The game of football has been compared to ballet. While gridiron football and rugby have been likened to war. Boxing is said to be a chess match. Baseball a poker game.
But a game of cricket, a game of cricket is a work of literature. A Test match is a novel, a story that crosses multiple generations and multiple continents, and the ODI is a novella, like Hearts of Darkness or Old Man and the Sea. While the Twenty20 is tight, compact, perfectly told short story.
In all three, villains rise and villains fall. Heroes come and then disappear into the night. Subplots peek out from behind curtains as the main story progresses, a main story where the conclusion is always in doubt.
Today I watched England play South Africa. The setting was Cardiff, Wales. A region that’s been populated for 6,000 years, 1,500 years before Stonehenge. An old city with old walls. Just across the Bristol Channel from Glastonbury, where day three of the famous rock festival rolled on, the notes lost in the waves.
It was the third match and a series decider and new characters arose from the previous stories. Dawid Malan, playing in his first international twenty-20, hit a six with the second ball he saw and for the next hour he was the lead protagonist in the tale, scoring 78 calm, easy runs before he got under one and was out at long on. And then his part in the story was over. He was forgotten, more or less, despite some nice work in the field later on.
Then the story settled in, made us wait for the next plot to arrive, to entertain. And it came in the form of South Africa’s death bowling. Their attack in the last five overs strangled England’s bats and left them wheezing at the wicket and 20 runs short of par on a cloudy gray day in Wales. This chapter featured Dane Paterson and Andile Phehlukwayo as the leads, wrecking England’s party, trodding on their good time, stealing their dates, drinking their liquor, turning over their nicely set tables.
And then England were back and the story turned again as early South African wickets were taken, bringing to the crease the hero we had been waiting for, AB de Villiers, riding in on his horse for one last afternoon out in an English garden, a chance to return home triumphant, knighted, adored. And he scored freely and easily, 35 off of 27, bringing the game back with touching distance.
But then up stepped Mason Crane, like Daniel in the lion’s den, punching 50 pounds above his weight, his horse natty and his armor borrowed, his face full of the acne of youth, but his heart full of passion and life and blood. He took the wicket of the great de Villiers and England were on their way home, their saddle bags full of riches. Crane finished his fourth over, his final spell in the story, and retreated to long off, where adoring fans awaited him, cheering his every move. Only 20 years and 127 days old from the magical sounding city of Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, the legspinner from nowhere was now, in that little corner of the ground, a folk hero. His subplot ended, and together with Dawid Malan, he faded off into the sunset, his time under the lights over.
The game marched on toward its now inevitable conclusion. The crowd sang as South Africa threw its last at England, but it was never going to be enough. The English heroes smiled and waved at the adoring fans as the sun sat low in a darkening Welsh sky.