Rain came not only as a relief to the Londoners after days of stifling heat, the mix of heavy showers and incessant drizzle ensured that the Oval crowd would not have to endure another day of one of the most torturous displays of batting by England. Arunabha Sengupta discusses why the showers were actually merciful to the lovers of the game.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.”
And on Saturday, circumstances combined into a poetic tweak of the Shakespearean quote. On display was merciful compassion of the weather gods, the presiding deities of cricket. Rain fell from the heaven above — sometimes gently and on occasions inenthusiastic torrents, with far more sense of purpose than demonstrated by both the teams.
The showers prevented several thousands of cricket lovers from turning their footsteps to The Oval in spite of the endless torture endured on the third day.
The persistent showers and dogged drizzles not only provided welcome relief after days of stifling, often unbearable, London heat. Worthy adherents of the game were rescued from another listless six hours that could have sucked passion away from their very souls. So were countless others around the world whose passion would have forced them to follow the proceedings on television and web channels.
On one side there were the English batsmen,with their atrocious lack of intent, proceeding to bat with the most negative approach witnessed in recent times. On the other hand, there was the Australian bowling —woefully bereft of plan or potential to capitalise on the pitiful absence of inspiration of the home batsmen.
If the third day was anything to go by, the fare in the middle promised to be another pathetic display of all that the game is not supposed to be. The contest between bat and ball was all set to be reduced to another prolonged saga of going through painstaking motions.
The Day Three Yawnathon
A working Friday had seen stands full of enthusiastic fans, many of them clad in the official England blue, fervently cheering the England team on as they set out to resume their reply to the 492 scored by Australia. And as they sat in the baking sun, braving the unusual furnace like heat, the England top order provided a performance of stagnation, enough to chase away the most die-hard Test match lover.
Alastair Cook led by glacial example, scoring 25 from 88 balls before a merciful edge off Ryan Harris brought an end to the left-handed torture on the senses. Joe Root can perhaps be excused for struggling to get back in form. He spent the innings fighting his inclination to stay rooted to the crease, forcing himself to come forward. He did proceed to play some fine drives on either side. Yet, his progress till the demise in the second session trying to sweep Nathan Lyon was hardly riveting.
However, it was Jonathan Trott who manfully crawled his way to become the undisputed sloth of the day. Woefully out of form, he got himself into numerous tangles trying to walk into the pace bowling. It was an excruciating tale of struggle. Yet, none of the Australian bowlers were capable enough to find their way through the gaping chinks in his armour. He fended Harris off his face, and was struck on the helmet by the same bowler. Michael Clarke almost replicated the bodyline field, placing two short mid-wickets and a leg slip. But, Trott trudged on, scratching a run here and another there, as the heat and tedium worked on the stadium. If it had not been for a cloud cover that shaded the arena during the last three hours, the heat might well have driven the crowd to desperation.
It was while bowling to Trott that the complete lack of purpose of Mitchell Starc was unfurled in full view. With the batsman surviving on flimsiest gifts of fortune, finding the edge more often than the middle, Starc stuck to bowling six different deliveries in an over, linked neither by direction nor by scheme, most of them far enough away to be left alone without alarm or thought. Starc did get Trott in the end, but it was an effect of randomness of events rather than careful planning.
Kevin Pietersen is perhaps one man who could be counted upon to add a splash of colour to the drab day, and he did start with a superb drive off Starc. The only phase of a keen cricketing contest was on display when Nathan Lyon bowled a testing line and length to Pietersen, and the batsman often struggled to cope with the off-breaks.Yet, when someone like Pietersen gets into his double figures off the 44th ball, it speaks volumes about the general approach of the England team.
Ian Bell, with mountains of runs in the series, was no different. The man who has already scored three hundreds and a fifty against the Australians this summer now proceeded to 29 from 110 deliveries. Yes, England has already won the Ashes and Australia did pile on a big score, but the approach of the top-order batsmen beggared belief.
Before lunch, only 65 runs trickled in 27 overs. The second session produced 84 from 38. A young lad, hardly 12 years of age and accompanied by a most encouraging mother, diligently jotted down the infrequent singles and twos in his scorecard. Twenty minutes before tea, his mother suggested that 200 could be scored before the break. The youngster had lost his faith in the game during the course of the day. “In your dreams,” was his response to his mother’s optimism.
By the third session, the worthy spectators had found other ways of amusing themselves. A sterling youth led the way, rising from his seat in slow deliberation, signalling his intent with a wave of his hand, raising his full glass of beer and, amidst cheers, proceeding to empty the contents in one prolonged swig. A round of applause greeted this feat — way more commendable than anything seen in the ground. The entire act was carried out during the course of an over, but by then no one cared about the cricket anymore. More merry men took up the cause. One by one the able gentlemen and some sporting ladies as well, stood up, glasses of ambers were brandished, and the contents gulped down. The crowd had something to cheer about.
And on the field the stonewalling continued. In the course of a normal game, such tactics of scorelessness generally propel the bowling side to the top. But whilst a Glenn McGrath or a Shane Warne would have revelled at the lack of intent of the English batsmen and could be counted upon to whisk the match away from them, the current Australian attack possessed little ability to trouble the batsmen. The proceedings took the shape of a prolonged net session in which desultory batsmen focus on perfecting their defence.
It was perhaps the worst advertisement of a spectator sport. The England team management does often speak about the method and merit through which they have become one of the best teamsin the world. Yet, the way they batted gave little indication that they indeed believed in their supremacy.
A few more days of cricket such as this and the young lad will soon find another sport that offers slightly more activity in the middle, and his mother will perhaps not be inclined to stall his change of allegiance. And all the wonderful men and women trying to entertain themselves and their fellow fans with swigs at their beer glasses will come to the realisation that such harmless recreation is possible in the much more comfortable confines of air-conditioned pubs.
Rain actually arrived as a deliverer, perhaps sent by the cricketing gods to wash away the sins of Cook, Trott, Bell and the others. The grey clouds that hovered over London all through the fourth day actually combined into a bright dash of colour when compared to the batting display of England. No thought can be sadder for the game.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)