Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Seventh Annual OB Innings Of The Year Award: Put Out Your Bats

At the start of the English season in 2009 a magazine asked me to go down to Lord's, where Middlesex were having a press day. It was one of those steel-cold April afternoons when the fingers go numb and Summer seems like a distant land. The Lord's Tavern bar was full, not because the papers had undergone a damascene conversion to County Championship coverage over the winter, but because it was an Ashes year and Angus Fraser had put Andrew Strauss up for interview.

Gus lurked like Eeyore as Strauss produced a straight bat to a couple of polite enquiries about Middlesex before spending the next half an hour or so discussing England's chances, but like the wily old press man he once was, Fraser had a rabbit to pull from the hat. As Straussy departed with the air of someone who understood that the phoney war had only just begun, Gus brought in Middlesex's new overseas signing, fresh off the plane and swaddled so deep in his tracksuit it was hard to see if there was someone actually under it.

This was Phillip Hughes, Australia's new Boy Wonder who, between signing his short-term deal with Middlesex and arriving in England, had gone to South Africa to open the batting for his country and laid waste to to the most feared bowling attack on earth. The memory of the two carved sixes with which he had gone to his debut hundred in Durban was still new, as was his Bradman-esque backstory.

The Macksville banana farm must have seemed like a long way away. He'd probably never been anywhere this cold. What struck me immediately was how small he was - this was the guy carting Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel for boundary after boundary? - and how self-possessed. For a man whose life had become some sort of whirlwind, he was appeared unfazed by any of this. No-one's future appeared more certain than his.

In the cold early summer Hughes piled up the runs for Middlesex just as he had done for every other team he'd ever played for, and it still seems remarkable to me that Australia dropped him so quickly once the Ashes series began. It was both a measure of their own uncertainty as their greats faded away and also of cricketing orthodoxy. Hughes' technique, much discussed even then, struck a nerve in a way that other unconventional players did not, mostly because he often stayed legside of the short ball. This is something that goes deep in the psyche of batsmanship.*

How fleeting and sad life can be. The certainties of that day in 2009 seem both a long, long time ago, and like yesterday. The rawness of emotions in the weeks that followed his death were all the more moving for the pure, unmediated way in which they came, and were captured perfectly by everyone from Australia's estimable captain and players to the PutOutYourBats hashtag and images. It seemed to lift the game itself to new heights.

This is the seventh annual Innings Of The Year blog, an obscure, daft, unimportant and wholly arbitrary award that goes to a knock that I've seen either on TV, via a patchy, probably illegal stream or live. It's even more meaningless in the light of the above, but that does not diminish the great innings played soon after Phillip Hughes died, and it's clear that 2014 divides not into Northern and Southern summers, but into the days before November and those afterwards.

Hughes' own 63 at the SCG stands apart, and no-one will play a more courageous innings than Jason Hughes, Phillip's brother, who made 63 himself when he came back to play for Mosman in Sydney Grade cricket.

As Test cricket returned, it was as if grief had only one true expression, one currency - runs, and in particular centuries. Brendon McCullum began the deluge against Pakistan with a 188-ball 202 that glowed with anguish and anger, his granite, Desperate Dan jaw clenched tight against the world as he did it.

Then came the Australians, first David Warner (145), who had accompanied Phil Hughes from the field for the final time, and then Michael Clarke (128), who carried the great weight of office as captain so nobly during the days that followed, and then Steve Smith (162*), a player whose own unorthodoxy was becoming something new and different. That they all felt inevitable, somehow foretold, is their greatest tribute.

The match at Adelaide will always stand apart, yet the series it began crackles with rivalry and glory. Steve Smith has undergone a KP-style transformation from low-order spinner to shredder of bowlers - his 192 in Melbourne was studded with offbeat checked drives and that lethal back-foot flail through point. There has been much talk of Che Pujara as the new Dravid, but India's real rock in the uncertain waters of overseas Test cricket has been Murali Vijay. His big hundred at Trent Bridge and then a 93 at Lord's were among the most skilful new-ball innings of the year, and his ability to withstand Anderson and Broad and then Johnson and Harris while accompanied by the far flakier Shikar Dhawan at the other end was a deeply impressive exhibition of heart and technique.

The departure from Tests of MS Dhoni further emphasised the way that batting now has its new era; the apparently ageless Kallis and Hussey play on in the Big Bash, but the giants of the recent past have gone. Virat Kohli spearheads the new. I'd predicted a big series for him in England which shows what I know, but while he floundered here, he achieved something England's young blades could not, and that was to take on Mitchell Johnson in Australia. Some of the passages of play during his 163 at the MCG were the best mano-a-mano duel since Steyn-Tendulkar, and his twin hundreds in Adelaide, the second of which took India tantalisingly close in an epic, thrilling chase, were the purest expression of batting that you could wish to see.  His oppo Ajinkya Rahane produced a century at Lord's on a first day greentop, where he came in at 86-3, that was the equal of his 147 at Melbourne. That is the natural steel of a real player.

England had a benighted year, the year of 'outside cricket' and Paul Downton, of the Ashes wreckage and the Big Three. Their new Test batting side is not yet anything other than workaday, symbolised by Joe Root, into whom they appear to be investing much. Sans KP, there is precious little to truly excite, the exceptions being Jos Buttler, whose one-day century against Sri Lanka at Lord's showed that he at least has his head and hands in the future, and Moeen Ali.

Moeen has been an utter joy, whether it was the debut Test ton at Leeds against Sri Lanka, in which his judgement of line was so magnificent, or the sudden electric charge he brought to opening in the ODI series in Sri Lanka. The English psyche still needs to catch up with Moeen. When he made 119, 2, 58, 19, 2, 34 and 0 in Sri Lanka, there was doubt over the failures rather than acceptance of them as the price of success.

Yet there is an obvious dynamism beneath the surface. On a lovely late summer's day at the Ageas Bowl, I saw Sam Billings make 80-odd for Kent against Hampshire. With the bright, gimlet eye of a young man, he stood out of his crease to the Hampshire seamers, walking towards their shorter deliveries and swatting them aside. The crack that eminated from the vast blade in his hands was something to behold. Of the domestic T20 year, the lethal hands of Jason Roy impressed, as did the bull-chested Aaron Finch, who hit a memorably brutal 88 for Yorkshire in the derby with Lancashire just before he jumped on a plane home.

One giant of the last era stood tall. England were in trouble from the moment Kumar Sangakkara decided to fly into Durham in what appeared to be the middle of winter and got a duck on a greentop in his first innings, wearing so many sweaters he probably couldn't move his arms. He proceded to put on an exhibition in which Test batting was reduced to something utterly simple - keep out the good balls, hit the bad ones. It was done so easily it just had to be genius at work. Accompanied by Angelo Matthews' 102 at Lord's and 160 at Headingley, Sri Lanka thoroughly deserved their series win.

As Kumar eases towards retirement (I'm still not sure what formats he is and isn't still playing at the moment), the world's most rounded batsman remains the sublime AB de Villiers, who is supreme in any game of any length. Mitchell Johnson was still an adrenalised, moustachioed post-Ashes monster when he went to South Africa last February and blew almost everyone but AB away. The 91 at Centurion from a team total of 206 was of the very highest class: I thought it was even better than the 116 in the next game in PE. This month, he and Hashim Amla made huge hundreds against West Indies - that contest seemed unfair by comparison. A mention too for the great Younis Khan, whose tons in Dubai and Abu Dhabi I didn't see, but can imagine. 

I'm still not sure what to make of Rohit Sharma's 264 in an ODI against Sri Lanka, or really what to make of Rohit Sharma. It was an innings that showed how the game itself is adjusting to new mental boundaries - all things are possible. Sharma is perhaps symbolic of the flipside of Indian batting, that brittle part that requires everything in its favour, yet when it is, remains remarkable.

So to the envelope, and the award. The very first installment of this dubious prize, back in 2008, went to Brendon McCullum and his futuristic 158 that launched the IPL. For a long time it looked as though that kind of knock, as deeply thrilling and transformative as it was, was all that McCullum had in his locker. How he has grown. He's my batsman of 2014, a year that began with a bleary-eyed viewing of his his 224 in Auckland against India, followed a week later by 302 at the Basin Reserve, a landmark moment for New Zealand cricket.

Like Sehwag, McCullum has a philosophy that he has distilled to a single sentence: "I'm coming anyway", a line that refers to his approach to charging the bowling but that serves as a general statement of intent. The 302 occupied 775 minutes and 559 deliveries. He then went 10 innings without scoring more than 45 before that 202 in Sharjah and then the astonishing 134-ball 195 at the glorious Hagley Oval last week. Now that's showbiz.

And so the innings of the year... Well let's leave that one open. It's both impossible and wrong to try and judge or rank those innings played in the wake of Phillip Hughes' death. Only the players themselves know what they took and what they cost. They stand proudly and together.

Put Out Your Bats.



* This isn't the place for the discussion, but I have blogged before on Phil Hughes and his technique.

NB: All good wishes to the man that Brendon McCullum overtook as New Zealand's highest scorer, the great Martin Crowe, who has double-hit lymphoma, and who writes almost as well as he bats.

NNB: Previous editions of the Innings Of the Year: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013


Friday, 19 December 2014

Selectors' notes

Yesterday in (or is it at?) the Big Bash, Kevin Pietersen stepped back deep in his crease to make an angle and hit a delivery from Shaun Tait timed at 149.4kph over wide mid off for a one-bounce four, using a full swing of the bat.

Not a lot of people can do that. And not a lot of the people that can do it are eligible to play for England. Such is our loss.

Today the England selectors are 'debriefed' on the tour of Sri Lanka. Should that take no time, or a long time? It's hard to know. On the one hand, it was entirely predictable. On the other, a few weeks from the climax of another four year 'cycle', almost nothing, from the captaincy downwards, seems certain.

The internal debate has become circular. English ODI cricket is isolated from the rest of the world in the way it's played and the way it is thought about. There's lots of introspection and lot less looking outwards. Partly this is ego and attitude: richly financed and one of the 'Big Three', English cricket feels it can work out the answers for itself. And yet in the series just gone, they faced one man with 434 ODI appearances, another with 390 and another with 300. You can't buy experience like that, and you can't replicate it with statistical analysis. The most matches a single England player has ever appeared in is 197. Big Three? It is the only Test-playing nation not to have capped an ODI player 200 times.

That first Big Bash game was instructive. It may have been a T20, but one side knew how to bowl on the Adelaide wicket and one didn't. The side that did conceded 148. The side that didn't conceded 149 in twelve overs, 83 of those in the first five and a half.

The Melbourne Stars, who lost, knew how they were supposed to bat, they just couldn't do it, or at least most of them couldn't. The two that succeeded to a point were both England players, Pietersen, who made 66 from 46, and Luke Wright who got 45 from 37. Pietersen, who was miked up throughout his innings, sensed after nine or ten deliveries that a big score was needed. He knew they were already falling behind. Wright, dismissed in the twelfth over and interviewed immediately afterwards, admitted he should have scored more quickly. Both tried to react but were constrained by thoughtful bowling, and constant changes. When the Stars bowlers couldn't do the same, carnage ensued.

Luke Wright is the third highest scorer in the history of the Big Bash, yet neither he nor Pietersen will merit much discussion in the England selectors' room.

There are two types of market that judge the worth of England players. One is run by the selectors. The other is decided by the various franchises across the world. Wright, Hales, Morgan, Lumb and Pietersen are part of a fairly small group that are valued by the latter. It's true that some of England's centrally-contracted regulars may work their way onto that list were they to be more available, but equally, plenty haven't.

It's one example of how England value different skills to everyone else. They go to this World Cup with their statisticians having convinced them that totals of 220 may win matches on wickets like Adelaide and Melbourne, which can be low-scoring in certain conditions. They must be the only nation that is factoring this information into their thinking.

England also seem vaguely astonished by how many runs teams now score in the last ten - and certainly the last five - overs of their fifty. This is the impact of T20, of the kind of knowledge that players like Wright and Pietersen have built and been immersed in.

Superfically, the strike rates of England players stack up reasonably well, but perhaps strike rate has now become as blunt a tool for analysis in white ball cricket as average is in the longer game. A batsman like - for example - Pietersen may have a strike rate of 86 in ODIs and 140 in T20s, but that's over the course of an innings. What also needs measuring is the difference between the two (because this indicates how much faster he can score in a different mindset) and his fastest rate of scoring across say 18 deliveries (because this shows his 'top speed' or maximum potential).

Stats like these would offer a guide to the explosiveness that any team possesses, and in Australia, explosiveness will probably be the decisive quality over a long tournament.

I would wager that it's the players that England consider 'fringe' - Hales, Wright, Roy, Taylor, Lumb - that possess it, along with Moeen, Morgan, Jos Buttler and Ravi Bopara. They can probably afford one of the Trott/Root/Ballance type alongside them, but certainly not more.

What they truly lack of course is the fully-rounded, genuinely World class, totally seasoned and proven player. They have no equivalent of de Villiers, Kohli, Sharma, Sanga, Mahela, McCullum. There's only one Dhoni, of course, and one Gayle, one Warner.

The selectors can talk for as long as they want and no-one like that will appear, so England set off with limited expectations, which may be their only advantage. Their best bowlers are the Test specialists Broad and Anderson. The white ball doesn't seem to be swinging, which may render Anderson toothless, and Broad is returning from long-term injury, which almost always means another niggling strain or pull while the body re-toughens itself to competition.

The rest are much of a muchness. The pacemen are erratic and inexperienced. The spinners are ordinary. Pick which ones you like, because they ain't going to scare anyone.

It's another area of deep concern. A generation of promising quicks, from Finn to Meaker to - yes - Dernbach and more, have withered on the vine, victims of coaches telling them to do too much. An outside view is needed. The suspicion of any kind of unconventional spin seems irresolvable too.

As a country, in the development of bowlers, England are reaping what they have sown.

So roll on the squad announcement. Roll on the arguments and the handwringing. When it's all over, we can start the whole process again.

NB: My squad - Morgan (c), Pietersen, Hales, Moeen, Taylor, Root, Bopara, Wright, Buttler, Broad, Finn, Tredwell, Woakes, Jordan, Plunkett.














Monday, 15 December 2014

The Blaming of Alastair Cook


Don't blame Alastair Cook for having ambition.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for wanting to captain his country.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for believing he can play one day cricket.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for trying to take the opportunities that he's been given.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for keeping faith in himself.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for being stubborn.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for wanting to appear at a World Cup.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for being seduced by dreams of winning it.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for worrying about what the effects of not being ODI captain may be on his Test captaincy.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for getting out. He's not trying to.

In short, don't blame Alastair Cook for doing what he's doing, because in all honesty we'd probably do the same thing too. Or at least those with the mindset of an international cricketer would. Many of the qualities that irritate in defeat are the same ones that are essential to success.

Cook and his captaincy are a lightning rod for the frustration of watching England play ODI cricket, something that they have been reliably average at since about 1992. If Cook is not fit for purpose  then the attention should be on those who are enabling him to stay in place.

What's going on with Peter Moores? How well is he doing? Is his vision for this England team any less prosaic than last time?

What about Paul Downton, iron-man decision-maker? How clear have the reasons - long-promised - for his big decisions become?

Both can give thanks for the crumbling of India last summer - and in fairness, the brilliance of James Anderson in toppling them. Without that series win, their reign would look grim indeed. A poor World Cup a year into their plots and plans would contextualise their efforts further.

No-one likes the sound of a stuck record, but the support of Alastair Cook as ODI captain has its roots in the post-Ashes meltdown. Blaming him for stubbornly believing he should be captain is like blaming Vince Neil for having a good time: it's simply the nature of the beast. Cook is there to compete, and that is what he is doing.

England's problem is not that Alastair Cook is ODI captain. England's problem is the thinking of those that have kept him there. They're the ones that see English ODI cricket in that way, distinct and distant from the rest of the world. 







Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Big Syd Gets Swole

Sometimes worlds collide in unexpected ways. I remember exactly when it started because it was the day after Princess Diana died. I'd arranged to go to Cardiff for a newspaper piece, to interview a bodybuilder called Grant Thomas. Neither of us saw any reason to cancel. The roads were empty as I drove down there.

Grant was trying to become Mr Universe. He thought it might be a way out of an ordinary life for him and his girlfriend and their baby. He sat in his living room sipping de-ionised water, several ornate plastic trophies he'd won arranged by the TV. He was on his pre-contest diet which made him feel weak, but he still looked big, even under the baggy tracksuit he was wearing. Through Grant I discovered that although Mr Universe was probably the most famous title in bodybuilding and the only one that people outside of the sport could name, it was actually an amateur contest. Winning it brought no money but instead a potentially more valuable prize, the 'pro card' which would enable him to compete for the really big titles - the Night of Champions, the Arnold Classic and the greatest of them all, the Mr Olympia.

Becoming Mr Olympia was the goal of every pro bodybuilder. Mr Olympia got a $110,000 cheque and a contract worth double that to appear in Joe Weider's bodybuilding magazines. He could charge thousands of dollars for personal appearances at gyms and expos and waltz through smaller contests in which no-one could beat him. Mr Olympia had been going since 1965 but only nine men had ever held the title, including the most famous of them all, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had won seven times before he went to Hollywood and became a movie star.

It was hard to win because building the amount of muscle required to be Mr Olympia took years and years of heavy training, vast calorie consumption and the careful application of steroids and other artificial aids like insulin and human growth hormone. It was impossible to become Mr Olympia, or even a pro bodybuilder, without using them. It was the main difference between the professional and amateur sides of the sport. As Grant admitted, wryly, he couldn't afford to take steroids. In fact, he could only eat the 21 chickens that he consumed each week because he had a deal with the local butcher.

Yet drugs were not the key to becoming Mr Olympia. If they were, any tragic iron junkie or addled gym rat could win. What it took was an extremely rare genetic suitability, plus the will to train hard and live an ascetic but nonetheless dangerous life. And from Grant I discovered that throughout the 1990s, while England's cricketers and footballers, rugby players and tennis stars had found a hundred ways to fail, we had an unbeatable champion that no-one knew about.

His name was Dorian Yates, and he was just about to become Mr Olympia for the sixth time. In doing so, he had ushered in a new era of the sport, the era of the freak, in which even men like Arnold Schwarzenegger were puny by comparison. At his terrifying peak Dorian Yates looked like no-one else on earth, some sort of strange post-human.

A few years later, when I was hunting for a sport to write about that didn't involve interviews set up by PR companies and copy approval and endless, meaningless cliches from both sides, I thought of bodybuilding. It was wild and mad and hidden, and while I might never get to speak to say, David Beckham, I could walk right up to Ronnie Coleman, the man who had succeeded Dorian as Mr Olympia, and ask him whatever I wanted, because outside of bodybuilding, no-one had any idea who he was.

It was a dream of a story. I got to know Dorian Yates, and his business partner, an amazing man named Kerry Kayes, and spent the next couple of years periodically jetting off to see the Dutch Grand Prix and the Arnold Classic and the Mr Olympia itself. Everywhere I went with Dorian, he was mobbed. I learned about the vicious rivalries, the bitter feuds, the drug deaths, the judging fiascos, the nobility and the sacrifice and the determination, the redemptive power of posing to music in a tiny pair of spangly trunks. I got locked in a room with Arnold Schwarzenegger and stuck in a lift with Ronnie Coleman. It was one of the weirdest, funniest things I've ever done.

The last bodybuilding show I saw was the Mr Olympia 2003 in Las Vegas, when Ronnie won his sixth title and got $110,000, a Cadillac Escalade and a gold dagger. Arnie had just been elected governor of California and made a special guest appearance. It was always going to be hard to top, plus once I'd finished writing I didn't really have an excuse to go any more.

It's a world that seems very distant from cricket, but then came the news last weekend of David 'Syd' Lawrence, erstwhile England quick bowler, who, at the age of 50 has become the NABBA West Of England over 40s Champion. He describes getting into contest shape as "the toughest thing I've ever done, physically or mentally".

NABBA is the UK's amateur bodybuilding organisation, and at 50, there's no chance of Syd entering the mad, bad world of the pros - he's far too sensible for that anyway. But to get into the kind of shape he's in still requires Herculean effort. Well done, big man.

NB: The piece about Syd refers to him being at 'zero per cent' body fat. This is impossible. The average pro footballer is at about seven or eight per cent. A contest-shape pro bodybuilder is somewhere between three and four per cent. Anything less is fatal, as the only fat left in the body is that surrounding the vital organs. The things you learn from bodybuilders...

If you want to know the difference between amateur and pro, this is Ronnie Coleman.

NNB: A plug for the book I wrote about it - Muscle.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why is Kevin Pietersen's book unreadable?

In The Information, Martin Amis' novel about literary envy, the protagonist Richard Tull publishes Untitled, a book so impenetrable that not only can no-one finish it, no-one can really start it, either. They become ill trying: headaches, nausea, narcolepsy.  Tull ends up lugging the only remaining copies around America in a sack, which duly puts his back out. I'm starting to feel the same way about KP: The Autobiography.

There it sits, on the coffee table, in the same place it has sat since it arrived three weeks ago, the year's most anticipated cricket book, and certainly its best-selling. Having skimmed it once, I am on page 79, and I'm not sure I'm going to get any further. Its moment already feels over.

I got a copy for free, too. My friend Tom blagged us in to the London launch, where Pietersen spoke for almost an hour and a half. It was comfortably the longest period I or probably anyone else in the audience had listened to him for, and as he loosened up and his natural defensiveness fell away, a more rounded man emerged from the public image.  He may be hard to get along with sometimes, but he's not that hard to understand.

His insecurity, in cricketing terms, is a rare strain of the same insecurity that dogs every batsman, certainly every introverted batsman. It's the highwire act of batting itself, and Pietersen walks it without a net. He is constantly telling himself not to look down.

Unlike every other great of the modern era, he did not grow up with a bat in his hand. He didn't begin batting seriously until he came to England to play for Nottinghamshire; instead he bowled off spin. He doesn't have the emotional and psychological foundation, that rock-solid confidence that comes with a lifetime's endeavour. He is obsessive over practice, perhaps to compensate.

One of the most revealing moments of his talk came when he described the days when he felt like he couldn't play at all; how he would know as soon as he took guard that the bat "felt wrong" in his hands. He didn't really understand why it happened, and his good days appeared from the same kind of haze. He admitted to having long sessions with the England team psychologist to try and unravel the reasons why. I would guess that they are rooted in the very rootlessness of his batting. In a way, the height of his talent has surprised him.

His insecurity is reinforced by the role he plays in the team, where he is encouraged to take the game away from the opposition. When he can't, or when it doesn't happen right away, he gets out and faces the familiar criticism of not caring enough (or perhaps being 'disengaged'.) He protects himself by saying he's never been scared of dismissal. That may be true, but equally, getting out can sometimes be an escape from the pressure.

The enigma of Pietersen is actually the enigma of batting itself, and its great psychological depth. It was evident from the way he spoke that he has a grasp on this. It was easy to feel the mood in the hall shift: what had begun as an already familiar run-through of his split from England became something far more diverse and interesting. During the Q&A at the end, someone asked the obvious question:

"When are you going to write a cricket book, Kevin?"

"I definitely want to," he replied, perhaps unguardedly.

KP: The Autobiography is not it. In fact, KP: The Autobiography isn't an autobiography, either, at least not in the conventional sense. It's a howl of rage and pain, a distorted scream coming through tinny speakers. Like the angry mind, it is (so far, anyway) repetitious, circling around recurring thoughts. The rest is just window-dressing, thrown in there to make it look like something it is not.

His criticisms are not invalidated by this approach. He's particularly good on the IPL and what it means for cricketers, and the dressing room intrigue that he finds so hard to navigate feels oppressively real. But it presents a skewed view of his career, lacking in worldview, lacking in nuance.

What makes it unreadable is the voice it's told in. It's flat, didactic journalese that relies on repetition at the end of almost every key paragraph.
Short. Sharp. Like that.
Yeah, just like that.
It gets old. Fast.
Real fast.

After listening to Pietersen talk for ninety minutes, it's clear that this is not his voice, or even his character. It may have the cadence of some his post-match interviews, but when he speaks at greater length he is far more likable and engaging, almost geeky at times, with a high laugh and a thoughtfulness that belies the brash TV persona.

Capturing him on the page would have needed more time than his ghost-writer got, and a different idea of what the book should be. As it is, KP: The Autobiography is a terrific commercial success that reinforces the binary notions of Pietersen as the most divisive player of the age. What a shame, for him and for us.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Days of Grace

After one of my worst seasons ever with the bat last year, I began 2014 by scoring one run in May (compadres for all-time, me and that run; a prod to extra cover for a harassed single...) Something had to give. Maybe it would be me. I just wasn't sure any more, and batting has always demanded a kind of certainty - of footwork, of judgment, of many things that I was no longer certain about.

Yet the game has a habit of turning round to face you for no reason other than it sometimes does. It's not so much fickle as implacable, neither for you nor against in the long run. It happened for me at Sheffield Park in deepest Sussex, where Grace once turned out for Lord Sheffield's XI and hit an old oak that stands by the pavilion on the full (the square's been turned around since then, but it's a good eighty yards, perhaps more, and it was nice to stand in the middle and have a sense of his power).

It was a shimmering summer's afternoon, with clouds of midges glinting in the soft air by the edge of the woods, and we were facing familiar and friendly opponents. I'd made a few - well more than one, anyway, which was an improvement - when a ball going down the leg side brushed my heel on the way through to the keeper. There was a half-hearted appeal for a catch and the umpire gave it.

'Oh come on...' I said.

It was out of my mouth before I could stop it. I felt bad about that, but not as bad as I did about the decision. I was trudging away when Matt, the opposition skipper, asked me if I'd hit it.

'No,' I replied, completely honestly, and he withdrew the appeal and called me back. It was a generous act on his part, and something that's never happened to me before. I got an unlovely fifty that day, and for whatever reason everything changed. Oh I didn't suddenly become Brian Lara, but my mind cleared. In the dreaded vernacular of the sports psychologist, I got out of my own way. I forgot about the plan I had to stop worrying and play more freely, because I do worry, and I don't play freely, at least not until I've been in for a while (and even then it's debatable.) I started worrying again. It felt good, or at least it felt normal.

Ultimately, the most important thing in the mental half of batting is self-awareness. You can yearn to be the player you're not, but it's more purposeful to embrace the player that you are. I had a few matches in my old position as an opener, and it helped me to realise what I was okay at: reasonable defence; good judgement; I can be hard to get out; I know my scoring shots. It's not the glorious vision of cricket that I carry in my head, but it's something.

And I had the noble Kudos in my hand. Newbery offered it to me at the start of the season (not that I took much persuading) and thinking about not batting with it is already giving me the horrors. It's been a while since I had a bat that I've really bonded with, but me and the Kudos, well... is there language to describe our love?

What a thing it is, played in now and bearing its scars - a hairline crack running horizontally across its slender shoulder, the bite marks from the seam of the ball that did it just below, the blade blushed with the remnants of dye from red leather.

I can still remember the first time I found its true middle, that deep, sweet spot where you feel only a suggestion of contact in your hands. It was a full toss from the opening bowler that I managed to hit straight to mid-off - no run, but a defining moment for me and that bat: the ball left the blade with a throaty crack and rocketed away. I got a few runs that day, but that point of pure connection with the absolute centre of the bat remained something rare and wondrous, a quest worth chasing.

I stopped wearing a thigh pad too. What a revelation that was. My team-mate Hoggy tipped me off to it.

"What's it going to hit?" he said. "Just your muscle. And there's no-one quick enough for it to really hurt..." So I rid myself of the cursed thing and gambolled around like a spring lamb.

It's my final tip to anyone that wants one. Ditch the thigh pad. Let it go. Run free, my friend, and be yourself. Worry, mither, chip them runs out however you can. Let it flow, baby, let it flow...

Saturday, 6 September 2014

England: Jumping The Shark Since '79

In June 1979, I went with my dad to Lord's to watch England play West Indies in the World Cup final. It was the second edition of the tournament, West Indies having won the first with a hundred from Clive Lloyd. They would win this one with a century from Viv Richards, but their total owed its impetus to Collis King, who played one of the great forgotten innings in the history of the game, 86 from 66 deliveries.

That total? West Indies made 286 from from their 60 overs. It seemed then, at the halfway point of the 74th one-day international ever played, a vast score, a forbidding, ice-laden mountain that England could not climb, indeed that no team might scale. And so against Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner, England's openers, Mike Brearley and Geoffrey Boycott reached 129 in 38 overs, leaving the other frontline batsmen, Randall, Gooch, Gower, Botham and Larkins, 158 from the remaining 22.

It all feels like a long time ago, the images of both sides all in white - Packer's 'circus', with its 'coloured clothes' and its vulgar floodlights, was still a dirty phrase around these parts - as Joel Garner established the eternal value of the yorker, pinging England out for the addition of just 65 runs. The Almanack sounded vaguely gobsmacked too, describing Collis King's innings as 'an amazing display' and Richards as 'the hero of the day'. We went home in the haze of a warm evening and didn't really worry too much more about it. Was it 'proper' cricket or not? No-one seemed quite sure.

Turns out it was, and England were already up against it. Although the maths and stats of that day seem arcane - 158 from 22 overs with nine wickets in hand? The WASP would be buzzing - the ambivalence towards it all remains. As players, pundits and punters tear each other apart after India's 3-1 win, now, as much as ever, we look at the limited overs game through the eyes of those who existed way before it.

A win in Friday's final match was welcome, but as meaningless as any in the 3,451 ODIs that have followed that long-ago day at Lord's. England's current methodology is from around the mid 2000s of that number; they're still quite excited to score 290, and still quite daunted by the pusuit of it. The rest of cricket, meanwhile, roars on into a future that is being written from the bottom up - through T20 into the 50 over game - rather than the top down.

The arguments don't need repeating: you can read them anywhere. It's interesting though to consider exactly how much England have changed since 1979, psychologically and philosophically. The answer is, not as much as you'd think. I'll believe they are serious about winning any kind of ICC tournament when they clear a window for the IPL and join in with the rest of the world at last.

NB: That window doesn't need to undermine the primacy of Test cricket, which will become greater by becoming slightly more rare. Seventeen Tests in a year post-World Cup is less about commitment to form than to TV deals, cricketing realpolitik and finance.