Tuesday, 22 May 2012


Roach material

Late on the fourth evening of the first Test at Lord’s, West Indies’ Kemar Roach, a maximum of twelve deliveries to bowl before the close of play, slipped a few gears and roared in from the Pavilion End, zipping the ball off the wicket in the manner of many of his predecessors to have first Strauss then Anderson caught behind the wicket fencing at climbing deliveries. It was thrilling, electrifying stuff and exactly what makes Test matches so attractive a spectacle – both viscerally and cerebrally, as the case may be.

The following afternoon, this was the topic on the mind of the always engaging and ever insightful Nasser Hussain – for my money, incidentally, the pundit who best grasps cricket’s unique group psychodynamics: those little ‘leakages’ in the unity of a team that can later precipitate its disintegration, or those microsocial mechanisms that cumulatively engender fierce camaraderie and determination.

Anyway, Hussain was moved by the hugely impressive Roach to talk of a resurgence in the art of pace bowling throughout the world game, and this is precisely the subject of my latest piece for Spin magazine (Issue 66), given the title ‘Fast Forward’. Originally, I wrote the small matter of 6700 words on this subject, since trimmed back to around 5000. The first part of the essay enumerated the various quick bowlers to have emerged this winter (three debutant seamers winning Man of the Match wards and another missing out despite taking a 7-fer, his country’s third-best debut figures) before then broadening out into a discussion of the future health of Test cricket and the role of pace bowling therein given the incredible and implacable rise and rise of Twenty20. Can the two forms co-exist or will the latter inevitably be rendered obsolete by the popularity and marketability of the former? 

the heat is on...
Well, my argument in the piece is simple: Test cricket as a spectacle depends on the continued presence of pace bowlers. They are its prime box-office draw. Nothing thrills like an express paceman. Therefore, I suggest that the future prosperity and wellbeing of the Test format as a whole (macro) will emerge, bottom-up, from the aggregate of individual decisions of pace bowlers (micro) regarding whether they save their bodies from the rigours of Test cricket, and its attendant risk to their future earning potential, and instead pursue T20 alone, as have Lasith Malinga and Shaun Tait.

While the ICC can easily adapt its Future Tours Programme to fit the IPL schedule (it is utterly naïve to think this will happen in reverse or can be imposed from Dubai), and accommodations that are made will impact far less on the thinking of quick bowlers than they might on spinners and batsmen since the latter can in principle play all year round if they wish. They can come from a Test in Brisbane, Bridgetown, Birmingham or Bloemfontein, jump off the plane in Bangalore, and get straight into it. Obviously, the treadmill as far more taxing – physically, certainly – for pace bowlers.

Now, I say I originally wrote 6700 words. That much is true. For a long time – until an eleventh-hour and entirely understandable change of heart from the editor – the piece involved a lengthy excursion into some aspects of a Marxist philosophy of history, principally because it still provides – albeit in slightly modified (‘non-economistic’) form – the framework that is most adequate to account, in general terms, for the causes of historical events (as opposed to natural events that affect historical processes: tsunamis, earthquakes and other happenings that insurers would file under force majeure). More specifically, an understanding of the way capital works – one which we all know, by the way: extract value from this or that process (producing, trading, etc) and realize it as profit, then reinvest, ad infinitum – is the most cogent means available for us to be able to grasp the manner in which the ‘blind’ or ‘myopic’ functioning of market forces affects the overall pattern of the historical process as a whole. 

Put simply, capitalism’s unslakable thirst for new sources of profit makes it sublimely indifferent and utterly unsentimental about anything that a community (such as cricket lovers in our case) may hold sacred or meaningful or valuable in a non-monetary sense if such an entity is not yielding a profit (hence the threat to Test cricket in most – though not all – countries, for in some it is still a profitable enterprise). It freewheels along, tossed and buffeted on a sea of competition and the ever shifting ground of demand… 

However, this theorization of the undirectedness, nonlinear, haphazard nature of history – no-one believes any more that there is a historical purpose: a destiny, a utopia – as the net effect of profiteering in the here-and-now (local rationalism, global irrationalism) is also, perversely, precisely the source of optimism as far as Test cricket is concerned, for it shows that the latter’s imputed extinction at the hands of commercial forces (and social trends in the subcontinent and elsewhere) is far from a done deal. History is contingency, not necessity.

While market forces have in some ways superseded the power of nation-states and their governments and are clearly hugely powerful historical causes, so too is desire – in this case, the conscious desire (or will) to protect something that may not make much commercial sense when set alongside T20 on the balance sheet (indeed, TV rights for a single IPL game now sell for as much as a Test match in India: approximately $7m).

As for those individual fast bowlers, it is far easier for the Boards of the wealthier Test-playing nations to call the shots and demand that their players remain available, “or else…”. But this is not quite so easy for West Indies, who already have a whole team playing elsewhere. It is to be hoped that Kemar Roach – and James Pattinson, Pat Cummins, Marchant de Lange, Doug Bracewell and others – continue to strive for Test glory: the nation over the market, if you will. 
Anyway, regarding the more intellectual / indulgent / tedious version of my piece – which bore the slightly cumbersome title of this blog post – once the new issue of Spin has been out a while, I will consider whether I should post it here or perhaps seek to have it published on another platform (Wisden would be the optimum, but I’m also involved in the early stages of an all-sport, Blizzard-like magazine for longform journalism which would no doubt run it…). I mean, come on: anything that managed to illustrate the replenishment of international cricket’s pace-bowling stocks and the concrete dilemma facing quick bowlers today (country or money?) by way of Wilfred Owen’s anti-war masterpiece, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, deserves an airing…

My Epigraph
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

My coda
It may be more urgent than we realize to gather together the talented teenage pacemen out there – cricket’s heavy artillery, its future – and to communicate with “high zest” to these youngsters “ardent for some desperate glory” that old (metaphorical) truth of international cricket: “Dulce est decorum est / Pro patria mori”.


Spin Issue 66 is available from larger WH Smith stores (not Stoke-on-Trent!)
* Single issues can be picked up from Kim Jones: 
     e: countycricketkj[at]gmail[dot]com
     m: 07932 164222
* You can subscribe by calling Abacus Media on: 020 8955 7072

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