Revolutionaries put the fun back into ODIs

Sunday Times 

TELFORD VICE, Perth

THE contest between bat and ball survived the World Cup because of something cricket’s social engineers can neither stand nor understand: those who dare do what they have been sworn off doing. That is, become bigger than the game.

And thank the gods for that, because without them there would be no game worth watching. There would be only mechanical batsmen and machines formerly known as bowlers. There would be only that thing the suits know and love too well, the process.

All modern players are forced through the sausage machine and most emerge as its product. But a precious few escape and cricket is the better for it.

AB de Villiers, who has used the affirmative action batsmen enjoy to invent new strokes, not to succumb to the laziness of reaping unfair rewards for the same old same old, is one. Trent Boult is another. Brendon McCullum, Kumar Sangakkara, Mitchell Johnson and Wahab Riaz are still others. They are outliers of this hesitant, conservative game.

Not long ago Graeme Smith was among them. “Revolutionary,” was how he described McCullum’s balls-to-the-wall captaincy during the World Cup.

“He was radical and innovative yet not reckless,” Smith wrote on the International Cricket Council’s website.

“He kept faith in his attack throughout, giving them all the ammunition they needed to bowl sides out whatever the circumstances. In the same manner that Sri Lanka reinvented batting at the 1996 World Cup, I believe that McCullum has pioneered a new form of one-day captaincy.”

Not enough of the current crop of players in any team are among these subversives. Instead, they espouse ordinariness. In fact, that Australia won is a victory for the process.

This is not new. The last time it was not true was, as Smith wrote, five World Cups ago, when Sri Lanka’s madmen assumed control of the asylum. And the trend had less chance than ever of being bucked in 2015.

What with draconian fielding restrictions and punishing power plays, the balance had been tilted so far towards batsmen that bowlers could have used a support group just to make it through 10 overs with their dignity intact. Or so it seemed.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to one-dimensional cricket: it has become interesting because the World Cup means something more that just another bloodless, bilateral one-day series ever can. It has context.

In this, the suits have sussed things out well. There is no way people are represented by something so trivial as teams playing a game. But the myth has been bought and believed and broadcast, and so we are stuck with it.

So we celebrate De Villiers flying over the cuckoo’s nest, high above the reach of the ordinary. Similarly, to feel the crowd at Eden Park breathe each of Boult’s breaths with him is to know the beat of magic.

Johnson is a rock star. Sangakkara is a gigolo at the crease. Wahab’s anger is barely bridled belligerence. To see these wonders weave their spells is to know that this thing we call sport is, for those who choose it to be so, as serious as death or taxes precisely because it is uncertain.

Magnificent players like De Villiers, Johnson, Sangakkara and Wahab have kicked one-day cricket up the backside by bringing a beautiful aggression to everything they do on the field, and to hell with the grey little men who are nothing without their cursed process.

Even one of the greyest, Paul Collingwood, couldn’t deny that: “It was an amazing tournament to watch. It’s reinvented the game of one-day cricket and reignited passion for the game.”

“There are a handful of players out there that have grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. It’s as if they’re playing in their backyard and having fun.”

Fun! Imagine that.

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