8.10.17

Two Players

Taunton, early season 2017. As the sun fades, the blustery wind starts to chill the bones. Any county ground after play ends has a feeling of spent energy, a feeling of faded drama, a feeling of reflection, as evening settles in. This is as true of Cheltenham in high summer as it is of Taunton in bitter mid-April, a time in which cricket never feels natural, but where it is increasingly required to dwell.

At the Cooper Associates County Ground in Taunton, outside the nondescript, functional pavilion named after Andy Caddick, players often congregate after play. They will sign autographs for the men, mostly near or past pension age, who are always there with their albums and books.

The attention is drawn to a youngish man from the east of England with a fresh, windswept complexion. You sense that he always looks like this, but recent time spent in Sri Lanka has enhanced his cricketer's tan. He is surrounded by his family and friends; there is a transparent air of humour, of expectation, of cheerfulness and of hope; of wondering what the coming season holds. At this point he doesn't know it, but for Tom Westley this will be the best season of his young career. He will play in a team which wins the County Championship, and he will do something he has always dreamed of; he will play Test cricket for England. He is right to look hopeful, because he will enjoy what is to come. He will be tested by it, and, after a promising beginning, he will fail that test, but he will end the season in the same frame of mind. This time, though, it will be hope of a recall, of another opportunity. Lose that, and you lose everything.

Scrolling forward to another time and place in England's south-west, we see an older player, one who doesn't hope to play for England anymore because he has no need to. That dream has come, and it has gone.

The County Ground, Exeter, August 2017. Devon are playing Berkshire. With a typically diligent and innovative innings behind him, Chris Read walks around the boundary with his young son. Read is revered in his adopted home city of Nottingham, but now he is back in the county of his birth and his cricketing roots. He is a small man, with few unusual or distinguishing features, and someone who self-evidently feels uncomfortable in the limelight. If you knew nothing of his achievements, you would pass him in the street without a moment's thought. And he would be happy with that.

As Read stops by a well-known local sports photographer, who graciously allows his son to look through his camera's all-seeing lens, you can't prevent your mind going back to the time, more than twenty years before, when you last saw him play for Devon. He was just a kid of 16 then, with a burgeoning reputation in his native Torbay, and the same preternatural assurance behind the stumps which would see him to more than one thousand dismissals in first-class cricket. He could always bat too; not especially stylishly, but with an innate ability to seize the moment. This is a man who knows what it is like to play in front of full houses at Lord's and to win one-day trophies; to play Test cricket in the West Indies, in Australia, in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But, for good or ill, for most of his career, his natural home, his place of work, has been the county circuit, with its grounds, its devotees and its constantly evolving cast of participants.

English county cricket is a secure and civilised world. An environment which few would wish to leave behind, but for different reasons, these are two players, at distinct points in their careers, who want, or even need, to do so. In Read's case it is the march of time, with Westley it is the need to see if he can be what he has always wanted to be.

Every season, indeed every match, of an English county season is full of vignettes like this, and, as the light changes as autumn sets in, and the leaves begin to turn, they settle in the mind. One player's horizons beginning to expand, but simultaneously on the point of faltering, another's narrowing, fading, reverting.

Neither of them is especially upset about this, although, as he leaves the scene of one of his Test match failures, Westley's mind will be flooded with doubt and concern. And as Read is applauded to and from the crease on the occasion of his final game at Trent Bridge, he can be excused a moment or two of wistful sadness, even if it is usually no more his way than that of any other professional sportsman.

From the Victorian era onwards, so many aphorisms, truisms and cliches have been uttered about the qualities and values of the game of cricket that it can sometimes be hard to be sure where realistic appraisal ends and romantic fiction begins. But the English county game, especially when played over four days, continues, even in its marginalisation, to embody something unique, and, in its way, beautiful and life-affirming.

At the heart of this are the players, with all their hopes, fulfilments and regrets. When the 2018 county season begins, Chris Read will be elsewhere and he will have nothing but fulfilling memories and, perhaps, a few regrets, while Tom Westley will still be there, at Taunton, or Chelmsford or even Worcester, full, again, of hope.

29.7.17

Journeys

As I get older, as I watch more and more cricket - well, more and more cricket and more and more rugby union, for these are the sports which dominate my consciousness during many of my waking hours - I become increasingly aware of, and fascinated by, the nature of the journey (this is the type of expression which people employ to describe their progress through reality television programmes, but for once it feels like the right expression to use).

Not just my journey, although if you stop to consider it there can be a sense of your advancing life being measured out in eighty minute or four and five day segments, but the lives and careers of those fortunate enough to be employed to live out the dreams of those of us who were never good enough to fulfil them for ourselves.

Earlier this month, at the ageless Cheltenham College ground, where Gloucestershire have played since 1870, as the home side completed a comfortable two-day win over Glamorgan, a marquee at the College Lawn End contained a range of men for whom the journey through a cricket career isn't an abstract product of the imagination. For these people it is a facet of memory.

The gathering is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Professional Cricketers' Association; some of the union's founders are here, along with a range of others, all of whom are former professional cricketers. Some are instantly recognisable, in spite of the inexorable passing of the years, others are people that you assume did important things - in some cases before you were even born - but you have no idea who they are.

JT Murray, your best friend's boyhood hero, still stylish and quipping at 82; Vanburn Holder, evoking memories of New Road summers forty years past; Graeme Fowler, a man who faces down intangible demons daily; Pat Pocock, genial and ruminative. Others: Duncan Fearnley, maker of bats for the stars; Neal Radford, still with the looks that so captivated a female friend during his Worcester heyday; MJK Smith, with his perpetual air of distracted diffidence.

And there is poignancy.

A man in a motorised wheelchair leaves the tent, accompanied by his carer. We don't notice him at first, and he is moving away from us before his identity registers.

It is Winston Davis.

The last time you can recall seeing him in the flesh, he was playing for Northants at Luton during the summer you graduated from university, the summer, now rapidly fading into time's mists, when England had five captains. Even then he was better known for what he once did in the World Cup, one of the few times he got a game for the West Indies. You'd heard about him, of course. The fall from a tree in Saint Vincent which cost him the use most of his body.

Journeys can change, or end, in so many ways.

For most of the players on the field, those journeys show little sign of ending. For some, relatively speaking, they are only just beginning.
In the modern, reflexive, intolerant, shoot-from-the-hip world, professional sportsmen cop more abuse than most. As with so many other dialogues, it is the product of limited and inadequate understanding and awareness, and what often seems like a calculated and deliberate lack of empathy.

On the face of it, the life of a professional sportsman is all roses; 'Peachy Creamy', as Lesley Sharp's character Louise was fond of saying in Mike Leigh's Naked. But this is not all it is.

Yes, you can earn your living doing something you would be happy to do for nothing, even pay your own money to do. Yes, you can travel the world staying in the best hotels (although a life on the county circuit - the life led by most of the men in the Cheltenham tent - may not quite match up in this regard); if you are a cricketer you may never experience winter. Yes, you will get the girls. Being young, being fit, being famous, being relatively rich, are powerful aphrodisiacs.

Conversely - and these are important things - while you may get paid so much more than the lads you knew at school, in their office jobs or on their building sites, they don't have to concern themselves with the fact that if they have a bad day at work they will be scrutinized and criticized in the papers, on the radio, on TV, or by the trolls who populate the World Wide Web. They build you up, of course they do, but boy they will knock you down.

Also, your mates outside the game don't, in most cases, have to worry about their career being summarily ended by an injury, by a dramatic loss of form, or, perhaps, by the yips. Redundancy can come, but it will not usually entail the need to embrace an entirely different way of life. The need to commute, to work in environments where a majority of your colleagues are female, or to experience the strip-lit torpor that settles over a characterless office on a winter afternoon when darkness settles at ten past four and the rain is hitting the windows with hypnotic force, driven by a howling wind.

This is a different way of being; something which most of us have to embrace, even if we once held ambitions, or in most cases fantasies, of doing what professional sportsmen do.

Sometimes it will take until they have to exist outside the games they have known so well for a sportsman to appreciate what they have. Others, those with an uncommon maturity or breadth of perspective recognize it early, but for many it takes their career to be on the wane for them to truly know what they have. Then comes fear, and the rage against the dying of the light, whether it be swift or protracted. Sometimes you see this outside sport but in most cases it is retirement which is welcomed rather than feared. The rage comes later, as age and infirmity cloud the horizon and the end of a life, not just a sporting career, approaches.

The men in the Cheltenham tent have been through all that and have lived to tell the tale; youthful promise, careers of varying lengths and achievements, retirement, the need to find, and become used to, an alternative way of life. Some will have been more successful as players; others in the afterlife.

Cheltenham, with its encapsulation of a certain type of distinctively English idyll, always does this to me. When I returned to the ground in 2015, after seventeen years away, it was Stephen Peters, his long stint in the county game in its very last throes, who set me thinking about the nature of cricket careers and their conclusions. How is it that you adapt to the change from a life, with all its precariousness and pressures, where your places of work include arenas like this, to an existence which, while it is more stable, can never be anything other than more mundane.

The answer is that you probably never really do. When I see Ken Palmer at Taunton, 80 years, 866 first-class wickets and countless hours of umpiring behind him, he looks happy enough, but it is easy to imagine how he misses his lengthy involvement in the game.

For those of us who perpetually occupy the land beyond the boundary ropes, the way we experience the game is different. We have enjoyed some of the most exciting, joyous and uplifting moments of our lives on cricket grounds, but we have never shed blood, or much sweat, or many tears while doing so. Ours is a more limited experience, but it is no less profound. And it will continue for the rest of our lives.

Some of the occupants of the Cheltenham marquee were among the founder members of the PCA. They didn't just play the game for a living; they created something which has stood the test of time.

There are journeys and then there are journeys.

For now, for Winston Davis, the journey from one end of the ground to the other is all that is on his mind.

6.11.16

When the Eye has Gone

The retired sportsman, missing the acclaim of his career, is a familiar trope in sporting literature. It is true of those who made it, and it is true of those who did not.

I could have been a contender.

In the case of Colin Milburn, there was no 'could have been'. He was very much a contender, and then some. Although my memory of cricket and cricketers increasingly, and somewhat worryingly, seems to me to resemble that of the Ancient Mariner, I am too young to remember his heyday, although I have a vague and uncertain recollection of his fruitless comeback attempt in 1973 and 1974. But there is abundant folk memory, and literature, and the recollections of those who do remember his best days. It is clear that he could play. Really play.

Certain days and times have worked their way into the wider cricketing consciousness. Hooking the fearsome Wes Hall for six on the way to an unbeaten second innings century at Lord's in his second Test match in 1966; 243 in a day for Western Australia against Queensland in late 1968, an innings which Sir Donald Bradman memorably described as one of the greatest played by an Englishman on Australian soil; the car crash which cost him an eye and a career in May 1969. His later fading from view and his death at the age of 48.

Anyone would miss playing sport for a living. How many jobs are there in which you are well paid to do something you would happily do for nothing, and people - sometimes tens of thousands of people - will applaud you for doing things which you might not find all that difficult, but which they cannot do (however much they long to)? A few years of that and the world as it is inhabited by the rest of us starts to fade into the recesses of memory. If, that is, you ever knew what the real world was like anyway. If all you have ever done for work is sport, the adjustment will come even harder, and its effects will be all the deeper.

If you have played for as long as you can, and you know your time has come, it is easier. If you find, with shocking finality, that your career as it was is over at 27, it is never going to be easy.

This was Colin Milburn's life.

Dougie Blaxland's play When the Eye has Gone, in which Milburn and a host of other characters are played with powerful versatility by Dan Gaisford, is currently touring many of the grounds on which Milburn made his mark fifty years and more before. It comprises a series of vignettes (if that is not too subtle a word, and it probably is) from his life and times, in which his progress from the then fallow first-class cricket territory of County Durham to the game's heights and back, is charted. Here is Milburn in the school playground, pretending to be a late-career Wally Hammond facing Ray Lindwall; there he is as a young pro, taking the great Les Jackson for a ton on a Buxton green top; here he is impersonating 'Jim' Swanton as he passes Olympian judgment on his clumsy fielding; there are the would-be voices of Arlott and Trevor Bailey and The Don; here is the boundary-edge sage at Burnopfield who tells him he'll never be as good as his father; there is his mother, dusting furiously as she advises him not to neglect his schoolwork. The medics; the eye surgeon, the nurses, the doctor repeatedly warning him about the blood pressure and cholesterol levels which would lead to his death. The hollow jokes and the forced bonhomie.

The pint glass of gin and coke.

Gaisford infuses the play with relentless energy, an impeccable Geordie accent and a bullish, confrontational style, which leads you to suspect that you are watching someone who has lost everything but cannot possibly bring himself to admit it. For Milburn, as for so many ex-sportsmen (and others) life looked better through the bottom of an empty glass.

For anyone who (as I do) spends long hours watching cricket and other games on modern satellite television, it is often possible to drift towards the impression that you are watching a series of adverts for rival online betting companies, with a little cricket or rugby mixed in. There comes a time when you start expecting to see Ray Winstone's head in your dreams. As a result of repetition I hate most of these adverts with a passion, but one phrase (inserted, one assumes, to please whatever regulators take an interest in such things) has a tendency to stick in the mind.

When the fun stops, stop.

But what if you are forced to stop while it is still the most fun you could ever have?

19.10.16

Living in the Age of Root

The Nevil Road ground, in the tired northern suburbs of Bristol, was never anyone's idea of one of the world's great cricket theatres. It's been smartened up a bit recently, but back in the late nineties when it began to host one-day internationals, it was a prisoner of its own featurelessness. Crammed between rows of terraced houses and a Victorian orphanage, when there wasn't much of a crowd in - which, frankly, was most of the time when Gloucestershire were playing - for all its antique associations with Grace and Hammond and Jessop it never made the pulse quicken.

There were other days, though. Between 1999 and 2003 I went to a series of ODIs there. I saw Shoaib Akhtar bowl one of the quickest spells I've ever seen, I had an early glimpse of Chris Gayle, and I saw Sachin Tendulkar make the only serious runs I ever saw him get (I usually watched him in Lord's Test matches). And I saw Ricky Ponting. Oh yes, I saw Ricky Ponting.

In the game between England and Australia at the ground on 10th June 2001, England won the toss and batted, making 268 in their 50 overs. Marcus Trescothick made runs, Nick Knight made runs, Ben Hollioake, in his final summer, made a few at the end in partnership with Owais Shah. By the standards of the day, it wasn't a bad score. Well, we'd all seen worse. This was England, this was one-day cricket, and it was a long time before 2015.

Australia lost an early wicket - Adam Gilchrist - which brought in Ponting. The memory is still there, vivid in its clarity: I've got no idea which of the bowlers it was, probably Gough or Mullally, but Ponting, from a guard on or over the crease line, took the biggest stride you could ever see and played a forward defensive stroke of such utter and complete impregnability that only one conclusion was possible. England weren't going to get him out that day.

They didn't, or at least they didn't while it really mattered. He made 102, setting up a last over victory that never seemed in much doubt. This was Steve Waugh's Australian side, after all.

That's something worth noting about great players. The attacking strokes are one thing, but often, aside from their frequency, they are little better than the shots which mere mortals play less often. But the reason lesser players play them less often is because they don't get the chance. They're out. Show me a great player without a solid defence and I'll show you someone who isn't a truly great player.

In those days England didn't have players like that. Within a short time we had hopes for Ian Bell, never ultimately fulfilled; then there was Kevin Pietersen. Great? Well, maybe. Near great, at least, but a genius who impressed in a different way. KP could defend, of course, but it was the strokes that had you, never the impression of invulnerability.

As an England fan in the nineties - even one who was easily old enough to recall the pomp of Botham and Gower - there was a tendency to see anyone who showed any promise at all through the prism of what they could be; even who they could be. I remember seeing Alex Tudor as a seventeen year-old, loping in and bowling with chilling speed and bounce from the Old Pavilion End at Taunton. I thought he was going to be our Curtly, our Courtney, our Ian Bishop. But, for many reasons, it never happened.

Even longer ago in place and time there was Mark Ramprakash, coolly steering the Middlesex chase in the NatWest Final as an eighteen year-old. I was up in the Tavern Stand that day, and yes, we all thought, this is a great player in the making. And in every way aside from the making of Test match runs and centuries, it was. But, when you're dealing with cricket at its most rarefied level, that is what matters. It is not the ice crystal purity of your technique, it is not your longevity against county bowling attacks - that means little to anyone brought up in another part of the world - or your hundred centuries; it is what you achieve in Test cricket, it is what you achieve in one-day international cricket, it is what you achieve in Twenty20 cricket.

Joe Root can do all those things. And how.

As with any outstanding player, watch him early in his innings. Quality, even against the very best bowling, shows through early. Indeed, against the very best bowling it needs to, or you will be gone. As anyone knows, Root has all the attacking strokes anyone could ever require, and the discretion to deploy them when they are most needed, but, when he first gets to the crease, especially if he is facing someone bowling well, his class is characterized by the way he keeps them out. The forward strides are there, but less impressively than with Ponting; with Root it is the backward defensive which defines him. A precise, easy movement of his right foot, back and across his stumps. Precise and easy, not clumsy and rushed, on account of his supreme reflexes. The head and eyes level, sniffing the bouncing ball. A straight, level blade, with the ball hitting the middle and dropping dead at his feet. It is a stroke which makes a statement. A statement of impregnability, of moral permanence, while also speaking of thousands of hours facing bowling machines and net bowlers, and seeing off real attacks in testing conditions. Firstly in his native south Yorkshire, then elsewhere in the north of England, then around his own country, then around the cricket world.

Of course, this is not all Root has. For all that his early stoicism impresses, it is only, as it must be for any batsman, a fall-back. If the ball is there to be hit, whether it is a half-volley or a half-tracker, it will be hit. Depending on circumstances, and the state of the game, and the quality of the pitch, and how Root is playing, it will be dispatched either over the ropes for four or into the crowd for six.

Occasionally Root gets these things wrong. Like anyone else alive, and anyone who has ever batted, he can fall prey to misjudgement born out of tiredness, or distraction, or over-confidence. At Lord's against Pakistan in the summer of 2016 he plays two really bad shots, leading to his dismissal in both innings, and contributing to an England defeat. As he walks off, he curses himself. This should not happen. It cannot be allowed to happen. Six days later, at Old Trafford, he makes 254 against the same opposition. Unlike many another player, he learns from his mistakes. At that level of the game it is the only way to stay alive. Someone who batted with him during those matches, James Vince, knows that only too well. He will spend many quiet times reflecting on it for much of the rest of his life.

In batting, in cricket, in life, it is one thing to have the capability to do well. It is another to do so, and another still to do so again and again and again. It is wonderful to be living in the age of Root, but thoughts of Root's predecessors in the England team, and why they did not do what Root has done, continually intrude, even if their times have now been left behind. I tend to subscribe to the orthodox view that Ramprakash simply wanted it too much, while Ian Bell never fully realized how good he was capable of being. Root has these things down pat. He desperately desires success, but he doesn't let it consume him. He has tasted it and he knows he will taste it again over the many years that he will spend in the England team. Brooding, assuredly, is not his thing. The most repeated image in the mind's eye when one thinks of Root, apart from his strokes, is that of him smiling, joking and laughing, and it is these unselfconscious displays of enjoyment that have made him so popular. He is still little more than the young boy who loved batting and who subsequently found that he was very good at it and that people were prepared to pay him to do it and admire him for it. It is the type of good fortune that all of us would love to have, and we feel that if we did we would enjoy it for all it is worth. Joe Root does.

All of this is unforced. Technique can be inculcated through coaching; temperament cannot. I have a vivid memory of getting ready for work on a December morning in 2012, with the fourth Test from Nagpur on television in the background. As ever on these hurried, dark mornings, the game was incidental, but I had some time to watch which coincided with the early stages of Root's first innings in Test cricket. With spinners on at both ends, this was a test (and a Test) in the traditional Indian idiom, but there was an immediate feeling of assurance and calm about Root as he stroked his third ball from Piyush Chawla through the covers for three, and rapidly followed it with his first boundary, off Ojha. As with Alastair Cook, on the same ground some seven years before, there was a feeling of instant permanence.

Nearly four years later this has not been lost. And it will not fade for a very long time to come.

25.9.16

Taunton, 22nd September 2016

It starts at the railway station.

This has seen many things since the trains came to the south-west in the nineteenth century, but in the era of four day County Championship cricket it has seen nothing like this. Play starts early in September, so people's natural rhythms are disrupted. Earlier trains have to be caught, bags have to be packed more hurriedly, food and drink have to be procured. Getting off the 9.33 from Exeter is to enter a shuffling, mildly hurried serpent of humanity with one thing on its mind.

As always in circumstances where there is excitement, and anticipation, and tension, humour is never far away. There is plenty of laughter here, as people are optimistic about the outcome of this day's play, but uncertainty and trepidation take hold when they think of what might happen elsewhere. The problem is that nobody knows what will happen. And what happens will determine how they approach the rest of their cricketing lives. Either Somerset will have been County Champions for the first time in 2016, or it will have been yet another glorious failure in a recent history of glorious - and less glorious - failures. Nobody wants that, but the possibility is on everyone's mind and it will have to be confronted in due time.

The short walk to the station is hurried and suffused with chatter. This is a natural reflection of the significance of the day and the importance of comradeship. Nobody wants to face the possibility of disappointment alone or enjoy what seems likely to come today without the feeling that others, many others, are doing the same. There is, however, little chance of that.

It continues at the ground.

Walking to a seat in the Somerset Stand, the atmosphere is distinctive and intoxicating. As someone who was there, and who will never forget it, it reminds me of The Oval on another September day in 2005. The season is fading, but this is big, so big, that any sense of loss, whether literal or metaphorical, is postponed, at least until tomorrow afternoon.

As Rogers and Davies and Trego build the lead through the morning, and early alcohol is consumed, the level of noise among the crowd increases. 'We are all in this together' is what it says. And, as Rogers goes in at lunch with the latest, and what will transpire to be the last, of his seemingly eternal sequence of centuries, he is richly applauded. People know that he is a batsman of very high class, but more importantly that he is a good man whose presence at the helm of this side has been pungently influential in bringing them, and us, to where we are. For anyone who cares to notice, there is a valedictory air to the way in which he lifts his bat and salutes all the ground's corners. He has done this 76 times in all, but he knows that he will never do anything like it ever again.

For Rogers, and for us, though, nostalgic reflection is for the future. For now there is a match to win.

For the first hour or more after lunch, the attention of many switches to Lord's, where Yorkshire are inching towards 350 and a fourth batting point which will enable them to be champions if they win their game against Middlesex. With their score on 349-9, the players leave the field for bad light, then rain. The tension increases again, although Somerset hold the reassuring knowledge that they have more than four sessions to bowl out a Nottinghamshire side that will need to equal the highest score ever made to win a first-class match. For the away team's players, a sense of defeat has been in the air for days, if not weeks, and after tea, their slide is inexorable, their loss inevitable. No final day will be needed in this game.

For the next twenty-four hours the ultimate fate of Somerset's season rests in the hands of twenty-two of their fellow professionals - people they know, people they have played against and with, people they like, people they dislike - who are plying their trade elsewhere.

The Somerset players lap the ground. They are applauded by all and they thank those who have made this possible, even if it isn't yet clear what it is that has been made possible. It could be the most glorious of triumphs, or it may not. We, and they, will find out tomorrow.

Viewing this from the very back of the new Somerset pavilion, the sense of elation and pride is there to be relished, as is the view. It is the greatest thing that these seats now allow a panoramic view of northern Taunton and of the Quantock Hills, but something they also give is a broader view of the sky.

Big skies are more commonly associated with places like Nebraska or East Anglia. Here, so the legend goes, they can be unsettling in their way, but, while this is unlikely to ever be the case in undulating Somerset, they have different resonances. As the temperature drops slightly, and the altostratus clouds build in, the even, pale nature of the light emphasizes that autumn and winter are coming. Some of us will be back tomorrow, but most of us will be elsewhere until next season.

For many of us, this has been a day of days.

1.7.16

Thousands of Runs Unscored (17th April 2016)

I've been writing here for a full ten years now. I've seen and commented on a few things in that time, but nothing, nothing at all, has moved me as much as the story that has unfolded around James Taylor over the last few months. The humour, maturity, perspective and dignity with which he has dealt with something which would have shattered a lesser man, has been a remarkable thing to witness.

These were my thoughts in April of this year, just after the news had broken.

James Taylor is a batsman. That is what he does. Or, as of last Tuesday, that's what he did. Batting, something he has done since he was little - well, he's always been little, but you know what I mean - has gone, in the beat of a defective heart, from being both what he does best and the source of his income, to something he used to do but which he cannot, for circumstances beyond his control, do any more.

This is a profound source of sadness. To Taylor, of course, and to his family and friends, but also to many cricket followers, most of whom have never met him.

Cricket is like that.

In modern professional rugby union, players are forced to retire before their time with increasing frequency. It happens so often that it barely causes comment, still less any great outpouring of sentiment or regret. It happens in football too. Always has done. Time and the game move on with barely a backward glance.

Cricket is different. Players sometimes die young, but comparatively few have to retire early. The tragic deaths of Ben Hollioake and Philip Hughes, and the circumstances surrounding them, are etched on memories throughout the world; young lives abruptly ended, careers curtailed with thousands of runs unscored, wickets not taken, hours in the field denied.

Although losing the ability to do the thing that you are best at is awful, it is not as bad as dying. Hopefully Taylor has a long and fulfilling, if sadly compromised, life ahead of him. But he will always be susceptible to thoughts - early on spring and summer mornings, and as the evening shadows lengthen on cricket grounds - of what was and what could have been. Memories of Shrewsbury School, of early games at Grace Road, of taking that double hundred off Surrey that everyone talks about, of digging in amid the chaos caused by Pietersen's genius at Headingley, and of batting long for the Lions in the cloying heat of Dambulla. Thoughts of the innings at Manchester and Sharjah and Durban, and the magical short leg catches at the Wanderers, and what they might have led to in the era of Bayliss and Farbrace.

Amid the doubts and quandaries which never seem to go away - over spin bowlers and opening batsmen and levels of public engagement - these are times of renewal and optimism for the England team. They are finally, after longer than many people have been alive, getting to grips with one-day cricket, and, in Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, they have three cricketers under the age of 26, all of whom who, in their own ways, are world-class.

Taylor may never have quite made it into that category, but there was enough about him, from the way in which he instantly adapted to county cricket, to the way he took the knocks and the rejections and the redundant jibes about his stature, and came back stronger, to suggest that he could have had a long and successful career in international cricket. The summer of 2016 may have decided which way his career would go. Instead, it has ended before the summer has even begun.

There are few things better than being young and being good enough at a sport to make a lucrative career out of it. Most of us would settle simply for being able to play a single off-drive or pull like James Taylor, let alone hit the ball clean out of Headingley as he once did, or manage a run chase as he could. We wouldn't need to be paid to do so. Just doing those things would be enough to take our lives to a higher plane. But, in an instant, Taylor has been forced to leave that world behind and retreat to the foothills of life which the rest of us occupy. Nothing will ever quite feel as good again.

There is a salient lesson in life's unpredictability there, but, while most of us can only dream of having been a contender, James Taylor will always know that he was.

30.6.16

Coming Home (2nd February 2014)

This piece was the product of thinking about what Alastair Cook must have felt like, both during England's doomed 2013-14 tour of Australia, and after returning home. You can never really know, of course, but you can make a judgement based on what you've seen and how you think you would feel.

You would feel grim, and it would take you a long time to recover from the experience. It was that kind of tour.

It is still early in the year in southern England. For those of us who have been here all winter it does not seem cold. But still the rain lashes down. Everything looks dirty. The entire country feels as though it is drowning.

Alastair Cook notices this. He feels the chill and does his England blazer up. Alice, his wife, has brought him a heavy overcoat from home; he puts it on and turns the collar up. As the beads of water drip down the car window, the realisation sets in that he is home. For months, those killing, unforgettable months he has spent on the other side of the world at the focus of what is perhaps the most savage and pitiful defeat English cricket has ever known, the weather has made little impression on his consciousness. It has been hot, of course it has been so hot, but he has been there before and he is famous for never breaking sweat. The only thing disorientating or unusual has been the intensity and clarity of the sunshine, and the burning dryness of the air. All this is gone, now.

As the car leaves Heathrow Airport behind, images of defeat cluster his mind. It is a chilling montage of lost tosses, dropped catches, poorly executed strokes and the harsh, unforgiving glare of the camera eye. Unwanted post-defeat interviews in soiled kit, with thousands of Australians leering and jeering and laughing. Mark Nicholas, a preening martinet in a tailored suit, firing the questions with a forced mixture of levity and accusation. Why? Why? Why? Airless press conferences with all the Aussies there, Conn and his mates, with their crude and tedious jibes, laughing behind their notepads as they mock the fact that England's only truly successful player was born in New Zealand.

Nothing has prepared him for this. Not the gilded childhood, singing in the St.Paul's choir, nor those adolescent summers piling up runs on the school ground at Bedford as public schoolboys in museum piece caps bend to his will. Not the previous winter's glory in India, defying tiredness, searing heat and the weight of the past. There have been times these past few years when it has seemed as though Cook may be superhuman. We now know that he is not.

He was almost dropped by England once. But then came the Oval century against Pakistan, and the rest is history. 100 consecutive Tests and counting. Today, with jet lag setting in and defeat on his mind, he feels every one of those games in his legs and in his mind. The comforts of home cannot come soon enough.

The key turns in the lock. The house is warm. The bags are left in the hallway. Now, at last, a time to shed the layers of formal clothing crumpled by hours of international travel. A time to reflect on what has happened to him, and to the team which he has captained.

As the days turn into nights and back to days again, with Cook barely recognizing their passing, the recollections have an unwelcome tendency to come thick and fast, a bit like the Australian attack on one of its many good days. Cook relishes the opportunity to get away from everything - from holding a bat, from thinking constantly about bowling changes and field placings, from people, with microphones, or with beers in their hands, asking him 'why? - and he enjoys the serenity and security of being in his own space. He watches television, he reads a little, he talks to Alice, he sorts through the mountain of tedious paperwork which has arrived while he has been away. He spends some time outside, with the farm animals which have failed to register his departure, his absence or his return. This is how he likes it. He has been noticed far too much over recent months, usually for the wrong reasons.

But, as the activity lulls, the memories and anxieties return. In an instant he is back at the Adelaide Oval, late in the day, his mind and body scrambled by the relentless heat and noise, by the batting of Clarke and Haddin and Harris, and by his team's threadbare bowling. He is facing Mitchell Johnson, who is bowling to him as quickly as anyone has ever done. He sees the ball, but in an instant it is through him as his reactions, slowed by tiredness and stress, fail to cope. He hears his wicket break, and then, a heartbeat later, he hears the roar of the Australian crowd. In a sense this is flattering, as it signifies how highly his wicket is prized, but he knows that. He has no need for flattery. He needs runs.

Another time he is back in Perth. The heat has not receded and his team, theoretically, are chasing 504 to win. This time it is the hulking frame of Ryan Harris which confronts him. He sees the ball better this time as it doesn't quite have the pace of Johnson's delivery, but it swings in slightly through the air before cutting away off the pitch and hitting the top of his off stump. He knows he couldn't have done anything more to counter it - few left-handed batsmen alive could have done - but it cuts to the quick even more as it is the first ball of the innings and he knows that in all probability the Ashes are about to be surrendered.

These are extracts; he also recalls dropped catches, poor strokes, captaincy decisions. While his confidence - the sort of confidence which derives from a life of almost unbroken success - has been affected, when it comes to his batting failures he knows very well that he can bat. He always could, and the numbers are in the book. Form is temporary, class is permanent, all that. But captaincy is different. He hasn't done very much of it, and it shows, both on the field and off. He knows that what he has said about wanting to continue in the job, at least in Test cricket, is genuine and heartfelt. He wants the chance to show that he is capable of improvement. He wants the chance to help bring his England side back from its darkest hour. He feels, with Andy Flower, a man he likes and admires, still in charge, that better times lie ahead. Come the early summer in England, the pitches will be green, Jimmy and Broady will be fresh, perhaps Finny will be back, Stokes will be there. He knows how Sri Lankan and Indian batsmen play the seaming and swinging ball in English conditions. In his mind, for all its concerns, there is hope for the future.

A few days in, Cook is lazing around the house when the doorbell rings. Alice is nearer so she goes to the door. There is a brief, and, to Cook, inaudible, exchange of pleasantries. Then she calls to her husband:

“Alastair, Andy Flower is here to see you”.

A Day at the Cricket (12th September 2013)

As I mention in the original intro below, this, a distillation of personal memories from the last day of the 2005 Ashes, was written on the eighth anniversary of the day. I can't pretend that some of the style doesn't owe a nod or several to Christian Ryan, but I feel it adds up to a pretty accurate representation of the way I experienced the day, and what I felt. They're memories which will last a lifetime.

The final day of the Oval Test match between England and Australia in 2005 has, in the years since, achieved semi-mythical status as the most memorable day of the most memorable Test series most of us have ever had the pleasure of watching. I was at The Oval on that day, having paid just £10 for the privilege. On the eighth anniversary of that day someone reminded me that those eight years had gone by, and it prompted me to pour out some of the random memories which have occupied a small corner of my mind's eye ever since. As a day at the cricket, it had its moments.

A short, fitful, uneasy sleep. Up before 1.

Wash, shave, dress. Get the bag together. Don’t forget the ticket. The £10 ticket. Bought in the spring and now as prized as gold dust. You could sell it for a hundred times as much but you never would. Taxi into town. On the coach to London by 2. More semi-sleep. M5, M4, along the Embankment and into Victoria. London is dry, cloudy, humid.

There is tension in the air. In London, even at 6.15 in the morning, there always is. The tension of the incipient working week, of course, but something else. The tension of expectation. Of anticipation. The Ashes will end today.

Side street café breakfast. Over Vauxhall Bridge. Down to The Oval. People are everywhere. Touts and their would-be clients. How much?

God, this is different. Perhaps this is what 1953 was like.

Into the ground and take your seat. Block 18, Row 24, Seat 568. Right at the back in front of the gasholders.

The players net, do their fielding drills. The noise rises as the ground fills. After the players have left, some broadcasters walk across the pitch from the old pavilion to the new OCS Stand, where their commentary boxes are located. They are cheered.

In a sense this is surprising but then again not. This is the mood of the day. And they are Tony Greig, Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham. Richie Benaud, of course, is less conspicuous. But this is his day. He will be cheered by the whole ground later.

10.25. Bowden and Koertzen. Australian fielders, led by Ponting. Chewing gum, meaning business. Then Trescothick and Vaughan. Hopes of a nation and all that.

Warne on straight away. This is chaos. Second ball, full-toss, Vaughan, always elegant and alive to the chance, hits it straight for four. The ground erupts.

McGrath at the other end. A maiden to open. Soon Lee is on too. Erratic, but high pace. Boundaries come at both ends.

Two overs only to Lee then Warne is back. He will bowl long today.

McGrath gets Vaughan and then Bell, first ball. This will be mighty tough. Now Pietersen is there. No hat-trick, just.

Trescothick holds out against Warne but it is hard, so hard. Later Haigh describes him as being ‘like a London bobby trying to quell a riot’. The description fits like a glove.

Pietersen settles in. We know that he is good but how good? Today will tell. He is dropped. Warne off McGrath. Next over Warne is hit for six. Salt in the wound.

Then Trescothick goes. To Warne, of course, lbw.

Now Flintoff is there. The summer’s hero of heroes. But this is not his time. You feel he cannot last and he doesn’t. Warne gets him and England are on the brink.

Time for consolidation. Collingwood gets his head down. Sniffs the ball as he was taught to do on the capricious tracks of the north-east, far from here in place and time.

Lee bowls a bouncer. 93.7 mph. Pietersen, desperately hurried, arches his back and jumps to evade it. Shit. The mind scrolls back to the West Indies, years before. Hearts beat faster.

Lunch. It is needed.

Early afternoon. Sun. KP opens out. Really opens out. Lee is hit for six, then six, four, four. The boundary boards in front of us take a battering, as does Tait. He tries to save the runs but is left on his knees, head down, gazing into the dirt like a boxer taking a count.

Collingwood is still there. Virtually scoreless but no matter. Pietersen will provide the runs.

Then Collingwood goes to Warne and Jones to Tait. Trouble.

England must bat the day to secure the urn, but the doubts are strong now. Someone has to stay with Pietersen. Giles?

The afternoon wears on. Warm for September and racked with anxiety. Giles and Pietersen bat. And bat. The overs tick down. Safety draws closer. Pietersen’s ton is passed and the possibility of relaxation starts to present itself. But not now. They must bat some more, and they do.

It goes on. Giles ungainly but full of guts and common sense, Pietersen turning the screw with flamboyance. The overs tick down and things start to look good. Then very good. Giles is hitting fours now. The Ashes are coming back.

With the pressure released, it feels like time to go to the bar. But it has been drunk dry. Three bottles of Red Stripe is all they have. Take them, drink them.

Back to the stand. Now people are happy. Langer fields on the rope, further down. He smiles through gritted teeth as the songs and jeers crank up and the Spanish flags are waved. This feels special. Like a time you will remember well enough to write about, years later.

Pietersen goes, but his job is done now. As is Benaud’s. It is announced and the ground rises.

Giles and Hoggard stick around for a bit. After Giles finally goes for a quietly epic 59, England subside, but no matter. It is done.

Australia bat, but time and light are against them. They cannot win. The Ashes are England’s again.

Presentation. Fireworks. Lap of honour.

Darkness falls.

Back to Victoria in a muck sweat. On to the coach. Exeter in the early hours. Taxi home. The driver forgets to engage the meter, but you pay up anyway.

Bed for a few hours then up for the open-top bus and Trafalgar Square.

Cricket in England has never been like this. You wonder if it ever will be again.

Eight years on, you’re still wondering.

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