Bouncing Back

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TIM BLAIR SydneyIn the middle of Sydney's Drummoyne Oval last january, stuart MacGill quietly wept with joy. His North Sydney cricket club teammate Trent Johnston had just rushed on to the field during a game against rival suburban club Balmain to tell MacGill, a spin bowler for New South Wales in the national Sheffield Shield competition, that he'd been selected to play for Australia in a Test match. Less than a week later, the 26-year-old joined the Australian team in Adelaide to make his debut in the Third Test against South Africa.There, MacGill nearly wept again--with anxiety. When Australian captain Mark Taylor asked him to bowl during South Africa's first innings, MacGill says he was close to panic: I thought, Christ, is this ball going to land? I tried to relax, but you can't. The whole country is watching you. They're relying on you to win. At the end of every one of the match's five days, MacGill was near collapse, drained by the effort of playing at the game's highest level. Mentally, he says, Test cricket is the most destructive game I've ever come across.Not so long ago, Test cricket itself seemed on a path to destruction. Senior cricket figures forecast the eventual replacement of five-day Test cricket with international one-day cricket, a compressed and simplified version of the game developed in the 1970s and '80s. As crowds flocked to the faster, flashier contests, players feared the demise of the longer game. But now one-day cricket, and the revenue it generates, is seen as less of a threat. The players have come to realize that you've got to be able to afford Test cricket, says former chairman of the Australian Cricket Board Bob Parish. The thing that is helping them to play it is one-day cricket. Other things, too, have changed. Crowds at many venues are increasing. Television ratings for Test matches are up. On the field, the play has become more aggressive. Decades-old records are being broken. Test cricket is fun again.And there's plenty of it. From the First Test between Australia and England (which begins in Brisbane on Friday) until April, a total of 23 Test matches will be played, involving Australia, England, the West Indies, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, India and New Zealand; that's potentially 690 intoxicating hours of red-ball, white-clothing cricket. That total may even increase if a planned India-Pakistan series can be arranged. And while Australia vs. England is the most hallowed contest in the game, it may be overshadowed later this month when the West Indies begin their first-ever Test series in South Africa. More than 2,000 black schoolchildren turned out to see the West Indians in their opening exhibition game. In Australia, ticket sales for Ashes (England vs. Australia) Tests at some venues are running at five times last season's rate; Parish predicts a 75,000 crowd for the first day of the Fourth Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
 
The rush for seats comes despite the popular belief that the tourists aren't capable of challenging the Australians, who have not been defeated by England in a series in 11 years. Says Lynton Taylor, former managing director of PBL Marketing, which during the 1980s controlled the promotion of the game in Australia: There haven't been too many outstanding Ashes series in the past 20 years. England's performance has been atrocious on most occasions. Yet everybody still wants to watch the Ashes. Tradition, says former West Indian fast bowler Colin Croft, is the force at work: It's more in the head than on the field. Ashes Tests are not good cricket.The perception that Test cricket was bound up in stale traditions was part of the reason for the rise of one-day cricket in the '80s. Compared with the newer game--which limits each colorfully clad team to 50 furious overs, and provides a result within a day--Tests looked slow and aimless. International one-day cricket (first played in 1970-71 between Australia and England after a scheduled Test match was washed out) continues to grow, massively so in the subcontinent. But Test crowds in the game's major markets--Australia and England--are rebounding. Says Richie Benaud, former Australian captain and a cricket commentator for three decades: In Australia any decline has been arrested by the fact that the Australians have a wonderful team at the moment. Success has a lot to do with it.The current success of Test cricket is often credited to a man once accused of trying to demolish it. Australian television mogul Kerry Packer tried to secure the rights to broadcast Tests in Australia during the mid-'70s. When his bid was rejected, Packer simply began his own World Series Cricket, buying up nearly all of the game's stars. Packer introduced colored clothing and night games to WSC's one-day matches, setting in train the global explosion of one-day cricket. We owe Mr. Packer, says Parish. He brought cricket forward 25 years in one. Now, we see not only huge attendances at one-day cricket but large numbers at Tests as well.That's not to say the same fans are going to both forms of the game. The relative worth of Test and one-day cricket is a matter of dispute between players, fans and officials. Says former Indian Test captain, now umpire, Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan: At its best, one-day cricket is good in the first hour and in the last hour. But a maiden over bowled in a Test match is as good as any flurry of runs in a one-day game.  |  2  |    |    |  
 
One-day boosters point out that their game always delivers a result, which Test cricket cannot guarantee--not that that's a problem for fans. South African Test supporter Brigitte Smit--who woke at 3 a.m. to watch on television as her team saved a match last season in Melbourne--says that sometimes a draw is just as exciting as a win. For all one-day cricket's frantic hitting and running, says ex-Australian captain Kim Hughes, the game is much more heavily governed by rules restricting bowling and fielding tactics: One-day cricket can be very predictable. I could almost write the script. Notes Croft: You never hear people boast that they are the best in the world at one-day cricket.Again, tradition divides the two games. Says Tim de Lisle, editor of Wisden's Cricket Monthly: Test cricket is a game with a great sense of its own history, and it became clear a few years into the one-day cricket explosion that the one-day game, which has many virtues, is a good game in itself, but doesn't share that ability of Test cricket to be memorable. Counters Benaud, who regrets that his own playing career (he retired in 1963) didn't extend into the one-day era: People will sneer about one-day cricket and say nobody ever remembers those games. Maybe so. But I don't care, as long as people are entertained.In 1982 marketer Lynton Taylor, among others, suggested that one-day matches would eventually erase Test cricket. Taylor's grim forecast was based on extensive PBL research, which showed that younger fans overwhelmingly preferred their cricket in the abbreviated format. Says Taylor now: Maybe we were a little exuberant in our opinions. There are many signs of an increase in interest. England fan Simon King missed the game while working at the University of Minnesota, so he established an Internet site that allows cricket followers to keep in touch. After six years, CricInfo (www.cricket.org) is Britain's most popular Website and the third most-visited Internet sports site in the world. We're not a site that developed a community, says King. We're a community that developed a site. Established media is also backing Test cricket: this year Britain's Channel Four bid $168 million to broadcast cricket in the U.K. for four years, nearly double the value of the previous four-year contract.Test doomsayers failed to foresee--who could?--the resurgence of an ancient cricket art that many believe has brought new life to the game: leg-spin bowling. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Test attacks were dominated by pace bowling (the top 10 wicket-takers in Test history are fast bowlers from this era). The West Indies rose to world dominance with a roster of the blindingly quick, usually selecting four speed bowlers in every Test. Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz also emerged to lead Pakistan's attack; Australians Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson regularly sent batsmen to hospital; Kapil Dev and Richard (now Sir Richard) Hadlee won games single-handedly for India and New Zealand; and Bob Willis and Ian Botham often overcame stronger opposition (and the unreliability of their teammates' batting) to bowl England to victory.  |    |  3  |    |  
 
The appearance of so many fast bowlers in world cricket generated great excitement among spectators--Mick Jagger has reportedly said some Rolling Stones tracks were inspired by Lillee's bowling--and fear among batsmen: it was during this time that helmets became the norm. Back in the early '80s, spin bowling was crushed. Finished, says Pakistan's Abdul Qadir, one of the few leg spinners of that time to consistently represent his nation. I was the only spin bowler performing equally well with the fast bowlers. People were scared to deliver leg spin. A leg-spin bowler flings the ball with a counterclockwise turn from the back of the wrist. Executed properly, the maneuver presents the batsman with a ball that leaps away from the bat, possibly provoking a catch. But get it wrong, says leg spinner MacGill, and you're going to go to the boundary, and fast. The margin for error is tiny.By the early '90s, crowds and batsmen had become weary of all-pace attacks. Says Hughes, who played 70 Tests from 1977 to 1984: Facing the four West Indians was very difficult but also very boring, because you knew what to expect. There was no change. A rich harvest awaited the leg spinner able to ply his craft at the top level: a generation of batsmen had become ignorant of leg spin bowling through lack of exposure to it. In 1992, Australia selected leg spinner Shane Warne to play his first Test, against India at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Seldom has a Test debut been so closely monitored: Australia had been searching for a great leg spinner since before World War II.Warne, who Hughes says has single-handedly changed the face of cricket, was not an immediate success. In fact, by midway through his third Test match the stocky blond had taken just one wicket and given away 335 runs. Few international cricketers have had a worse start to their career. But Warne delivered a barnstorming finish (three wickets in 13 balls) to win that third match, followed by a successful series against the West Indies. Then, with his first delivery in an Ashes Test, at Old Trafford in 1993, he produced the so-called ball of the century: a looping monster that curled wide of batsman Mike Gatting's legs before slicing across to hit the stumps.Along with Warne--now, with 313 wickets, the 11th highest wicket-taker in Test history--have come a burst of leg spinners: Paul Strang from Zimbabwe, Pakistan's Mushtaq Ahmed, and India's Anil Kumble. Even the West Indies has joined the leg-spin trend: Dinanath Ramnarine has taken nine wickets in his first two Test matches. It was like a bright sunshine came over Test cricket in the Caribbean, says Tony Becca, cricket writer for the Jamaica Gleaner. There is a new appreciation of the guile of the spin bowler and the battle between bat and ball.  |    |    |  4  |  
 
Battle has certainly been joined: the best batsmen of the '90s, says Hughes, might be the most exciting players that have been in the last 50 years. India's Sachin Tendulkar is, says Benaud, one of the greats. Among the most unpredictable is Sri Lankan opener Sanath Jayasuriya, who began his career as a one-day specialist basher but who last year played an extraordinary Test innings against India. Says Australian captain Taylor: Teams have started using one-day cricket to form the basis of their Test sides. Jayasuriya has thought, Why don't I just do what I do in the one-day games? And all of a sudden he's scored 340 runs. Jayasuriya was reportedly upset at being dismissed, which denied him a chance to attack the Test record highest score of 375, held by West Indian Brian Lara, another '90s phenomenon.The way records are tumbling in Test cricket these days, who's to say Lara's mark won't be beaten in Australia? Mark Taylor, who became the first Australian in more than 30 years to hit a Test triple-century during his team's defeat of Pakistan in a three-Test series last month, leads the clear favorites going in to the First Test, despite the likely absence of an ailing Warne. Most Australian observers are sharply united on the subject of the English team: They're shockers, says Hughes. They might get slaughtered. Asks Rodney Hogg, a former Australian vice-captain: Why would you go to watch an English cricketer at the moment? Have they got anyone exciting? Can anybody say anything nice about them?Very few. Says Peter Perchard, editor of English magazine The Cricketer: I can't see many people putting money on England. We may well win one Test, but I don't see a hope in hell that we'll win the series. Australia have got better batsmen and better bowlers and better fielders. Wisden editor De Lisle is only slightly more optimistic: I think England have a chance of drawing 2-2, but they don't have a realistic chance of winning. Richie Benaud, however, recalls that in 1986 Mike Gatting brought to Australia a team condemned as England's worst and won the Ashes: If the England players think along the same lines as some of their supporters and the media, they needn't bother coming here. As it is, the players have a bit more heart than that. Mark Taylor shares Benaud's caution: People who don't play the game think some wins are easy. You never think that as a player.Stuart MacGill doesn't need to be told. He already anticipates even more anxiety playing against England than he felt in his traumatic first Test at the beginning of the year. This is the highest-profile series an Australian can play in, he says You always dream of being in an Ashes series. As Test cricket advances into the new millennium, another generation of children will be able to share that dream.With reporting by Simon Robinson/Auckland and Kate Noble/London  |    |    |    |  5