Cricket: a team game or not a team game? That’s the question.
I have always said that cricket is an individual sport in the guise of a team sport. It’s closer to golf or tennis than it is to soccer or gridiron football. Batsmen are put in the spotlight and asked to perform, all on their own, against whatever attack the opposition decides to throw at them. Sure, they have their teammate at the other end of crease to help them here and there, but that’s more or less in a consulting role than anything else. The same is true with bowlers. They are on an island with the exception of their fielders. They are given the ball and expected to perform. There are no pinch hitters or relief pitchers, for even in baseball there’s an escape hatch or a do-over. Batters get foyr or five at bats. Pitchers get the hook if it’s not their day. Cricket is an individual sport, and each player is asked to perform almost entirely on their own.
At the same time, it’s also a team game. You have to trust your teammates to do their jobs. For the fielders behind you to get to balls, for the batsman at the other end of the crease to listen to your calls for a run or not. It takes eleven people to win a cricket match. And in a Test match, that’s more true than any other format. Everyone is going to bat at least once. And all the bowlers including the part timers will be expected to carry water for the team. You can’t win without a good lower order. Or with just one superstar. You need the entire team to make the magic necessary to pull out a win in the game’s most rigorous format.
One could look at the first Ashes Test — now on day four with Australia still batting in their second innings with three wickets in hand and ahead by 365 runs, probably an insurmountable total — and make both arguments successfully. Australia is not in this position without the heroic batting of one man: Steve Smith. While simultaneously, England lost Jimmy Anderson after day one, leaving them one shy of their 11, thereby putting the rest of their bowling attack in a real pickle of a bind. And it won’t just affect this Test, but probably the next few to come, as Broad and Woakes and Co. are gassed and it’s only day four of the first Test, which means either you go with shattered bowlers for the second Test or bring out the second string, some of which would be making their Test debut.
Australia can’t win without Steve Smith. England can’t win without all 11.
One could counter with the notion that it’s an individual sport, as the sentence “England can’t win without Jimmy Anderson” could make sense. But that’s not entirely the case. I think England would be in a much better position today if they had sat Anderson and started any other front line quick. Curran or Archer or Stone. Anyone. And they would be better off. Meanwhile, Australia — without Smith’s 142 and 144 — would be in heaps of trouble if his ban had been, say, 24 months instead of just 12. Their lead is, as mentioned, 365 runs — Smith scored 286 of those.
And, so, both arguments hold water. It’s a team game but also one where one superstar can put that team on his back and carry them over the finish line — even in Test cricket. It might not happen often, but it happens. And it’s happening right now in Edgebaston. Cricket, despite all the innings and all the overs and all the Tests and all the deliveries, despite all the knowledge accumulated over the years, still throws up surprises nearly every day.
I read a tweet the other day which sort of aligns here.
People have been trying to shove cricket — even Test cricket — into a one-size-fits-all box now for many years. But despite that, you still have Tests like we are having in Birmingham. A Test with a superstar carrying the day. And a Test proving that you need all 11 to win. All in the same game somehow. There’s a million different ways to lose in Test cricket, and a million different ways to lose, more so than any other game. It’s five days of putting squares pegs into round holes, and figuring out how to do it successfully.
And there’s still one day left. And four more Tests after that.