Leading Edge: Why test cricket needs to be hard to play

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE at the Basin Reserve

IN this era of sponsored everything not many players arrive barefoot at their press conferences.

Why, when the cameras are beaming logos far and wide, would you not make the most of an opportunity to keep the sponsors happy? Don’t, and one of these days you’ll be paying for your own gear. Fancy that.

But there Henry Nicholls was, sat behind the microphones after the first day of the second test to talk about his fine century, his feet as bare as Jacob Zuma is gormless.

Except, that is, for the strapping that swaddled his right foot, heel and ankle, and stretched halfway up his calf.

The tape clearly had been applied by someone who knew what they were doing, probably the New Zealand team’s physio.

But some of the edges had peeled away from the skin while other sections were creased and rumpled.

The whole job looked like something that shouldn’t be out and about where it might scare the unsuspecting, especially those who have dodgy ankles.

Or like some kind of post-post-post-modern anti-war sculpture, a commentary on a once fit, strong, righteous limb forced into the service of cruelty.

Or something that had spent a long time inside a snug sock that had been wrapped inside one leg of a pair of whites that had been cocooned inside a pad.

Which it had been; for 302 minutes including lunch and tea.

That’s long enough to drive from Joburg to Durban, or read “The Old Man and the Sea”, or go on a date comprising dinner, a movie, and who knows what else.

And too long, surely, to play with pain for ball after ball after ball, even if your prize is a damn fine innings.

All good with that ankle then, Henry?

“No … it’s just a … yeah … it’s just an ongoing thing.”

It’s still possible, even in the era of sponsored everything, to feel sorry for players.

They turn up to talk about their five-wicket haul, and someone asks them to explain why the rest of the attack couldn’t bowl a hoop down a hill.

Or they score their maiden test century and some spoilsport wants to know what’s gone wrong with their right ankle.

Players are the warriors of our time. They want to talk about their triumphs, not their tribulations.

Besides, in players’ heads it’s not an injury until it stops you from playing.

So there was no surprise when Nicholls squirmed with discomfort, probably beyond what his ankle had done to him, as he delivered his non-answer.

Injury is weakness, and weakness does not score centuries or take wickets.

But it’s tribulations and weaknesses like these that harden and temper mere players into heroes, particularly in the most foolish form of flanneldom.

Which should make us ask why test cricket has to be so bloody difficult to play, even for those who are not hurting?

It was even more hard than usual in the first match of South Africa’s series in New Zealand, which was consigned to a Dunedin pitch that seemed to take an evil delight in giving both batsmen and bowlers as little as possible to work with.

The surface at the Basin Reserve in Wellington was significantly more appreciative of positive play, but even someone as primed to deliver exactly that as Nicholls needed hours to make it happen.

That’s test cricket for you, even in this era of sponsored everything: more difficult than anything else you could do that involves a ball.

Always has been and, the gods willing, always will be.


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