An Australian Summer of Cricket on the Box

Watching the cricket over the summer holidays is a well-trodden Australian tradition. Now, into the back half of my fifth decade I have indulged in this safe past time during the pandemic. “I don’t like cricket,” so the song goes, but unlike 10CC I don’t love it and never have. Therefore, I offer a fresh perspective on this televised game and test of patience. Test cricket, according to the purists, is the true format of the game loved by a billion Indians. Here is a brief review of an Australian summer of cricket on the box.

Test Cricket is An Anachronism

Test cricket is an anachronism, a game that can take 5 days to complete in an age of instant communication and expectations. In this instance, 22 white clad sportsmen toiling away under the hot Australian sun for some 8 hours a day is a challenge within itself. I feel for the fast bowlers who run in to overarm hurl a leather cricket ball at three wooden stumps some 20 metres away. The game is played upon vast expanses of green grass, with a strip of packed dirt down the middle called a pitch. Two batsmen take turns to wield the willow in a bid to hit the ball out toward the far edges of the oval from the bowlers’ 90 to 150km an hour round-arm throws. Runs between the wickets are amassed singly and by twos, threes, fours and sixes. Eleven batsmen per innings take their scheduled opportunities at the crease in a bid to achieve a total of runs for their team. Umpires adjudge a cornucopia of rules and protocols, which must be honourably adhered to. Test cricket is long and strictly ordered like a physical symphony, with many movements and the occasional athletic sonata.

Australia Vs India: Cricket’s New Rivalry

Australia, over a century of cricket, has traditionally fired up for annual contests with England, the mother country. This summer we renew hostilities with India, the 21C powerhouse of world cricket. India, through its colonial connection with Britain, has developed a love of cricket rarely seen on the world stage.  National teams represent their countries in test cricket and these sporting contests satisfy the human appetite for tests of prowess and courage. Aussie fans, usually, attend the cricket in droves for these national matches but Covid has pared these numbers down. TV audiences for test cricket are always prodigious and this Australian summer of cricket on the box is no exception.

Cricket is presented by a free to air channel and a subscription channel in Australia in 2021. This is a relatively new arrangement, with the game of a nation traditionally programmed by a single free to air network over decades. Cricket is a colonial age cultural pastime, with its roots in a whiter Australia. A look at the Australian first eleven sees pale complexions reflected back in the faces and a preponderance of Anglo-Saxon names. Cricket was a game for the colonial masters, which has morphed into something else in Indian hands. The televised presentation of test cricket involves a bevy of former players from bygone years on both networks commentating on this very long game.

On Fox cricket, the new kid on the block, and the offering I watched over four weeks of test cricket, some 10 personalities ticked most important demographics on the cricket spectrum. Isa Guha is a woman and her gender has been sorely missing from a century of cricket commentary in Australia and elsewhere around the world. She is also an Anglo-Indian, an English cricketer formerly from the women’s team. Harsha Bhogle is a former Indian cricketer hooked up by the wonders of modern technology to commentate from the subcontinent on this series. Kerry O’Keeffe is a septuagenarian and former spin bowler from the golden age of cricket. Shane Warne probably needs no introduction for many in Australia and on Planet Cricket. Mark Waugh is the junior twin from another time when Australia were the kings of cricket. Allan Border captained Australia’s revival of cricketing fortunes in the late 70’s until 1994. Mark Howard is the sporting media professional on the team, anchoring things. Brett Lee, Mr Cricket, Brendon Julian and Adam Gilchrist round the team out.

Cricket, unlike some faster sports like football, presents periods of not much happening and, therefore, the viewer spends large amounts of time listening to this legion of commentators. Speculation is the chief ammunition of the cricket commentator in 2021. I have heard commentators speculating on the why’s and what for’s ad nauseum during this test cricket series. The imaginative efforts involved have, at times, been spectacularly worthy. How young debutant cricketers must be feeling and the reasons why  this is so. Too many cooks can spoil the broth and with so many expert opinions being expounded the viewer can be inundated with hot air on a summer’s day. Shane Warne is the most voluble and aggressive member of the Fox cricket commentary panel. He is like the bloke you meet down the pub, who has had a few and has an answer for everything. The champion leg spinner is, obviously, an enthusiastic fellow and brings passion to his commentary.  Isa Guha is like water in a cooling stream contrasting the cut and thrust of too many retired cricketers in a small booth. The modern commentary team lacks an appreciation of Simon and Garfunkel and the sound of silence. It seems like they are all trying too hard to earn their fees with too much expert opinion.

Speculative guff reached its apogee with Kerry O’Keeffe and the science of the slow eye. Skull’s offering was the perfect example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. Applying things out of context is never an exact science and images of fast bowler Mitch Starc closing his eyes for a microsecond before releasing the ball was way out of line. The attention of a nation is upon these 22 test cricketers and our view is distorted through the lenses of these sporting media dilettantes. It is no wonder that false impressions and wildly exaggerated ones are foisted upon the Australian viewing public.

Listening to hour upon hour of speculative guff voiced by these earnest cricket commentators can transport the viewer away from what is actually taking place on a cricket ground somewhere in the real world. Balls are bowled, struck by bats and thrown from hand to hand across vast distances. Did you know that the Gabba is the bounciest pitch in the world? Did you know that Cheteshwar Pujara has faced twice as many balls than any other Indian cricketer contesting Australia in this series? They call him The Sponge and Alcatraz. India has outperformed Australia in test cricket in recent years and they are continually holding the home side at bay this summer. This is despite the injuries that the Aussie fast bowlers have wreaked upon several of their batsmen. India has depth in the squad they have brought to this pandemic test series.

India has consistently looked the better batting team, whilst Australian batsmen have appeared uncomfortable at the crease and underwhelmed us with their performances. The twitchy twins of Smith and Labuschagne have been the more accomplished performers with willow in hand. ‘On the spectrum’ has entered the modern lexicon and Steve Smith’s behavioural oddities must surely demand a diagnosis. In fact, it is good to see unique and diverse peculiarities make their way into the traditionally bland cultural identity of the Australian cricketer. An Australian summer of cricket on the box in the year of the pandemic deserves such fare.

The Indian test cricket team survived the last day batting in Sydney to draw the match, when all Aussie commentators assured us that this was an impossible task. It seems that statistics from the past cannot confidently predict outcomes in this year of the pandemic. India is no longer the little brother or poor relation of Australian cricket. The Indians walk tall and bat with talent and prowess. Yesterday’s failings are of no concern to the members of this team. Many of their bowlers have been injured by the demands of this keenly fought contest and still they present replacements able to take Australian wickets. Expert Aussie commentators are hard pressed to understand their continued consistent achievements in each of these test matches. I write this on the final day of the fourth test in Brisbane and Australia remains relatively frustrated in their inability to take Indian wickets. The Aussies require 10 wickets and they face inclement weather in addition to fierce Indian batsmen. It is a race against time and the quality of this excellent team from the subcontinent. India only has to draw the series to maintain its grasp on the Border Gavaskar trophy.

All the commentators have been generous with their praise for the quality and character of Indian cricket displayed during this series. Politically correct and genuinely felt have been the paeans expressed across the board. The Australian fans in Sydney, a few of them anyway, were called out for racist comments flung over the fence at Indian players. The racist heart of Australia was there for all to see, in similar scenes to those faced by Adam Goodes in the AFL,  and it took 2 days for cricket ground officials and police to act and cast the offenders out. Sport brings out the worst in some people.

Tim Paine, the captain of the Australian test team, was sanctioned for his unsportsmanlike and off-colour language during the third test in Sydney. Sledging, which is the verbal abuse of opposing batsmen by the Australian cricket team during play, has, apparently, never gone away. To me, I find the behaviour abhorrent and the sign of mental weakness. Some say it is all good-natured ribbing but I would prefer if they let their actions do the talking and not their smart mouths.

Regional areas in Australia are for the most part bastions of white Australia and this is why political parties like One Nation thrive there. Racism is far more prevalent and obvious in these country towns and surrounds. A sizable proportion of top line cricketers and sportspeople generally come from regional areas. Sport is hugely important to local communities in rural and outback regions. Isolation and exclusion from contact with multicultural ethnicities allows outdated attitudes like racism to survive. People are afraid of what they don’t know. These fears are exploited by groups like One Nation and other xenophobic organisations. Australian cricketers may grow up in communities like these but regular contact with other countries and people from these places expand their views on these matters.

Pat Cummins from the Vulture Street end at the Gabba has a certain menacing ring to it. Bodyline bowling targets the opposing batsman’s body and it is a game of attrition. Currently, the Aussies have only managed to take two wickets and the Indian cricket team are scoring plenty of runs. Our Fox cricket commentators, who once were so confident of a local victory are talking about an Indian victory. Cummins just took the wicket of Rahane, the Indian captain via a faint nick. Seven more wickets required for the expected and desperately hoped for victory.  The Sponge has faced 154 balls for just 37 runs. Enter the diminutive wicketkeeper Pant and a batsman with a penchant for big hitting and fast run scoring. Mr Cricket likes the line that Lyon is taking with his off-spin bowling. Perfect Garry. Noice Garry. It is Nathan Garry Lyon’s 100th test and so far, he has taken fewer wickets in this series than is his standard. Is it a case of too much pissing in Garry’s pocket?

It seems like the Indian cricket team have failed to read the script in this summer of cricket on the box. History has opposing teams crumbling on the final day like the pitch, but the pitch stood up in Sydney and it looks to be standing up in Brisbane. Tea is fast approaching and our commentators are back tracking on predictions like Winviz on steroids. Is India teaching the descendants of their colonial masters a cricketing lesson in 2021? Will Tim Paine keep the filth from his vocabulary? The pressure is building on the home team on a deck that has not seen an Aussie loss for 30 odd years. Fast bowling in these hot and humid conditions is not easy and can the Australian bowlers sustain the necessary intensity? Tim Paine miskeeps another ball behind the stumps to the approbation of a chorus of commentators. Warne is piping up and Gilchrist is the calm voice of reasoned commentary. Australia is expecting more from the wicket. Australians are expecting more from their team. Alcatraz is still batting despite a multiplicity of body blows to his person.

Somebody once said to me that “opinions are like arseholes, everybody has one.” Are expert arseholes more effective than their less acclaimed cousins? Fielding positions by the Australian cricket team are being debated like life and death measures. Tall, long limbed Aussie fast bowlers continue to steam in with minimal impact upon the Indian batsmen. Nathan Lyon’s magic fingers seem impotent upon this Gabba pitch. Have the previously indomitable fast bowlers met their kryptonite in the form of Pujara and his cohort of batting Indians?

Tired cricketers in hot and humid conditions in Brisbane. Weary commentators exhausted by their wild speculative efforts over 4 weeks. Passions are rising and inhibitive behaviours are loosening in the face of a fifth day pressure cooker situation. Harsha Bhogle maintains his bright and buoyant commentary in the midst of a sea of impending Australian gloom. An Australian summer of cricket on the box draws to a close with some 60 million viewers watching this test match around the world.

Our commentary team are calling “cometh the moment, cometh the man,” as Pat Cummins takes the new ball. Very first ball he removes Pujara LBW after a third umpire review shows the merest suggestion of the ball tracking hitting the bales of the stumps.  Junior proclaims a second wind in hope for the Aussies and the Gabba pitch doing the right thing on the fifth day. Pat Cummins, we have been told countless times, is the best fast bowler in the world, according to the stats. Come on Aussie, come on.

India has enjoyed plenty of support from their fans attending matches at the Adelaide Oval, MCG, SCG, and the Gabba. Colourful displays of flag waving and lots of loud voices calling out their warm appreciation. Reduced numbers due to Covid policies to prevent super spreader events in the cities have not dampened the crowd’s love of the test cricket matches. This last test is going down to the wire with Rishabh Pant belting boundaries willy nilly. India is spicing things up and seemingly doing Australia on toast. The likelihood of a draw is fading and a win for India is looking more and more likely.

Humanity’s love of technology has penetrated the fusty realm of test cricket, with multiple third umpire tools on display. Hotspot tracks heat marks generated from the ball’s contact with the bat. Snicko tracks vibrational sounds from the ball and bat. Ball tracking scientifically predicts the path of a bowled ball toward the wickets. Cameras catch the bowler’s feet in a bid to identify no balls. Where once we bemoaned the efforts of human umpires alone, now, we take issue with decisions and non-decisions to review. Technology and AI have become third eyes overlooking every important human decision.

India is closing in on the run chase target with boundaries coming off the bat of Washington Sundar. Tim Paine miskeeps another ball for 4 overthrow runs. Is Australia the toothless tiger, when it comes to India the 21C powerhouse of cricket? Congratulations India on winning the test series and the hearts and minds of many thousands of Australians.