The spectacular scenery of the English countryside is as quaint as its wonderful ‘innovation’ — the willow game.
Generations of cricket aspirants, and professionals, from the world over, have reached the shores of England, and played the game in the English circuit with enthusiasm, conscientiousness, and electrical gusto.
India has been no exception. Scores of India’s cricketing sons have lent their services and emerged heroes. Not just the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, Ranjitsinhji, the prince of batting, and his legendary nephew, Duleepsinhji, who both played for England with rare distinction, honour, and flair, at the height of the Raj, but also the Pataudis — Senior and Junior — aside from the incomparable Vinoo Mankad, Bishen Singh Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, and Anil Kumble. The list is endless. There have been others, too — folks that played cricket at the national level — who have derived as much pleasure, and as much experience, in diverse conditions, by playing on English soil.
India’s debonair wicket-keeper-batsman, Farokh Engineer, perhaps, could be taken as a classical example of one of the longest serving stars to have played in the English county circuit, from this side of the Suez, and made his presence felt — especially, in the early days of one-day cricket. This explains why he’s still a strong proponent of the county game — for cricketers of every dimension — to hone their skills and zeal in the ‘advanced’ composition of capability and endowment. A player who does well in the English circuit, it may well be said, can do well anywhere — whatever the conditions, except, perhaps, for some home-bred English cricketers who tour the subcontinent.
English cricket calls for a high level of regulation, and disposition, from players whatever their reputation. It is unforgiving to a talented player who does not acclimatise to its conditions. There have been several good players, who have scored runs by the heap in India, and failed miserably in the English county, or league, cricket.
Agreed that the English weather may not be quite a joy to most; but, when you have the right tools in your psyche and/or mind there’s no need to fear the English ‘bear.’ Simple. Complex.
The English cricket circuit offers batsmen and bowlers alike a plethora of nagging questions to testing one’s skills. A swing bowler may relish the taste of the ‘juicy’ English strip as much as a free-stroking batsman — provided he’s able to quickly adapt to conditions, at any point of time, which, of course, is subject to change. Sometimes by the hour; sometimes by the minute. Sometimes, when the sun comes out; sometimes, when it doesn’t, for days. Sometimes, when it rains; sometimes, when it doesn’t — though such modalities are not what they may actually mean in the literal sense.
You ought to know that the English weather is as unpredictable as ‘met office’ forecasts in India.
That our burgeoning colts — Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh among others — also had had a feel of the English county circuit, was a prospect that did not come a day late. The exposure did them a world of good. It also helped them seal a few pores in their cricketing gear, or technique. It introduced them to a cultural synthesis — call it the classical wisdom of cricketing subtleties, or the study of the game as one, big extension of knowledge. You have this atmosphere, a definitive milieu, where cricket is not so much a fanatical obsession, but a dissertation for the connoisseur and the down-to-earth, or sophisticated, fan alike.
The idea of playing the game in a variety of conditions that one is not so much, or little, used to, is what makes the English stint for any player special. If the bounce, the movement of the seam, or the reverse swing, may pose a number of problems to batsmen, the idea holds a clear visage of its own to bowlers just as well. How a bowler works on the frills, and engages his mind and guile, to a given task on hand, may determine his worth, just as much as a batsman who’s pitted against both natural and player-manifested complexities on the playing arena.
Yet, the fact remains that not all great players and critics concur on the ‘indispensable’ nature of English county cricket — whatever it means. South Africa’s all-time marvel, Barry Richards, for instance, is a strong opponent. He had a glorious run in the English county circuit, yes. Yet, he felt the county game was anything but attractive. He thought of it as dull, taxing, and counterproductive to extended success. Richards also felt that county games took, or take, too much of a toll not only on the physical, but also the mental attributes of players. It’s, he emphasises, not conducive at all in the long run.
New Zealand’s champion batsman, and late skipper, Martin Crowe, who played in the circuit, with exquisite radiance, too found the English county graph a drain on one’s resources — both in terms of progressive application and effort. Here’s the backdrop. Crowe first came to England in 1984. It did not take long for him, at age 20, to cast his imprint in the minds of several die-hard English cricket watchers, thanks to his professionalism, personality, and sheer weight of runs.
Two years later, he was asked to do a star-turn for his chosen county, Somerset, amid controversy. The county had just sacked Viv Richards and Joel Garner, and subsequently lost Ian Botham who refused to play for the side in protest against such a ‘draconian’ act. Crowe did not let Somerset’s hopes go astray. He played his role like a man possessed, for the sake of cricket, despite the fact that his intensity as a batsman was bulldozed by the fuss — and, its inevitable spin-off — rendered by the departure of the county’s famous troika. Add to it a sense of tiredness, one gets by playing too much cricket during the course of any given week, or fortnight, and you’ve a syndrome bordering on sheer lethargy.
It was philosopher par excellence Plato who asserted that too much of sporting indulgence was dangerous. He did not, of course, have the English circuit in mind. Yet, he’s too close to it — even if the good old Greeks did not have a ghost of an idea as to what cricket would be centuries down the line.
Talking of too much cricket, in the context of the English circuit, or the Scottish league, one is tempted to cast a discerning eye on cricket’s most revolutionary invention: the 20-overs’ competition. The innovation isn’t so much a question of who likes it or not; it’s just an idea whose time has come to stay. For a brace of reasons. There’s a growing number of people who don’t fancy one-day cricket, all right. Forget about Tests — which they feel are too time-consuming, running across five days. Maybe, they fancy the growing charm of baseball across the globe — especially on TV.
This brings us to another facet. Cricket has to survive. The only way for it to do so is by keeping pace with the times: to endure the growing competition from other ‘short-time’ sports and continue to prosper just as well. Change, after all, is the essence of life. It’d be no small wonder to recall why Imran Khan, at one point of time, pleaded for the promotion of instant cricket in the US, the world’s most sports-loving country. Or, for that matter — the novel idea of playing one-day cricket, with four innings, being ‘structured’ in some quarters.
Let’s step into the precincts of a time capsule made and re-made. Nothing is better than the one that dwells on a paradigm shift from ‘Gracian’ times to the present day — the age of sponsorship, where money is the name of the game. For more than 40 years, the good, old Dr W G Grace, for one, was the greatest player. He was also the dominant force in thirty of them. He still is — thanks to the breadth of his long career and cogent pre-eminence in his time, and beyond, as Grace, the physician, who used the willow with as much skill as the stethoscope. While it’s true that more than a handful of batsmen have surpassed his total of 126 first-class centuries, none has been so venerated from his playing days till today — the age of instant cricket, and technological nirvana.
That’s the magic of county cricket — one that has had no parallel, even if it isn’t as perfect as it is being made out to be. Yet, it continues to be the best option, even if the English themselves feel that their talent bank today is anything but exciting to write home about.
If this isn’t a perfect case of cricketing ‘guests’ and others bearding the English lion in its own den — and, getting the better of it with improved cricketing testimonials, so to speak, what is?
— First published @ HOLDINGWILLEY
Photo of Farokh Engineer, Courtesy: CRICINFO