| Speed: spawning the uber-spectator
'Whoops!' I thought as Sehwag flicked Warne straight into Katich's stomach at short-leg. Bad luck, I thought, out for seventy-six, looking good for a hundred and more. Actually, to be fair to Katich, it wasn't bad luck ' just a first-rate catch. And a fine piece of bowling by Warne. Yes, you had to give it to the great man, he'd out-thought Sehwag by bowling leg-and-middle, denying him the offside, cutting off the runs. I settled into my chair, tasted the coffee and carried on watching.
As I write this, Australia are leading the ICC World XI by 211 runs with nine wickets still to fall and I think it's been a fine day's play. Lots of wickets, great offside play by Sehwag and the rare sight of two excellent leg-spinners, Warne and MacGill, bowling in tandem. I can't remember the last time I watched a test match with such even-handed appreciation, thinking such fair-minded thoughts, in such temperate words: 'fine', 'rare', 'excellent' even 'whoops'. When Dravid edged McGrath to Gilchrist I left the 'wh' out: my mouth pursed into a silent, rueful 'oops'.
It has been the kind of contest that allows you to enjoy the game for itself, which puts things in perspective and reminds you that Test cricket is only a game. This is probably how the evolved spectator watches cricket, someone like Peter Roebuck, for example, whose sharp, nonpartisan writing has given me so much pleasure. At the end of a day's play that has gone badly for my team and delivered the match into the hands of the opposition, instead of feeling unsettled and upset by a dark wash of resentment and thwarted yearning, I am able to sit at my keyboard, compose my thoughts and write.
Yes, this is new, this satwik spectatorship, this non-violent engagement with the game, purged of tamasik patriotism and other base feelings. I begin to feel grateful to Malcolm Speed and the ICC: in inventing the Super Test they've spawned, unwittingly, the uber-spectator. This is a watershed in the history of Test cricket, and it supplies an end to Shaw's prescient half-written play, Fan & Superfan.
Because if I had watched a day's Test cricket in the normal way, if Sehwag and Dravid had been batting for India and not the ICC World XI, that first paragraph would have read differently:
'F___!' I sobbed as the s'e Sehwag turned the ball into Katich's stomach. Six inches lower and that grinning animal would have been clutching something else and he wouldn't be holding it up for the world to see either. Pure fluke: if someone drills the ball into your solar plexus and it sticks in between your ribs should it even count as a catch' Luck on that scale was the only way that rutting, peroxided pig was likely to take an Indian wicket. I thought of Sidhu and Tendulkar and Laxman caning Warne into submission and changed channels to ESPN which, sensibly, was showing every ball of Sehwag's triple century in Pakistan.
See the difference' Fans like me, who till yesterday were middle-aged Mr Hydes, shuddering like tuning forks each time an Indian wicket fell, roiling up our insides with profanity and frustration, carrying on like middle-aged trolls parked by TV sets, had found a dignified, grown-up, un-atavistic way of enjoying the game. I see now that my misgivings about the Super Test were silly and besides the point. Since I hadn't experienced for myself the way in which a Super Test can purge a fan of poisonous feeling, I believed, then, that it was wrong to give a contest between a World XI and a national side official test status. A Test, I told everyone who would listen, could only happen between national sides, or, as in the case of the West Indies, sides that for the purposes of Test cricket were seen as national sides. Why' Because I thought that nationalist feeling alone sustained a game as odd as Test cricket, that the only way you could root for a team over five days, the only way you could keep excitement simmering for that absurd, pre-industrial length of time was the steady burn of nationalist feeling.
I used to worry that by recognizing the current contest as an official Test the ICC was debasing its most valuable currency. While one such contest every four years or so couldn't by itself harm Test cricket, the danger was that this was a precedent that men like Dalmiya and Speed would use to dignify all sorts of matches. Already Dalmiya had organized a farcical inter-continental one-day international. Before that Malcolm Speed and the ICC had given official status to the ODI between a Rest of the World side and the Australian XI held to raise money for tsunami relief. How long before one of them or someone like them decided to organize a Commonwealth vs the Mother Country match with official Test status' Or the White Commonwealth vs Chocolate All-Sorts'
Those fears were baseless, as newspapers tend to say. In a globalizing world cricket needs to find new solidarities that can transcend the limiting and increasingly unreal category of the nation. The Super Test is a first step, a baby step, in the right direction. A more supple, more flexible approach to team-making for test matches would keep cricket relevant. For example England and Australia could put together a team to represent the Coalition of the Willing, while India and Pakistan could pool players to champion a related tendency, Allies for a Shilling. The ICC could in a daring, ironic sort of way organize tests between teams based on blood types: the Ponting B Positives vs Youhana's Universal Donors. And so on.
But in extending the scope of Test cricket, the ICC must be careful not to organize teams that might stoke any form of collective feeling, or, for that matter, any kind of feeling. The Super Test was a master stroke that not only destroyed the Nation's monopoly of Test cricket, but, more positively, opened the door to a proper appreciation of the formal perfection of the game. By purging cricket of rage and primitive solidarities, it allows spectators (as it allowed me: see above) to understand its essence in the way that G.H. Hardy once did. C.P. Snow reported that Hardy said he loved cricket because as a mathematician the angles that cricketers made on the field put him in mind of eternal geometric forms. If Hardy had had the misfortune of attending the philistine college I went to in Delhi, he would have suffered for that statement. Coarse hearties would have shouted 'Pseud!', and I might have joined them.
But the ICC has helped me see that the future of cricket lies in its progressive etherealization. Michael Frayn once wrote a novel called The Tin Men in which a computer programmer realized that the fundamental purpose of all sport was abstract: the generation of statistics. So he wrote a programme that generated football scores without the tedium of staging football matches. From geometry it is but a small step to arithmetic. Once cricket fans are weaned from the gross feelings induced by nationalism and spectacle the ICC could help them make the transition between corporeal cricket (i.e. cricket played by live bodies) to virtual cricket (played by reliable machines)
And once in a very long while, in the wake of some calamitous act of god, the ICC could revive for the sake of charity, the old-style country vs country Test match. Its rarity and years of dammed-up passion would raise billions of dollars in gate receipts and television revenues. All of us, old and young, would bay once again with primitive feeling. Purged, we'd return to the silent appreciation characteristic of the evolved fan of the New Era, that began with the Super Test in Sydney, in October 2005.