by Dan Hodges
On Monday I failed the cricket test. I fought it. Tried to wrap myself in a warm cloak of English patriotism, but I couldn’t. Sachin Tendulkar tore it from shoulders.
We are constantly lectured that we must make a stark choice. Cold, multicultural separatism. Or dull and oppressive social conformity.
But no one told the 28,000 people who crammed into Lord’s to watch the climax of the hundredth test match between England and India. Just getting into the ground produced a sense of elation. We 28,000 were the fortunate few. Outside, the queues that had begun forming at 2.00 am snaked for almost a mile. To be part of a cricket match. A supposedly dying pastime, a sport naïvely out of touch with the tensions and demands of modern society.
Some queued for their share of history; the Little Master’s last jog down the pavilion steps. Some in the hope of witnessing England reclaim ascendancy of the game they introduced to the world, then relinquished. Others to see India, now the best team on the planet, turn back the would-be usurpers.
But it didn’t really matter. No passports were required. No one here would be asked to pledge allegiance to faith, or flag.
There is not a single place in the British isles that is more purely English than Lord’s cricket ground. In fact it is not a place, but an ethos. Fair play. Grace under pressure. Healthy competition. Individual excellence. Collective brilliance. Those politicians who seek to define Englishness would do well to put down their speeches about “British jobs for British workers” and “muscular liberalism” and take a quiet stroll through the Long Room.
Not that Lords has always been welcoming. Far from being a level playing field, the pitch slopes alarmingly from left to right. The members who sit on the old pavilion, and have finally deigned to admit women to their ranks, have been known to obscure the ball as it leaves the bowlers hand, making it difficult for a new or inexperienced batsman to defend himself.
But it would hold no terrors that day. The sun was bright; the bounce sharp but true. The contest between English ball and Indian bat a balanced one.
In the ground the supporters sat side by side. There were enclaves, like the lower grand stand, populated predominantly by India fans, conspicuous in their sky blue cricket shirts, and the Allen stand, occupied by the MCC members, equally resplendent in their yellow and red ties and blazers. But there were no ghettos.
The players emerged, England first, for their warm up. They were led by Andrew Strauss, a man with the bearing of someone who has stepped directly onto the outfield from the playing fields of Eton. But his demeanor belied an inner torment. With his side poised on the verge of greatness, his personal form had dipped alarmingly. A succession of poor scores had been accompanied by a badly droped catch at a crucial stage of India’s first innings. Here was no master of the universe, but a worried man suppressing his personal demons for the good of his team. Here was a true leader.
Then an hysterical scream, normally associated with the arrival of a film or pop star rose, from the crowd. As one the ground stood and applauded as Tendulkar, arguably the most gifted human being to hold a cricket bat in his hands, emerged from the practice pitches and walked towards the dressing rooms. But there was something about that walk; slow and slightly labored. Initially I thought it was the residual effects of the virus that had confined him to his bed on the fourth morning of the match. But looking closely you could detect something else. The burden of expectation. Not just the precarious state of the contest. Nor the proximity to his hundredth hundred. But the need to succeed here. Now. In England, the country he had chosen as his second home. The country that was the primary home to so many of his kinsman.
The game commenced. There was a time, even relatively recently, when the home side would have tried to bludgeon and bully its way to victory, with a fusillade of short-pitched deliveries. The cricketing equivalent of gunboat diplomacy. But this is a modern, more sophisticated England. Strauss and his side know that the world has changed. They cannot rule by fear. Hence an attack built upon patience and consistency. The deceptive swing of James Anderson. The controlled power of Chris Tremlett.
The Indians also recognized a need to adapt. The match situation required them to curtail some of their natural flamboyance. The elegant drives and crisp cuts could still be deployed. But with discretion.
And so it unfolded. England probing. India cautiously resisting, then occasionally pressing. Two sides warily working to gain an understanding of the other, desperate not to lose their foothold, or undermine their position in the match.
Each experienced its successes and disappointments. Raul Dravid, ‘The Wall’, who had scored an undefeated century in India’s first innings, allowed his concentration to wander for a fatal instant, and was caught in the slips. VVS Laxman, sensing that the battle was beginning to turn to his side’s advantage, struck out loosely, and lobbed a simple catch to Ian Bell.
But as morning turned to afternoon the test still hung in the balance. Graeme Swann, the world’s best spin bowler, was making little headway against the world’s best players of spin. And now Tendulkar stood at the crease.
It was simultaneously mesmerising, yet painful, to watch. Here was cricket’s most beautiful stroke maker paralysed by responsibility. He had eased the second ball he faced for an effortless boundary. But he knew now that he was all that stood between his side and defeat. His wicket had become the contest.
Delivery after delivery he blocked. Determination. Block. Discipline. Block. Self-restraint. Block.
England persisted. Not just trying to overcome an immaculate forward defensive, but an aura. And that’s when I succumbed. I didn’t want England to win. I knew I wasn’t going to witness that historic hundredth hundred. But I didn’t care. I just wanted him to keep blocking. To block every ball for the next five hours. To draw the game. And by doing so, to triumph.
He held firm for sixty seven balls. Then James Anderson delivered the sixty eighth. It arced in, at pace, towards Tendulkar’s pads. Reactions slowed by who knows what – fatigue, illness, expectation, simple mortality – he jammed down his bat. Too late.
The ball ballooned off his leg and soared skyward. For an instant, as he saw the ball rising upwards towards the cloud checked sky, he would have seen it framed against the hunched figure that sits above the clock between the Mound and Tavern stands. Old Father Time, sickle in hand. Then he heard the roared appeal of the England slips, and saw the umpires finger rise to sentence him. Sachin Tendulker’s innings and the game were over.
I felt no elation. The Englishmen around me who leapt to their feet felt no elation either. Relief, yes. But not joy. They understood what it meant to be at Lord’s on this day. They, in their on way, were failing the cricket test too.
There were other Englishmen, and women, who stood and applauded. They felt no relief, just disappointment. They wore blue shirts. They were English, but Indian too. Possessors of a dual nationality, fused by a place and a moment in time.
England won the test. Deservedly so. But they won by being good competitors, not imperialists. India lost. But they lost because they failed to reach the exulted standards they, and their hosts, had come to expect. It was a defeat, not a subjugation.
Both sides compromised. And both sides stayed true to themselves. Both sides confronted one another, and each side conceded to the other. But to every spectator in that ground, at some point, both sides became one, subordinate to the day and the spectacle.
I failed the cricket test at Lords on Monday. So did 28,000 others. It was glorious.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.