Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The little moments

Wednesday, 8 July 2015
Cricket is a sport made up of tiny little moments. Each ball is a single event that on its own can mean very little. A dot ball here, a single there - they're not really moments that mean that much on the face of it. Put them together and then they mean more - the spells and overs that shift the momentum to one team, or even change the course of the match. Yet sometimes it is just a single ball that can have the greatest significance and achieve far more importance than the others. Wickets, obviously count as more. But there are also those that, while apparently innocuous on a scorecard, leave a ripple in their wake that becomes so much greater.

Steve Harmison's first ball of the 2006/7 goes down as just a wide. Nine years later, we still talk about it - any similar ball is compared to it, and that single delivery is transformed as part of the greater narrative of how England went on to lose 5-0. The tone set from the very first ball, etc. One ball becomes the first act of a crushing defeat when really it meant very little.

Dropped catches of course gain extra significance. Here is a chance when a wicket could have been taken, though the scorecard will just show the runs or the dot that came from the delivery. If the batsman is dismissed swiftly afterwards, then there's no worries, little or no cost at all to the fielding side. Nothing appears in the scorebook, and nothing will be remembered. But when they do make the runs, that one little ball becomes so much more. Look at the score and it will show nothing, but the weight of runs can speak for itself. Think of Graeme Smith in 2003 - infamously dropped on eight by Nasser Hussain, he only went on to score 251 more. One ball can make all the difference. 

Joe Root was on nought when Brad Haddin dropped him today - not an easy chance, but one he should have taken. England would have fallen to 43/4, losing three wickets for one run, in deep trouble and with their most in form batsman off in the pavilion. Instead Joe Root made 134, sharing a 153 run partnership with Gary Ballance that took England out of the danger zone. The manner of the runs was just as important as their weight too: in 2013, Root's strike weight against Australia was 40.69; in 2013/14 just 33.27. Today it was 80.72, and one of the fastest centuries in Ashes history. Root has the ability to rack up the runs very quickly, without it always looking like a conscious effort - something he's really shown this summer during both the tests and ODIs against New Zealand, and again today. He's shown that when England have been in tough situations, positivity can be the way out of it, putting the pressure back on the opposition rather than letting himself be bogged down as he was so often in his previous Ashes tests. Australia may be happy, having taken seven wickets on the first day - but England put on their 343 runs at 3.89 an over and should be able to count themselves slightly ahead. The story could easily have been different.

It wasn't all down to Joe Root of course. Gary Ballance has been a man under pressure in recent weeks after poor displays against New Zealand. He didn't always look brilliant today, but he made the runs anyway. His technique was sketchy against the short stuff, and more can be expected throughout the series - but he fought for his 61, and was just as important in helping England's recovery. I've been annoyed at a lot of the criticism he's been facing, having averaged over 50 in his short test career so far. Everyone will go through rough patches in their career, the real test is how they come through it - dropping him at this point would have been very premature. The pressure is still on, given that it wasn't always the most fluent of innings, but it's a start in answering those critics. Stokes (52), Buttler (27), and Moeen Ali (26*) also found the runs and continued the attacking spirit of Root, though Buttler's dismissal in the 86th over would have taken the gloss off the day for England.

So time will tell how important Haddin's drop turns out to be. England may go on to win the match, they may go on to lose, or it could all be a draw - it's far too early to say. The first day of a series can often be the one when the narrative is formed, but can also be swiftly forgotten if the final story turns out to be rather different. But on that first day, that single ball seemed to have the biggest ripple. 

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