There are few things better than watching cricket on a sunny afternoon in England. More than anywhere else, cricket is subject to conditions, batsmen rarely have a free ride and bowlers are always in the game asking awkward questions. The weather can disrupt a good day’s play but that uncertainty—about whether and when it might rain—adds to the romance of English cricket.
Watching the telecast too is a pleasant relief because the viewer is spared the relentless barrage of adverts that spill into play time. Also, the commentary is soothing and insightful, not the screechy, breathless variety that tests your patience.
The real treat, however, is to catch ‘live’ action because the on-ground spectator experience is unmatched. Getting into the ground is easy, finding seats is not a problem and there is plenty to eat and drink. Fans are not just welcome but respected.
While television tells half the story—you only see what the camera shows—the stadium presents a 360 degrees uninterrupted view. You notice interesting things which otherwise remain hidden. At Edgbaston, during the Root/Bairstow carnage, Pant and Kohli lent captain Bumrah a helping hand, encouraging bowlers, moving square leg closer to the umpire and telling point to go a bit deep.
On television the game looks easy because the raw intensity of the contest is not captured. But watching ‘live’ you notice that fielders stand close to cut angles, and when the ball flies off the bat they have no time to react—catching or stopping anything is by instinct and intuition. The buzz at the ground is real and spectators, sensing the raw energy and drama, are sucked into the action. Even those seated 100 yards from the crease rise to appeal for leg before, more loudly and with more conviction than the slip cordon, when the ball is missing leg by a mile.
No less fascinating is to see firsthand the body language of players, the drooping shoulders of the helpless captain or the swagger of Kohli despite his run famine. He was booed by English supporters as he walked in but still looked a proud landlord who owned the space, not a tenant on a short lease.
Look closely at Jadeja, arguably the best fielder in the game, standing at point. He scratches his fielding position with his spikes then takes a cautious start as the bowler runs in, literally a tiger on the prowl. Also, Pujara tapping his bat to smooth out non-existent uneven patches on the pitch is gripping drama.
Watching the team train in the morning one hour before play, the pre-game ritual, is interesting. Coach Dravid keeps a watchful eye on players kicking a football and the elaborate slip catching routine of Kohli and Iyer. Close to the boundary, in front of the pavilion, batsmen knock carefully, searching for feel that comes from middling the ball. A little distance away, next to the match strip, bowlers mark run-ups with tape and aim at one stump. Ashwin, not in the eleven, turns his arm over and Shami does his warm-up with the medicine ball.
India lost the Test but its conquest of cricket in England is complete. It is Indians who buy tickets to keep the box office busy, they turn up with faces painted, carrying hampers packed with sandwiches and snacks. Indian fans are a noisy bunch; they encourage players with the ‘jeetega jeetega’ chant, wave the flag and the dhol is there to add to the entertainment.
The LED boards around the ground flash marketing messages of Indian mobiles, cycles, cement companies and the inevitable paan masala. The sight-screen carries advertising messages in Hindi. If English cricket was granted one commercial wish that they’d unhesitatingly ask for India to tour every year to play 5 Tests.
While England have reasons to rejoice after Edgbaston, the match conveyed a tough message to the Indian team. Did India miss a trick by benching Ashwin? Should we start separating players, not just on red-ball/white-ball criteria, but on home/away basis? In this context are we sure about Iyer at number 6, or is Rahane, though runless for a bit, a better option as he is made of purer technical timber. Also, isn’t it time Gill repays faith reposed in him by the selectors and respects the talent he is blessed with .
This was a one-off Test and a one-off defeat due to some spectacular batting by Root and Bairstow. In the first innings there was play and miss, balls going past the edge. But on day four and five nothing except a broad bat and crashing shots. Teams normally don’t get close to 400 in the last innings but here it was all too easy, England’s highest ever chase in 1,052 Tests since 1877!