a blank slate, and the opportunity to try something new.
It was the equivalent of an artist standing in front of a new canvas with a pack full of brushes… and without any paint. A deft Wade stroke could have made a positive impact on the team. But we didn’t see it, because he couldn’t force his way in on the back of first class runs.
He was, to put it bluntly, batting too low for the Melbourne Stars, in the wrong format, to make his case for selection.
But, hey. Everything went better than expected. The results are on the board, chalked down as “four hyphen nil.”
But what if things had gone differently? What if Ponting had brought his poor form into those test matches? Or if Marsh was making no runs, and the team was losing?
It’s a classic case of operating without a safety net. It’s absurd.
Test cricket is the highest form of the game, and it needs that harness of first class games.
It’s common sense. It just needs to become Standard Operating Proceedure.
There are two different sorts of fairy tales.
Part of cricket’s appeal (or, indeed, the appeal of sport) is escapism. We ride the highs and the lows of our favourite teams and players. When they fail, we urge them not to drop their heads. When they succeed, we’re lifting trophies with them.
This summer, there were two fairytales, as far removed from one-another as sugar and salt.
In Australia, the Big Bash League lit up those dusty summer weeknights. It was a twenty-over tournament of hyperbole and massive media interest.
Thunder! Stars! Heat, and Hurricanes, and Renegades! There were more exclamation marks than a Coles customer testimonial.
“This is the best seed that we have used so far. Our budgies appear more active and brighter!” – Jim, expert bird breeder.
“I think I have a drinking problem!” – Alysha, drinks two litres of water a day.
“Smooth, yet surprisingly nutty!” – Stephanie, supports the Adelaide Strikers.
Money was invested into the Big Bash League so that money could be made from it. Players were flown in from around the world to participate. There was aggressive, meticulously-planned advertising. It was cricket as a corporate product.
On the other side of the world, Afghanistan played against Pakistan in Sharjah, in what was their first ever one day international against a test match team.
Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, made regular phone calls to Sharjah to keep up to date with the scores. The Taliban, the insurgency fighting the current Afghani government and the US forces stationed in Afghanistan, sent a message of hope, saying that the team would be “remembered in their prayers.”
Dr Omar Zakhilwal is not only Afghanistan’s Minister of Finance, he is also the chairman of the Afghanistan Cricket Board. And he summed it up best when he said:
“We have had so much bad news in Afghanistan. But cricket – and this game against Pakistan – has brought good news for the people of a country who have suffered so much in the past. This is a proud day.”
And so the games commenced, to be lost and won.
The Perth Scorchers and the Sydney Sixers came to blows with money, and sponsorship, and opportunities at stake, most of which were six-figure sums to play in three-letter acronyms.
“OMG! Did you hear that if Brad Hogg plays well in the final, he might play in both the BPL and the IPL?!”
Careers wouldn’t be made and broken in that final; they’d be funded.
It’s that kinda fiction.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan played Pakistan.
The Sydney Sixers won the inaugural Big Bash League by seven wickets on an oppressively hot day at the WACA. Steve Smith, the shunned Australian spinner and the stand-in captain who lead the Sixers with aplomb for practically the entire tournament, struggled to lift the gigantic trophy. It was the shot heard around the world.
In Sharjah, the Afghanistan cricket team was defeated by seven wickets in rather straight-forward fashion. There was no silverware on offer. It was effectively a “friendly” game; in later years, it will be found in an obscure part of CricInfo by curious statisticians, or that one particular self-loathing, dirt-poor breed of bastard:
The Sydney Sixers versus the Perth Sorchers in Perth versus Pakistan versus Afghanistan in Sharjah. Cash, fluoro, and marketability versus that old adage; “if a tree falls in a forest…”
Instant gratification versus seeding seeds of “maybe, one day…”
In years to come, despite the glitz and glamour, we’ll predominantly remember the latter.
It wasn’t strictly a fairytale.
It was a good start.
* The boys were clearly flustered. “I can’t find the first game that Afghanistan played against a test-playing nation!”
“Me neither!” said the other, rubbing his temple. “I keep thinking it must be that 2019 World Cup game they played against Australia, but it’s not!”
Across the MCC library, behind a maxed out Apple Macbook iAir iTiny, a greasy face popped up. Daryl had sensed an opportunity to show his miscellaneous fact superiority.
“Actually, boys,” Daryl said, pushing his glasses to the bridge of his nose and managing to look swarmier than anyone had thought possible, “it was a one day international fixture against Pakistan, and can be found under the “Afghanistan tour of United Arab Emirates, 2011/12”.”
The n00bs thanked him graciously. Daryl returned to sucking on the end of his pen, practically sweating elitism; I showed them, he thought. They know who’s boss.
Daryl was a thirty-three year-old cricket-obsessed virgin, but fuck me he could he use StatsGuru.
Nicko Hancock is a twit who tweets about cricket.
For more “Things We’ve Learned This Summer”, click here.