The exhibition T20 Black Clash, between Team Rugby and Team Cricket, will take place this Friday. Here Alex Braae sets out why the game is such a joy to watch.
There was a moment near the start of last year’s T20 Black Clash which summed up why it connects so well.
Stephen Fleming, one of the best cricketers New Zealand has ever seen, played a horribly miscued pull shot which went straight up off the top edge. A fielder wearing red and black started to settle underneath it.
“Oh what a catch!” screamed the commentator. “What a catch! It’s the great Richie McCaw, brilliant! The man’s a genius, there’s nothing he can do wrong!”
Effusive praise, but it was all a rather generous way of describing what actually happened. Former All Blacks captain McCaw got his hands around a relatively regulation high ball, and then fell over.
It was nothing more than a tumble, but from a distance it could have been a leap, or even a dive. And did he really get both hands to it, after sprinting 20 metres, or was it in fact a one-handed screamer? You could go to almost any game of park cricket on any given Saturday and see some club cricketers doing the same, making their catches look much more difficult than they really are.
That might sound unfair on McCaw, and it’s not meant to be. Rather, it showed how closely Team Rugby resembled and represented the cricketing public. Not only were they playing for us, they were playing as us.
Let me explain. The vast majority of cricket fans in this country play very rarely, if at all. They’re possibly part of a club playing weekly, but more likely they only pick up a bat a couple of times a year, if that. It’s probably not even on a field, it’s much more likely to be on a beach or a backyard.
But sporting glory is relative. Really, the commentary and television coverage set McCaw up for failure in how he (presumably) retells this anecdote. I’ve got no doubt (or evidence to support it, other than a hunch) that it’s one of his proudest sporting memories. Yeah, sure, he won a few Rugby World Cups, which is nice. But how often has he hung in the air for minutes, before plucking the ball from the sky, to dismiss the greatest cricketing mind of the 21st century?
This is how cricket stories work. You never tell people you nudged it around for a few overs to compile a painful 14 runs. And your boundaries certainly didn’t come from a wild swing across the line, and an edge through the slips. It was a sweetly timed hook shot, and a delicate late cut, before you were cruelly cut down by the ball doing something strange off the pitch.
And like Richie McCaw and his commentating cheerleader, real cricketing mates will back you up on it. Outside the competitive echelons, it can be a wonderfully supportive sport, so long as the game is being played in the right spirit.
Last year’s Black Clash most certainly was. Halfback Aaron Smith – weirdly playing for Team Cricket – was all smiles in the 18th over, despite being hammered for consecutive sixes by Jordie Barrett. Both shots were agricultural heaves, but in the context of the match were elegant and fluent drives.
You can watch elite cricketers any day of the week. Even though the test series against Australia finished weeks ago, it’s entirely possible Marnus Labuschagne is still batting, such is his relentless commitment to grinding excellence.
But cricket doesn’t need to be high quality to be a good watch. If anything, the absurdity and comedy of lower level cricket makes it an even better spectacle. It certainly makes it far more relatable.
So I’ll be watching the T20 Black Clash this Friday, and I’ll certainly be supporting the rugby players to take it out. They might represent a mighty cultural monolith for most of the year, but on this particular backyard, they’re our representatives against the real cricketers. And if they look like garbage out there on the field – well, that’s us too.
Watch the T20 Napier Black Clash from 4pm on TVNZ 1 this Friday