Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Living The Dream

One of the things that gives sport its emotional appeal is the fact that it doesn't vary much, no matter what standard you play. Four jumpers strewn in a park give exactly the same delineation as the white chalk that lines the pitch in our mega-stadia. Give or take a few regulatory changes, in just about any sport that matters, the rules are the same no matter what the level you play at. It's that shared experience - the belief that you know what its like to play sport (even though you never could at such intensity), that but for a little quirk of fate, you could be out there - that makes it so compelling*.

My friends will know that my attempts at sporting objectivity tend to go out of the window when it comes to discussing Shaun Udal. They know this isn't too surprising, though, given that he is the man who got me the chance to play dressing room cricket with Robin Smith, David Gower, and Malcolm Marshall (thankfully not bowling at full pace!). Today, Udal was one of the instrumental figures in dismantling India, bowling them out for 100 and helping an England side well below full strength pull off a famous, and deserved victory in a country notoriously difficult for visiting teams.

John Stern wrote this article for Cricinfo about how Udal's dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar put the game totally beyond India's reach.

For one man immortality, for another the ultimate sign of mortality. Shaun Udal will dine out on this moment for the rest of his life. Sachin Tendulkar will prefer never to speak of it again.

I have bored friends for years with my detailed arguments as to why Udal was worth selecting ahead of hordes of other names who came and went in the England side with little success. His figures in county cricket have consistently been superior to his competitors, yet he was consistently overlooked. On that basis, the tour of Pakistan was tremendously disappointing - he finished with a bowling average of 92 and looked utterly ineffectual against a Pakistani onslaught. The trend seemed to be continuing in this match, too, with him bowling only for short spells in the first innings because he tended to be hit out of the attack. Of course, I could complain that Udal had only been given his chance as a 36-year-old, but it was disappointing to see my hopes for his success fade.

Yet today he had his moment in the sun, taking away India's last real hope of resistance, and cleaning up the tail for good measure. If, as seems likely, Ashley Giles is fit for the summer, it will probably be Udal's last ever Test. But what a way to finish a career, however short!

In our hopes of being great athletes, there's a tendency to view sport at the highest level as much more simple than it really is; even experienced journalists can forget just how difficult a jump from first-class domestic sport to international competition can be. But when an experienced pro gets his day in the sun, it can be a joy to watch. After all, even the all-time greats are only playing the same games that we do.

*As a footnote, this is why basketball is so crap. You watch the game knowing that you have to be a freakishly tall, well-built guy to have the remotest chance of success. Feelings of empathy are much harder to come by.