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444-3. Extraterrestrial cricket. But where will it end?

By Sam Blackledge

“Dad,” my kids will say one day, leafing through Wisden 2016. “Do you remember 444-3?”

I will smile and gaze off into the distance, before answering: “No…not really.”

The radio squealed out from the kitchen. “There it is! England have broken the world record!”

I nodded and raised my eyebrows, before turning my attention back to Thomas the Tank Engine.

It was snowing on the island of Sodor, and Thomas was stuck in an avalanche.

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I remember all the others. Gooch’s triple Nelson at Lord’s. Robin Smith’s forearms biffing the Aussies for 167 at Edgbaston, a record which would stand for 23 years.

Then came Lara, Hayden, Lara again. I even felt a tingle on hearing the logic-defying scorecard from Johannesburg in 2006.

But 444-3. There in black and white, forever more. It has quite a nice ring to it. But what does it mean? Where is the context?

In 10 years’ time, who will remember this game? Those who were there, maybe. And the statisticians. But no matter how sweet the taste, there are only so many jam doughnuts one can devour before one starts to feel tired and bloated.

England will not get a chance to officially prove their worth in this form of the game for another three years. Anything could happen in that time.

“Why have England never won the World Cup, dad?”
“Well son, they smashed it in bilateral ODI series between 2015 and 2019. But when it comes to the crunch they tend to fall apart.”

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444-3. It’s ridiculous. Inconceivable. Extraterrestrial cricket. When he was on 60-odd, Alex Hales hoicked one straight up in the air and was dropped by third man. It was a horrible shot. I shook my head and whispered: “What are you doing? Play properly. Plenty of time.”

Then I remembered the world we’re living in. This is just how things are now, like it or not. Go hard or go home. There is no in-between.

Maybe it’s because I’m a bowler, but I don’t necessarily think ever-increasing totals and buckets of sixes are the best form of entertainment, or even particularly good for the game. Give me a low-scoring arse-nipper on a wet Wednesday in Derby any day.

I hate to be a killjoy. It was a wonderful performance from what is surely the most talented and exciting England team in history.

God knows, we’ve earned it. We put in the hard yards when Neil Smith and Phil DeFreitas were the best we could muster in the way of pinch-hitters. Even as recently as 18 months ago when Peter Moores and co were trusting the data to tell them 250 was a decent score

Where will it end? 500 from 50 overs can’t be far away. How about a boundary off every ball? Perhaps the money men – who must have wet themselves with delight when India and West Indies shared 480 runs in a T20 in Miami last week – will raise the stakes. Eight runs for clearing the sightscreen? Ten for out of the ground?

Maybe it will reach a tipping point. Perhaps a score like this will eventually stand in perpetuity, as bat widths reduce and the regulations are weighted towards the bowlers. Don’t count on it.

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The ECB must end its south-east Test match bias

THERE was a time when you knew where you were with English Test venues. For so long the old favourites of Edgbaston, Lord’s, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge, Headingley and The Oval held the monopoly on five-day matches every summer. Then in 2003 Chester-Le-Street, now unfortunately known as the Emirates Durham International Cricket Ground, broke the cycle by welcoming Zimbabwe. The visitors were bowled out for 94 in their first dig and lost by an innings and plenty. The RIverside embraced its big moment and a change appeared to be coming – Test cricket would surely now reach more far-flung parts of the country.

Over the last decade, there have indeed been matches played at Cardiff’s Swalec Stadium, Hampshire’s Rose (or Ageas) Bowl – and that’s it. Bristol has hosted One Day Internationals, but none of the other 13 main first-class grounds get a look-in.

When I was growing up, I saw a lot of cricket. I was lucky to live just down the road from Edgbaston, and my love for the game was fuelled by the all-conquering Warwickshire side of the mid-1990s. But the real thrill was Test cricket. My first Test was England v West Indies in 1991. I was six years old. On the third day, Patrick Patterson and Curtly Ambrose demolished a decent England batting line-up on their way to a seven-wicket win. Gooch, Atherton, Hick, Lamb, Ramprakash, Russell, all gone in the blink of an eye.

I squinted across at the blurry city end scoreboard (I had yet to be diagnosed as chronically short-sighted) showing the not out scores of Derek Pringle and Chris Lewis, the latest pair in a long line of auditionees for the role of “The New Botham”. I could never have known that I was in for another ten years of watching England lose in ever more inventive ways. But I knew Test cricket was for me.

Next summer, India will play Tests at Trent Bridge, Lord’s, The Rose Bowl, Old Trafford and The Oval. That’s three games in the South-East, two of which are in London, and just two others in the rest of the UK. Lord’s also gets a Sri Lanka Test in June, along with Headingley. Edgbaston misses out on Test cricket for the second year running, despite being home to one of the highest populations of British Asians.

Between 2010 and 2011, the pavilion end of the ground was completely redeveloped at a cost of £32 million, bringing the capacity to 25,000. A handful of ODIs and a season of one man and his dog watching county cricket is in danger of wasting what has become a top-class sporting venue.

I can make my peace with Edgbaston losing out. This season they were compensated with the pick of the Champions Trophy matches and a sparkling T20 county finals day. Trent Bridge is not so far away, and I know several Brummies who gladly made the trip to Nottingham for this summer’s Ashes and may do the same next year. But the south-east bias shows a disappointing lack of vision.

Every overseas cricketer dreams of playing at Lord’s. Of course, a Test summer would not be complete without a visit to the home of cricket, and The Oval is always a fitting venue for the final Test of the summer. The ECB will perhaps argue London is the most densely populated area of the country and is easy to access. But adding Southampton means three of India’s five Tests will be played within a 100-mile radius.

Not all county grounds are up to scratch, of course. In order to host a high-profile Test between two of the best sides in the world, you must be more than just a pitch and a pavilion. But Durham, formerly a forgotten northern outpost, is a prime example of what can be done with investment and support.

Not everyone can afford to travel to see Test cricket. From where I live in Cornwall, it’s 200 miles to the nearest Test venue. Add in the spiralling cost of matchday tickets, and parents and children will drift away from the game, or decide not to explore it at all. The ECB must look beyond the capital and take a punt on some developing stadiums to inspire the next generation of English cricketers.

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