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Cricket news - Embracing the genius of Test cricket as it is now
Test cricket has changed immeasurably and will continue to do so well after we are gone. The lesson to learn from a day like this, though, is to not just accept that fact but truly enjoy what it is today. Because while some may say it was better in their day, could it really have been better than this?
Naturally and artificially, cricket has changed, and opinions vary from person to person on whether it is richer or poorer for it. But it is a game - probably, a culture actually - that spends more time looking over its shoulder at what it used to have and fearing what lies ahead. Here at Lord's, the most conservative of settings, hosting one of the oldest rivalries in the sport's most tradition-wedded format, a reminder of what we have right in front of us and specifically on this Saturday, August 17.
Take, for instance, how the way we appreciate fast bowling has changed. It is safe to say the quickest the game has seen have played in the last decade unless cricket has somehow been impervious to the advancements in strength, conditioning and physiological knowledge that has moved on every other sport or physical pursuit.
But even the way we laud fast bowling, specifically the bouncer has changed. Anecdotes of former greats are as much about the stumps knocked out as blood spilled. But cricket after Phil Hughes has checked the conversation, stripping it of its war rhetoric with tragic abruptness.
It's been five years since the passing of Hughes after being struck on the back of the head and cricketers are now conditioned to instantly snapping out of their game focus and into adequate concern. When Steve Smith was struck, everyone clicked into gear.
Immediately, Justin Langer's mind went to "the rough memories" of a blow like that. Chris Woakes, down at fine leg, recognised the sound made off the neck as "more fleshy" than bone and immediately filled with worry. Jos Buttler at short leg, first on the scene, all but cradled the stricken Smith, talking to him first, urging him to remain still and then ensuring the path was clear for both the Australia and England medical teams to have room to work.
Once his well-being was confirmed, thoughts immediately turned to concussion protocols. Could Smith continue? Would a substitute need to be named? In a different era, Smith might have been pushed out the door. His worth to this team is immeasurably by its measurability: a Test average of 63 second-only to the 99.94 of Don Bradman. The state of modern batsmen puts that 63 into focus. Runs have never been harder to come by.
This year in men's Test cricket, wickets are falling every 51.8 balls. The last time wickets were more frequent was in 1922. Smith, by contrast, is losing his every 195.6 deliveries across his three Ashes innings.
Current techniques are of course a factor, and so too the schedule. In previous eras - even 10 years ago - players could learn on the job, whether in first-class or Test cricket. But the fixture list has never been more congested, opportunities never more vast, that finding the time or summoning the inclination to consistently practice and cultivate a defence or even simply a method is to ask for the world and more. As such, the longest format is presently a bowler's game.
What that means, though, is we are treated to matches galloping along, filling us with exhilaration. Inept batting - mostly English - has ensured even with five of 12 sessions lost to bad weather, all three results are still on the table. How lucky we were for those artificial lights.
Not really something to boast about, floodlights, but even they played their part to illuminate the game when the sun went low enough to fear our fun was to be cut short. England's lead is just 104 and those six remaining wickets could just as easily be gone in the opening 20 overs of play. Especially if Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon and Peter Siddle are as unplayable as they were when 7pm loomed.
Now that much-maligned fifth day will take centerstage. Lord's has already sold out - the first time day five tickets have been completely snapped up since India in 2011, and even that full allocation was only taken up on the day itself. Still, though, there are queues of hopefuls expected tomorrow.
The young, the punters and the parochial will do so out of desire. But so will the elders and the purists. Because even among the trappings of 5G, swipe-right Test cricket, are perfectly packaged nuggets for nostalgia junkies.
For 45 minutes, in a match watched by millions, only two people mattered. Smith a great in all but retirement, grafting, thriving and mercifully surviving. Archer, a young pretender far from pretending, Twitter soothsayer, franchise phenom before he was English, serving up the sort of brain-melting fast bowling that even we may add a little extra on when regaling it to another generation. Seriously kids, he really did bowl 110mph.
In that stand-off, nothing else seemed to matter. And the very moment it came to a sickening end, the match and cricket itself mattered even less.
But heck, even those of us who are kids of this modern world got lost in the feelings of old when Smith returned 40 minutes later, visibly shaky, but oh so determined.
For a moment, there we were, loving the idea of him returning from the brink, strolling out to try and get onto the honours board. All of us, for however long or short, momentarily parking the modern-day sentiment of duty of care over sense of duty and courage. All wanting to be here for this but unsure if we wanted to see it.
Langer confirmed Smith will finish the match, though only after a thorough re-examination in the morning. His head is shaken, his arm not broken but certainly bruised. Spirit, as ever, willing. He and Archer will meet again on Sunday. And if not then, there are still 15 days to do it all over again.
Even Woakes was sentimental at the close. "When I envisaged Ashes cricket as a child," he began, referring to reels of highlights and a medley of anecdotes, "this is what it was like."
You might moan Test cricket is not what it was and fear for what it may become. But, good grief, you're missing out if you are not embracing what it is right now.
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