The Non-Conformist

When I hinted last week that I thought that at least one of Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and Andy Flower would soon take the decision to move on from Test cricket, I wasn't expecting something to happen so soon. Indeed, I wasn't necessarily expecting Swann to be dropped for the Melbourne Test, even though it seemed like the right thing to do. With the replacement of Prior apparently inevitable, I was doubtful that the England management would want to make too many changes at once, even if their team was looking more and more like a busted flush by the day. In the event, Swann took the decision out of the hands of Flower and his cohorts, and this was far from surprising. Swann has always had a welcome tendency to say and do what he wants, rather than what's expected of him.

Beyond the more obvious things that Graeme Swann gave England in his late-flowering career - beyond his crafty, aggressive bowling, his reliable slip catching and his punchy, vivacious batting - he stood as living proof that it was possible for a contemporary player to cut through the vacuity and bullshit of the modern player-media relationship. Swann, who'd really done his time on the county circuit and consequently stood slightly apart from much of the regimented behaviour and thinking of the modern international player, tended to tell it as he saw it, which was refreshing in itself. At times, as in the past few days, it would lead to more questions than answers, but it was always good to feel that you were getting the genuine opinions of someone who came across as having a wider world-view than most of his colleagues.

In the short term, arguments will continue about whether it was right for Swann to retire in the middle of the series or not - I tend towards the latter view - but, given Swann's personality it wasn't surprising. In a similar situation, Alastair Cook or Ian Bell, conformists to the last (and none the worse as men for that) would have been in for the long haul. Swann, though, is cut from different cloth.

And England will miss him more than they know.


Out of Control

The few unexpectedly short weeks that it has taken to decide the fate of the Ashes have begun to assume a strange, slightly otherworldly quality. In a sense they have been like a return to the time, not so very long ago, when Australian dominance over England in Test cricket was taken as the natural order of things. The echoes of 2006-7, the series by which all other English thrashings are measured, are starting to feel disconcertingly loud.

But things are different now. Prior to 2005, English cricket followers under the age of thirty barely knew what it was to beat Australia. Now they know what it is to dominate, even to humiliate them. Just a few short months ago England completed a third consecutive series win against Australia, by a margin of 3-0. For all its relative closeness and the unrepresentative nature of the ultimate scoreline, it was seen as normal, understandable and predictable for England to beat Australia. This has lent the events of recent weeks a fin de siécle quality, and they're no less painful for that.

Over international cricket's long history there have been few times when England have led the world. In 2011, after they had won the last Ashes series in Australia 3-1, with three victories by an innings, and beaten an insipid Indian side 4-0 at home, many people fondly believed that such a time had come to stay.

Such hopes were illusory and built on sand. England were, for a relatively short time, an efficiently run, technically excellent team, relying heavily on a range of very good, if not great - with the possible exception of Pietersen - players who were in the form of their lives, and assisted by the fact that Australia in the late Ponting era were a team in transition and turmoil, while India in England in 2011, as so many overmatched Indian teams before them, resembled fish out of water once they left the security of home behind.

With the benefit of hindsight it's clear the gradual decline which has culminated in the apocalyptic shambles of the last few weeks began in the UAE in early 2012, when England's vain pretensions to greatness were laid bare by a rootless but highly talented Pakistan side. The against-the-odds series win in India last winter covered some cracks and said more about India than it did about England, while it was clear from what happened last summer that England would need to raise their level of consistency substantially if they were to counter a Lehmann-inspired Australia benefiting from the additional advantage of playing at home.

In case anyone has forgotten - and they are excused for doing so - Mitchell Johnson didn't play in the Ashes series in England. The ODIs which followed, though, were a different story.

Jonathan Trott remembers those. In the second match at Old Trafford, with England chasing 316 to win, Johnson, after having Carberry caught at backward point by Clarke, removes Trott with a short ball of high pace and spitting, lethal venom. Trott tries his best to remove his bat from the ball's vertiginous line, but he succeeds only in edging it to Wade. It is the first ball he has received, and, before he leaves the crease he looks briefly back down the pitch and his eyes narrow with confusion and retrospective concern. He has been confronted with something he cannot control and it has defeated him. Old certainties are starting to slip away.

From that moment on it was obvious to many - just so long as Johnson maintained his form - that retaining the Ashes in Australia would be very difficult for England to do. Even without Johnson there would be the muscularly authoritative and highly skilled, Ryan Harris, the redoubtably persistent Peter Siddle and the newly-trusted Nathan Lyon. Then there would be Clarke - there is always Clarke - and there would be Warner and there would be Haddin, overshadowing Prior with gloves and bat and driving ever more nails into his once-valid claim to be the world's leading wicket-keeper/batsman. God knows, there would even be Steve Smith, still looking far from a Test number five but benefiting from the reflected glow which playing in a winning side bestows, and displaying a nice line in punchy resilience.

England knew this - or at least if they didn't they weren't paying attention properly - but they have failed to confront or challenge it. They have been outplayed and shamed by a team which, for all its resurgent virtues, is still punctuated with clear weaknesses. No definitive answers exist, but tiredness in the face of an unrelenting, sapping, devaluing schedule, and good old-fashioned poor selection have both played their part, while there is also the sense that during England's glory years (if that's what they were), more than one member of the side came to think of themselves as a little better than they were, and, as decline has set in, they have been powerless to do anything to respond to something they have been unable to control.

Control has been the byword of Flower's England, as represented by conservative fields, predictable selection, turgid over-rates and over-prescriptive catering arrangements. All this is fine, just as long as the opposition don't have the temerity to start fighting fire with fire in the sledging arena while simultaneously out-bowling, out-batting and out-fielding you. Then it can all become too much very quickly. And it has.

While the series and the Ashes are gone, it would be too convenient to pretend that the opportunities for short-term redemption at Melbourne and Sydney can be discounted. Those who have been following England since the days when this type of performance was the norm rather than the exception will recall Barbados, 1994. And the release which comes with clinching a series can do strange things to victorious teams.

But, whatever happens, the events of the past few weeks have ushered in a period of soul-searching which will cast the longest of shadows over the rest of this English winter. For the England players who have failed most strongly to live up to their reputations, and for each member of their coaching team, it is a time for unsparing self-examination. For certain players, chiefly the oldest, Swann and Pietersen, it will be harder than for most. This will also be true of Andy Flower. The suspicion is that at least one, probably Flower, will fall by the wayside.

In the short term others may go too, but the feeling persists that for the likes of Cook, Prior, Broad and possibly Anderson, while form is temporary, class is permanent. Their reputations have been damaged for good, but they, and England, with an infusion of new blood, will be back.

The illusion of world domination, though, has gone. And it will take a long time to return.



It's too early to take any real credit - and I'm hardly the only person who's ever indicated that they thought Ben Stokes might turn out to be a handy player - but, in May 2012, after watching him make a muscular half-century at Taunton which, in an indefinable way, hinted at greater things to come, I wrote this.

And, after seeing him hit a six at Taunton last season that went as high and as far as virtually any shot I've ever seen (although the straight boundaries at Taunton are short, it would have been a big six on any ground in the world), I was even more convinced that here was one to follow.

Of course, succeeding in Test cricket takes a lot more than the hitting of big sixes, but Ben Stokes showed today that, for all the myriad uncertainties and problems which currently confront England, he is, very definitely, one for their future.


Past Tense

With the dust settling on Jonathan Trott's return home, and with the precise reasons for it still unclear, thoughts turn to what he has left behind.

If it is to be the end of his England career - and no-one yet has any firm idea about that, including, I'm sure, Trott himself - he leaves behind him a legacy of apparently emotionless intensity, of striving purposefulness and of calmness under fire which has served England well through both difficult and glorious times. With all this said, though, the feeling persists, as I touched upon back in June here, that Trott has never, will never, quite be admired in the way many of his colleagues in the current England team are, let alone the way in which many England players of the past (think Tom Graveney, to take just one example) have been truly and unconditionally loved.

The recent turn of events has shown that Trott - scowling, balding, crease-occupying, Jonathan Trott - is as vulnerable as the rest of us (and we warm to him just a little more for that), but the fact remains that for most of his four years in the England side, regardless of the runs he made, he was just a little too much of an outsider for people's comfort. His lack of visible emotion, his occasional (exaggerated by his critics) reluctance to adjust his approach to the perceived needs of the situation and the obvious otherness of his accent all contributed to this in a way that similar traits haven't for other players. Trott is no more or less South African (or English) than his erstwhile colleague Kevin Pietersen, but for all his perceived arrogance, Pietersen's relative extroversion, and the dazzlingly innovative genius of his batting, have brought him closer to the hearts of England fans than anything Jonathan Trott ever did.

This, of course, is unfair; many of the things which Jonathan Trott did for England were exceptional. Of course you had the century on debut, of course you had the doubles at Lord's and Cardiff, of course you had the runs which nailed the Australian coffin shut during England's last tour there, but most of all you had the innings during which he, in partnership with Stuart Broad, took a Test away from Pakistan on the day spot fixing came to Lord's. Regardless of where his front foot was landing, Mohammad Amir was making it talk that morning, and Trott's judgement and resolution, coupled with his finely tuned awareness of when and how to start to take the game to, and then away, from the opposition, marked him down as someone who could be a player for the ages. It may not be widely recalled as such yet (perhaps, in the future, it will), but that was a truly great innings.

As to what else Trott has left behind, he has left an England team which, for all its planning, its attention to detail and its past successes, stands close to the precipice. Established players' form continues to falter, others, perhaps, are fading in age's spotlight. Trott has no obvious replacement in the team, chiefly because, although we are told his illness is nothing new, nobody thought to bring a player who could act, without hesitation, as a direct substitute for him. This week, in Adelaide, the wheels can either be bolted firmly back on to the wagon, or. conceivably, they may start to come off.

For England the pressure this week will be as intense as the South Australian heat. For Trott, the chill greyness of a Birmingham winter will be a strange but necessary kind of release from the stresses of his former existence.

It is to be hoped that he will return to England colours in the future. In the meantime he may be missed more in his absence than he was ever valued.


Riding for a Fall

In cricket, as in life, times change. Teams, empires, rise and fall.

In early February 2009, England were bowled out for 51 by the West Indies at Sabina Park, Jamaica, to lose by an innings and 23 runs.

I wrote about it here.

Strauss was new as captain, Flower as coach. It was a time of flux and unease. Despite evisceration in Australia in 2006-7, the 2005 Ashes triumph was still relatively fresh in the memory. England followers had received a taste of the promised land, quickly followed by a dose of hard reality.

Then came retrenchment, rebuilding, discovery, hope and triumph.

For a time in 2011, it was possible to believe that here was a team for the ages. As an apogee, 7th January 2011, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, has it. A cathedral of Antipodean cricket is packed to the rafters with singing English fans and fellow travellers as Australia, a weak shadow of the team which had bestrode and defined an era, slides to their third innings defeat in four matches. Later in the year, India are humiliated at home.

There is a sense, though it is illusory and in some quarters self-congratulatory, that cricket has come home. England, for so long whipping boys, are now on top of the world. They have batsmen who can accumulate as few in the modern world can - Cook, Trott - they have technicians of style and brilliance - Bell - and they have an artist of unadulterated and unconventional genius in Kevin Pietersen. They also have a wicket-keeper batsman who can bend any attack in the world to his will, skilled, aggressive, penetrative seamers and an exceptional spinner. They have all bases covered. This is a team which can lose a Test match in the arid heart of India and come back to win the series. This is a team which can win an Ashes series 3-0 when playing far from its best. There is a feeling among some that this is a team that can do anything.

They are manifestly wrong. That way hubris lies.

On the eve of their next Test series, the airwaves in Britain are full of former players predicting an easy series victory for England. Despite the persuasive evidence of the danger he poses (his potent bowling in the one-day international series in England just two months ago has been instantly forgotten), fans who should know better (and now they do, boy they really do) are dismissing Mitchell Johnson as though he, a man with more than 200 Test wickets, cannot bowl. The team's support staff are issuing prescriptive and precious demands about how and when their players should be fed. In some senses this is a cricket culture, if not a team, that is riding for a fall.

On the first day in Brisbane it carries on. Michael Clarke, unquestionably a great batsman, pops one to short leg off Broad and people are questioning his future. It is implied that Broad can get him out as and when he wishes. Two days later, the same people are uncomfortably aware that he cannot.

Late on the game's third day, Jonathan Trott, for so long a byword for imperturbability and remorseless consistency, plays a short innings of such panicky impermanence that his dismissal to a truly dreadful stroke comes as an inevitable but merciful release.

At the same time, both on the pitch and in the Gabba's stands, there is ample evidence of Australia's renewed aggression and self-belief. They have taken it from England for too long and now it is payback time. This is a cricket country to its soul.

For Flower's England, painfully reacquainted with the feeling that accompanies crushing defeat, the next few weeks will be the hardest many of their players have ever had to face.


At the Crossroads

It's often said that a player's career is 'at the crossroads'.

It's one of those aphorisms, - clichés in fact - which should only be used with extreme care. To use it more freely is to dissipate both its meaning and its significance.

It was never used very often about Ian Bell.

Ian Bell, from his Warwickshire childhood, was always a prodigy. At sixteen he was described by the New Zealand Under-19 coach, Dayle Hadlee, as the best player of his age he'd ever seen (this was well into the era of Tendulkar, but presumably Hadlee never saw the young Sachin live), and his ascent to the England team in which he made his debut with a cultured 70 against the West Indies at The Oval in August 2004, was completed with as much ease as one of his innings. It was difficult to shake the feeling that here was someone very special, but the way in which a few of his predecessor prodigies in the England side - John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash - had found the step to Test cricket a trial in both mental and physical terms, encouraged caution. Anyone who thought otherwise was riding for a fall.

In Bell's case the fall came the following year, during the greatest Test series of them all. Bell, 23 now, was tormented by Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. He wasn't the first, and he wouldn't be the last, but his experience raised questions which had never arisen before.

In the years that followed, as England's off-field management went through its own period of transition - from Fletcher to Moores and eventually on to Andy Flower - Bell established himself in the side to an extent, but often failed to convince. He couldn't make runs under real pressure, they said. He only made centuries when another player had done so in the same innings. He wasn't a three, nor a four, people said, even though he made his fair share of runs in both positions. Was he a six? Or a five? After a run of relative failures while batting at three in 2008 and early 2009, he was dropped during England's last, unsuccessful, West Indies tour, before returning during the Ashes summer.

Thus began the second coming of Ian Bell.

In 2011, when consistent, implacable, high quality runs at home against Sri Lanka and India quickly followed performances of equal skill and assurance in Australia, it finally looked as though Ian Bell was becoming the player he had always threatened to be. There has always been an innate diffidence about his body language which has sometimes given an illusory impression of his character but there was now a welcome touch of arrogance; a sense that he was starting to realize how good he was, and how good he could be.

After that, though, his performances began to slip again, to the point where, as Australia arrived in England last summer, people were again starting to question him. These queries were triumphantly dispelled by Bell's three Ashes hundreds at Trent Bridge, Lord's and Chester-Le-Street, heady combinations of fine defensive technique, grace under pressure and as wide a range of textbook strokes as has been seen from an English batsman since the post-war heyday of May and Cowdrey.

Now, on the eve of his sixth Ashes series, it can be argued that Bell's career once more stands at a crossroads. His performances in 2013 have firmly established him as one of the finest English batsmen of the modern era, even though he lacks the defining charisma and daring of Kevin Pietersen or the insatiable run-hunger of Alastair Cook.

This, though, is a batsman with the physical and technical resources to be truly great; in the era of power bats, diminished bowlers and slumbering pitches, he should be averaging in excess of 50. His current mark of 46, coloured by too many early dismissals, fails to do him justice.

Over the next seven weeks, from Brisbane to Sydney, Bell has a golden opportunity to take another series of steps towards being the player he always promised to be.

As always, if he gets through the early overs, he, along with the series, will be desperately worth watching.


Confronting the Future

What is there to say about Sachin Tendulkar that hasn't been said already?


So, what to do as his career slips into the past? Say something that everyone else has said in a million different ways on countless occasions - Tendulkar is the greatest batsman of all time (not for me), Tendulkar is God (well, not if you're really paying attention), Tendulkar has profoundly affected my life (Oh no. Cricket itself has, but Tendulkar is not the game.) - or try to say something different?

The latter is much the most attractive option, but it isn't easy to do.

It feels like a strange and slightly dirty thing to admit to at a time when expressions of unconditional admiration are the norm, but I've always had a slightly ambivalent relationship with Sachin Tendulkar. The first time I ever heard his name was in 1988 when Bill Frindall brought Test Match Special listeners the news of his unbroken partnership of 664 with Vinod Kambli in the Harris Shield. There was interest in this, even a fair bit of astonishment, but it didn't stick in the mind. The easy tendency was to ascribe it to the old Indian tradition of dead pitches and mountainous scores and move on. I didn't necessarily think I'd ever hear much about either of them again.

Then came the Test debut, news fragments filtering through from Pakistan in the days before Cricinfo, even before the Web itself, when following Test matches outside England in which England weren't playing was a difficult and random business. I can't remember whether I knew about Tendulkar's early tussles with Imran and the rest until my copy of Wisden Cricket Monthly arrived weeks later, but it's possible that I didn't. There was a lot happening - I was a London student, the Berlin Wall was coming down and England weren't going to the West Indies until the new year - and the fact that a sixteen year-old had made his debut for India didn't stand out. These things happened from time to time.

Then England, 1990. Tendulkar was here, this we knew, but how much significance his appearance held was yet to be established. Once more, fragments of memory paint the picture. In this case a breathless radio report of him lifting Ian Bishop over the row of trees east of the square at Derby as he strode to a match-winning hundred. I knew those trees, I knew Ian Bishop and I knew that what he was doing was extraordinary. He had to be seen.

Later in the month he was, up on tiptoe to lacerate Chris Lewis through the covers as India chased a forbidding England total down in a Trent Bridge one-dayer, then, for the first time live, looking like a little boy lost in the field as Gooch and Lamb stacked up the runs on the first day at Lord's. Runs didn't come then, and in Lord's Tests they never would, but the Old Trafford hundred did, on a day when I was travelling from London to Newcastle and back for a job interview. With Italia 90 a few short weeks in the past, the north-east zeitgeist was dominated by talk of Paul Gascoigne, and, once again, Tendulkar slipped into the background. In the short term there were more important things to do; in the long term, it was obvious, there would be many other opportunities to witness his virtuosity.

For years these came and went. Usually via television, but at others from the power of the printed word and the observations of those who had shared grounds with him. In 1996 I saw him bat live for the first time, on the day when Dravid and Ganguly began to redefine Indian batsmanship for the new millennium. Tendulkar went early. In 2002, in 2007 and in 2011 it was the same: Lord's would never bend to his will as so many other grounds did.

In 2002 I finally saw him make a century. 113 against Sri Lanka under lights at Bristol. It was magnificent, of course, but it was also somehow bloodless. Its ease was its weakness. As with so many things that rely on the distillation of feeling, definitions are hard to shape, but at the heart of the reason why, in the age of Tendulkar and Lara, I was always a Lara man, was that Lara's genius was more flamboyant, more visible, more immediately evident. With Tendulkar the difficult could look just too easy. It could look like perfection beyond emulation. With Lara you could feel as though you could at least try to do what he did, although you would obviously fail. It was genius with vulnerability.

However, Tendulkar had his moments.

Of all the thousands of recordings of Tendulkar's batting which can be found on YouTube, my favourite is the one which currently lies at the top of the list of results if you type 'Sachin Tendulkar Brett Lee' into the search box.

It is a film of the last five balls of an over bowled to Tendulkar by Brett Lee early in India's reply to an Australian total of 159 in a one-day international at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 10th February 2008. The target is comparatively modest but Sehwag has just been dismissed, and Lee is bowling like the wind.

The second ball of Lee's second over is full, a little too full, on off-stump. Tendulkar stands tall - or as tall as he, always a small man, is able to - and drives it through the off-side with more than a hint of excess force. His bat cuts slightly across the ball - as Slater says, it's 'a little bit slicey' - but it runs to the boundary for four and he is away. This, though, gives Lee hope, as there was a small hint of falseness about the stroke and its relative lack of timing. As he retreats to his mark, Lee smiles ruefully. There is nothing for it but to run in again and give it even more.

The next ball is even quicker and once again it pitches around off-stump, with a little too much length for the bowler's comfort. That said, if the batsman is anyone other than one of the very best, it is possible that the ball's naked pace will be enough to deny the attacking shot its timing and fluency. It is instructive that here Tendulkar doesn't worry too much about getting his feet in the right place - the speed of the ball makes that harder even for him - but he doesn't need to, as he sees the ball early, assesses that it can be hit for four and simply throws his hands through it. Of course - and in this context here is the real expression of his genius - the timing is utterly perfect. The ball connects briefly, oh so briefly, with the middle of Tendulkar's bat and rockets back past Lee faster than it arrived. By the time Lee has completed his follow-through the ball is twenty or thirty yards behind him, heading for the rope. Ponting and Hayden, impassive and hard to impress or intimidate, stand up straight in the slips as the ball slides away. They have seen everything the game has to offer, but it is obvious from their expressions that they are concerned. They have seen Tendulkar take games away from them before.

The third ball is quicker still, but shorter and straighter. By most standards it is a good comeback. Tendulkar, with an ease which again belies the pace with which the ball is arriving in his half, defends on the back foot. The message sent to Lee is one of unassuming defiance. It says to him that even his best, his fastest, is not enough to trouble Tendulkar when he is in this mood.

Lee relishes the challenge, though, and he comes again. His pace is down a little here but it is of no consequence. The fourth ball is much straighter, and for a brief instant Lee must hope that he will force Tendulkar into defence again. Unfortunately for him the ball is too full. In fact, this time, it is a half-volley on middle and leg. While, once more, the pace might be too much for a lesser player, it is nothing to Tendulkar. The bat face is presented full, the right hand comes in and the wrists stiffen on impact to send the ball back straight but slightly to the leg side of the bowler's stumps. As someone once said, it is four 'from the moment it left the bat'.

Lee looks chastened now. The final ball of the over is slightly shorter and keeps a little low off the pitch. Even Tendulkar cannot hit this for four, and he bends at the knees and defends it out short on the leg side. He nods his head in a brief, unfeigned gesture of resignation, but he knows, and Lee knows, who has the upper hand.

Tendulkar is eventually dismissed for 44, but India win with comfort.

This is a vignette from the life and times of Tendulkar. There are many, many others, some captured on film and able to preserve the illusion of his immortality for ever, others simply lodged in the memories of millions. It offers a brief glimpse of the way in which he could play when mood and moment took him; as his fellow Mumbaikar Sanjay Manjrekar has recently written, in his youth, away from the intense pressure and responsibility of the international game, Tendulkar could score as freely, as quickly and as potently as anyone ever has. No target was ever safe.

This has been a player for all seasons and all ages.

Leaving aside the versatility of his skills, Tendulkar has been vitally important as a physical and psychological standard bearer for a developing country. Born just a quarter-century after independence, Tendulkar's life in cricket has coincided with a period during which his nation has changed in myriad ways. Like Bradman in post-federation Australia, he has represented his country to the world as its people have wanted it to be seen: brilliantly talented and endlessly resourceful, while retaining an essential modesty and dignity given to few.

And then there is the sheer duration of his career. As Ed Smith wrote this week, a measure which goes beyond mere chronology is the fact that when he began playing international cricket, the West Indies, the insipid wreck of a team against which he finished his career, were indisputably the best side in the world. In the time he has been playing, Australia have gone from being an average side to one of the greatest in the game's history and back again.

The maintenance both of form and focus over such a long period - under the greatest scrutiny any cricketer has ever had to endure - requires a man of rare ability and character. It has become commonplace to say that he has gone on too long and this is true, but, when playing cricket is all you have known, all you have excelled at and all you can imagine, it must be fearsomely difficult to confront the future.

Over his time in the limelight, his country has changed, the game has changed, and so has his team. This, in the artistic hands of Dhoni and Kohli and Pujara and Rohit, is destined to continue.

We have changed too. A whole generation and more of the game's followers throughout the world barely knows what it is like to see an Indian Test team take the field without Sachin Tendulkar.

Cricket reveres its history like no other game, and we have been living through history. In these days of easily lost perspective it is possible to sleepwalk into the feeling that cricket ends here. Of course, it does not. Long before Tendulkar there was the game, and the game will survive him long into the future.

We are all about to find out what the future tastes like.


Falling through the Cracks

In the spring of this year I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Wisden dinner, an event which takes place annually at Lord's to mark the publication of the little yellow book. On this occasion the event was lent greater weight by the fact that it was the 150th edition.

Awards were made, speeches were delivered, toasts were drunk, backs, both metaphorically and literally, were slapped. Some fairly insubstantial food was consumed, along with a lot of complimentary wine.

After the formalities were over, people stood around in the Long Room as the tables were cleared. It was getting late, but few felt like leaving. Among those people was Nick Compton, the only one of the year's Five Cricketers who was there to receive his prize. He had been presented with a leather-bound Wisden by Andy Flower and had given a warm and elegant speech, full of feeling, in which he recalled his first visit to England, being taken to a match somewhere by his legendary Grandfather and meeting Peter Parfitt (at this, all eyes turned to the self-same Peter Parfitt, who was, like everyone else, imbibing freely).

Lots of things felt right.

With rare and unusual confidence, which can be safely ascribed to the receipt of a small amount of adulation and the consumption of a large amount of alcohol, I approached Compton and introduced myself as someone who had been known to watch him from the hill at Taunton. He responded with a direct gaze and a firm handshake. We didn't chat for long, but we did so for long enough to allow me to congratulate him on his recent centuries in New Zealand, especially the one in Dunedin, made under heavy pressure. He smiled an unassuming smile and said something like 'you just have to do what you have to do'. It was the tough, experienced professional sportsman's classic response to what the rest of us, who have never been there, perceive as intolerable stress, under which we could never perform (ignoring the fact that most of us couldn't make a century against Test class bowling even if we were under no pressure at all. We're not good enough.).

For Compton, with his Wisden award and his beautiful girlfriend and his place at the head of England's order apparently assured, all seemed well with the world. Headingley, with all its travails and protracted failures, still lay ahead.

I know this means little - I suspect he's the same with everyone - but at Lord's that night I watched Flower, his expression oozing control and gravity and seriousness, shake Compton's hand as Compton went to leave, and everything about Flower's demeanour suggested a lack of ease, of warmth, of friendliness, of approval. 'Don't get too comfortable' is what his eyes said.

He had a point. Six months on, with England about to begin another tour, Compton is nowhere to be seen. Flower is there, of course, as is Joe Root, and Michael Carberry. Compton is elsewhere, almost certain never to be seen in England colours again. The decision to replace him with Joe Root before the Ashes series in England was a defensible, perhaps logical, one, but for all that the selection of Carberry - with his background of struggle, his illness, his brilliant flair, his ethnicity - is a welcome and touching one, the feeling is that Compton, with his calm orthodoxy and his two Test hundreds, would have been at least as good a choice as reserve opener for this toughest of tours.

As to why Compton is no longer there, there have been mutterings: Compton 'offers little in the dressing room' (whatever that means); he doesn't like working with England's batting coach, Graham Gooch; he scores too slowly. All these can be questioned, argued with, but they add up to the same thing: Compton's face doesn't fit.

The England team has come a very long way from the days when players were regularly brought into the side, given little opportunity to succeed and then dropped and forgotten within one or two matches. This doesn't happen anymore. Compton played in nine Tests, and no-one will ever be able to take away the memories of the two occasions - in successive innings - on which he passed three figures.

But still, on occasion, players fall through the cracks.


Unlikely Looking Lad

For all the usual reasons - too much going in the day job, and in life itself - I didn't manage to mark the retirement of Stephen Harmison when it happened. But this is no bad thing. Sometimes it is a good idea to let the sound, the fury and the dust settle.

And sometimes, pace Sachin Tendulkar, it can be worth waiting until the player actually retires.

After surviving the initial barrage from Betts, I could see from the corner of my eye a tall, lanky lad with an innocent, baby face and long hair swinging his arms, jogging on the spot and jumping up and down like a monkey in the zoo. Obviously warming up to bowl the next over, I thought nothing of it until I glanced at Boony who was still grinning like a circus clown. As he walked past me at the end of the over, he winked at me as if to remind me of his early promise, or threat.

I wasn't to be disappointed. Unleashed was Stephen Harmison, a six-foot-three, nineteen-year-old from Northumberland in the north-east of England. Luckily, I was standing at the non-striker's end when this unlikely looking lad ambled in, jumped high at the crease and, from over seven feet in the air, delivered a bouncer which thudded into the gloves of his keeper. To everyone's surprise, except Boony's, the ball hit the gloves before any of us could blink. Boony's grin glistened as my eyes widened at the prospect of battling this youngster, whose baby face had quickly turned into that of a fierce-eyed monster. His first ball wasn't a fluke, as the next six overs produced some of the fastest bowling I have faced in a long time. This boy was quick, and I mean really quick. Like a West Indian fast bowler, he bounces in, hits the crease hard and hits the pitch harder

Justin Langer 'From Outback to Outfield', 1999.

Steve Harmison could always bowl fast. He may not have known how, or why, but he knew that he could. Bowling for Durham at Justin Langer's Middlesex side at Lord's in June 1998, he liked the way he could make good players feel a sense of discomfort, liked the way he could make the ball bounce steeply, liked the way the ball took the edge of the bat before nestling in Martin Speight's gloves. This was an uncomplicated time. Just get it down there and see where it takes you.

Where it took him was the England team.

All teams have their eras. Times that, when those who followed them get older and move on, they view with fondness and the warm, embracing glow of nostalgia. For all their more prosaic and predictable recent successes, for England the days between their arrival in the West Indies in early 2004 and the death of the dream at Sydney in early 2007 were that time.

And from that time the mind's eye's memory scroll reveals many things. England in the field, with Vaughan, sunhatted and animated, cajoling and controlling with an indefinable and irreplaceable air of authority. Flintoff, muscular and unsophisticated, pounding in, shaking the ground and the batsman's hands with his leaden weight of delivery. Trescothick, restrained, often seemingly inert at slip, catching everything. And Harmison, windmilling in, knees and elbows pumping, sweat dripping, a Bob Willis for the Internet age.

Fletcher on the balcony, seeing everything, revealing nothing.

The apogee of this period - perhaps of modern Test cricket - was the Ashes series of 2005. As time has passed, the series and its quality has been praised and revisited so many times that it has entered the realms of cliché. This was England's time. Cricket's time.

It wasn't really Harmison's. With the recent departures from the first-class game of Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones there has been much justifiable praise for the four-man seam attack which brought the Ashes back from seemingly permanent exile. Harmison's figures of 17 wickets at 32 both encapsulate the nature of his career of peaks and troughs and reflect the fact that, in the summer when Flintoff and Jones were kings, Harmison played a more fractured part. But this was his way, and, at the times in that year when he got it right, he really got it right.

10.30 on the first morning of the series, Thursday 21st July 2005. I am sitting in a packed Warner Stand as Harmison, with the Lord's pavilion behind him, begins his run. The sense is of gathering power and speed, like a fully-laden jet airliner devouring a runway. Unlike Brett Lee, who will do the same later in the day, there is little sense of athleticism or beauty, but there is rhythm and there is high, high pace.

Langer, seven long years on from his first enervating encounter with Harmison, takes one on the elbow, second ball. Later in the morning Ponting too is marked on the cheek. Blood is spilt. Years later, everyone remembers these things.

But for Harmison there are also wickets. Five in just 68 deliveries as Australia, for so long seemingly impregnable, succumb for 190 by mid-afternoon. In this Harmison's importance to his team is confirmed. When the muse is with him he can provide pace, he can provide bounce and he can provide match-defining advantage. He has done this against the West Indies, sure, but he has now done it to Australia, who, even as the cracks begin to show, are a much tougher proposition. England end up losing the match, but there are hints that they can compete. The standard has been set.

Sixteen days on and it is late on an Edgbaston Saturday. England have stood toe-to-toe with Australia but there is a sense that the match is entering a crucial phase as Warne, with naked aggression and self-belief, and Clarke, with astute accumulation, chip away at a difficult target. 175 for 7 chasing 282 for a 2-0 lead in the series which will probably prove decisive.

Clarke is still young here, with his future of back trouble, back-biting and batting greatness lying ahead. He has watched from the non-striker's end as Martyn, Katich, Gilchrist and Gillespie have fallen, but he has played with patience and skill. He has started to feel a little more comfortable at the crease and he, we, have a sense that the bowlers are starting to tire as the close approaches. Harmison, bowling the day's final over, musters a renewed effort. The knees are still high, the sweat drips from his pores in the steamy sunlight of the Birmingham evening, and the arm comes over high for the fifth time in the over, with one no-ball called. Harmison has been bowling at or around 90 miles per hour but this time he decides to throttle back and bowl the most perfectly-timed slower ball any England fast bowler has ever delivered. Clarke, in and set, is nearly up to the challenge. Normally a batsman plays early at a slower ball but Clarke sees it for what it is. However, recognition is one thing, combatting it very much another. Clarke knows what is coming but his timing is shot to pieces and he plays too late. Unfortunately for him the ball is straight and his middle stump is gone. The ground erupts, as does the England team and millions watching at home. Tomorrow, somehow, they will win.

This was the most brilliant thing that Steve Harmison ever did in an England shirt. The years afterwards always carried a sense of unfulfilment, with performances like the destruction of Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2006 immediately followed by a caning at the hands of the self-same batsmen at Leeds, and the individual and collective humiliations which the Australian summer of 2006-7 brought. But for all his inconsistencies and his ingenuousness, on those days when everything clicked - as much in his mind as in his body, Steve Harmison could bowl, really bowl.

The last memory anyone has of him in his national colours sees him hurtling in from the pavilion end at The Oval, Australia sliding to defeat, and a hat-trick beckoning.

The hat-trick doesn't come but a few balls later, the Ashes are won back again.

Harmison, at thirty, is finished with Test cricket.


Change of Tone

More observant readers may have noticed that the photograph which appears at the head of this page is new. After a few years of Tendulkar and Warne I felt it was time for a bit more colour, a change of tone.

It was taken at the County Ground in Exeter during the Minor Counties Championship match between Devon and Cornwall in June of this year. The batsman is David Lye, a man of Devon who, once upon a time, played for England's under-15 side with Graeme Swann.

He never made a career out of the game. At one time Middlesex were interested but an untimely injury put paid to that. He's well past thirty now, and these days you can see him on summer Saturdays around the Devon seaside grounds, accumulating with punchiness and a touch of class which is easy to recognize but hard to define.

There are all kinds of levels of cricket. In the realm of Tendulkar and Warne, David Lye is of no consequence. But if he played in one of the village matches which I've been known to play he would be the lord of all he surveyed.

I look forward to seeing him play for a few more years.


A Day at the Cricket: The Oval, Monday 12th September 2005

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.


No Show Pony

Leaving aside the white noise of hype and counter-hype which now accompanies every series during which the Ashes are at stake, the oldest international contest in Test cricket draws much of its enduring strength from its rich seam of events and memories.

If you can name it it has happened during an Ashes series: crushing wins and humiliating defeats, teams devising innovative strategies to hinder and humiliate their opponents, spectators assaulting players, teams losing after enforcing the follow-on, governments expressing their disapproval. In Ashes series, things happen.

In this, though, the 2013 series was an outlier. Contested by one side which was better than its opponents but which often failed to function as it knew it could, and another which tried valiantly - and occasionally succeeded - to overcome its inadequacies, it had its moments but, after a magnificent opening contest, it didn’t captivate in the way of most of its recent predecessors.

As always, though, players stood out. Apart from the muscular, highly skilled Ryan Harris, Australia’s successes are harder to define, but one of them was unquestionably Christopher John Llewellyn Rogers, a veteran left-hander from Perth who, for most of his recent adult life, must have felt that his chance to shine at the very highest level had gone for good, swept away in the blizzard of rare talent which kept his nation at the very summit of the world game for more than a decade. He was far from alone in this: batsmen of true quality, such as Matthew Elliott, Brad Hodge, Stuart Law and Martin Love only received brief tastes of life in the Baggy Green. Some were called back, but unlike Rogers, none stayed. In the short term at least, Rogers will.

For years and years, in his native Australia and in England, Chris Rogers has been around, making runs. Unobtrusive, often aesthetically jarring, but remorselessly reliable, he holds the attention for the way he doesn’t quite fit with the stereotypical mind’s-eye images of modern Australian batting. This is no Matthew Hayden, all bulging chest and biceps, repelling the opposition with raw power and naked self-belief, or David Warner, flamboyantly precise in his aggression, or Shane Watson, stubbornly reckless with both strokes and reviews. This is a man who puts the highest of high prices on his wicket and recognizes the value of the controlled push through the on-side, elbows kept close to the body, or the nudge behind square on the off-side. If the bowler fails to find the right line and length he will drive or cut with precision timing, his balance steady and his head still. He is a small, slight man, but his strokes lack nothing in power.

Rogers was never a prodigy and his thirty-sixth birthday looms. Although in recent English seasons he’s usually been found in the home dressing room at Lord’s wearing the Middlesex seaxes, he’s more familiar with the sparsely populated surroundings of Derby or Wantage Road than the world’s Test grounds. A show pony he is not.

In Australia's age of decline, the Ashes series of 2013 has given Rogers the chance, in his own understated way, to show the world what he can do.

Age and circumstances dictate that it will not last long, but it is no more than he deserves.


Little Boy Lost

The opportunity to play professional sport is granted to few.

This is the deal: You can carry on doing into adulthood something you've loved since you were old enough to walk and you will get paid for it. Unlike your friends you will not need to concern yourself with which university to go to, or how much money you will end up owing a student loan company, or how you will find a job with your meagre handful of qualifications.

That can wait.

If you can play cricket really well, while your friends are shuffling to their offices, shops and factories through the greasy English winter streets, barely awake in the half-light, you will be abroad. You will be travelling and playing your sport among the shimmering sunlit cities of Australia or the majestic beauty of New Zealand, or amid the palm fronds and azure seas of Sri Lanka or the West Indian islands.

And you will receive adulation for doing it. People will love and admire and applaud you for what you can do, even if, to you, it is nothing exceptional or unusual. It is simply what you do best.

Playing professional sport at the top is as good as life can get.

Nothing in life is perfect, though. Even this wonderful existence has its downsides. The fact that millions of people watch you doing your job can be one of these. If you have a bad day everyone knows about it. People you don't know, have never met, with whom you have little in common, will tell you what they think of you. At the worst, people's perceptions of you can be coloured for as long as you live.

Matthew Syed's thought-provoking book Bounce contains, among many other things, a chapter which examines some of the worst examples of choking under pressure that sport has seen, and explores the reasons why they happened: they include Greg Norman at Augusta, 1996, and Jana Novotna at Wimbledon, 1993. There are others. Until a couple of days ago, one example from the recent history of English cricket stood out: Scott Boswell's over soon after the start of the 2001 Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy final.

Then came Simon Kerrigan.

It's hard to imagine that Kerrigan had any idea until shortly before the match started that he would be playing in the most important match of his life, in front of the largest crowd of his career, with a group of people who, with just a few exceptions, he knew only from television. In this he was an innocent throwback to the age when underprepared, uneasy, inadequate, debutants were ten-a-penny in England teams.

His early overs were shocking, partly because of their sheer technical incompetence but also because everything you'd read and heard from those who'd seen him, and, more importantly, played with him, was that he was a confident, tough, aware, bowler.

But apparent confidence can be skin deep. Sudden fame and the eyes of millions can do strange things to people. From the time he began to turn his arm over Simon Kerrigan will always have been able to bowl well, and his first two overs in Test cricket were probably the worst he will ever have bowled. He will have wondered, silently, what was happening to him. He will have wanted to be elsewhere. Back playing with his mates, back playing for Lancashire, at Old Trafford or Aigburth, with the sun on his back and the ball coming out right without thought or effort.

Kerrigan had the demeanour of a little boy lost, and, until he gets the chance to redeem himself, this is the memory which too many people will retain. In England's age of tolerant, enlightened, consistent selection, there must be the hope that he will be persisted with, or at least, if he goes back to Lancashire and continues to take wickets, returned to. But such was the level of his stagefright, the concern is that even among the England management, his card will have been firmly marked.

If he gets another chance to bowl at Australia's batsmen in the next few days, the pressure will be even greater. He will know that a good many people, even if they are hoping otherwise, will be expecting him to fail. It will be up to him to confound their expectations, and, possibly, his own.

If he fails to do so - or if he doesn't get the chance - Simon Kerrigan could easily join the ranks of those England players - John Stephenson, and Joey Benjamin, and Allan Wells, among others, can tell the tale - who played their only game at The Oval and were never seen again.

Which would be very, very sad.


Stranger to Failure

For a fully paid-up cricket tragic, the Long Room at Lord's is a dreamlike place. It is also multi-faceted: part art gallery, part social centre, part grandstand, part green room to one of the greatest sporting theatres on earth. The right to enter it during a Test match - conferred after many years waiting for people to die and the procurement of a substantial sum of money - gives you the opportunity to study players with a proximity granted to few. At Twickenham, at Wembley or at Wimbledon it isn't possible to hang around the dressing rooms or follow the players' progress to the arena without being arrested. At Lord's, it is.

I once saw Darren Gough leave the field at the end of the last spell he would ever bowl in Test cricket. England's opponents South Africa had scored 682 for 6 declared, and Gough had bowled 28 wicketless overs for 127. His face was scarlet and he walked with an uneasy gait that spoke of mental and physical exhaustion. He appeared disillusioned, on the verge of tears. He wouldn't be walking that way again.

I've also seen many batsmen walk from the dressing rooms to the pitch's edge. Convention and the demands of their profession dictate that they wear a serious expression. The message they are conditioned to give off is that this, what they are doing, what they have wanted to do since they began to play the game, is work. They are not there to enjoy themselves. They are there to make runs. After they have done so, from the safety of the middle, where people they don't know cannot see the whites of their eyes or guess at their deepest emotions, they will allow themselves to show that they are enjoying what they are doing.

Last Saturday, with Joe Root, things were different. With Root they usually are.

As Root, who is 63 not out, returns to the field after lunch, he strides ahead of his older partner and fellow Yorkshireman, Tim Bresnan, and his soft manchild's eyes betray a brief hint of levity and recognition. Then, before he puts his helmet on, he breaks into a smile. It seems to me, standing right in his eyeline, that he may have realised that he is going out to bat for England against Australia at Lord's and that he is in a position to fulfil the childhood ambition both of himself and of virtually everyone who is watching him. He can make a century for England at Lord's and he is not daunted by the possibility of failure. Instead he is relishing the prospect of success. There is also the feeling that he is a little flattered and amused by the fact that a roomful of people he does not know, and who are far removed from him in age, background and experience, are applauding him, a lad from Sheffield who simply knows how to bat very, very well.

From the time he came into the England side at Nagpur at the end of last year, Root's performances in all three formats of the game - with their combination of poise, judgement, technical acuity and nerveless flair - have been those of a phenomenon. But he is, in some ways, an unlikely phenomenon.

To watch Root at the wicket is not to be awed by genius. His stance is a little ungainly, perhaps as a result of his relatively recent transformation from a slight lad to a tall young man, although he retains a freshness of face which can make him appear 17 instead of his chronological age, which is 22. He has no signature shot, although he is perhaps happiest working (and sometimes stroking) the ball through the off side off the back foot. When anyone overpitches he is quick to recognize the length and drive the ball, with an exaggerated crouch through the off side, or with fine timing straight or through the leg side. When the ball is dropped short he will pull, when the nature and circumstances of the game demand it he will improvize. He is a workmanlike, predominantly orthodox batsman in the classical Yorkshire idiom, where runs, not empty style, are all.

His batting carries echoes of Atherton, although, where Atherton was hunched, Root is upright, and where Atherton was careworn by the demands of captaincy and the stresses of playing in a consistently overmatched side, Root is carefree. His Long Room smile is far from unique.

For now Root is a stranger to failure. Watching him bat, or bowl his sharply ripped off-breaks, or skip around in the field, or simply take his place with unforced self-assurance among his seniors on the dressing room balcony, it is possible to see the years sliding away into the future. Where now he is 22, one day he will be 34. He will have known failure, and the smiles will be less common, but the powerful sense is that he will still be there and he will still love what he is doing.

Joe Root will be walking through the Long Room for many years to come.


Wishing Well

I had ideas of writing something about Jimmy Anderson this afternoon. I've never really done that before.

But it can wait. It's hot and I've got a lot of other things to do as I'm heading for London and the Second Test very early tomorrow morning. Also, the way Anderson's bowling, there'll be a lot more to write about before the series is out.

Overnight I received a message from Sara Bradshaw, wife of Keith Bradshaw, former Chief Executive of MCC, who is once again fighting cancer. As an MCC member who remembers what Bradshaw did for the club very well, and how approachable he was, I'm only too happy to post this link. If you can, give.

We wish him well.


Do Believe the Hype

I recently looked at some TV listings from the summer of 1994. The BBC were still covering Test cricket then and it seemed impossible to imagine anyone else doing so. The day in the autumn of 1998 when it was announced that the broadcasting rights for home Test matches had been awarded to Channel Four was still years away and everything bumbled along as it had since Bob Willis was a boy. It was the natural state of affairs.

On the morning of a Test match day coverage began at 10.55, usually just in time to see the umpires walk out. Every hour they would cut away to a news bulletin which was nearly always exactly the same as it had been an hour earlier. On many an occasion coverage was interrupted to allow other sporting events to be shown, the most memorable (for all the wrong reasons) being the time a minor horse race (to me all horse races are minor, but we'll leave my prejudices to one side) was deemed more important than the fact that Graham Gooch was 299 not out and about to score the first triple century in English Test cricket since 1965.

Now we have Sky. Coverage begins an hour before play starts to allow enough time for the revolving cast of ex-Test players to cogitate, to speculate, to fulminate and occasionally (with tongue firmly in cheek, for the party line demands that the day's play which is about to commence is sure to be the greatest day in the history of cricket), to reminisce.

Nothing is ever underhyped. Over-analysis is all. Occasionally, shafts of reality intrude.

This time, though, the start of the series has lived up to the advance billing, with much of what has happened being beyond prediction or rational assessment.

The sun shone and temperatures rose in a way which anyone who has lived through the last few British summers could have been forgiven for wondering would ever happen again. The tempo of the match soared and dipped like a swallow riding the breeze.

While England, ultimately victorious, still look the more versatile and experienced of the two sides, the game had the feel of the type of tight, resonant Ashes contest which was familiar down the years and decades which preceded Australia's era of dominance and the crash which followed. The feeling is that there is more, much more, to come.

For all Ian Bell's timely judgement, the mature Anderson's now-routine brilliance and the arguments over Stuart Broad and DRS, the game's most significant story may just have been Agar. People - understandably getting carried away - mentioned Sobers and Lara, but for me the most apposite comparison was with the young Yuvraj Singh, batting in the Champions Trophy in Kenya in 2000. Youth, flamboyance, a backlift for the gods and, with his maturity and vivacity, a stunning future. His bowling, with its loose-limbed echoes of Daniel Vettori, carries plenty of promise, but his batting is of a different hue. When Sobers made his Test debut for the West Indies against England at Sabina Park in early 1954 he batted at nine and bowled slow left-arm. Expect to see Agar much higher in Australia's order in the future.

As ever, as one career begins to flourish, another one, somewhere, comes to a conclusion, and, as Agar was settling in at Trent Bridge, Ricky Ponting was bringing the curtain down on his time in the game with an innings of 169 not out at The Oval. If Agar, with his fresh-faced teenage insouciance, represents the future of the Australian side, Ponting signifies its hard-nosed but peerlessly successful past. Jon Hotten, The Old Batsman, a writer with many of the qualities of Ponting's greatest days, described it in a way few could match.

We knew Ponting. We now know Agar. We know Anderson, and Bell, and Cook. We are in this for the long haul.

My train for London leaves at 6.52 on Thursday morning.


It Makes You Think

Last Tuesday it was exactly forty years since I went to my first game of professional cricket.

Makes you think, that.

The match was a John Player League game between Surrey and Warwickshire, and it took place at my local cricket club, Sunbury, in the far south-western corner of what used to be known as Middlesex. I was seven years old.

I can remember little about it, apart from the fielding side (Warwickshire, led by Alan Smith, his career as a TCCB bureaucrat still ahead of him) coming out of the low-slung pavilion (where, as a fourteen and fifteen year-old, I was later to change) with an old-fashioned static television camera pointing at them over the picket fence. I don't know why the camera has stuck in my mind, but it may have something to do with the fact that in those days the John Player League was a competition which owed much of its identity to television.

Although I have some hazy memories of the 1972 Ashes series, most of my cricket-watching up to that time had consisted of Sunday afternoons in the company of Peter Walker (the former Glamorgan player, not the man who at the time was a minister in Ted Heath's government), Jim Laker and John Arlott. For anyone who doesn't remember it, the John Player League's reputation was built on a combination of artificially shortened bowlers' runs, packed venues (which were very often club grounds) and pulsating matches. There was a whole match on BBC2 every Sunday afternoon. Until its lustre started to fade in the early eighties (which can be traced to the fact that more top-class sport was being played on Sundays and hence its television hegemony was lost) the John Player League was an absolutely central, wonderful, part of English sporting culture. The thought occurs, not for the first time, that it was Twenty20 before Twenty20 had been dreamt of.

I can recall precisely nothing of the action, but little reinforces the feeling of a bygone era more than the fact that the senior player on either side was a man generally known as MJK Smith, who was a former captain of England and who had made his first-class debut in 1951. Not only that, but, with his specs and his air of distracted academic diffidence, he now seems in the memory to exemplify the way the game was. Despite the billboards essentially advertising cigarettes (hard enough in itself to believe now), the ground, the stumps and the players' clothes were white and unsponsored. I doubt if anyone, least of all the likes of David Brown, Norman McVicker or Bob Willis, did much diving or sliding in the field.

In the era of the IPL, of saturation international cricket, of Cricinfo and of Twitter, it seems like a different world. The distant past invariably does. Perhaps the best way to capture this is to reflect on the fact that if someone was then the age I am now and was reflecting on having seen his first match forty years earlier, he would have been talking about a match that took place in 1933, the summer after Bodyline.

Now that really makes you think.


England's Bass Player

These days, it seems, whenever England play, whatever the weather, or the competition, or the format of the match, there is an unemotional man in his early thirties with a perpetual scowl on his face at the wicket. And he is making runs.

Jonathan Trott is a man who averages more than fifty in both senior formats of the international game. A man who has made thirteen international centuries, two of them doubles, and two other scores over 150. A man who has made Test centuries in England, in Australia, in New Zealand, in India and in Sri Lanka, mostly from number three. A man, in other words, who can really bat.

If you weren’t paying attention it could seem difficult to believe that his value is still doubted by so many. But if you know a little more about how the British choose their sporting heroes, it’s not quite so surprising.

The most obvious - but, in context, utterly relevant - thing to say about Jonathan Trott is that he is South African. Born on the Western Cape, schooled in the intensely competitive cricket culture of the Rainbow Nation with an English father for a coach, he was a relative latecomer to the county game. In this Trott is far from unique - Tony Greig, Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Kevin Pietersen, to name just four - trod a similar path in the years before him, but it remains central to the feeling that he isn’t embraced in the way that the natural born Englishmen with whom he shares a dressing room - Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Jimmy Anderson, Graeme Swann - are.

The players that came before him had other qualities. Greig an impulsive charisma and distrust of authority; Lamb a punchy, uncomplicated flamboyance; Smith a disarming, counter-intuitive reticence, coupled with an ability to roll with some of the hardest punches anyone ever had to take on a cricket field; Pietersen a complicated, unalloyed genius.

Trott, with his unfeigned seriousness and his fussy, uncompromising preparations, doesn’t feel the need to reassure people other than with the reliability of his batting. Because of this, his personality will never really chime with people in this country. We prefer a hint of vulnerability, of light and shade, of humour, to mechanical, rigorous excellence, even if it’s tempered by the best drive wide of mid-on that you’ll ever see.

There was a time, not so long ago, when any type of consistent excellence from an England batsman was a rare and wonderful thing. Now England have three batsmen who, in their differing ways, are as good as almost anyone else around. Pietersen, when fit and psychologically settled, is England’s flamboyant lead guitarist, Cook is the rhythm guitarist, setting and maintaining the tone, impossible to shake or dislodge, and Trott is England’s bass player. Always there, and all too often taken for granted.

Pietersen is an outlier, but there are obvious similarities in the ways in which Cook and Trott bat. Early on, judgement of line and sound defence are everything, but later, as the bowlers tire and fade, their errors are mercilessly exploited. However, there are also differences, and, aside from the fact that Trott bats right-handed and Cook left, these have their origins in the players’ varying characters and backgrounds. Trott, as the outsider desperate to underline his worth, plays with an aggression and combativeness which Cook, with his soft features, dark eyes and choirboy’s background, feels no need to emulate. Of course, Cook’s outward appearance belies his immense toughness of mind, but with him it is always the iron fist in the velvet glove. Trott doesn’t wear gloves.

These differences also have their bearing on the players’ popularity. Cook is a classically well-mannered young Englishman, Public School background worn lightly, eager to please. Trott doesn’t concern himself with pleasing anyone.

Then there are the statistics. At the time of writing, Trott averages a shade over fifty in Test cricket, with a strike-rate of 47, and more than 53 in ODIs, with a strike-rate of 77. It can reasonably be argued that there are times when he scores too slowly in the limited-over game, especially when batting at three, but this can be countered by pointing out that he simply scores runs across all formats with a consistency that is beyond almost all his team-mates. Occasionally, as late on the second day of the Leeds Test against New Zealand in May, Trott’s self-absorption clouds his judgement, but, most of the time, his instincts, his feel for the pace and rhythm of an innings, are sound.

What is better: to be at the wicket and scoring runs even if at a slightly slow rate, or to be sitting on the dressing room balcony? The answer will vary according to the circumstances of the match about which it is asked, but, most of the time, I’ll take the former.

Like Cook, and like Pietersen, Jonathan Trott is one of the best batsmen in the world today. Unlike the others he has neither the personal qualities to be truly popular, nor the character flaws to be truly interesting. Trott was a relatively late starter in international cricket and he is already thirty-two years old. Within the next two or three years it is possible - likely, perhaps - that his star will begin to fade. It is, in all probability, already too late. He will never be truly loved.

All he has are his runs. And, for now, they will do.


A Lot to Like

Taunton's well-honed image as a bowlers' graveyard is no longer as justified as it once was. For the last three or four years there's been noticeably more grass and bounce in the pitches, and they reward both skilful bowling and patient, discerning batting. In the old days it was usually a simple question of how many runs a side could make before it became too bored with the ease of it all to go on. Unsurprisingly, Somerset have never won the championship.

Now there is help there, although, as should be the way, you need to bowl well to find it. This season, with few exceptions, Somerset haven't been doing so often enough, and, when coupled with a general lack of form and runs from their batsmen, they currently look as far away from a maiden title as they have ever done.

The main exception has been a nineteen year-old from the north Devon coast called Jamie Overton.

Overton's bowling in Somerset's game against Warwickshire in late April, which was covered on Sky, led both David Lloyd and Mike Atherton to suggest that he could be a contender for next winter's Ashes tour, and Mike Selvey has recently joined this club of slightly breathless admirers. As Overton has played just eight first-class matches and taken 23 wickets, it instinctively feels as though people who should know better are getting just a little carried away.

There is, though, a lot to like about Overton.

For a start, unlike so many bowlers of his age, he doesn't look as though the kind of icy wind which plagues the county grounds of England at this time of year will pick him up and carry him over the nearest sightscreen. Overton is bulky, robust, muscular. In the old-fashioned way, he is built to be a seam bowler. Built for hard labour on capricious English tracks. And, from a well-balanced, high, rhythmical action, he has pace. Mid to high eighties with ease, and the ability to make the ball bounce and move away. He keeps his slips on their toes. Although his Cricinfo profile describes him as a medium pace bowler, he is nothing of the sort.

With any bowler of Overton's age, whatever their potential, the uncertainties of future form and fitness hang as heavily in the air as a lower-order hitter's skyer descending to earth; until their potential is realised or they fade from view, nobody can be certain what will happen.

With Jamie, whose name I've known since he and his twin were tearing up the Devon youth circuit as eleven year-olds, I have a hunch that he's going to be good.

Really, really good.


Danger: Genius at Work

Towards the end of March I saw Jos Buttler at my local rugby ground. The Exeter Chiefs were playing Leicester in the Aviva Premiership and he was standing close to where I can usually be found on Devon winter Saturdays, frequently struggling to retain feeling in my limbs as the estuary winds blow in. He was among a group of lads his age and a couple of older men, one of whom I took to be his father. He was relaxed, happy, smiling. He didn't stand out, other than for the lush appearance of his skin, which spoke of time spent far from the grim, biting greyness of the British winter months.

In many ways, Jos Buttler is characteristic of his cricket background. Somerset players, whatever their gifts - and Marcus Trescothick is the ageless template here - tend to be unpretentious and self-aware, mistrustful of metropolitan slickness and artificiality.

Talk is cheap. It is what you do on the pitch, with bat or ball in hand, that matters.

This is Buttler. When interviewed he is quietly spoken, modest, a little reticent perhaps. He doesn't stand out. Except in the way he uses his bat.

After Sandy Park, my next sighting of Buttler came at Taunton during Somerset's first home Championship match of the season against Warwickshire. He made a fluent, easily commanding 119 not out from number six, putting on a creamy 193 with Alviro Petersen. For Buttler, whose name has largely been made in the limited-over game, this was an important innings, showing as it did the level of restraint and shot selection - though never excessive conservatism or lack of fluency - which he is going to need to regularly display if he is to press his claims to be among England's future plans in Test as well as one-day cricket.

At the wicket Buttler has the stillness and capacity for late movement which distinguishes the very best. With a full slip cordon in place and the ball moving, he can be vulnerable, as the quality of his eye and hands can lead him into unwise temptation and misjudgement. However, such is his class, he can usually ride the danger. As with other players of genius, what is almost certain to be fatally inappropriate to a lesser mortal is usually just the simplest way to accrue runs. The difficult and unwise is, in his hands, made to look easy and prudent.

However, it is in the short-form arena that Buttler's virtuosity has its clearest expression. Here he can do what he does as well as any player on the planet. He can innovate and extemporize, and he can bend any bowling attack to his will. The coruscating innings of 89 from 51 balls which he made for Somerset against Yorkshire at Headingley yesterday was simply the most recent example of his gifts. There were the ramp shots to both sides of the hapless wicket-keeper, played with unnatural consistency of timing - the difficult made to look easy - and there were the lofted on-drives, hit with merciless power. But there was also more: lofted off-drives (though in truth they were more like tennis shots) played with a lazy, elastic whip of the arms, subverting the textbook's imprecations to keep the left elbow high and enabling the ball to be directed to parts of the offside boundary which cannot easily be defended by a captain with only nine fielders at his disposal.

Many of Buttler's early games for England were characterized by an air of diffidence which is never apparent when he is playing for his county. Until he made 32 not out off 10 balls in a T20 game (which was reduced to 11 overs per side) against South Africa at Edgbaston last September, there was a sense that he was wondering to himself whether he was good enough. Since then he has appeared more confident and has been marginally more influential, although, as Bob Willis, who, in his mad Uncle sort of way has become Buttler's greatest champion, has said, he needs to bat higher in the order.

Buttler is a one-day player in the modern idiom. As everyone knows, in modern limited-over cricket, reputations are won and lost in the IPL. Because Buttler has never played in the IPL there are wide swathes of the cricket world who don't yet know how good he is. At Headingley yesterday the applause he received when he left the field was hesitant. While this can be attributed at least partly to partisanship, you can be forced to conclude that it is not just on the Indian sub-continent that people are yet to really grasp how good Buttler is.

Before long, you can be sure, they will.


Read It and Weep

I've never made much of it here before but for many years my day job ('What do you do in real life?' Matthew Engel asked me the other week) involved looking after archives. These days I spend more time encouraging others to value them, but I still pass most of my days surrounded by registers, by maps, by deeds, by wills, by letters. I like it, and I can get days off to watch cricket.

We value the things we look after and we try not to let them get eaten by insects. This, at the most basic level, is part of our ethos.

Because of this, and perhaps because I've been reading and thinking about Wisden and the game's rich written heritage more than usual recently, I was truly shocked by this, which Aakash Chopra, the former Indian Test batsman, was good enough to post on Twitter yesterday.

As my friend Chris Smith, of Declaration Game, has suggested, the sad state of the Kanga Memorial Library could be regarded as a metaphor for Indian cricket; that beneath the gleaming facade of the IPL, or in this case the redeveloped Wankhede Stadium, the infrastructure of the game, or the fabric of its history, has been left to wither.

It's hard to know what to do. This is a library I've never visited in a country I've never visited. But, at the moment, I feel as though I ought to do something.

I'm going to explore a few avenues and report back.

In the meantime, read it and weep.


The Wisden Experience

In the first chapter of Rain Men, A Matter of Faith, Marcus Berkmann likens cricket to fundamentalist religion:

'...Cricket is a matter of faith. Either you believe or you don't believe. There is no rational explanation...We have the devilishly complex theology, whose baroque byways confuse even the most dedicated adherents. We have the curious vestments, for white is a holy colour in many religions. We have our holy book, published each April in both hardback and paperback editions.'

In what is possibly my favourite part of a great book, Berkmann is both persuasive and hilarious. However, questions arise. If Wisden is cricket's holy book, what is the status of the editor? Cricket's Archbishop of Canterbury? Its Pope? Or someone more senior?

Like any self-respecting cricket tragic (and, I suspect, plenty with no self-respect whatsoever), I've been reading Wisden since I was a lad and I always liked the idea of writing something which would appear in it. Until last year, I wasn't really sure how I was going to do it. A bit like the many cricketers with glorious futures behind them who ply their trade on the country's club grounds on the increasingly rare British days when it isn't raining, I probably felt that the opportunity to taste the big time (like the chance to open the batting for England at Lord's) had passed me by.

I could have been a contender.

Then came the Wisden Writing Competition. I wrote something and sent it in, just ahead of the deadline. For the next couple of months I largely forgot about it. My father became ill and subsequently died. Life, in the shadow of the longest British winter of modern times, went on.

One office-bound morning at the end of January, while I was trying to decide which of a thousand competing demands on my time I was going to tackle first, I noticed that I'd received an e-mail from the Editor of Wisden, Lawrence Booth. He was telling me that I'd won the competition, inviting me to the Wisden Dinner and asking me to keep the news to myself 'for the time being'.

This was it. A message from cricket's Archbishop of Canterbury. Or perhaps it was more akin to a missive from the monarch. Every year, when people (some of them cricketers) receive OBEs or Knighthoods, they mention the fact that they were told to keep the news secret.

'Oh, it was difficult', they say. And they're right.

In the end, people are told, sartorial advice (for a Black Tie virgin) sought and my bank account left reeling. April comes, and I find myself in the Long Room Bar at Lord's, drinking champagne.

Life can be tough sometimes.

Then a barely audible fire alarm sounds, quickly followed by a man telling us to evacuate the building. Within minutes I'm standing outside the pavilion in the murky drizzle, surrounded by the pride of the British cricket media and one or two people who've even made the odd Test match run.

Life can be interesting sometimes.

The cause of the alarm is rapidly dealt with and we return to more important matters, such as eating, drinking and congratulating people. Toasts are proposed and drunk, leather-bound Wisdens are presented to deserving candidates, and speeches are delivered with appropriateness and sensitivity. Nick Compton talks of his first encounter with English cricket, in the company of his grandfather and Peter Parfitt (who is sitting nearby), while Michael Palin expertly evokes the atmosphere of backyard Test matches in 1950s Sheffield and concludes by reciting a classic Monty Python sketch. Everywhere there is reminiscence and the exchange of the seasoned anecdote. I speak to various well-known people, none of whom have any idea who I am.

In many ways it is like a journey through the adolescence of a cricketing child of the 1970s and 1980s, who may well have spent more time with his nose among the covers of a chocolate and yellow book than is strictly healthy. Selvey is here, Brearley is there, Agnew and Marks are somewhere else. John Woodcock surveys proceedings with the air of a benign éminence grise. David Gower relishes the speeches, laughs in all the right places and finishes the evening in the bar with a few representatives of the press. He may look a little old for his years but to those of us of a certain age he will always be the man who made Test match batting look like the easiest thing in the world.

Unusually, I leave Lord's in darkness. The County Championship season began today, and, of course, it is raining steadily.


A Prior Engagement

Things have been quiet here recently. As ever, too much going on and too little inspiration. However, in the aftermath of the Auckland Test, I wrote this, which subsequently appeared, in slightly edited form, on Cricinfo. I think I got a little carried away, but Matt Prior does that to me.

Anyone who has watched sport for a long time, supported teams, will know what it feels like. From time to time players come along who, to you, are simply better, more captivating, than the rest, often for reasons which can be hard to define and may not be apparent to others. It is a little like falling in love.

To me, Matthew Prior, now at the absolute summit of his powers, is such a player. Here, from personal experience, are some reasons why.

Scene One: Lord's Cricket Ground, Friday 18th May 2007.

It is the afternoon of the second day of the first Test Match between England and the West Indies. By mid-afternoon the piercing early sunshine has faded to haze and the vapid West Indian attack is fading too. England, superior and confident, are 363 for 5 when Matthew Prior of Sussex comes to the wicket. This will be his first innings in Test cricket. We feel we know Prior a little; he has been around England's one-day team for a year or two, opening the batting, achieving little. Now, though, he is the latest person to assume the status of wicket-keeper-batsman in England's Test team, a role which has not been convincingly occupied by anyone - though Geraint Jones has tried hard and briefly flourished - since Alec Stewart retired four years ago. He is a short, muscular man of 25, a product of Sussex, with his shaven head hidden beneath a blue England helmet, proudly worn. He exudes intent and instinctive, unapologetic confidence.

Barely more than two hours later he has made a century, striking at 98 runs per 100 balls. At the day's close the crowd leaves the ground and takes to London's dusty streets in a state of noisy excitement. For once, after a long day at Lord's, this excitement is not exclusively induced by alcohol. We are yet to see Prior keep wicket, but we like what we have seen of his batting. We feel - because, when players start careers like this, you always do - that we could be watching him for many years to come.

Scene Two: Lord's Cricket Ground, Sunday 19th July 2009.

England, after a period of stagnation caused by Kevin Pietersen attempting to bat when he can barely run, require quick runs to enable them to declare and bowl at Australia. Once more, Prior comes to the wicket with the warm July sun on his back against a listing, vulnerable attack. There is a sense among the packed crowd that the tempo of the cricket is about to soar. We now know more of Prior and we expect him to do things like this.

Prior is instantly into his stride, driving Siddle repeatedly for four and then turning his attention more subtly and inventively to Hauritz and Clarke. He defends well when necessary, head still and level, hands and feet in all the right places, but he is the type of player who, you sense, always sees a defensive stroke as a kind of defeat. He is strongest on the off side but anything short or full directed towards leg stump will go for runs. And he runs between the wickets with the low-slung speed of a breaking scrum-half, his lucid blue eyes holding a steely gaze which betrays the intensity of his competitive desire.

In the two years which have elapsed since we first saw him he has spent time out of the team because of weaknesses in his wicket-keeping. Now, though, he has played a vital part in putting England in a position to beat Australia at Lord's for the first time since 1934. He is here to stay.

Scene Three: Lord's Cricket Ground, Sunday 24th July 2011.

This is an afternoon of Lord's afternoons. Once again England are ahead and chasing runs but they have been briefly shocked into unease by a burst of wickets. There is a slight sense of déjà vu as Stuart Broad joins Prior in a vibrant partnership which will go far towards defining the match's outcome.

By English standards it is an unusually clear and warm day, and, as the sun fades and shadow intrudes, the packed grandstand is a vital, hypnotic sight. There is, as always at Lord's, conversation and frequent laughter, but nobody's attention strays far from the play as Prior bends the attack to his will. He faces a range of bowlers - the talented but inconsistent Ishant, the aggressive but fading Harbhajan, the subtle, unpredictable, Praveen Kumar, the lost Suresh Raina - but all come alike as he eases through his concordance of cuts and drives, adjusting the shape of his body to steer the ball to a different part of the boundary. It is off-side batting from the Gods, based on technical proficiency, pin-sharp reflexes and crisp, decisive execution. But it is never hurried, or messy or inappropriate. It is batting to fall in love with, to become obsessed by.

Scene Four: Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand, Tuesday 26th March 2013.

Matthew Prior plays forward, defensively, to Trent Boult. He fails to score but he is not dismissed. He raises his arms in the air to salute England's draw. This isn't normally Prior's style - ostentatious emotion, celebrating drawn matches - but it fits the moment. Thousands upon thousands of miles away, in dark, cold, Britain, sleep-deprived people celebrate with him.

To borrow from and paraphrase John Moynihan, from his classic work on the first twenty years of post-war English football, The Soccer Syndrome:

Is this not why we watch cricket?



I wasn't sure what to think or believe about this week's crisis in Australian cricket. (This isn't to say that there's a crisis every week, although, at the moment, it might seem like it.)

My initial reaction was that Arthur and Clarke had been heavy-handed, although Brydon Coverdale's nail on head piece on Cricinfo, led me to re-consider my initial view. It seems, from comments made later by Clarke, that the failure of the four players to 'hand in their homework' on time was the straw that broke the camel's back. And James Pattinson, in an admirable display of contrition which I'm naive enough to believe was genuine, appeared to have learned a lesson of sorts, although, as the team's best bowler, he was always destined to return to the side at the earliest opportunity. For Watson, who high-tailed it back to Australia to be with his pregnant wife while muttering about the injustice of it all, and Khawaja, and Johnson, the future is a deal more uncertain. All are cricketers of talent, that much is beyond dispute, but all have histories of under-performance, and, in at least Khawaja's case, this apparently wasn't the first time they'd failed to meet their disciplinary obligations.

For all of them, time will tell. This is about something bigger.

It is trite and obvious to say that this wouldn't have happened a few years ago, when Australian were one of the greatest teams in the game's history. For one thing, individual and collective navel-gazing is less likely to be demanded when sides are winning, and, if it is, players are more likely to respond positively. They will be happier and more relaxed because they are winning and they are likely to be more conscious of the need to preserve their place among a privileged elite. It would be a surprise if the Australian cricket team, beaten from pillar to post by Dhoni, Pujara and the rest over the past few weeks, currently feels much like an elite.

In an extension of this, one of the earliest and least surprising reflex reactions to the news came from people asking whether the likes of Viv Richards or Shane Warne would have come up with their three suggestions for improvement in the prescribed manner. Well, no, they probably wouldn't. In fact, in Warne's case, he definitely wouldn't, even if he's recently developed the waning, raging, retiree's addiction to putting the world (or at least his country's cricket system) to rights. Things were different then, and, if John Buchanan had asked Warne to do such a thing, the reaction would doubtless have been short and not particularly sweet. And he would still have been picked for the next Test.

Last week's affair had as much to do with a national cricket culture's confusion and uncertainty about what to do in the face of decline as the errant actions of a few individuals. When your cricket team has been as fecund and impregnable a source of national pride and cultural identity as Australia's was a few short years ago, people start scrambling for excuses and solutions once the inevitable regression and decline sets in. And a relatively new, foreign, coach, will feel the dead weight of past glories all the more and consequently try harder to free himself and his charges from the pressure imposed by the hand of history. And things can seem even worse when your hopes have been raised by illusory and often facile successes which led you to think you were making progress. Cleaning up Sri Lanka in home conditions is one thing, meeting India under roasting skies with a hand of inadequate spinners and floundering batsmen, and with twin Ashes series against better equipped opponents on the horizon, is very much another.

This is an uncertain time for Australian cricket, and Australian sport. The customary narrative, which a generation or more of Australians has grown up with, is that Australia is good at sport. When it comes to cricket, they are among the best. In fact, they have often been the best. Now they are not, and with every fresh stroke of Shikar Dhawan's bat, or each time Phil Hughes is dismissed in clumsy circumstances, renewed doubts and uncertainties raise their heads.

It will take more than three bullet pointed ideas to put them to rest.

Subscribe in a reader