Spectator sport

We football romantics love the fifth round of the FA cup

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

And so we say farewell to the round of 16 in the FA Cup, traditionally a viscerally thrilling process that embodies what we romantics like to think of as the glory of the Cup. With eight matches over four days, there was a lot of dross that all felt much worse for being spread so thinly. It began with Watford grinding out a dreary and just-deserved win at QPR on the Friday and ended with a thumping for Chelsea from the new, all-smiling United outfit. In between, only the mighty efforts of Newport County, at home to Manchester City at a terrible Rodney Parade pitch, held the interest.

And the fans seemed to agree: there were 14,010 at Doncaster, and only 11,261 at Swansea — to see Daniel James score one of the goals of the season. And even if there had been any draws, there wasn’t the prospect of dramatic replays to look forward to. Those were the days — never to be replayed. The days when FA Cup ties would be slogged out to the death, no matter how many replays it took. But replays are going the way of most things that made the FA Cup so special, such as only the final being played at Wembley. In true retro fashion, I like the look of Wolverhampton Wanderers, a great old name, and have let my money do the talking with Messrs Ladbroke.

Of all the sporting milestones that fire the imagination, few come close to an epic Test match run chase. How often do you look at the target and think, ‘Well it’s tough but do-able’, and then it all ends tamely. Well it didn’t in Durban. A barely believable Sri Lankan chase ended in a one-wicket defeat for South Africa and an exhausted Kusal Perera crowned atop the record books. Perera, a middle-order batsman who likes some swash and buckle in the grand Sri Lankan tradition but whose previous top score in ten innings was just 32, scored 153 not out to chase down 304 to win. Crucially, he added a record 78 for the last wicket with the no. 11, Vishwa Fernando, who barely played a shot, keeping the ferocious South African attack at bay for 73 minutes. Perera took several blows to the body from Steyn and Rabada but hit back with  five sixes in his incredible innings.

It was particularly sweet for those of us who love Sri Lankan cricket and its wristy swagger, but who have seen the side crumble in recent months. They were easily beaten by England and then battered by the Australians in a dismal and hopelessly mismatched series that would have been stopped in round one had it been in the ring. They had also been hit by a series of nasty corruption cases involving former players and administrators. Now here they are, beating the world-ranked no. 2 side in one of the most thrilling Test matches in history and featuring one of the greatest innings. There is a god, and he is padded up on a cloud near Colombo.

Have England gone too far in indulging Jonny Bairstow? It seems ludicrous that he was allowed to drop down to no. 7 in the batting order in the final Test of a lost series in St Lucia. One of our two best batsmen coming in so low down the order makes no sense, especially given how sketchy the top order were against the Caribbean quicks. In the event, Bairstow batted only once, scoring a couple. To make it happen the excellent Foakes was binned and the beleaguered Keaton Jennings retained. Jennings is a brilliant fielder but he looks hopelessly out of his depth against fast bowling.

There’s no red ball cricket now until a July Test against Ireland, when Jennings might well make an entrance, having piled up a mountain of runs in county cricket. If he makes a ton at Lord’s, expect a recall for the Ashes: in which case the ominous sound of Starc and Cummins rubbing their hands will be heard from Down Under.

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