Monday, 7 April 2014

Don't worry Yuvi, we've all been there...

It wasn't hard to understand how Yuvraj must have felt during his short but catastrophically not short enough innings against Sri Lanka yesterday: it was one of those experiences common to professional and amateur alike. The stage and the standard may differ, but the emotions - and the clammy, creeping dread - are all too universal.

I don't have to think very far back for an example. Last season, and a game we had in the bag but that had somehow crept down to the last couple of overs with twelve needed, me on strike having been in long enough for not many. Nine deliveries left and the bowler sends down a short one wide of off stump, a ball that I probably would have paid him for, given the chance. There was a backward point, a man at slip and a great green gap between them to a boundary that sloped helpfully downhill. When I'm playing the cut shot well, I hit it late - get it past that fielder and it's four, no problem.

I swung hard and waited for the feel of ball on bat. It didn't come. Instead it was in the keeper's gloves. I couldn't even say whether it had gone under or over the bat. There were a few shouts of encouragement from the pavilion. The fourth ball came down, shorter and wider. I swung again, missed again. More shouts, this time exhorting some kind of contact, any kind of run. I tried to work out how the hell I'd missed two such easy shots. Seven balls left and still twelve needed. The last delivery was again short and wide. 'Just hit it,' I thought. I missed.

I was gripped by the fear. I felt the dread and the shame. I felt the uselessness. I was like the over-the-hill boxer who can't get his shots off any more. First ball of the last over was a single. I was back on strike. I eyed the impossibly distant boundaries, surveyed the packed field. Were there really only nine of them? I heaved at one and it went straight up in the air. I felt my pad come loose. The fielder dropped it. Pad flapping, humiliation from the terrible slog and the three missed cut shots burning, I got about halfway down before the wicket was broken.

'Don't worry,' said the skipper, in a way that made it clear I should worry. We lost. I knew that my innings had cost us the match. Even as it was happening, I understood that I should have got out and walked off but I just couldn't do it. I thought about it for days.

I'll never hit Stuart Broad for six sixes. I'll never strike a ball with the imperiousness of Yuvi, never know how it feels to have such mastery of a difficult game, but his struggle to do something he has done hundreds of times before but just can't summon at a moment of need?

Ah yeah, I've been there, and so I suspect have you.

NB: I wonder how long before players in circumstances like Yuvraj's, with just a few deliveries to go and many wickets in hand, will simply retire themselves: it's not against the laws, and would have implications only in a Duckworth Lewis game. I should have done it. I will next time.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Alastair Cook and The Monkey's Paw

The Monkey's Paw is a classic, short horror story by WW Jacobs. I first read it in a compendium that I got from the school book club, and I can still remember how terrified it made me. It's about a strange talisman that grants its owners three wishes. The couple that have it wish first for money, which they get when their son is killed in a factory accident. Their second wish is that their son be brought back to life, and their third to wish him away again when they hear his reanimated form hammering on their door in the middle of the night.

The story works entirely on the power of the imagination: all of the horror is suggested. If Jacobs had been asked to write an ending where the door is opened, whatever he had described could not have been as scary as the thought of what might be there.

It came to mind today when Alastair Cook made the classic error of telling the press that he could not explain the reasons for Kevin Pietersen's sacking, but that when they finally do come out (apparently at the end of a gagging order that runs until September), his decision would be revealed as 'brave' and 'correct'.

"I know it is frustrating to people, and it is to me too, that we have not put our side of the story but it will happen," he said.

Setting aside the implication within that statement that someone else has told theirs, Cook has now built up a big reveal that could follow him throughout the season, depending on results. According to the Telegraph, Cook persuaded the ECB that he should say something rather than nothing today. For once the ECB may have been right.

Trailing some sort of definitive revelation that surely would have leaked by now if it exists at all has set up a summer of discomfort instead of a day's worth. Cook has promised a climactic finish that he will have to describe, and as The Monkey's Paw demonstrates, the thought is often much more compelling - and convincing - than the reality.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Fergie, Gilo and the meaning of control

There's a terrific scene in Class Of 92, the documentary about Manchester United's FA Youth Cup winning side of that year, when its six most famous players, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville, are sitting in a restaurant reminiscing about the ways in which Alex Ferguson would tell them they'd been dropped from the team.

'He came up to me once and said, 'son, you're not playing today, but don't worry about that, there's a game in two weeks that I need you for',' said Gary Neville. 'I thought, 'hang on there's three matches before then...' I couldn't work out whether I'd been dropped or whether he thought I was so important, I had to be saved...'

'He told me it was too hot once...' said Scholes.

'He said to me the pitch was too nice,' recalled Butt. 'He said, 'November's when I'll need you son, when the ground's heavy...'

'I never used to answer my door if we were in the hotel,' said Giggs.

'Yeah, you used to hear that little cough in the corridor, and you knew it was him,' said Gary Neville.

'He wouldn't come if you were playing,' continued Giggs, 'but I used to think, 'if he can't find me, he can't drop me...'

It was all said with affection, and left you thinking that they would still run through walls for Ferguson if he asked them too.

When he reflected on what made him such a successful manager, Ferguson said that the most important element was control. As soon as he felt a player was threatening that control he was ruthlessly dispensed with.

While direct comparisons between football and cricket are specious, it seemed obvious that England's most successful coaches of recent years, Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, each had a measure of that control - at least until their eras descended into horribly similar kinds of entropy.

Ferguson's notion of control was partly psychological. Being aggressive and dictatorial was only a temporary fix. His real authority came from the ongoing success of his methods, which he was clever enough to adapt to changing circumstance. Often - as with the cough in the corridor - his presence was enough.

Similarly, Duncan Fletcher's legend was neatly coined by the title of his book, Behind The Shades. He understood the value of silence, of being enigmatic. Many England players tell of the strange sensation that would overcome them when they felt his presence behind the net in which they were batting.

Fletcher would say very little to his players, thus everything he did say (and a lot of what he left out) became imbued with significance. His technical knowledge was crucial: his charges realised that he understood deeply what he was talking about. Like Ferguson, he was ruthless in his judgment. He built close relationships with his captains, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, and kept the rest guessing.

Andy Flower's control came from a different place. His record as a player was better than any of the team, and the strength of character he had exhibited in essentially exiling himself by protesting against Robert Mugabe spoke of unimpeachable integrity. Like Fletcher he appeared introverted and steely. In aligning himself with a new kind of technical analysis, he moved the English game forwards. He knew more than the men he coached.

As Ferguson had asserted, once control was gone, so, soon afterwards, was the coach. In part this was simply the natural cycle of events. External forces are often uncontrollable. Yet both Fletcher and Flower brought England momentous and joyous successes that have broadened the horizons of the game here. In his later years, Ferguson sensed that the amount of money in football had made the players too powerful to control with explosions of anger and the use of authority, and while Fletcher retains much of his enigma as he coaches India, his presence feels different and lighter there.

Now that England have been eliminated in Bangladesh, the next major event is the appointment of a new coach. If the unsubstantiated story that Gary Kirsten has turned down the job because he was unable to select Kevin Pietersen is correct, then control is already an issue. Ashley Giles is the favourite, and the idea of a coalition with Graham Thorpe and Paul Collingwood carries much of the same appeal of the rumoured takeover of Manchester United fronted by the Class Of 92. But they lack the natural advantages that Fletcher and Flower had in asserting control, mostly because of their familiarity. In an age of uncertainty, that could be key.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Jos Buttler's alternative future

'He is one of my favourites... he is a class act.'

When Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards rates a batsman it's fair to say that he may have something, and it's hard to argue with the great man when considering the extraordinary hand-eye talents of Jos Buttler. Richards himself was one of the first players to walk outside his off stump to the faster bowlers and flick the ball from his toes to the fine leg boundary. Buttler plays a new age, supercharged version of the same shot, and perhaps King Viv recognises his fearlessness. Buttler, in this early phase of his international career, either dominates or gets out.

In the generational turnover of talent England are in a downward cycle, and it's compounded by their rigid perception of what that talent should look like. A new way is coming, and it's only natural that players will make themselves known in a different manner - David Warner and Steve Smith are at the leading edge of the phenomenon.

England cannot afford to waste Jos Buttler, and by encouraging him to keep wicket they are not adding to his value but confining it. He should give it up. Anyone wanting to bat seriously in the top order in Test cricket can't keep wicket too. The matches are too close together, the series condensed by the demands of other formats. Even the masterly de Villiers can get no higher than five with the gloves, and, like Sangakkara, he's surely going to jettison them soon.

Buttler is a long way removed from such company but there is a glint of something special, as Richards has said. England have tacitly acknowledged an impending future of prosaic batting in their urge to have Eoin Morgan play Test cricket again. A top order that one day contains him and Buttler crackles in a different way.

The only prosaic part of Buttler's game is his keeping. It's painful to watch his unsuitable physique put through its stresses and his restrained character forced into its cheerleader role. The real giveaway though, is the sound. The ball whispers its way into the gloves of a natural keeper. In the West Indies, outfield throws smacked into Buttler's and then shivered uncomfortably down the stump mikes.

England have an odd attitude to keepers. For a side that believes in the advantage of marginal gains, they don't see them as coming from behind the sticks (I have an alternative theory). Graeme Swann, just out of the dressing room, probably gave away the current view on Buttler's position when he said on radio last week: 'Jos Buttler is not ready for the Test side as a keeper or a batsman... Jos needs two or three years with Lancashire. I think it could set him back to throw him in now.'

This at least is true. He should be offered the chance to fulfill his potential as a batsman, starting with a season of opportunity in first class cricket along with his international white ball commitments. England need to look again at Craig Kieswetter and also Steve Davies, who might become genuinely effective at seven in Test cricket and who are superior keepers.

Most of all, Andy Flower, in his position of almost unprecedented influence over coaching and theory, could think hard about exactly how the new generation of batsman are going to manifest themselves. It will almost certainly be in T20 cricket and the criteria for judging Test match potential should shift along with that.

There will always be the de Villiers and the Kohlis, the Sangas and the Pujaras, who are to the manor born. But the last decade has brought Pietersen, Warner, Steve Smith, Eoin Morgan, Shikhar Dhawan and others that began far less conventionally.

When the notion of David Warner wearing the Baggy Green was inducing not only ridicule but indignance, Virender Sehwag, avatar of modern batsmanship, said that he'd be a better Test player than he was a T20 hitter. 'All the fielders are around the bat,' Sehwag told Warner. 'If the ball's there in your zone, you're still going to hit it. You're going to have ample opportunities to score runs. You've always got to respect the good ball, but you've got to punish the ball you always punish.'

He wasn't far wrong, was he? It's not a bad place for Buttler and Flower to begin. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A day at Newbery

What is it with bats, those inanimate chunks of wood that somehow, sometimes appear to live in the hands? I wrote a piece about the myths surrounding Sachin Tendulkar's for ESPN's book on the maestro - the bat he used for the great rush that took him to ninety-nine international centuries, its grain split open and darkened by the dye of a thousand cricket balls, told a story of obsession. There was the time I met Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, and Punter (as I never call him) remembered his first: 'a Duncan Fearnley, size five, kept patching it up, taping it up... still got it somewhere'. Mike Hussey's was a County Clubman that cost $19, a sum that cast him as a rich kid in Ponting's mind.

The role call of mine is long and noble: the first a Stuart Surridge, way too heavy, the big red initials of its logo stamped into the wood; a St Peter my dad acquired from a man on a building site; a GN 100 Scoop (got my first ever hundred with that bad boy); a Powerspot in one of those odd white poly covers that came along for a while; a couple of Slazengers, including a V12; A County Geoffrey Boycott signature (never got out with that one... well, sometimes); Gunn & Moore, Kookaburra... had 'em all and and plenty of others too.

There's something totemistic about them, especially now, with their mad names and their glowing stickers, and yet even though cricket bats, like everything else, have entered the commercial age, they retain a mystique. They are still organic, unique, once-living things subject to infinitesimal change in weight and fibre that can make them feel one way one day and one way another.

So when an invitation from Newbery to go down to Hove and try their new bat the Kudos in the nets against a couple of Sussex bowlers came... well. I couldn't get in the car fast enough. As a declaration of interest, the deal was that I could keep the bat in return for blogging about it. And as another, my current bat is a Newbery too, bought with my own hard cash from the same showroom last year. There is a deep connection to bats and batmaking there that I wanted to try, and although I had perhaps my worse season ever, the blade itself was blameless (it was once chucked quite violently into the boot of the car after I was caught off a gentle leading edge - at deep fine leg).

The Kudos comes with a little mystery of its own, each is made by one of three brothers at a location in Sussex that no-one seems keen to reveal (one of the brothers is said to have been an apprentice to John Newbery himself, the others, who knows...?) The bat is handsome and understated, the blade very slightly shorter than usual, allowing the brothers more leeway in keeping the deep swell of its middle while taking weight out. I went for the lightest one in the shop, a hair under 2lbs 7oz, but you'd never guess to look at it. It had a slither of heartwood, too, and nine grains. I've always liked Newbery's handles, slender at the bottom and oval-shaped, and they fit particularly well with this bat. The pick-up is gentle and all of the weight low, which is where you want it on club wickets.

It faced a stern test right away at the indoor school behind the Hove pavilion, where Lewis Hatchett, James Anyon and Steve Magoffin loitered, ready to roll a few down. Young Hatchett bowls left arm over from a tremendous height. Anyon looks as though he's spent the entire winter in the gym. Magoffin watches the first deliveries and leans back on a pile of chairs, knowing that he won't be needed here...

I play the trusty 'haven't batted for two months lads...' card, and am treated gently enough. The Kudos is soon scoring heavily, though, an inside edge from an Anyon inswinger a certain boundary (to much amusement) and although I catch the inevitably short rejoinder high on bat, it flies well into the stands (or is caught at deep square leg, depending on your view - six it was, then).

The middle, on the couple of occasions I found it, is deeply satisfying, the ball staying on the surface of the bat for a fraction of a second longer, its weight biting the willow before cracking off. The notion of the shorter blade might be purely psychological but it's enough for the handle to offer some extra whip. It reminded me of the long-gone expression 'give it some long handle' - there is a nice echo of it here.

Last season I kept a weather eye on the bats that club players actually buy and use. Of the big manufacturers, only Gray Nicolls and Gunn & Moore have any real presence. I see them at every game, but alongside are lots of smaller and boutique makers. My theory is that bats are expensive now and quality and personal service add to the pleasure of choosing and buying one. Newbery, Millichamp & Hall, Salix, Laver & Wood, Chase, Mongoose - all appear more often than (for example) adidas.

Newbery, and others, are a little like ghostwriters sometimes too. In the showroom at Hove was a small huddle of bats for pros, awaiting shipping and stickering with the logos of other manufacturers. It must be slightly heartbreaking to see your work go uncredited, but the provenance of cricket bats remains an oddity of the business, one that adds to the intrigue and the myth that surrounds them.

Will the Kudos join my personal pantheon of greats, retired to Valhalla up in the loft after their sun-filled days of glory? It feels as though it might, but we will see...

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Elegy For KP

Last year a writer I liked very much died. Jonathan Rendall published three books, one of which, Twelve Grand, is among my favourites by any author. He was a boozy, melancholic soul with a low-lit style and his obituaries didn't hold back on his dissolute, sometimes chaotic life. His writing was admired by Tom Stoppard and he won a Somerset Maugham prize but almost every piece on him noted his 'wasted talent', partly because he had died so painfully young. Well he didn't seem to have wasted it to me.

It's the nature of talent, when it manifests itself as apparently effortless brilliance, for it to appear both ephemeral and carelessly used by the characters who possess it. Yet the life is inseparable from the art, indeed the art is art because it is informed by the life. Jonathan Rendall couldn't have written the way he did without being the person that he was, and it's analogous that Kevin Pietersen could not bat in the way that he does without being the man that he is. The talent might appear different because those of us with lesser ability imagine ourselves guarding it jealously, rationing it out, tending it like a secret garden.

In 2004 I had become distant from the game. I'd lived in Australia for a while, hadn't played much, just about kept up with it in the papers. It had receded in my interior life. I was in my lounge one morning in the winter, the sun was out, I was struggling to write something or other and I realised that England were about to play South Africa. The area had cable and I had a bit of money, and before I really thought about it, I was on the phone getting Sky Sports turned on. In the couple of hours that it took, I realised that I felt more excited and happy than for a while. The game was back. I didn't know why, but I could feel it.

That was the series when Pietersen played his three extraordinary one-day innings, centuries struck at an emotional pitch as true as a tuning fork. At the time, and right through until the following summer, he was talked about as a one-day player with a technique too iconoclastic for Tests but I knew with a rare certainty that it wasn't true. He hit 92 in a game at Bristol and the wave he was making became irresistible. The story was that he was picked over Graham Thorpe, but really the choice was between Thorpe and Bell. After Bristol, Pietersen was playing either way.

Lord's was extraordinary. England were hammered but on the first morning the bowlers roughed Australia up and each time Pietersen batted he murdered Shane Warne. It was obvious from the way he walked out how much he wanted it.

From that game on, I was more invested in his batting than in anyone else's. Something was happening, not just to England, but to the way the game was played. There were some batsmen more skilled and better than Pietersen in that phase, but he had this innate imagination and feel. His game was an act of creativity and it's no exaggeration to say that he broadened the horizons of batsmanship.

He wasn't playing in isolation of course. The game was changing - he arrived, essentially, at the same time as T20 - and Virender Sehwag was pushing at the limits too, along with Chris Gayle and Adam Gilchrist and then lots of others. There was a kind of kinship between them. They were not formal heroes like Tendulkar or Dravid or Ponting, and their effect on the future would be different.

But KP was English, or at least he was playing for England, and the English psyche, deeply conservative, deeply repressed, is a challenging place for the non-conformist. It was doomed from the start and I knew it. In a way, it's amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

It's fair to say he was part of the reason for starting this blog. Once he had commanded the imagination, it was hard to resist writing about him, because in working out what he was doing, I was often working out what I felt I knew about cricket, or what it meant to me.

When a player like Pietersen or a writer like Jonathan Rendall comes along, it's easy to develop a relationship with their work that leads you to think that you know more about them than you do. All you really know is that their talent speaks to you in some way.

Twelve Grand seems like an effortless book, and yet Rendall worked so hard on it he was briefly hospitalised. As Kevin Mitchell wrote about him, his love affair with writing 'ebbed away' after that.  Pietersen trained and practiced harder than anyone: the imagination demanded it. Nothing good can be effortless at that level.

I've found it quite hard to care about the arguments over who's done what and what went wrong that have raged today. Four men sat in a room and brought things to an end, and I think in years to come it will be a burden on them, maybe not publicly but when they have to be alone and remember it. If Pietersen hadn't been reintegrated, then we would not have had Mumbai, perhaps his greatest innings and one of the best of the modern era. So what will we not have now?

Overwhelming talent wants us to think it's wasted because, along with being apparently effortless, it seems somehow endless, inexhaustible. It works on the imagination. Pietersen's career will never be seen as complete, and he will have to live with hearing about it. His talent has not been wasted though. It's better to write three good books and leave 'em wanting more. Pietersen's legacy is not one of numbers, but what his batting has meant to those who have watched it.

For a while now I've wondered if he'll be remembered as a great player or a player of great innings. It doesn't matter. He will be remembered. He will live. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Drive, he said

In Nicholas Winding Refn's rather good movie Drive, the unnamed driver wears a bomber jacket with a scorpion embroidered on the back. It obviously meant something as Refn provided several lingering shots of it throughout the film, but it wasn't at all clear what that meaning was.

At first I thought it might be some kind of Tarantino homage as it seemed quite Quint, but during the bloody final scenes, a character briefly mentions the parable of the turtle and the scorpion.

In it, the scorpion is on the bank of a river, and asks the turtle to take him across on his back. The turtle says to the scorpion, 'you must promise not to sting me, because then I will die and you will drown'. The scorpion agrees, but in the middle of the river, stings the turtle.

'Why did you do it?' the turtle asks.

'Because it's my nature,' the scorpion replies.

Admittedly it's a bit of a leap from Ryan Gosling to N Srinivasan, but the point's the same: a body will obey its nature most of the time. The leak of the ICC's position paper simply suggests the logical conclusion of a direction that has been apparent for a long while. That the wealthy and powerful will exert their wealth and power is not really news in the wider sense.

The story has barely made the mainstream media in England, which perhaps reflects that lack of surprise. Cricket is a parochial sport built on empire, and for all of its talk about creating a global game, the ICC is a cartel/oligopoly/closed shop of the classic kind.

As Hunter S Thompson once wrote about another industry: 'the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.'

Amen, bro, amen...

NB: Cricinfo has reported the story best. Read Jarrod KimberRussell Degnan  and David Hopps for the skinny.