Martin Johnson: Flogging the Skegness donkey

Many years ago, after taking nought for plenty on a pitch that could have been used as exhibit A in the case for the Flat Earth Society, the England pace bowler Alan Ward wearily lowered himself into the dressing room bath and groaned: “If there’s an afterlife, I want to come back as a Skegness donkey. It’d be a doddle compared to this job.”

Lord knows what Ward would have had to say nowadays, given the workload experienced by the modern international player. It makes his own era look like the equivalent of a luxury cruise. There was hardly a player left standing after England and Australia had finished their Test and one-day encounters this winter and such is the grinding, non-stop demand of the calendar that the 2011 World Cup may end up going not to the most talented team but the least knackered.

The only potential beneficiaries of the ICC’s insatiable desire to find out how many quarts can be accommodated inside a pint pot will be the World Cup spectators. Nowhere outside the subcontinent is there a higher percentage of people who want to go to the cricket but cannot afford the prices but on this occasion the solution is relatively simple. Just turn up at the players’ entrance on a pair of crutches and a stoop like Old Father Time and you will be waved straight through with no questions asked.

This is the third time the World Cup has gone to Asia but the first at a time when the world economy is in a ghastly mess. In which case this tournament could be a life-saver for the subcontinent’s grocery industry, as this is a part of the cricketing world in which spectators do not so much come prepared with Thermos flasks and a sandwich tin as with sackfuls of rotten tomatoes and ripe mangos to be used as ammo in the event that their team is not performing to their liking.

The outfield in Kolkata was knee deep in fruit and veg during the India-Sri Lanka semi-final in 1996, which led to around a half-hour stoppage for clearing-up operations, but Indian crowds are nothing if not resourceful and, when they ran out of fruit, they set fire to the stands. Sri Lanka, having qualified for the knockout stages when Australia and West Indies refused to play in Colombo for security reasons, were awarded the game on a forfeit, which makes cricket in this part of the world pretty unpredictable.

This time, should India be under-performing and there is no one in the ground with a box of matches, spectators may have a chance of venting their displeasure by commandeering a bulldozer and demolishing the members’ pavilion. Facilities are a lot better than they were in Pakistan in the 1987 World Cup, when England’s players looked on in amusement when mopping up after rain in Rawalpindi was conducted with buckets, blankets and a hand-held battery fan, but improvement work on most of the grounds for this one has been a desperate race against time and it would be no surprise at some of the venues if the JCBs were not still hard at it when the captains are tossing up.

England’s group match against India on February 27 was moved from Kolkata because Eden Gardens would not have been ready in time, the announcement coming two days after the tournament director pronounced that worries about the venues were a figment of a deluded media’s imagination. Still, perhaps it will be no bad thing if the builders are still hammering and banging away at the last minute, given the nature of a tournament that threatens to be so boring for so long that the alternative entertainment of watching some paint drying may well be the spectators’ preferred option.

More than half the competition’s already bloated 49-day allocation is merely to get rid of the no-hopers but it is hard to be optimistic that any of it will be entertaining. Subcontinental pitches are more likely to embrace the nudgers, nurdlers and trundlers than the explosive players and I had a horrible vision of how it might be when I tuned in to one of the post-Ashes ODIs in Australia.

Bowling from one end was Paul Collingwood and bowling from the other was Jonathan Trott,­ ghastly enough in itself but doubly so when they were looking by far the most accomplished bowlers for the conditions. Pitches on the subcontinent are made for the dibbly dobblers and it is not hard to imagine Bumble Lloyd shouting “Start the car!” (or in this case the motorised rickshaw) in his very first commentary game. Only on this occasion it will not be a metaphor for the game being done and dusted but a desperate cry for a taxi to the airport.

This article first appeared in The Wisden Cricketer magazine

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