As England were dismantling, for the second time, an Indian side whose players look as though they would sooner have their toenails removed without anaesthetic than be over here playing cricket, Geoffrey Boycott informed his radio listeners that he’d never seen an England team as hungry as this one.
There’s no one on the planet even half as wise on cricketing matters as Sir Geoffrey (as he’ll tell you himself if you haven’t had the foresight to hide yourself under a table when you see him coming) but some of us would still beg to differ with that particular pronouncement.
Andrew Strauss’ side may indeed be hungry, but in the days before dieticians and nutritionists, England’s cricketers were permanently starving. A gargantuan hotel breakfast fry-up was followed by mid-morning tea and biscuits, and a three-course lunch was followed by an afternoon tea of cakes, pastries and sandwiches. Then it was off to the pub for ten pints of Old Dogbolter, and an enormous curry.
Nowadays, by contrast, it’s all carefully measured bowls of pasta and grilled fish, and anyone who rolls up looking like Mike Gatting – whose only concession to being not out at lunch was to turn down a third helping of spotted dick and custard – is shown the door. As Samit Patel found out.
However, when it comes to being permanently thirsty, cricketers of Gatt’s generation weren’t in the same league as the modern lot – and, before anyone mentions Ian Botham, we’re talking about during the hours of play here. Ye gods, a train of desert camels takes on less fluid than your average Test cricketer, a creature which appears totally incapable of going for more than five minutes without consuming a gallon of Gatorade.
Why is this? You don’t see play stopping for drinks after every goal kick in soccer, and neither do Olympic medley swimmers knock back a bottle of isotonic water before switching from butterfly to breast-stroke. The Tour de France is so gruelling that you’d probably die without taking regular fluids on board, but no one actually stops pedalling while they’re doing so.
There was a time when cricketers managed to get through a two-hour session without on-field refreshment, unless a batsman was struck in the unmentionables and called for a glass of water. Now, though, we not only have an official drinks break after every hour of play, but unofficial ones every couple of minutes. Maybe it’s all to do with Health and Safety, and the threat of legal action if a batsman isn’t allowed to rehydrate himself immediately after running a gentle single.
A friend of mine was at Lord’s earlier this season when Middlesex were playing Kent, and three people were out first ball. And on each occasion, the fall of wicket precipitated a pitch invasion by people carrying jugs of water and energy drinks. Why? One of the first-ball batsmen was bowled, and the other two were lbw, which meant that of the 13 people on the field, only one person – the bowler – had done anything that could remotely be described as thirst-inducing. Unless, in the case of the bloke who was bowled, you include the umpire who had to put the bails back on.
During the first Test at Lord’s, when Matt Prior was batting, play came to a halt when Prior was attempting to alert his dressing room to the fact that he wanted something brought out to him. Unable to ascertain from his hand-signals the precise nature of Prior’s request, two water carriers were despatched to find out, and only returned with the info after everyone had had a good old glug.
In the final one-day international between England and India, furthermore, there was a review for a legside stumping, and once again the drinks carriers came rushing on to revive the combatants while they all stared up at the big screen. The umpires duly also had a good old swig, and the theory that the brain is more alert after an intake of fluid took a bit of a knock when the “not out” verdict from upstairs caused the on-field officials to completely forget that if the batsman hadn’t been stumped, then it had to be a legside wide.
No wonder over-rates are so desperate in modern Test cricket. There was a time when a spectator knew exactly what time he’d be home from the game, because the over-rate was never poor enough to persuade the authorities to bring in legislation for a minimum quota, and play always stopped at six o’clock.
Some of us remember watching the old black and white coverage, wondering whether the big hand on the pavilion clock would click onto the 12 before the square leg umpire made it to the stumps for the next over. And even if they got an extra one in, it was never later than 6.03 before EW Swanton was pontificating his close of play summary on the BBC balcony.
These days, however, you can go on until 7pm and still not get the overs in and, while it’s not the only reason, it’s partly because there’s more drinking going on than you’ll see in the Rovers Return during an entire month of Coronation Street.
Which brings us to another irritant in modern Test cricket, wides. Or to be more precise, the lack of them. In one-day matches, a ball missing leg stump by the width of a fag paper will prompt an umpire to turn to the scorers’ box and stick out both his arms, but in Test matches you could drive a heavy roller through the gap between bat and ball, on either side of the stumps, without the fielding side incurring a penalty.
In fact, the last ball I can remember being signalled wide in a Test match was Steve Harmison’s straight-to-second-slip delivery at the start of the 2006-07 Ashes, and even then the umpire seemed to hesitate before deciding that Justin Langer’s arms weren’t quite long enough to reach it.
Then again, perhaps it’s just as well that wides are banned from Test cricket. Because every time the umpire signalled one, we’d probably have another drinks break.