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Principia


Neil Pickup | 3:29am gmt 12 Jun 2009
I've been fortunate enough to watch, coach and play more than a few cricket matches over the last couple of weeks. I've spent the day with my feet up, listening to Bob Willis and David Lloyd bemoaning West Indian fielding, flung myself across a sloping outfield in the name of cutting off another batch of legside wides, and prowled a boundary rope muttering curses towards LBW decisions and non-existent backing up. Yet, whether it has been Test Matches, Thame Town, or Under 10, there has been one constant theme coursing through the flow of cricket.

Momentum

It governs us all. To the writer, the stunted one-word paragraph that breaks the flow of an essay is the burst of wickets; two in two balls to wrestle control back from the batting side. In the middle overs, single follows single and clause follows clause; mist of commas descends and spectators begin to think about their packed lunches.

Principia

Sir Isaac Newton's greatest work, and not before now an inspiration to my writing: his Third Law (of action and reaction) felt more relevant than ever in the controversy that followed Darrell Hair's handling of the 2006 Oval Test. Today I turn back a page in his masterpiece and witness the Second Law: "mutationem motus proportionalem esse vi motrici impressae". For those of us who didn't go to public school, this translates as "the change in momentum of a body is proportional to the impulse impressed upon the body", and for those of us who didn't pay any attention in Science, "if you hit something hard it will move fast".

A common criticism of Twenty20 cricket is that there is no time for a game to twist and turn, to edge one way before doubling back on itself, tipping the odds in a moment of brilliance or blunder... unlike Test matches, which lend themselves to plot loops, story arcs and a swift changing of the guard - or so the theory goes. As I stood on a school field on Saturday, watching 42/0 become 45/5, I wondered - is there any substance to this suggestion?

There was certainly more drama from the Bullring in Johannesburg on IPL Finals Day than many of England's home internationals have mustered this summer. Anil Kumble fought a one-man bowling crusade with against the Deccan Chargers' tide of runs. Andrew Symonds starred twice, rubbing salt in Rahul Dravid's open wound by bludgeoning 22 runs in eight balls after being spilled at wide lip, before dismissing Ross Taylor and Virat Kohil in consecutive balls to turn a steady 99/4 into a slippery 99/6. That's without even mentioning Herschelle Gibbs carrying his bat or Harmeet Singh's fantastic tumbling catch...

Six thousand miles away, on a miserable morning in Chester-le-Street, rather fewer fans than anticipated turned up to watch an event sold as the Second Test between England and the West Indies. Fine, in principle, but a sixth match in three months between two teams fed up of playing one another projects as much potential for plot twists as a typical Famous Five tale. Ravi Bopara gets 100. Lendl Simmons gets out playing with an open face of the bat. Fidel Edwards tries bouncing Jimmy Anderson. Devon Smith gets out to Graeme Swann. Then the West Indies lose, heavily. The fact that the most entertaining moment of the series was watching Paul Collingwood keep wicket is enough of an indictment not to force you to relive any more of it.

If I were forced to condense a pre-game team talk, or tactical coaching mantra, into one sentence, the phrase I'd choose would be: "Don't just play their game; make them play yours." As a one-liner, it was good enough to get me through the ECB's latest coaching badge, and it's one I've trotted out a number of times this season as I've seen the balance of a game shift like a teetering set of scales. It is a criticism levelled at Ian Bell that his innings never win matches: in the language of momentum, he provides little by way of an impulse. Contrasted with the South African Roelof van der Merwe - a technician's nightmare, but a man who can change the direction of a match in a moment.

Supporters everywhere decry the selection of players whose averages do not statistically match up to those of others in the country, but if any game is about marshalling a moment, what are these numbers to judge? Whatever level the game is played, the judges of success is constant: runs and wickets. Turning a situation around or hammering home an advantage, whenever it is needed most. Think back to the great memories that litter the history of our game: how many reflect upon Timeless Tests where impulse was scorned? Why, when conversation turns to the greatest innings of all time, is Brian Lara's 153 not out universally ranked far in advance of his later 400? Who, except for Tim Bresnan, will remember Chester-le-Street above the Wanderers?

So, is momentum all about a short burst? Is the shortest form of the game the greatest theatre? Will my school team ever bowl someone else out? Find out in Principia - Part II.

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