Monday, 30 July 2012

Graeme Smith: the size and the shape

During the Oval Test, Shane Warne described Graeme Smith as 'a gentle soul'. Warnie had formed this unlikely view during the downtime the pair shared at Rajasthan Royals, and while they probably weren't nipping off together to recreate Lady Di's famous pose in front of the Taj Mahal just for japes, it was telling that one of cricket's uncompromising characters was prepared to accept another in such a way.

Everything about Smith's public persona mitigates against the notion, and it seemed even more incongruous while he undertook his umpteenth mighty blunting of England's bowlers, obscuring the stumps, blotting out hope, casting shade and spreading doubt. Iron-jawed, thin-lipped, unshaven, gazing at the world through the same sun-bound squint as Steve Waugh, he is both a prosaic destroyer and a technical enigma.

Like a giant Heath Robinson engine, Smith's batting shouldn't work. Recreated under scientific conditions with another player, it almost certainly  wouldn't. He has scored the bulk of his eight thousand plus Test match runs with half a bat for a start, his choking grip offering a closed face to the world. A right arm bowler pushing a delivery across Smith's ample bow and away towards the slips might find himself being driven anywhere from mid-on to backward square leg, the ball flying from a semi-visible slither of willow. However wide the cherry might be spearing, Smith's head will probably still be outside of it, his weight rolling across the crease behind, hence England's fleeting period of success against him when Matthew Hoggard brought the ball late and fast back into his pads.

The laundry list of shots Smith cannot hit is long, and even if he could cover drive, would anyone want to watch him do it? It's one of the great cosmic jokes that he is so often partnered with the symphonic Hashim Amla, the brutal orthodoxy of Kallis, the mercurial AB de Villiers.

Yet Smith has a daunting physicality that not even the Leviathan Kallis can match. He succeeds in part because of his scale. Cricket is a finely calibrated game, the size and weight of bat, ball and stumps, the length of the pitch, the distance to the boundary allow players of all sizes and various skills to compete. James Taylor at five feet four, can face Morne Morkel at six feet six, in a contest that few other arenas would allow. Scale, though, has its edges as Will Jefferson has demonstrated. Graeme Smith is on the right side of that edge, a man whose odd technique combines with his size and shape to offer a unique proposition. He has a brilliant eye - he must have to keep middling the ball with such a sharply angled bat - and by standing the way he does, he all but eliminates the target.

His approach offers a different psychological challenge to the bowler. He barely sees the stumps and he will be hit into odd areas often and deliberately. It's hard to practice for a batsman like Smith because there is no other batsman like Smith. And because he doesn't look like he should be able to bat, there is a certain tiny, rat-like corner of the brain that is affronted by an inability to dismiss him. There can be few opponents who frustrate England as often and for as long as Graeme Smith. The gentleness does not extend as far as the pitch. He is cracking them, bit by bit.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Boucher and Ramps, and the manner of their leaving

Retirement had already suggested itself to Mark Ramprakash and Mark Boucher, it just arrived more abruptly than either thought it would. Ramprakash might have imagined a golden late summer afternoon somewhere in the Shires, the last few balls of his professional days ringing from his bat like the echoes of so many before, perhaps one final hundred to sign himself off. Boucher had the stats uncannily aligned: a thousand dismissals in international cricket, 150 Test match caps with the last of them at Lord's, and the chance to scrap his beloved Proteas to the number one spot as he went.

It was not to be, of course. Boucher leaves those stats hanging tantalisingly, with their Bradman-like rows of nines. His injury was horrible, not the way his most riled opponent would have wished him to go, but once it has healed (as we all hope it will) the sadness will soften. His career is rounded, and the stats bracket longevity and drive rather than exceptional talent. What comes to mind is the bristling fighter that he was was; a backs to the wall merchant, a classic wingman, a Healy not a Gilchrist.

Boucher has, spookily, weirdly, embodied the South African cricket team. It was he who blocked out the final ball after Shaun Pollock's infamous World Cup miscalculation. He was at the crease when England were beaten in that totemic first away series win since readmission. He was dropped for being too arrogant and sure of himself; he spent his last couple of seasons in private introspection. It was Boucher who talked Herschelle Gibbs into coming clean before the King Commission.

There's a much-viewed youtube clip of Boucher sledging Zimbabwe's Tatenda Taibu - another keeper who retired this week - and it sums up the dichotomy he reveled in. Zimbabwe were 62-4 at the time, and there's a slightly queasy feeling at the lunking, muscly South Africans bullying them, a notion magnified by Taibu's schoolboy looks.

But then come Boucher's sledges. They are not hectoring, but subtly undermining. He plays on Taibu's ego - the sarcastic 'that's a big shot Tatenda'; then his size and appearance - 'I'll walk you back to the pavilion'; and finally his performance: 'You must know your average. Nine? Ten? We'll give you 9.5'. It is sly, clever, experienced, calculated, and inbetween it all, he takes a ball that barely bounces with a minimum of fuss.

Mark Boucher will settle in the memory like so many fulfilled cricketers before him. Time came for him, as it does for them all. Mark Ramprakash, brooding prince of Surrey CCC, county cricket's Heathcliff, leaves behind something far more complex. It's been interesting to watch his followers and commentators trying to work out what it is. Regret is too obvious and too easy. If Boucher was emblematic of South Africa, then who better to be emblematic of England in the 1990s than Ramprakash, thwarted by ambition and misdirection, denied by better players, consistently out of time.

Yes, it would have been more aesthetically satisfying to watch Ramprakash score the runs that his buddies Hussain and Thorpe did, but his unfulfilment as an England player gave us one of the great second acts in English lives. Viewed as an act of revenge, as an expression of fury and beauty, it becomes compelling, unmissable; what's more it is unique. For two consecutive seasons, he averaged more than a hundred. How spectacular and magnificent. Lots of players have had Test careers like Thorpe or Hussain or Butcher. No-one else in the history of the game has done that.

Too much time has been spent thinking about what he didn't do, and not enough gazing in wonder at the scale of what he did. What drove him, on all of those quiet weekdays? Maybe not even he knows.

The comparison most often drawn is between Ramprakash and Ian Bell, the tenderly-handled beneficiary of a winning, nurturing environment. But come on... do we really want Ramprakash to be Ian Bell? Sure, Bell plays prettily, but he is an identikit modern international, monotone, locked in, moulded. Ramprakash was something far more interesting and alive. If he'd scored sixteen Test hundreds, he'd be just another player. As it is, he is an enigma, an emblem, a legend, a star. The players that live on are the ones who grip our imagination, and Ramprakash has done that and will continue to do so. Now that is a legacy.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Garry Sobers and ODIs

Through the summer rains of Monday night came an odd, slight coincidence. The weather had exhausted Ian Ward's not inconsiderable ability to soak up screentime by leaving longer gaps between his words, and Sky reverted to filler shows. The first was a vaguely Shakespearian half hour on Shane Warne - who was Shane: Hamlet, Henry, Falstaff, Iago, Bottom...? - the second a prog about Garry Sobers.

I was too young to have seen Sobers, and for most of my callow youth I harboured an unexpressed and needless resentment of the man simply because no-one ever seemed to shut up about him. I never had to wait long to hear my heroes, Bad Bas Richards, King Viv (then merely heir to the throne of his namesake), the emergent Beefy, Javed, Geoffrey Boycott, compared unfavourably to him.

Sky's film began, annoyingly even after all these years, with Ian Chappell saying something like, 'Don Bradman was the greatest batsman of all time, but Sobers was the greatest cricketer'. Oh yeah? One thing that struck me right away was the amount of colour footage they had. Part of my irrational dislike was probably stirred by the fact that Sobers was almost pre-TV; he'd existed through the black and white images of his six sixes, which was all anyone ever seemed to show of him. Yet here he was, lithe and loose, a technicolour big cat. He did look pretty good, admittedly.

The coincidence was just that I'd been looking at Sobers' record in comparison to Jacques Kallis's and seen that Sobers had played a single one-day international, against England at Leeds in 1973, the eighth such match ever staged.

It was a game that had a kind of novelistic symmetry and irony to it; or at least, you'd have thought twice before inventing its details. The great all-rounder, the man many would say was built for the form and all of its successors, made nought, took a single wicket, and bowled the final over from which the winning runs were scored.

The game wasn't a great one, reflective of the fact that no-one really knew what the format was, or what it might become (in fact the most aware seemed to be the sponsors, Prudential Insurance, who'd got in early). It was a 55-over affair. West Indies batted first and were all out for 181 from 54. Sobers was caught by Bob Taylor from the bowling of Chris Old for a six ball duck.

England had reached 157 for 5 when Sobers bowled Old, returning the favour, completing the circle. They staggered into the final over with four required and the last pair at the crease. Bob Willis was on strike, Sobers to bowl. Willis hit Sobers back over his head for two from the first delivery and squirted the next through third man for the win. Mike Denness was man of the match because, as the Almanack noted, 'he'd batted splendidly for 66 off 41 overs in under two and a half hours'.

And that was it. Sobers began and ended his ODI career on the same day, and finished up with more wickets than runs. Bradman had made nought in his last international innings, and Sobers had followed suit. If Wisden's remarks about Denness weren't enough to suggest the distance between then and now, the stats I found on Kallis and Sobers would do. Sobers' 93 Test matches took 20 years to play. Big Jacques played the same number in ten, and while he was doing so, made 211 ODI appearances. Sobers was a man from another time: it just wasn't mine.

No good at ODIs though, was he, Chappelli...