What precedes a cricket series between two teams—backstories, controversies and history that lays the foundation for contests—is the reason many matches are remembered as instant classics.
The cricketing action is amplified to a fever pitch because of emotions that many viewers think or assume these players to be experiencing; like a book whose pages turn because readers insist on reading between the lines. Sri Lanka’s historical ’96 World Cup win couldn’t have been half as significant if they were already a strong team in the 90s. Mumbai Indians’ recent T20 victory wouldn’t have been hailed so much if not for their disastrous start to the tournament. If Nadal wins this 2015 French Open, it will be his greatest achievement (even though he has won 9 of them), simply because of the form, fitness and career worries he has had coming into this season.
Similarly, the English Cricket Team, on the fifth day of the First Test against current darlings New Zealand at Lords, demonstrated that there is no greater modern theatre stage than the 22 yards strip in between. And that there is nothing better than controversy—good, bad and ugly—to script, at least for paying viewers, an against-all-odds fairytale moment.
Many, including yours truly, mocked the New England director Andrew Strauss for publicly humiliating Kevin Pietersen the day he scored a triple century for Surrey.
Surely, they needed KP more than he needed them, especially on the eve of a test series that could kill English cricket for the foreseeable future. New Zealand is on a high, and they have arguably been the most exciting and mercurial team over the last two years.
But English cricket has been a petty mud-flinging primetime series for a while now. Players have fallen through the cracks, sitcoms have been put to shame, and grown adults have displayed an ape’s capacity of situational management. All this while their best batsman became a victim of an egoistic, grown-up catfight, and after yet another hopeless World Cup performance.
But the fact is that England have won their first test match of the Strauss era. This is not to say he has been instantly gratified, but a result is a result. And credit where it’s due: Alastair Cook, the choir boy who has dragged his ship down with him, stood up and made many remember why he will still end his career as England’s greatest ever test batsman. His leadership rose a few notches, propelled by his teammates and his own bat, to relegate the Kiwis to a loss that England themselves are used to at the hands of Australia in the Ashes.
I’ve always believed it’s the team that has to defend on the fifth day of a test that has the disadvantage. Going into the last few sessions not quite knowing what to do, and having to play against natural instinct to secure a draw, is something that teams like India and New Zealand haven’t warmed up to. To be fair, New Zealand never looked like they wanted a draw. In their minds, they should have won it when they were 503/3 on the third day, and they were determined to make up and score the 345, at the cost of a loss. Fearless test cricket, and a superb advertisement for the game; one that retired captain Dhoni is not familiar with. Kiwi optimism may spill over a bit much, and not always result in the wins they’re accumulating, but they’re single-handedly challenging tradition and counterpunching limited-overs formats with their refreshing attitude.
Australia has done this to England many times in the Ashes, where they’ve conceded a first-innings lead, only to hit back with a whirlwind second innings batting display, and then leaving England less than a day to defend the test to a ‘tame’ draw.
After all, how can a team get all out in two sessions and some?
Apparently, they can.
Ask McCullum and his Kiwis, still on a World Cup high. Left with an unexpected target of 345 in around 80 overs on the last day, all they had to do was survive. They didn’t.
New English star Ben Stokes ran through the middle order, and gave his team a victory that will be remember because they are currently the most troubled team in sport. The manner in which they did it is remarkable, like watching eleven cornered cats turn into purring jaguars over the course of 8 hours.
They discovered how to win again, at Home, spurred on by fans who have been disgruntled for a long time. KP was forgotten, Strauss-gate forgotten, and all that mattered was a famous Lords win—one that India achieved last Summer before being humiliated later. England will do well not to fall into the high-induced buzz, and be alert for the next test to secure the series. If they do, it will be a stunning turnaround for a team that was expected to wither away tragically.
For now, Cook and co. have just about proven why they’re still professional cricketers at heart. All hope is not lost yet. There is light at the end of their dark tunnel.