I bumped into Gary Pratt on Monday. He was captaining Cumberland in the Minor Counties Championship in Hertfordshire. A few weeks earlier on the same picturesque club ground Scott Elstone had played for Nottinghamshire 2nd XI against Unicorns A (they do exist). Long Marston, it seems, is a magnet for specialist Test-match substitutes.
These two men have nothing in common except their 15 minutes of fame, Elstone, the Notts youngster who took two catches and dropped one during the Trent Bridge Test; Pratt, of course, ran out Ricky Ponting also at Trent Bridge in 2005, causing the Australian captain to lose his rag as he left the field and the cricket equivalent of a solar eclipse: a Duncan Fletcher smile.
Ponting boiled over because he thought England had been pushing the boundaries of legality in their liberal use of substitutes. He was right though he picked the wrong fight because Pratt was on for the genuinely injured Simon Jones, who has barely played top-level cricket since.
Elstone too had good cause, Jonathan Trott had injured his shoulder, but there is no doubt that England use substitute fielders for reasons other than injury. During the Lord’s Test against India, prior to the second new ball with Graeme Swann and Trott bowling, all three of England’s quick bowlers were off the field. Presumably they were massaged, recharging their batteries, glugging a protein shake, maybe having a shower, before the next assault.
I don’t really have a problem with these tactics and if other teams do then they should simply follow suit rather than whinge about it. But we have reached a point in the game’s evolution where the use of substitutes must surely be extended beyond the quaint exploitation of a local unknown youngster who can catch the ball or throw the stumps down from 15 yards.
Test cricket is supposed to be hard, physically and mentally, and it is. But fast bowlers all over the world are pulling up the ladder, saying enough’s enough. I’ll take the IPL rupees thanks, rather than busting my body for five days in 35-degree heat. Authorities pay lip service to the five-day game’s primacy while schedules burst and limbs ache.
England’s supremacy over India in the first two Tests was, in large part, to the chasm between the two sides’ preparation, prioritising and physical conditioning. Good for them, every England supporter would agree, and more fool India, if they can’t get their act together.
Zaheer Khan’s injury had a profound effect on the destination of the Test. Imagine Wayne Rooney going off after 10 minutes of the Champions League final and Manchester United playing with 10 men for the rest of the match.
The nuances of team selection in cricket are among the most timelessly fascinating aspects of the game: four bowlers or five; two spinners, one or none; the express but fragile fast bowler versus the reliable medium-pacer. Every team at every level wrestles with these dilemmas. Cricket is essentially a game that requires 12 players but allows 11, hence the genuine allrounder being prized above all others. The tactical challenge of manipulating his bowling attack defines a captain’s capabilities.
But this is 2011. Football has had substitutes in league matches since the mid-1960s and in the World Cup since 1954. Rugby union has allowed replacements since the late 1960s although tactical ones weren’t allowed until 1996. And the American attitude to substitutes is much like their attitude to everything else: more is more.
I know this is playing God with cricket’s delicate and unique eco-system and undoubtedly something would be lost by allowing full-participating substitutes in cricket but there would also be much to gain. Specialisation would be encouraged. If England didn’t want Monty Panesar to bat or field then he wouldn’t have to. Even Lasith Malinga might be able to get through a few spells without worrying whether his knee would give way.
Great but ageing batsmen (who could I possibly be thinking of?) could bat and not field, prolonging careers and giving the hard-pressed punters some extra value. You wouldn’t just have to pick blokes who you thought could get through five gruelling days.
And just as the selection of a team’s bench becomes a discussion point in football or rugby so it would in cricket. You would have 13 or maybe 14 players in the squad with 11 batting and fielding. In the field, substitutes could come and go as they pleased for any reason. Bowlers could bowl at any time, regardless of whether they had been on the field or not.
Why not extend the principle to all forms of cricket? Imagine being able to use a sub in club cricket. You would prefer to take 12 players to an important away league match but it’s hard to get someone to do 12th man when they have no prospect of any action. That problem disappears if you have full-participating subs.
And maybe, in a squad of 13 or so, there would still be room for a Gary Pratt, when you need the opposition skipper run out.
John Stern is a former editor of The Cricketer.
Follow him on Twitter: @Cricketer_John