Sunday, 30 August 2015

Dreaming of the Kudos...

Last night I had a terrible dream, the kind that remains with you for a few minutes after you've woken in relief... It was about my my bat, the mighty Excalibur that is the Newbery Kudos. Just as in dreams people that you know well can look unfamiliar and behave in strange ways, so the Kudos had altered: it had thick shoulders, one of which had split, leaving a deep and splintered crack running vertically down the length of its noble back. Rather alarmingly, I pushed at it with a small screwdriver, which fell into the chasm...

It's not a hard dream to interpret. The Kudos is in its second season, its middle growing ever sweeter - the great sadness of which is that it's a signal of the bat's ultimate death, its dry fibres pulling inexorably apart. Through a mix of superstition and laziness it badly needs regripping and re-covering, but there are only four games left in the season and me and the Kudos are going to get there together.

Dreams about cricket happen quite regularly - anything that occupies the waking mind for long stretches must manifest itself there too. My anxiety dream is always on the same theme: having to go into bat but being unable to get my pads on - nightmarish velcro that won't hold - or not having any boots. Less often, I dream that I'm playing well, scoring runs in a game that, it gradually becomes apparent, isn't actually a real game or on a proper ground.

I think it's universal among amateurs and pros. When I met Ricky Ponting (clanging name drop) he said his was leaving the dressing room to go in to bat and getting lost in a vast and unrecognisible pavilion. Horrifying, but not a situation the amateur will ever have to worry about... My team-mate Tom's is that he's running into bowl "faster and faster, swing my arm down harder and harder and the ball just plops down on the wicket..."

However, he happily admits to occasional dreams in which he's "a brilliant batsman". Tom was once coached for two hours by Alastair Cook, who, somewhat perversely, taught him how to play the on drive (I say perversely because the on drive is a) difficult and b) not a shot you often see Alastair Cook playing). In the next game, he made 24 not out, and nailed an on drive, feats he is yet to repeat. This year he's trying to score a hundred - in total, not in one innings - for which he's being sponsored in aid of an orphanage in India. After a swaggering start to the season in which he racked up his first 44 in short order, he is now engaged in a run of noughts so destructive that in a recent match he was telling the bowlers that they were "ruining the lives of orphans" before he'd even taken guard, a reverse sledge that sadly didn't do him any good.

Will such a run of batting provoke an anxiety dream about bowling? Can dreaming of batting well ever cross the strange, liminal border between the unconscious and conscious mind? Apart from their uncontrollability, is there a vast difference between dreams and visualisation? What about the neutral, unthinking 'zone' that is so often aspired to - what goes on in there, when batting itself can feel like a dream in which nothing is unanticipated, in which nothing can go wrong?

NB: If you're one of the bowlers that has plucked food from the mouths of orphans by dismissing Tom and now feel guilty, or if you just want to get caught up financially in the drama of his final push for 56 runs from a possible five innings, you can sponsor the great man here.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Darren Stevens has a day out

As the last county championship season faded out into autumn, I went to the Ageas Bowl to watch Hampshire play Kent. Hampshire were as good as promoted, Kent weren't, and Hampshire's ebulliance and effort was evident, despite a marvellous, gimlet-eyed 80-odd from Sam Billings, who was walking down the wicket to some short stuff from a biblically-bearded James Tomlinson. But when Kent went into the field the physical hardship of the nature of their work was clear.

Darren Stevens took the new ball. Powerfully built, a few steely-grey bristles clinging to the sides of his shaven head, he looked the part but the stiff-legged and weary jog to the crease told its story. The ball seemed to loop to the other end and Billings was soon standing up. All of the weight of a long, hard season that had given little and had no more to offer was upon him. He was 38 years old and he'd been doing this for seventeen years. The first whispers of winter in the chill breeze must have felt welcome.

Cut forward to this year, Surrey versus Kent in the T20 Blast at the Oval. A dreamy, soft-lit summer's evening and the ground is rammed. For some reason, Kent have decided that they'll play T20 cricket in a team kit that looks like some kind of demented acid-house outfit that the likes of Billings and Bell-Drummond can just about get away with but which, on the fuller frame of Darren Stevens, paints him as a grandad at a rave.

He came out to bat at number five in the tenth over when Kent already had 94 on the board. Whatever had been drained from him by the previous year's work was back: he faced 39 deliveries, hit ten of them for four and another five for six, some struck so cleanly and so high that they seemed to fly up level with us in the upper tier of the Bedser stand. It was all done with a terrific sullen power. Stevens was an old pro - 39 now, don't forget - schooling the young blades Surrey had picked. Among them were the Curren brothers, the youngest, Sam, just 17. Stevens was already playing county cricket when Sam was born.

He was way too good, and knew way too much for them. Kent went from 111 to 220 in just under eight overs. Stevens got 90 and a raucous, affectionate standing ovation as he walked off. It was deserved, not just for that night, but for all of the effort over all of the years.

It's an overlooked gift of the T20 Blast. Darren Stevens will never play for England, but he knows what it feels like to light up a full house at a Test match ground.

He opened the bowling soon afterwards, took a wicket in his first over and finished with 4-39 to go with the runs. Earlier in the season he'd been dropped to the seconds to find some form. I saw him again on TV the other day, creaming a sweet hundred off Glamorgan, one checked drive sailing out of the ground and into the Taff. It's some gift that Darren Stevens has, and some kind of life he has lived.


Monday, 22 June 2015

Cricket at Avebury

'No one knows who they were, or...
'What they were doing...'

So sang Spinal Tap of the druids, and driving past the neolithic majesty of Silbury Hill on the way to Avebury CC, with bleary revellers, blissed-out new agers, wide-eyed truth seekers and bedraggled hippies wading through waist-high grass, strewn in road-side ditches and crashed out by camper vans, it was obvious that our prehistoric past retains all of its mystical pull.

The summer solstice usually means no cricket for Avebury, whose dazzling little ground lies just beyond the stone circle and below the great man-made ditch, because the local police take over their clubhouse as a temporary base for operations. But this year strings were pulled, the ancient gods appeased and the constabulary kept in situ by the arrival of a marquee to act as a temporary pavilion, and a game fit for the longest day was agreed: one hundred overs, two innings per team and all results possible.

A hazy, chill morning slowly gave way to an English summer's afternoon. King Arthur Pendragon was spotted in the village. Several druids floated down the path that runs across the far side of the ground, one the harbinger of a wicket for our skipper, charging in up the hill as if pursued by King Sil himself. Between innings we climbed the ditch and looked down across the stones, following the path that whoever placed them had picked out, an avenue for the rising sun that stretched far up the hill beyond.

Perhaps beset by superstition, I batted in a helmet for the first time in aeons. It felt strange but comforting. The cricket was a suitable spectacle, a fifty and then a dreamily-struck ton for a couple of our boys ultimately overcome by Avebury, who hit powerfully to all corners. Wickets fell, catches were held and more than six hundred runs scored across the day. Our opening bowler survived a fearsome crack on the ankle, offered up a prayer to Herne The Hunter and produced a lethal off-cutter that trimmed the bails.

"I've always wanted to bowl one of those..." he said.

I was half-hoping that the game would not finish but instead be enveloped by a swirling, Arturian myst rising unbidden from the ground: Avebury's South African pro - apparently a quick bowler by day - had other ideas, and burned some vast sixes beyond the fence, four in succession at one point, to bring things to a close with an over or so to spare. It was almost 7.30, and still two hours until dark.




Thursday, 18 June 2015

Alastair Cook: the [relative] evil of banality

Nine thousand runs, 27 hundreds, 114 caps; more runs and more centuries than any other Englishman, the eternal Gooch eclipsed... We must start to consider the greatness of Alastair Cook: the stats alone demand it.

It feels strange to do so, because Cook is so evidently only part-way through his time as a Test match batsman and few players make such a demand at such a stage. It's also strange because Cook is not obviously great in the way that Richards or Lara or Tendulkar or Ponting or any other of those obviously great players have been. And when Cook is bad he's not even good, let alone anything else.

In a way he is the mirror image of his bete noir Kevin Pietersen. Almost everything Pietersen does at the crease is memorable for one reason or another. Almost nothing Cook does remains once it is over. Huge hundreds exist as blurs, as flickering and repeating images of clips through midwicket, rasping back cuts, checked punts past cover and most of all, that relentless judgement of off-stump line - leave, leave and leave again... Close your eyes and imagine Brisbane and Adelaide 2010 or Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Kolkata 2012, or his monolithic 294 against India in Birmingham in 2011, and these trace elements are what's left behind.

Opening the batting in Test cricket should attract stubborn, attritional men: every Gayle or Sehwag or Warner needs their counterbalance. Cook's batting lacks ego - or perhaps more accurately, his self-image doesn't need reinforcing with big shots and back-page headlines. At his best he dominates through time; he presumes that you will break before he does.

With an irony he may not appreciate, Cook's batting is most interesting when it is going wrong. His dry spell between summer 2007 and early 2009, when his average dropped from 48.79  to 40.87, and his famous century-free trot between July 2013 and May of this year, provided more drama than the oceanic calm of his big innings because the internal battle was plain to see. For Cook, the gap between his best and his worst is wide. He's not a player who can hit his way back into form with a streaky 70-odd. Only time at the crease will do it, and he just couldn't stay in.

Technical problems were widely analysed: the heavy head, the loss of judgement of line. And the world's bowlers were wising up and not feeding the cut and pull, which for a while left him struggling for a response. He tried to broaden his range, primarily for the 50-over game, adding a slog sweep and a lofted drive, but it seemed to rob him of more than it gave.

He solved it the only way he knew how, with hour upon hour of practice, regrooving the stance and the trigger movement and the backlift until the world was right once more, and the ball could be left with safety and the bowlers got bored and started to bowl at him again and then the clip off the legs came back and the strike rotated and the opposition got tired and deliveries that he could cut and pull arrived and were cracked to the boundary and everything clicked back into place. He and Goochie like peas in a pod - practice, practice, practice - and Cook, on his mentor's shoulders, finally surpassing him into history.

Much of this was done in dark times, the Ashes whitewash, the sacking of Pietersen, the unequivocal backing of the ECB that actually weighed heavy rather than lightened the load. Whatever you feel about Cook, that sheer bloody-minded self-belief is what greatness is built on, and all of the greats have it.

Often though, greatness is conferred through a judgement of aesthetics. It's why you hear the name David Gower more often than Ken Barrington, why David Beckham is world famous and Paul Scholes is one for the football connossieurs, why a de Villiers hoick appears textbook and a Graeme Smith straight drive looks like a man strangling a chicken. As watchers, as fans, we value beauty because that is what seperates them from everyone else who can hit a cover drive or a decent forehand or a straight three iron.

It's into this gap that Cook, like Graeme Smith, falls. The stats make a case for elevation to the very top rank of players, and yet they are not always mentioned. Cook will probably have a long-ish while left after the captaincy is gone - win or lose, the end of the Ashes may be a good time to pass it along - and he could end up on the all-time lists somewhere around Lara and Mahela and Sanga, perhaps even Dravid. It would further his case to have an average nearer fifty, but every other English Test record will be his, and it would be hard to deny him the laurels then.

We may not remember too many of those runs with the kind of piercing clarity that the box office batsman offers, but they all look the same in the book. Cook's feats are ones of day-to-day reality rather than imagination, and he'll have the satisfaction of other, more lauded players having to crane their necks to see how far he sits above them.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

KP: The One Who Knocks

Amid the power and the glory of Breaking Bad came the moment in season four when Walter White at last articulated to Skylar, his panicking wife, his transformation from terminally ill middle-aged chemistry teacher to badass drug kingpin.

Are we in danger? She asks him. Are you going to answer a knock at the door and get shot?

"I'm not in danger, Skylar..." Walt rages at the end of one of TV's great monologues. "I am the danger... I am the one who knocks."

In the long-running power play that is the ECB versus Kevin Pietersen, the same kind of moment has come. It's a delicate moment, a complex situation, and no-one involved seems to know the whole story. Colin Graves has subtly manourvred events so that the argument will at least be settled out on the pitch, where it should always have been resolved.

With a single phone call to Pietersen, he has softened an official position that had helped to turn the ECB into a self-described 'toxic brand'. He has shown Paul Downton how he should have dealt with the situation, and put on notice a chief selector who appears to have let the modern game pass him by. This is a nuanced intelligence at work; one that has been missing throughout the gaff-prone year just gone.

There is a notion that Pietersen was looking for the chance to ditch his 'disappointing' $205,000 IPL contract, but I doubt that. Few are the cricketers who can afford disappointment on that scale, and Pietersen is revered in India. He is playing for Surrey because he is the one who knocks. The path is clear now. Score enough runs and the sheer force of them will open the door.

Pietersen has played something like twelve first-class games in eight years. He averages 98 in that time. He will knock again. How that will sound for Downton and Whitaker depends on their performance now. He won't get back into a winning team, at least not at first, but whether England are winning or not depends a lot on the choices they make.

There's a fairness to it which reflects the meritocracy that sport should be.



Friday, 13 March 2015

Sylvester Clarke: Unforgiven

Steve Waugh could feel the will of his Somerset team-mates "disintegrating" a full week before it happened. By the time the players were getting changed for the game, "half of them were out already". When Waugh himself went to the crease he faced "the most awkward and nastiest spell" of his career.

He described the experience as "something you can't prepare for. It's an assault both physically and mentally and the moment you weaken and think about what might happen, you're either out or injured..."

Waugh was hardly alone. Viv Richards said that Sylvester Theophilis Clarke was the only bowler that he ever felt "uncomfortable" facing. Graham Gooch had his helmet split down the middle. Zaheer Abbass was struck so hard that his lid had an indentation as deep as half of the ball. David Gower had the padding and thumbguard ripped from his hand, along with most of his thumbnail - they ended up "near third slip". Simon Hughes, hit on the head by the third ball he ever faced from Clarke, wrote from the blessed safety of retirement that he had been left "two millimetres of man-made fibre from death".

The name of Sylvester Clarke is receding now, but during the first half of the 1980s in his years at Surrey it hung over county cricket in the same way that Sonny Liston's had hung over boxing: star-crossed, whispered, feared... His first class figures - 942 wickets at 19.52 - suggest an outstanding talent; his eleven Tests - 42 wickets at 27.85 - hint at a man born out of time. Yet the numbers are like the list of Sonny Liston's knock-outs: a simple frame on which to drape the myth.

Whether he was the quickest of his time is a moot point. Geoffrey Boycott, who faced them all, thought that Thomson and Holding at their peak were the fastest. What set Sylvester Clarke apart were two things. The first was his attitude at the crease. He was in a way unknowable; wordless, dead-eyed. All that was clear of his personality was the way he bowled - with bad intentions. Once, challenged by an umpire for repeatedly pitching short, he turned around and said: "it ain't no ladies game..." The second was that his pace was accompanied by steepling bounce, and worse than that, an action that made it unpredictable.

From a short, slow-ish run his natural line was towards the batsman. Dennis Amiss, who made a double hundred against Michael Holding and Andy Roberts at the Oval in 1976, called it "the trapdoor ball", because it was hard to pick up and then it just kept zoning inwards at the throat. Any batsman will tell you that the worst kind of bouncer is the one that follows you. Sylvester's could be like a heat-seeking missile.

Superficially it seems as though he might have been a legend (or at least a different kind of legend) had he not been born at a time of astonishing abundance in West Indies fast bowling, but that was not his fate. Like Sonny, he appears to have been an outsider. On a rare tour with West Indies, he was pelted with fruit and rubbish by the crowd in Multan. He threw a brick boundary marker back at them and seriously injured a spectator. A couple of years later, in 1983, he went on the benighted rebel tour of South Africa. The list of players that accompanied him includes Richard 'Danny Germs' Austin, the 'right-handed Sobers' who died recently after a life of homelessness, begging and drug addiction; Lawrence Rowe, who moved to Florida to escape the stigma of the fallout; Franklyn Stephenson 'the greatest all-rounder never to pay for West Indies'; and David Murray, son of Everton Weekes, who walks the beaches of Barbados selling 'stuff' to tourists. Many of the eighteen that went never recovered from the life ban handed down to them after the tour.

Then there was the rum. There is a famous story that Clarke was discussing his life with a journalist in Barbados, where he'd returned after his retirement. Pushed on whether his career had been affected by Clive Lloyd's selection policies or the rebel tour, he looked at the bottle on the table and said, "that ruined my career." His Wisden Almanack obituary retells the tale of his day as a net bowler when England toured West Indies in 1993, long after he'd packed up professionally. He arrived at the Bridgetown nets wearing plimsolls and no socks, evidently "well fortified" on the demon rum and bowled a spell to Graham Thorpe off a short run that was as quick as anything England faced on the tour.

He collapsed and died on 4 December 1999 at his home, aged just 45, the day after Conrad Hunte and three weeks after Malcolm Marshall. I thought of him this week during a World Cup where pace - this time from left arm bowlers that can bring the ball into the batsmen at 90mph - is the coming trend. No-one brought the ball in at a batsman like Sylvester Clarke.

Sonny Liston once said: "Some day they're gonna write a blues for fighters. It'll just be for slow guitar, trumpet and a bell...."

Maybe they should write one for Sylvester Clarke, too.

NB: There's a marvellous story on the rebel tour here, from where I nicked the headline above. Also, Garfield Robinson's terrific piece for Cricbuzz, that sent me straight to Steve Waugh's autobiography for his recollections.


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