Modern Test matches are a confection of art and business. The art in the present match has been provided by Michael Clarke, whose unbeaten 125 on the first day was full of precise footwork and assured strokeplay. The business has concerned almost everything else.
At its most cheekily humorous, the commercial world arrived at my workstation yesterday morning in the shape of a box of Yorkshire Tea supplied by the makers of the Official Brew of England Cricket. A colleague behind me has suggested that the presence of this beverage at Old Trafford is the ultimate détente, which rather suggests a shaky recollection of international affairs in the 1970s and the period which was known in the Soviet Union as “razryadka”. Roses matches have been hotly contested over the decades but they have as yet to involve the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
To report on an Ashes match these days is to enter a mighty bubble of business. I am, after all, sitting in the A J Bell Players and Media Centre at Emirates Old Trafford preparing to watch the second day of the Investec Test match. Halfway through each session we will have a Buxton drinks break and if I want something stronger Laithwaite’s wine or Thwaite’s Wainwright ale are both very available. We could go on and on...
And for all their artistry, the players themselves are almost advertising hoardings, their bats, caps, shirts and gloves etc proclaiming their particular sponsorship deals. As I write, it has started to rain and it almost comes as a surprise that the mighty sheets surrounding the wicket and protecting the bowlers’ run-ups do not carry a business logo or slogan. It is surely only a matter of Rolex time.
The majority of those attending the second day of this game will be very familiar with this world and not simply because many of those in full employment work in private enterprise with their own advertising needs. The first two and last two days of this game will attract thousands of league cricketers who are constantly searching for sponsors of balls, players, matches. Membership subscriptions do not keep their clubs afloat. Whatever crisis capitalism has been going through in the last decade it is still in remarkably rude health. “Art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake,” sang the Stockport band 10cc in the 1970s. The volume of the refrain has only increased in the intervening years.
Yet what is still remarkable is that even though the stumps carry the name of the Test’s sponsors and Clarke’s bat is emblazoned with the maker’s name, the essential nature of sport is unimpaired – unaffected would be a less loaded word – by business. Satellite TV may make demands as to the schedules and it may have first claim on a player for an interview but the heart of the game is still the straight swing of the bat, the curvature of a spun ball through the air and the arrow-line of a hard throw.
Ten minutes ago Clarke reached his 150 by deliberately working the ball through gully. The following delivery was over-pitched and the batsman drove it straight for four; the next one was short and the Australian captain rose onto the balls of his feet and square cut it powerfully to the boundary. The three shots involved both precise mental calibration and powerful muscular effort. However, one did not think of professional sport when one saw them played; one thought of William Hazlitt’s essay on Indian jugglers. What a piece of work is a man.
Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire/Press Association Images