Tuesday, 24 December 2013

What Swanny leaves behind

Decades ago on a Saturday afternoon in winter at Alf Gover's cricket school, a kid came to bowl in one of the nets. He couldn't have been more than 14 or 15; he looked younger than that. To right handers, he came left arm around the wicket, which at Alf's was no mean feat in itself because the run ups weren't exactly what you'd call extensive.

He was a wrist spinner. His stock ball turned into the right-hander, and it turned miles. With the angle he was creating and the loop, balls pitching outside off would have cleared leg stump. He dropped a lot of deliveries short, and he got hit hard and often but every now and again he bowled something completely unplayable, a ball that dipped alarmingly and then ripped upwards off the seam and through the gate or onto the gloves.

For the next few years, I half-expected to see him debuting for a county, or at least hear about him. He had something remarkable. Perhaps he didn't make it through the most important stage for a kid like him, when he'd get slogged everywhere by bigger, older players and he'd need a captain and a coach who could tell him how to handle it.

The reason I remember him is because spin bowling, unlike pace or swing, has the properties to be unique. The very best spinners can't be directly compared to one another; it is the loosest of generic terms. Warne, Murali, Ajmal, Harbhajan, Saqlain, Afridi, Kumble, McGill... they can be bracketed only in the broadest sense. When one comes along, they shift the imaginative framework of the game.

Graeme Swann emerged when conventional off-spin was consigned to the dustbin of history, sent there by the mystery of the Doosra; the twist imparted on its traditions by Murali's mad-ass wrist; by flat pitches and giant bats. In his way, Swann reinterpreted a dying thing. From the new age he took revs, imparting them in huge number on every ball except his slider. And from the ages he brought back the off-spinner's classic line, that drew the drive and opened the gate. Around the wicket to the left-hander he bowled at the stumps, and as soon as DRS began to show that he was almost always hitting them, old-style off-spin was back in the big time.

The magic of spin is in its distorting effect. The spinner has nothing to defend himself except the intrinsic deceit of what he does. Everything rests on the casting of doubt. When someone does it well it seems obvious, like a magician revealing the inner mechanisms of a trick, and yet they must have imagined it first.

Graeme Swann brought off-spin back from somewhere. It has had a distorting effect on England's thinking. His ability to rip revs onto the ball has led the spin department at Loughborough to center their development pathways on bowlers who can get above a certain number. They may be right too - another Swann would be welcome anytime.

Spin, though, resists rigid thinking. It's about imagination. Saeed Ajmal and Sunil Narine, for example, rely on moving the ball by the width of the bat just as Warne and Murali spun it across the crease. The next great spinner may do something else entirely. He might be a left arm wrist merchant, or he could be the new Jack Iverson. The one thing he's not likely to do is come up a pathway and knock on the door.

Swann's legacy will be the kid who has sat at home and watched the ball drift and dip and turn and has figured out a way to do something like it themselves. It's why all of the innovation in spin has come from outside of coaching centres, from someone who's stared down those 22 yards and let their imagination rip.   

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Mark Ramprakash: Enter Night (watchman)

Every now and again you get lucky, right? I did when Matt Thacker at The Nightwatchman asked, 'if you could write about anyone in cricket right now, who would you write about?' and before I really knew why, I said Mark Ramprakash. And not about his Test career either, but the part that came after, when he made more than 60 centuries and got to a hundred hundreds, probably the final name to join that hallowed list.

I'd seen him almost as an outcast, a brooding Heathcliff of the County Championship, misunderstood, abandoned, burning with something like revenge. A face at the window, pressed up against the glass... It's a somewhat fraught vision, true, but rooted in a question, and the question is why? What kept him going, during all those quiet afternoons on almost empty grounds? What made him do what he did?

For a while a long time ago, I'd had an idea to try and write a sort of double biography of Ramprakash and Graeme Hick, with the hook that their careers had a weird symmetry - the two great hopes of English batting who made their debuts in the same Test match and who became the last two men to score a hundred centuries. Within their stories were others: of English cricket in the 1990s and the notions of what success and failure in sport are, and what they mean.

That fell by the wayside, but Matt arranged for us to spend an afternoon at Lord's with Mark. We sat at the top of the Pavilion as Middlesex bowled out Derbyshire for 60, and I discovered the answer to my question. I watched him bat a couple of times during the summer too, and got to write the piece. It didn't turn out as I thought it would - a small scale version of that old maxim that 'every book is the wreck of a great idea' - but it was a privilege to have met him, and a great pleasure to try and write about it.

It's in the new issue of The Nightwatchman, which has some tremendous stuff in it, including Dileep Premachandran on coming to terms with Sachin's retirement, Mark Rice-Oxley on depression in cricket, Marcus Berkmann on playing for an ancient team and Alex Massie on Jardine, plus lots more. Well worth a punt if you like great and mad stories about cricket.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Intensity, pressure and time

One of the notable features of the Brisbane Test was the intensity levels of both sides: Australia's was higher. It got lost a little in the fog of war, mainly because Michael Clarke's sledge was picked up on the stump mike, and that skewed the debate towards who was saying what, rather than who was doing what.

There's no way it would have escaped Andy Flower though, so James Anderson's first ball at Adelaide was like a punch in the guts, the moment I realised that they may well lose this series. It racked up 78mph on the radar and Chris Rogers had time to adjust his guard, wave to his mates in the stands and wonder what to get the wife for Christmas before he patted it gently back. The rest of the over was runless but had little else to recommend it. Anderson walked stiffly back to his mark, like he hadn't really warmed up.

Mitchell Johnson, by contrast, delivered the quickest ball of the ball of the match with his first, and by the middle of his opening over was at 95mph.

The point is not that Australia have a much faster bowler than England, but that Johnson was on it and Anderson wasn't. England couldn't shake the ennui of too much cricket. Confronted by an opponent of greater desire, they are fading. All of the overs, the hours, the practice, the battles, those great highs and their emotional effort, bring a toll eventually.

It's not even really a criticism, more an observation on human nature and the inevitability of time.  For a while, until he raised himself in mid-afternoon, Anderson looked like Hoggy did in New Zealand when he was taken around the back of the pavilion and given the icy news that he had lost his zip.

It's not too late, but like an old boxer, they've been in a lot of big fights and fresh punches carry their dreaded cumulative effect.


If Test cricket had a narrator, it'd be Morgan Freeman, especially that great line about geology being 'the study of pressure and time' from The Shawshank Redemption. Tests are about that too, the effect of a moment - Carberry dropping Haddin for example - slowly becoming apparent as time and pressure bear down on it.

Then Carberry has to go out and feel the great weight of that scoreboard as he tries to survive the last overs of the day, knowing that more time yawns ahead.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Visions of Mitch

Last April, I wrote something for The Cordon about how the Ashes would miss Mitchell Johnson. I'd like to claim great prescience in doing so, obviously, but that'd be as meaningful as the arrival of the Mitch bandwagon clattering into town. The nature of the man and the game suggest that what goes around comes around - and then goes around once more.

What's apparent about Mitch is that he is the kind of cricketer who has a hold on the imagination, or at least he does on mine. There's no single reason for that. Looking back through the history of this blog, there are some players that I write about again and again and others who are barely there, ghosts in the machine.

There's lots about Mitchell Johnson that exerts a grip.  No-one that good should be that bad for a start. The distance between his best and his worst, even his best and his usual, yawns wider than with most top-level cricketers, with their remorseless execution of skills, their slim advantages. Imagine facing a man capable of such great and terrible things.

He has fought his deep lows, come back with a new haircut, a new run-up. There's something man-made about his approach now, something mechanical, but it's followed by something fallible and human, that tremendous arcing swing that brings the ball out from behind his back while he balances for a second on the outside of his back foot. There's an extraordinary picture of it here, with Ed Cowan's rather wonderful piece about what it's like to be down the other end.

What nature has given Mitch is something that can't be coached; the ball arrives in the sightline so late it cuts down the reaction time of the batsman, it gives him extra heat. It's echoed in his batting, in that long swing when he's hitting down the ground.

So much of Mitch is at odds with the modern game, but strangely it's the modern game, with its science and its schedules, that has offered him his second chances, has salvaged him from his many wrecks. It's easy to project onto him, because he's more like us than most players. Relentless competence is the trademark of so many top cricketers; Mitch steps out in hope yet with no guarantees.

The beauty of blogging is that you can write what you want when you want, no deadlines, no editors. Some players and some events can just glide past without friction. Ian Bell is one for me - lovely batsman but inspires very little.

Instead, from this distance, they can be slightly unreal, like characters in a novel. They can be observed and read into. They can live a life other than their actual one, as Mitch does so well.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Saving the Test

I thought I'd put up the intro that Mike Jakeman asked me to write for his new book, Saving The Test, the subject of excellent reviews in the new All Out Cricket and at cricinfo (the book, not the intro). Available now...


No-one forgets their first day of Test match cricket. I can even remember the date: Friday 13 August 1976, the summer that an endless heat wave turned a green nation brown and had people queuing at standpipes in the streets. It was at Kennington Oval, the second morning of the fifth Test between England and West Indies.  There was a great sense of ritual to the day: lining up to click through the turnstile, buying a scorecard and a seat cushion, waiting for the five-minute bell to ring and the umpires to come down the pavilion steps, watching the fielding side walk out and then the batsmen, and hearing for the first time the strange silence made by many thousands of people saying nothing as the bowler runs in for the opening ball of the day…

To a kid like me it was huge and vivid, almost overpowering. Everything was bigger and faster and further, from the vastness of the outfield to the speed of the ball and how it was bowled, hit and thrown, and then the crowd, packed shoulder to shoulder on narrow wooden benches (hence the seat cushions – 50p for the day and worth every penny) a powerful force in its own right.

Out in the middle was IVA Richards, 200 not out overnight and in the mood for more, getting ever closer to one of the great and apparently unapproachable records of the game, Garry Sobers’ 365. Richards didn’t just stroke the ball to boundary in the way it seemed on television. The movement that looked so languid when mediated by the cameras had a heft and a snap that could only be appreciated in the flesh. The ball rang from his bat with a sound I’d never heard before, a bright crack with an echo of its own.

Richards got 291, bowled by Tony Greig just when it seemed that he might go after Sobers’ mark. It was his final innings of 1976, a year in which he’d made 1,710 Test runs, a record that would stand for another 30 years. Towards the end of the day, Clive Lloyd declared and Michael Holding came out and bowled at England’s openers, Woolmer and Amiss. He ran in from somewhere near the boundary at the speed of a 400 metre sprinter, the ball an indistinct fuzz as it flew from his hand.

That game was Test match number 781. As I write, the Ashes series is about to begin, and the first of those will be Test number 2090. There have been almost twice as many Test matches since 1976 as there were before it. That day, though, remains indelibly in my senses. It exists there as well as on paper and in the archives. That is the essence of Test cricket.

It is hard to think of a game that sits at greater odds with the speed of the times it is played in. It was created in an era of leisure, its durations designed to fill tours when men crossed the world by boat. It is almost entirely anachronistic and yet its rhythms, which are symphonic, still exert their deep pull. When Test cricket is good, it is unmatchably good, its inherent tensions ratcheted up by the days used in their creation. Many of the greatest Test matches of them all have been played in the last couple of decades.

The questions over its future have been asked almost since it started, but they have been answered so far by its constancy. That can’t make us complacent about its ability to survive. Nothing lasts forever, and Test cricket is subject to external, societal forces of commerce, time, and multi-media. As much as it is loved in some competing nations, others can be ambivalent to it. For every sold-out Ashes series, there is some dubious exercise in Dubai or Sharjah or at an empty Caribbean outpost constructed for a long-forgotten World Cup.

Test matches have co-existed peacefully with one-day internationals since 1971 – it is poor old ODI that’s looking more and more like a busted flush, its format exhausted by players who know it too well – and less so with the rise  T20 cricket, the short-form’s heightened and logical conclusion.

Whether it can withstand these forces are the questions that Mike Jakeman has set out to answer in this challenging and very necessary book. To me, the very fact that the book exists states the case for Test cricket: that someone would devote the time and energy and skill is more evidence of what it does to you. Yet there are some deep enquiries here, and the answers aren’t always in view. It is recommended reading, and if you’ve picked it up and come this far, you probably already know why.

Friday, 15 November 2013

What Goughie said about Sachin

Darren Gough makes a post-game living as a presenter on a superbly low-end sports radio station, co-hosting the drivetime programme every evening.

It's a show that has a single tactic. Goughie or his buddy jock, a journalist called Adrian, take a position on one of the day's sports stories, and the other starts arguing with him about it until they come up with something provocative enough to cause a listener to ring in, and then all three start arguing about it. Within a couple of minutes, it's forgotten and they're off on something else.

They have a feature called 'any other business' where each gets 30 seconds to talk about a subject nominated by the other. On the first day of the game in Mumbai, Goughie was asked, 'what's Sachin Tendulkar like'.

'Known him since he was 18 and he came to Yorkshire,' he replied. 'Great lad, very quiet but loved a practical joke. He asked me to his wedding, but I couldn't go. He used to like a Bailey's with ice at night time. Before he went in he used to dip his hands in water, and then put his inners on. He had a little artifact, I dunno if it was something to do with his religion, that he would put under the rubber of his bat.'

Sometimes the first, throwaway things that come to mind are the most interesting. Many thousands of words had been written about Sachin on that day, but I didn't read Goughie's anywhere else.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

...and yielding to the zero-sum urge

Further to the post below, I kept thinking about the team I'd pick to play the Wisden All-Time XI. This would be my side - each selected at their peak:

1. Geoffrey Boycott
2. Barry Richards
3. Ricky Ponting
4. Brian Lara
5. Jacques Kallis
6. Steve Waugh (c)
7. Adam Gilchrist (wk)
8. Ian Botham
9. Jeff Thomson
10. Glenn McGrath
11.  Muttiah Muralitharan

Had they been available I'd have certainly had Warne, Marshall, Wasim Akram and Sachin. The quantity of batting above is in part a response to the first three of those.

There was a hair between Boycott and Sehwag, who, to my mind, readjusted the boundaries of modern batting. In the end, the thought of Boycott in that dressing room was irresistible - and he knew how to play Malcolm Marshall.

Only Kallis' wickets got him in ahead of Miandad and the great Dravid. Imran is the equal of Botham, but Beefy had that golden arm: he'd probably get Bradman with a wide long-hop. Thommo's there because a game like this one deserves to have the fastest man ever to have bowled running in.

I thought about players from previous eras - CB Fry, Larwood, Ranji - but things change. They couldn't live in the modern game, just as these players might not flourish in theirs. The canyons of time are unbridgeable.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Listing the fields of dreams

Back in the mad, bad old days when I worked on magazines for a company that seemed invincible but no longer exists, I had a theory, probably rubbish, that most mags had a maximum of about six people at any one time that they could put on the cover and get a guaranteed sale. It was based on the notion that in any specialist area - musical genres, blockbuster movies, football - that was about the number of acts that the entire readership would have an interest in. It was a rolling cast and as some dropped out, others arrived, but six was roughly the number.

If you strayed outside of the six, you were taking a risk with a commercial property. Yet the frequency of most magazines meant there were more covers than there were guaranteed bankers to put on them without resorting to the kind of trivial repetition that you see so often now (token bitchy comment, but nonetheless true).

One way around it was to come up with a 'list feature' - the hundred best this, the twenty sexiest that and so on. It was particularly popular at Christmas when there was nothing else going on, and if you gave it enough of a spin, it was pretty failsafe, especially if it was compiled by some sort of reader vote on the winner.

This week has proven the concept retains its catnip qualities, with Wisden announcing an 'All-Time Text XI' and Patrick Ferriday publishing Masterly Batting, a book that ranks the best Test hundreds ever made.

C'mon, admit it, you need to know who's there don't you... I did, and there's something about human nature that wants to see a list and then disagree with it (the first thing you learn about the list feature is that it is made to be disagreed with - it's the only way that it will achieve any sort of traction with the reader).

The point is, it's a trick, it's a trap... you're joining in a zero-sum game when you take up the argument. The Wisden All-Time Test team picks eleven from more than 2,600 people to have appeared in a Test match across 150 years of the Almanack's life. Masterly Batting selects 100 centuries from 3,649 scored by 697 players. The mathematical chances of agreeing with them are approaching those of winning the lottery, and that's before the emotional arena is approached.

Even the act of typing out the Test XI - Hobbs, Grace, Bradman (c), Tendulkar, Richards, Sobers, Knott (wk), Akram, Warne, Marshall, Barnes - has the fingers creeping towards other keys... (Hobbs - really? and Bradman, well he was no captain was he, and it's great that Richards is in but for me it's the wrong one because my love for B.A. is irrational, and does anyone still think Sobers was a better all-rounder than Kallis, and where are all the South Africans and New Zealanders and Sri Lankans, because surely Hadlee's a good shout isn't he and old Murali took a wicket or two, and what sort of conditions are these teams playing in anyway? Are Wisden seriously trying to contend that any judge worth their salt would pick Alan Knott over Adam Gilchrist, and as for Barnes with his dibbly dobblers on a modern track - cannon fodder, and even if he bowled on a greentop, well everyone on earth would rather face him than Thomson or Holding wouldn't they? And who was it that left out the man who made both the highest Test and first-class scores?) and so on, ad infinitum.

In Masterly Batting, Patrick Ferriday measures each hundred in ten categories: size, percentage of team score, speed, bowlers faced, the pitch, chances offered, match impact, series impact, compatibility of attack and conditions, and finally intangibles (a get out of jail card if ever there was one), and these are worthy measures. It's just that my favourite hundreds have little to do with any of those criteria, or at least they're tangential and not at the core of their appeal.

Would I have enjoyed Boycott's hundredth hundred any less if England hadn't won (at least I think they won - it doesn't matter now), or KP's 158 in 2005 any more had it been less manic and flukey and chanceless? What about all of those Steve Waugh tons when I loved him and hated him at the same time, and why did I get a lump in my throat when he hit that boundary from the last ball of the day at the SCG?

And yet none of those thoughts really detract from the nature of the Test XI or the best centuries, because they brought them back to me. I felt them once again, and that's a nice thing. In Masterly Batting, choosing the hundreds is actually secondary to the chance to write well about cricket and stand out a little on the shelves. Wisden had a couple of days' worth of headlines and they're always useful if the noble name is to survive and prosper for another century and a half.

But c'mon, really, did they even consider the fall-out if Bradman tried telling Grace where to stand...

Friday, 27 September 2013

The relative nature of time and speed

Ever wondered why it's so difficult to swot a fly with your hand? I'd always thought it had something to do with its angled take-off, how it can throw itself sideways as well as upwards. New research has discovered something else though, something about the way that the fly perceives time itself.

In simple terms, the smaller the creature the more slowly time passes. The fly's compound eyes offer it life in stop-motion, the hand moving towards it a gathering shadow rather than a speeding car. The research opens up the notion that, in this relative, elastic time, the fly feels that its life lasts as long as long as ours. The mayfly lives its endless day, while, for the elephant, or the giant tortoise, the years blur past...

The brilliant Andy Bull wrote at length for the Spin on fast bowling and whether it's actually that fast any more. His piece highlights a great anomoly that exists in many arenas of sport: progress is spiky. Records move in clusters and then seize up for a generation. Quick bowlers were quicker in the 1970s than they are now. In part, this is natural. In the same way, the world records of Bob Beamon and Sebastian Coe stood for decades in athletics; heavyweight boxing exists in the shadow of Ali and Tyson; there wasn't a footballer as good as Maradona until Ronaldo and Messi. There will be someone as quick as Thomson or Holding along someday.

But it's also a question of perception. Part of the legend of fast bowling comes from the man playing it. In the wild west of cricket in the 1970s, batsmen had no helmets, pads and gloves were by comparison rudimentary and the way in which fast bowlers could bowl at them was unregulated. Not only was it fast, it was genuinely dangerous (and everyone should read Christian Ryan's wonderful, impressionistic essay on the quickest spell Jeff Thomson ever bowled for an idea of how it must have felt to bat in that era).

In the same way that time moves differently for the fly, so fast bowling feels different depending on who's facing it and when. In his majesterial The Art And Science Of Cricket, Bob Woolmer highlights some experiments conducted in the early 1980s by Tim Noakes, a South African researcher, in which an old-style static bowling machine was set at 130kph. Peter Kirsten faced up to it, and was unable to hit the ball without the complex series of visual clues a batsman picks up from the bowler's run-up and delivery stride (during his long career Kirsten faced all of the world's quickest bowlers out in the middle, playing deliveries at speeds of 150kph). Yet spat without notice from the cold eye of the machine, the ball came towards him too quickly for him to accurately plot its course.

From this, Noakes observed that the best players did not necessarily have better eyesight, but were somehow better at interpreting the bowler's approach and angle of delivery. He conducted another experiment in which the bowling machine was wired to the lights at an indoor net. Less than 200 milliseconds after the ball was fired, the lights were shut off. Kirsten was still able to anticipate the trajectory of the ball and hit 70 per cent of the deliveries he faced. Some provincial players brought in to bat in the same circumstances were so unnerved they ran out of the way of the ball.

It was clear that international batsmen had a kind of visual early warning system that enabled them to play the very fastest bowling. And so all 'fast' bowling is relative, in that the experience of facing a ball delivered uncomfortably quickly is available to any player. The only variable is the speed. A good club bat might be on the edge of their capability at 80mph, while a Test match player can handle 95mph. Both experience the same sensations and emotions while doing so.

Every batsman, though, is human and subject to the quotidian variations of biorhythms and mood that affect us all. Fast bowling that is survivable, even hittable, when the brain is sharp and the feet quick and everything in its place may not be when the body is injured, the mind jaded, the ego assaulted by doubt and fear.

These are the variables that make the game what it is. The fastest bowling will always have a mystique about it that has nothing to do with the speed gun or the stats. It's about that moment when bowler and batsman are both stretched to the limit of their ability, locked in a visceral, physically dangerous duel that might end in any way at any moment.

It's a glinting, alluring knife-edge that doesn't happen often, but when it does it sticks in the imagination, it gets written about and talked about and passed down into the annals. It's magical, and necessarily rare.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Paying it forwards

The end of the season is almost here, with its rain and with its retirements, with its shadows that fall longways across the ground and the inevitable melancholy that it brings. It is a cliche of sorts to acknowledge the feeling, yet it's always there and always the same, a kind of longing that cannot be fulfilled. It's always worse before the last game too. Afterwards it seems to run away quite quickly.

As the seasons tick by, it's heightened by the realisation that they too are finite. One of the geniuses of the game is that it is complex enough to offer a different face to each age of the player.

Once you pass the point at which professionals retire, it takes on a new hue. Before that moment, however delusionally, you can convince yourself you're playing the same game that you always have. You're not yet entirely divorced from the young kids who come in to thrash their 60-ball hundreds or mark out their 20-yard runs. Soon though, there's something different in the way that they look at you, and you realise that they are occupying a psychological terrain that you have surrendered.

It's not the death of ambition, more the adaptation of ambition to circumstance. You still play because you want to do well. What's changed is your definition of 'well'. The elements of the game that you take pleasure from have shifted.

Matthew Hoggard is pulling off the bowling boots for the final time in a week or so. When he was dropped by England in the brutal way that sometimes happens, Hoggy, understandably, had a difficult time accepting it. The cruelest thing, though, was that it was fair. The real bad guy was sport, where one day you are at your peak, and the next the slow descent has begun.

Yet there are some sunlit uplands here, too, on this plateau of the old fart. If you carry on putting yourself into the game, it sometimes gives you something back. Cricket can seem like a capricious sport, especially for batsmen, but in reality it's just implacable, neither for you or against.

My friend and team-mate Tony has, like most of us, had his moments. He played a lot of his early cricket in the unforgiving North, and, back in '86, once made 99 in a league game somewhere in the shadow of the Satanic Mills. He thought that maybe the chance of a hundred had passed him by forever on that day.

In one of our last games of the season, on a golden afternoon at a wonderful ground, he got himself in and past fifty. The runs kept coming, and he had 80-odd by the time I went in to join him. He hit a couple more boundaries away and came down the wicket.

'Eleven more,' he said.

'It's just a number mate,' I replied, but we both knew it wasn't.

We batted on. He went to 95 and then got a long hop, which he pulled for four.

For once in my life, I was genuinely prepared to make any run he called, even if it ran me out, but I didn't have to. The next ball was a full toss that he hit hard to boundary. In a little speech he made in the bar afterwards, he admitted that he'd thought of that 99 almost every night before he went to sleep. Well he doesn't have to think of it any more.

That is what the game sometimes gives you. It's why we miss it as it slips away for another year.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Not knowing how: Batting's emerging question

Here is a group of players: Chris Rogers, Ian Bell, Michael Clarke, Alastair Cook, David Warner.

And another: Jonny Bairstow, Phil Hughes, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott.

And a third: Kevin Pietersen, Chris Gayle, Virender Sehwag.

And finally: Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakkara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Mahala Jayawardene.


There is a humming undercurrent to the critique of modern batting, that increasingly idiosyncratic and macho pursuit. You hear it on commentary and in analysis, and while it's hazily defined, it's usually expressed in one of two ways: 'He wasn't sure how to bat' or 'He didn't know how to play'.

They're phrases that need a little context, because they're obviously not literal. Any batsman who has made it as far as the international game clearly knows how to bat. Any player playing at the top level evidently knows how to play.

Instead, it's to do with circumstance, the demands of format, the ebb and flow of the red ball game. The longer the batsman is asked to bat, the more nuanced his batting must become. The task in 50-over cricket is almost rote now, its formula exhausted by repetition, while the blunt challenge of T20 remains brutally simple to compute. By contrast the challenge of the five day game shifts under the batsman's feet even as he is at the crease.

Not knowing how to bat, in context, is not knowing how to tune yourself into the fluid set of circumstances that the game produces. Here, self-knowledge is everything.

The first two groups of players above competed with varying levels of success in the Ashes series. The difference between them is that group one essentially batted the way that they always bat. They lived or died by the quotidian fluctuations of form and luck, the natural run of good days and bad. Chris Rogers, for example, with the benefit of 20,000 first class runs behind him, battered a quick 80-odd at Old Trafford and accumulated a careful hundred in Durham. Both innings fitted with the rhythm of the match they were played in. Aside from the pressure of Test cricket, there was nothing new about any of it for Rogers. Both were innings of a type regularly required of an opening batsman, and he responded with the touch of a craftsman.

Bell had the series of his life and Warner one that he'll never forget, but both did what they always do. Clarke fought his stiff back and Cook battled a technical fault but neither panicked nor changed their method. They stuck it out, because experience tells them that they will come good again soon.

The second group are (pretty obviously) the batsmen that didn't know how to bat, the players who weren't sure how to play. Phil Hughes*, the Australian among them, is a talent betrayed, first dropped from the side when his Test average was above 50, then thrown up and down the order, his method questioned and ridiculed. No wonder the light has gone from his eyes.

Joe Root and Jonathan Trott demonstrate how delicate the equilibrium of a batting order can be. Sometimes absence becomes a player like nothing else, and Andrew Strauss already has a post-retirement glow about him. At his best, Strauss was the most bullish of the triumverate he formed with Cook and Trott. His solidity and tempo let the others be themselves.

Root allowed himself to be lulled into periods of stasis, an understandable reaction to the match stretching out before him, and yet also the response of a young man who felt that his natural game may equal irresponsibility (here he can be contrasted with Rogers, a less talented player, but one who has spent years doing the job).

The knock-on effect on Jonathan Trott was less predictable. He had built his reputation on being impervious to external forces, yet his crease rituals always hinted at his need for certainty. With Cook and Root at sea, Trott played a series of uncharacteristic innings, quick forties studded with boundaries that built a discomforting momentum he didn't seem able to halt.

Jonny Bairstow didn't know whether to stick or twist and it showed. Playing his natural game kept getting him out, and yet he didn't seem to have another beyond the same glacial slowness that descended on Root. 

The third and fourth groups are rarely unsure how to play, of course. Pietersen, Gayle and Sehwag have controlled every format with the same unorthodox force. They are outliers blessed with a freakish talent that can be expressed any way - devastating in a single over or a day and a half of batting. Their method is uncompromising.

And the final group are the last generation to have grown up without T20 cricket, whose path to the Test game was always clear and rising before them. It was their ultimate aim, their career peak, and they spent their early lives preparing for it. The way they bat actually reflects that: their skill sets were honed for Test match play, their mental strength built by its adversity.

Last week Aaron Finch played an extraordinary innings at the Ageas Bowl. Could he be a Test match batsman? That's a well-intentioned question anyone who doesn't really follow the game may ask. Well he's 26 years old and has played 33 first class matches. In those, he averages 29. He debuted in 2007, and in 2009-10 had his best season in the Shield, with 416 runs at 37.81. That same year, he became a star in the Big Bash and that is where he has stayed, typecast as a talented slugger. He doesn't have to worry about 'how to bat'. In fact, he doesn't really have to worry about first-class cricket at all, unless Australia decide he's worth a punt.

In Finch's brutality, in Bairstow and Root's uncertainty, in Australia's bare cupboard and England's wavering second string (what awaits Buttler and Hales and Ballance and Morgan and the rest?) lays the conundrum facing the modern batsman. How do you play?

It's interesting to note that some of India's finest young blades - Kohli, Pujara, Dhawan - are less afflicted. What is different about their thinking? Now there's a question.

NB: I blogged about Phil Hughes for the Cordon here.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Careful with your kinetic flow, Shane...

Neil D'Costa, known for the years he has spent coaching Michael Clarke as well as for his work with Phil Hughes and Mitchell Starc, gave a barbed little interview to the Sydney Morning Herald last week, pointing out various 'fundamental flaws' in the 'non-negotiable basics' of Australia's top order.

Such is the depth of Australia's trauma, another filleting with the knives of the press barely registered, although D'Costa had a few hurtful zingers in his armoury. Yet this was a piece that could be read another way, too, because it was a story that said something about modern coaching.

We are about to enter the second age of the coach. The professional game is reaching an apex of analysis as science reveals more of the physical realities of batting and bowling. It's not quite golf - yet - but it will be one day. As players become highly-priced freelance contractors, why wouldn't they employ a personal coach to micro-manage each aspect of their game? And why would those coaches not become high-earning mini-celebs in their own right? Golf after all has its swing gurus and its putting specialists, its mind-managers and its conditioning champions.

As in golf, a new language is developing to describe function and form, a mix between management-speak and pop-science. D'Costa's piece is studded with it: he talks about 'kinetic flow' and the 'entry and exit points' of various shots. Yet at heart, this new language is another way of analysing principals that are as old as the game.

D'Costa offers this jargon-heavy paragraph on David Warner: ‘Warner has what in swing mechanics is called a reverse swing. His weight is distributed as if he’s a right-handed batsman facing the wicketkeeper. The shoulder facing the bowler is high when, in fact, it should be lower at the time the ball is released. That would enable Warner to enter his shots with the correct weight shift and put his nose over the little toe on his front foot. What I see is Warner’s leaning back. That allows him to cut easily but, when he comes forward, his balance is off. Having too much weight leaning back also makes him susceptible to lbw when the ball is swinging.'

Or as my taciturn former coach Jim Cameron would say: 'lean into the ball' (or 'lean into the f**king ball' - he was Australian) .

D'Costa on Shane Watson: 'Watson has a similar shoulder angle and alignment problem to Warner. He shifts his weight back when he sets up. Watson is a big build, so it’s worth comparing him to Kevin Pietersen or Jacques Kallis, who each get their front shoulders down and stand slightly open at release so they can lean into the ball, chin-forward.'

Or, get your head over the the ball. 

Brad Haddin: ‘You cannot recalibrate your judgment if you move your head and Haddin moves his head around, both when he’s batting and wicketkeeping. Like Khawaja, he drops head when batting and keeping, losing milliseconds of vision.'

Keep your head still.

Usman Khawaja: 'He breaks rule No.1 – keep your head still. He’s tracking the ball by dropping his head. After his dismissal in the second innings of the fourth Test, Nasser Hussain asked ‘How did he miss that?’ The answer is, he dropped his head before the ball arrived and was looking at the ground instead of the ball. Until he changes that habit and is able to track the ball in and out with his head still, the rest doesn’t matter.’

Watch the ball.

We're at a juncture, as the late Bob Woolmer pointed out in the title of his majesterial book, of the Art and Science of Cricket. The fundamental principals of the game have been known to every player since the age of Grace. Science is, at the moment, engaged in explaining why the art works. It has value, and as the demands of its formats drive further, richer evolution of its methods, it will have a widening area of study.

But the oldest lessons should always be learned first, and they don't need decorating. Watch the ball. Keep your head still. Hit it when it's under your nose. The song remains the same.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Cricket and ignominy: the man whose trousers fell down

Sometimes the game does not want merely to defeat you. Sometimes it demands something more, a new kind of humiliation or embarrassment, simply because it can.

The other week our opener got out early for not very many, and as he walked sadly towards the boundary rope, a group of Japanese tourists came running up and asked if they could have their picture taken with him. In fact they didn't really ask, they just draped their arms around him and started.

Then one of them took a piece of paper out of his pocket and asked if he knew the way to a local tourist attraction.

Later, when I was batting, I took what should have been a single to third man, but as the fielder ran after it his trousers fell down, so we got two instead.

For the pro, the moment of ignominy is a rare interruption to normal service. Their skill level tends to overwhelm the possibility of farce and their egos are robust enough to shrug it off when it visits. The rest of us have no such shields.

I was once fielding at slip to an off spinner, quite close to the bat. He bowled a short one, the batsman went back to cut and the next thing I knew I was seeing stars. The batter had got a top edge that smacked me on the forehead before I could get my hands up.

Instead of concern or sympathy, all I could hear was laughter. Apparently the ball was traveling remarkably slowly. As the story evolved, the ball got slower and slower, and the time I was on the ground longer and longer. I even heard my dad telling someone about it once, giving a little mime of my hands flapping as the ball got nearer.

Very slowly, of course...

Thursday, 1 August 2013

All back to Alf's

A few weeks ago, I took a journey that I have made many times before, but not for many years. It always used to be by car, but this time it was on foot, at least the last part of it was - around the Wandsworth one-way system, past Zodiac Records (still strange and unwelcoming, still forbiddingly shuttered and with its little sign 'open Saturdays 10-6pm') and then halfway up East Hill, on the left, next to Wandsworth House...

It's just a side turning now, blink and you'd miss it, the street sign the only clue to what it was. 'Cricketers Mews' it reads, and it leads to a block of apartments that say all there is to be said about early '90s architecture. They are as unremarkable in their way as the building that stood there before them, beyond the vanished garage forecourt: a whitewashed frontage with a slender side door, and behind it a creaking and gas-lit hall of indeterminate vintage.

Nothing lasts forever, and Alf Gover's cricket school was demolished in 1989, shortly after Alf and his son John sold up upon the grand old man's retirement from coaching at the age of 82 (well, sort of - Alf was born on leap year's day, so technically he was a quarter of that). But Gover's is going to live again for half an hour on Saturday, when Charlie Connelly's documentary is broadcast on Radio 4 (I blogged here on my time there, and got to write a little more about Alf for the Nightwatchman).

There are contributions from Mike Selvey, Sir Trevor McDonald, Mickey Stewart, family members (it was great to hear that John  is alive and well and living the high life in Monaco) and even Nicholas Parsons. Alf's was open to anyone with the fee for a net, as well as to the young pros sent to pass under the eye of the master: thus Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, Barry Richards, Mike Procter, Sunil Gavaskar, Garry Sobers and Brian Lara are joined on the list of alumni by John Major, who used to save his pocket money for lessons, and Harold Pinter, who had a portrait of himself batting there above his writing desk.

But everyone who went has their own cast list, and as I stood outside Cricketers Mews with Charlie mine came back to me with a great and melancholic force: Noble, lovely Alf of course, and John downstairs in the shop; Terry the barman, who'd once delivered a fridge to Dave Vanian of the Damned and who could bowl rapid, skidding bouncers when the mood seized him; my coach Jim Cameron, a wise, hard-living and Biblically-bearded Australian; my good friend Simon, who ended up as one of Alf's coaches himself, and with whom I shared mad, high-speed car-rides back down the A3; old Joe, who started drinking brown ale in the bar at lunchtime and had the last net of the day; Monty Lynch, Surrey's middle-order thumper, battering ball after ball through the long winter afternoons...

More than that, I felt the sounds and smells and look of the place. To me, it still lives, in its way.

I was lucky to meet Charlie again through cricket, and to be asked to take part. It's a particular kind of luck, one we owe to Alf. His over-arching philosophy was not to impose technical perfection (although he could do it, if required) but to offer to everyone a way to love the game for life. That is Alf's greatest legacy.

NB: There are some terrific pictures here. Alf's leaning against the legendary snooker table in the first; in the second he's in his office, just off the snooker room, with his wife Marjorie; the third is up in the nets, which no-one who saw them will forget in a hurry...

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Keith Bradshaw Appeal

Many may remember Sara Bradshaw's excellent blog, written while her husband Keith was Chief Executive of MCC.

It ended when they returned to Australia after five years at Lord's, a stint longer than should be asked of any man. Sadly it wasn't simply the stress of residing in the egg-and-bacon minefield that led them home. Keith had contracted cancer, which was treated, but has returned.

Sara has set up the Keith Bradshaw Appeal (click here to find it) which will help to meet the costs of his treatment, and also go towards the Laurie Engel Fund at Birmingham Childrens' Hospital.

Do pay a visit and make a donation if you can. It's Ashes year, but we're all on the same side really.

And good luck to Keith. The pommie bastards are with you. It might not be 10-0 if that makes you feel any better...

Welcome back to the circus

There was a moment during Howzat: Kerry Packer's War, shown last week on BBC4, when you realised what a life-force Packer must have been. It came after he'd signed up the players and the scale of the conflict he had provoked became apparent, to him and to them.

In a room were Australia's top cricketers, men that Packer had persuaded to jeopardise their careers to join him; all of them famous, unyielding characters like the Chappell brothers, Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee, Max Walker, Dougie Walters. They stood taut in their tight shirts and their flared slacks, but underneath was uncertainty and doubt. It rose like cigarette smoke in the room. David Hookes for one had decided to tell Packer he was withdrawing. He'd even rehearsed his speech in the mirror as he put on his kipper tie.

Packer walked in. The testosterone levels, already substantial, rose. The players formed a semi-circle in front of him. He went around each of them individually, asking whether they were in or out. They nodded and grunted in turn. He came to Hookes.

'David?' He said. His gaze was utterly level.

Hookes looked around, swallowed, tried to remember the speech he'd given to the bathroom mirror, couldn't.

'I'm in, Kerry...'

Packer smiled. He cracked a couple of jokes ('what the fuck are you doing here Tangles? I don't remember signing you up...') and the party started. There were lots of parties in Kerry Packer's War (I am unilaterally removing the abominable 'Howzat' from its title), and they were the kind of parties you wanted to be at, with their swimming pools and their girls, their Martinis and their stubbies, the teetotal Kerry always on their edge, in his suit, alone.

At heart, World Series Cricket was a cult of personality, and the personality was Kerry Packer's. What was remarkable was that Packer was only 40 when he made it happen, barely older than some of the players. Lachy Hulme did not particularly resemble Kerry - who does? - but he brought that heavy, fleshy presence to the screen.

The things that age the screen Packer and set him apart from his men are his girth, his widow's peak, his love of breakfast and dinner (he explodes in a Chinese restaurant because someone wants to share his sweet and sour: 'I ordered it, it's mine...') and his other appetites: for a fight, for power, for control, for acceptance; and the cost they extracted. That, and the loneliness that men like Packer have, were all there in Lachy Hulme.

His rages were forces of nature, instant, bullying eruptions that splattered loathing and fear over anyone and anything nearby, and yet the reason that Packer succeeded was the loyalty that he felt and inspired. That is at the centre of any cult. Packer had a secretary who wouldn't leave the office until he did, however late he stayed. He promised Tony Grieg and Ian Chappell jobs for life, and they got them. When Hookes had his jaw broken by Andy Roberts in a Super Test at Sydney Showgrounds, it was Packer who drove him to the hospital. He wanted to do right by cricket, and he did. Once he had wrenched it apart, he pulled it back together as something new, something modern and forward-moving. The scenes at the end of the final episode, as the floodlit SCG fills up, are cathartic and visionary for Packer.

Someone reviewed Packer's War in the Guardian and said that it should have been a documentary. That couldn't be more wrong. Aside from the tremendous fun of dressing actors up as 70s cricketers – a too-chunky Tony Grieg, a strangely fey Clive Lloyd and toe-curlingly good takes on Rod Marsh and Ian Chappell – and the deep joy of recreating the gear – the SP helmet should get a spin-off series of its own – there was a veracity to the drama that documentary can lack.

That may seem strange, but memory and perspective shift as the years deliver their verdict and the old-boy talking heads that prop up the documentary format are often speaking a kind of refracted truth. The drama here went right to it, whether for comedy, in a wonderful scene where a couple of players from each side try on the coloured clothing for the first time and then parade in front of their team-mates, to the sly insights of a cricket groupie interviewed in the stands: 'The West Indies boys, they're gentlemen... Do I go with them? Not the married ones, no...'

The only bum note was the creation of the character Gavin Warner as WSC's catch-all executive, a man ruthlessly abused by Packer; a spare butt to kick. He was probably based on Andrew Caro, and there's an interesting view on the show from Caro's daughter here.

To take that documentary perspective for a moment, it's evident now how much cricket owes Kerry Packer and WSC. There is a way to repay that debt beyond the broadcast rights issue that Channel Nine retain, and that is to admit the players' records from WSC into the books. It was, some have said, the hardest cricket they ever played, and yet the stats lie fallow, given less weight than a county player racking up a century against a team of students or the runs and wickets from long-forgotten rebel tours.

Barry Richards taking a double hundred off Dennis Lillee - now that has meaning, wherever it happened, and it's a reconciliation we could all enjoy. Cheers Kerry, you mad, wonderful old bugger.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Ashton, Ricky and the unbearable sadness of batting

Two images remain from today, one of a 19-year-old lad who may already have played the innings of his life and the other from a 38 year old man who has no more left to play.

There was a moment after Ashton Agar's dismissal at Trent Bridge when he removed his helmet, hair plastered to his head, and gave a wry and gentle smile that contained emotions he probably can't quite express. It was all there though: joy, uncertainty, regret, relief...

His was a young man's innings played with a young man's sensibility. The fleeting nature of days like these means nothing to him yet, and nor should it. His mind was as free as his arms, his uncomplicated love of the game leant perfect expression. It was so good partly because it was so unexpected but also because it was a reminder of what it was like to be 19 years old and to believe that anything is possible.

The other image was a tweeted picture of Ricky Ponting leaving the Oval, bat raised, helmet under one arm, being applauded off after making 169 not out for Surrey in his final first-class innings. The Oval probably owed him one, and  it would have pleased him that this was a meaningful knock that saved a cricket match. But that is over now. His battles have been fought; the war is done. What will hit him soon is how quickly it all went by. Life will be good, but it will never be this.

The frenetic first couple of days of the Ashes seems to be a kind of psychic reaction to the sheer amount of media that now surrounds it. The modern world is screaming at it, online, on television, in the papers, demanding that it match the expectation. The result has been two chaotic days of cricket, vividly enjoyable but ultimately impossible to sustain. The game needs room to breathe.

Ashton Agar might be a new Vettori, or even a Pietersen (at 19, KP was still an off-spinner) or maybe an Alex Tudor or a Jason Krejza or a Richie Benaud, no-one can know. But whatever else happens, his innings will not be surpassed for its out-of-the-box unlikeliness and its glorious innocence.

The gap between it and Ponting's at the Oval, that brief window of time in which sportsmen have their lives and all of us are young, closes before anyone notices. What a day it was today.

Friday, 5 July 2013

KP and the acceptance of risk

Well you wait a year for a Kevin Pietersen interview and then two come along at once... The great man has become more guarded as the seasons pass, and he chose his medium carefully: the radio, where edits aside, his voice is unmediated, and also his interlocutors, two former team-mates, Darren Gough at TalkSport and Andrew Flintoff for BBC 5Live.

Any Pietersen interview comes laden with baggage, which is part of the reason he avoids them so assiduously – his last, desperate attempt was a rightly famous youtube upload apparently conducted by his agent; there was something touching about its artlessness. KP always seems to have something he must explain or apologise for or mitigate in some way, and that is the lode that his interviews carry.

There are other sub-texts; the accent, barely softened by his years here, and his tendency to call his team-mates by their surnames can make him sound dismissive or brusque without meaning to, and there is the knowledge that with any slip the unyielding cordon of the press wait behind him, and they drop very little. In one of the interviews he described himself as an introvert, and it's true. His talent, used on the biggest stages, is his voice; his brittle ego a defence mechanism.

And it's a little sad, because Pietersen, when he talks about cricket and his ambitions and visions for the way he plays it, has something to say. What was most striking was his regret at how he has batted sometimes, innings he felt that he had given away, shots played in haste and repented at leisure (join the club, sunshine; we've all got plenty of those). It was almost as if he had looked inwards to see himself as he felt the world had at those moments.

When any great player gets out, there is disappointment and for Pietersen, the gulf between his best and his worst is vast. At his best, he bats in great surges made at a high emotional pitch. In the grip of his genius he feels the rhythm of the game, understands the nature of the contest. He has sometimes spoken of the 'him or me' feeling he has – with Brett Lee at the Oval in 2005, for example, or Morne Morkel at Headingley last year, or his devastating sorties on Dale Steyn and Shaun Tait at the World T20 in the West Indies. He has at times reduced the two greatest spin bowlers in history to passive, shell-shocked casualties.

To do those things requires an acceptance of risk. How much risk any batsman is prepared to accept will ultimately define him. Pietersen, subconsciously or not, accepts and embraces high risk as an essential part of his make-up as a player, and there is something courageous about that choice.

He is fallible, but that adds to the joy he so delicately sustains when he is batting at his peak. The knowledge that it is fleeting, makes it more valuable. Above all, it makes him the most watchable player in the game. He has driven batting forwards. It is worth the days that he does not feel its pull.

Andrew Strauss was on the radio this week too, and naturally he was asked about Pietersen. "He is the best player I ever played with," were the first words out of Strauss' mouth. Andrew Flintoff said much the same. He is using a goal of 10,000 Test runs to urge himself on and he deserves to get them, but his impact on the game is more than just empirical. With time and distance, the controversy and upset that have attached themselves to him will no longer head the agenda, and if KP wants to sit down and talk about batting for a couple of hours, then I'm in. It would really be worth hearing.

NB: Andrew Flintoff is a rather good interviewer. Who'd have thunk it?

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Are fast bowlers getting slower?

After reading the post below about Jeff Thomson, which was also up at the Guardian bloggers' site, someone - 'TC Tiger' - left an intriguing comment: Were fast bowlers getting slower? TC went on to make the point that if they were, it would run counter to almost all of the rest of sport, in which performance levels ascribe an apparently endless upward curve.

As Thommo proved at lunch, memory is myth, or at least it can be, but through the grimy pixels of '70s TV, and the eyewitness evidence of those who were there, a consensus has emerged. Thomson and Holding were the quickest of their time and almost certainly quicker than anyone bowling today. They were never subject to the same technical and technological scrutiny, so we cannot be sure. They also had moments in the sun denied to some other very fast bowlers: Sylvester Clarke stalked the Oval like Grendel, a brooding outsider with the reputation of a killer. Wayne Daniel sent down lightning bolts at Lord's. Colin Croft was the nastiest, Malcolm Marshall the man with the skills of a surgeon, Ian Bishop, before his injury, was apparently the quickest that Graham Gooch encountered.

But the moments that lodged quick bowling in the contemporary consciousness, that made its legend, were created by Thomson and Holding. The last ten years have seen a revolution in batting technique, the last twenty have spanned the careers of men who hold almost every international record. Batting is hurtling forwards into its new era. On the shoulders of giants like Warne, Murali and Kumble, spin bowling is ferociously inventive and utterly relevant. And as for fielding... well... But quick bowling?

There has always been an element of perception about extreme speed, and it extends into other sports. A pal of mine was a pro tennis player, and he was talking this week about receiving serves of exactly the same speed from different players. Some felt like a 'sting' on the racket, while others hit the strings with unholy weight and were 'painful' to return unless struck absolutely sweetly.

Any batsman could relate to that. The concept of a 'heavy' ball is well established if not perfectly defined. Perhaps it bounces a little more and hits higher than expected on the blade, or maybe it decelerates less than expected off the pitch, but it announces itself one way or the other. Other bowlers are certainly, if imperceptibly, quicker 'through the air', their length usually fuller except for a horrible, skidding shorter delivery.

Holding's action was so pure that he was said to afford the batsman a perfect sightline, the ball visible from the moment his arm began to turn over. Thomson, with the ball drawn behind his back by the huge rotation of his arm, revealed it far later. This too would have had an impact on perception. The very best batsmen interpret a complex set of visual clues during the bowler's approach and delivery stride that act as an advance warning as to length and line. Each encounter between bowler and batsman is entirely individual, internally and externally, mentally and physically.

There are many other variables. the Perth wicket that Thomson bowled on was far different to the one that exists today, similarly Sabina Park used to shine like a dark mirror. The manufacture of balls, the demands of cricket boards and television, the all-round nature of the calendar, the variety of formats, the needs of coaches and teams, the earning potential of players; all mitigate the realities of out-and-out pace.

Modern coaching and sports science is also destructive. Injury prediction is a major part of their work, hence the desire to open up the engine and have a fiddle about. James Anderson and Steve Finn are obvious examples.

T20 cricket suggests that there is a role for a bowler who can produce four overs of extreme pace and go home. Shaun Tate and Lasith Malinga know that. Perhaps they hint at the future. It's not coincidence that their actions echo Jeff Thomson's.

Cricket has its facts and its figures, yet it is a game fired by the imagination. It exists in the mind as much as anywhere else, and as such it is susceptible to the seductions of memory and myth. Thomson and Holding live there. That makes them quicker too.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Thommo at lunch

It was a few hours after David Warner had taken a swing at Joe Root in a Birmingham bar, and Jeff Thomson was standing in a marquee full of people with a microphone in his hand. We were there to play six a side cricket, but the rain was coming down and the buffet was excellent, so Thommo had a full house.

He was wearing the hooray uniform of red jeans and a blue blazer; set upon his broad shoulders and pipecleaner legs it made him look like the kind of guy who joins a soap opera and makes off with the unsuspecting widow's money.

Next to Thommo was David Steele,  the bank clerk who went to war and spent consecutive summers defying the pace attacks of Australia and West Indies. They fell quickly into type. Thommo stood with one hand in the pocket of his red jeans looking out across the room, while Steele managed to turn off two microphones as he was talking; interrupting his own gentle anecdotes about getting lost in the Lord's Pavilion, and being paid in lamb chops for every run he scored by a local butcher.

Thommo by contrast told a single story ('I haven't done this one for a while...' ) which was about the dismissal of Keith Fletcher at Sydney in 1975.

'Me and Dennis had a plan,' he began, 'which was to kill the pricks. A couple of them had already gone to the hospital. A wicket goes down and out comes this little prick Fletcher ('prick', it quickly became apparent, was a term of some endearment to Thommo, and he used it gently, almost with fondness). 'Now the Pavilion at Sydney is at square leg and Dennis is fielding at third man. I'm at the end of my run and I'm ready to kill the prick you know. But Dennis comes running over from third man all the way to square leg and starts abusing Fletcher. I'm getting mad with Dennis because I'm ready you know. I'm warm and it's coming out well....'

'Then Dennis comes running over to me. 'I'm like, yeah Dennis, I know the plan. Kill him...'

'Yeah,' says Dennis. 'But I really want you to kill this little prick...' Then he ran back down to third man. Anyway, first ball, too high. Next ball, adjust the radar... bang... hits him right in the middle of the forehead. Absolutely smack in the middle. I go down to have a look at him and he's got the most perfect six stitch-marks...'

Thommo pointed to the spot on his own forehead, and paused for a second, a faraway look in his eyes. He was transporting himself. 'The physio comes on, Bernie Thomas he was called. Fletcher's staggering all over the place, he can't see straight. Someone says, 'He'll have to go off...' and Bernie says, 'he can't we've already got two in the hospital...' So Bernie pushes him back to the crease...'

He mimed Bernie Thomas positioning Fletcher into his stance. By now, Thommo was wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. Everyone in the tent was enjoying the story, and more than that, they were enjoying Thommo's enjoyment of it. He paused.

'So I go back...' He wiped his eyes again. 'I go back and you know next ball, BLAM, stumps all over the place. 'Off you go you little prick...' I'm saying, and then, here comes Dennis, all the way back up from third man, just to abuse him again as he goes off...'

By now, Thommo was rocking back on his heels and dabbing at his eyes. 'Ah bloody hell...' he said. 'That's what happened, straight up. I haven't told that one for a while, I really haven't.'

He and Steele were applauded warmly as they returned to their seats, and Thommo was an equitable presence for the rest of the afternoon. Once the rain had blown through, he stood on the boundary holding a bottle of beer, talking to his mates and having his picture taken. During the talk, David Steele had said: 'I liked facing fast bowling, I liked the challenge of it. Let me tell you, I faced them all, and this man Jeff Thomson was the quickest.'

I thought about that as I watched Thommo. He represented something: a game and a country now gone but sweet in the memory. Had the incident with Fletcher happened that day on the ground right in front of us, it would have been impossible to describe it as he had done. It was only funny now, all of this time later, when the blood and the battle had receded. By coincidence, while I was driving home, Andrew Flintoff was interviewing Geoffrey Boycott on the radio about his Ashes memories. Flintoff asked him about the fastest bowlers he'd faced and Boycott said immediately, 'Thomson and Holding. For pure pace, they were the quickest.'

I wanted to find out how true Thommo's story was, so I looked up the game on cricinfo. There it was, Test match number 751, Australia versus England at the SCG, fourth Test, 4-9 January 1975. Australia won by 175 runs, JR Thomson 4-74 and then, coincidentally, 2-74 in the second innings.

The Almanack reported: 'On the last day the demoralising effect of Thomson and Lillee was never more apparent. From 68 for no wicket in the 16th over, the score became 74 for three in the 22nd with Edrich on his way to hospital after being hit below the rib-cage first ball by a Lillee skidder...'

Yet the pitch was slow, and batting easy enough for Bob Willis to survive for 88 minutes, and Geoff Arnold 35; the Almanack left its readers in no doubt that more application was required from England's batsmen. 

Then there was this: 'Only Amiss, caught off his gloves off a bouncer that cut back, and Fletcher, shaken by a deflection on to his forehead two balls before his dismissal by Thomson, were exempt from blame.'

Fletcher had made 11, and rather than being bowled, he'd been caught be Ian Redpath. Maybe Thommo had forgotten that detail, and maybe he hadn't. He remembered the story, though, and he knew how he should tell it: as it was in his head rather than in the record books.

Thommo exists in both places, as cricketer and as myth. His era has settled in the collective mind as a raw and unforgiving time when the game was wild, on and off the field. David Warner's half-hearted swing at Joe Root and the endless round of media statements and public apologies later, confirmed the distance between here and there. Maybe one day Warner will be telling the story and everyone will be laughing and living and thinking of the years that have passed.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Letting go

Prompted by a request from my friend Tom, a cricketer whose threats of retirement come as frequently as Ronnie O'Sullivan's urges to quit the baize, I read over the chapter in Leo Mckinstry's Boycs that deals with Boycott's final day of cricket on 12 September 1986, and its aftermath.

Geoffrey was playing at Scarborough for Yorkshire against Northants. I've blogged before about his last few minutes as a professional. He'd needed to score eight more runs for his thousand for the season, something he'd achieved every year since 1962. A follow-on prevented him from returning to the crease, much to the distress of the crowd.

'Something had come to an end, something wonderful,' he said. 'I just thought, this is it then. I waited for the ground to clear. then I wondered around on my own among all the newspapers and food wrappers and tin cans.'

Thirteen years afterwards, Boycott wrote in an autobiography: 'Even now... I miss playing to such an extent that I can honestly say I'd exchange the rest of my life for five more years of playing for England at the peak of my form'. He kept one of his bats at home but tried not to pick it up because 'it stirs the memories'. His wife Rachel talked about him 'welling up' when those memories became overwhelming.

To an outsider, there might appear to be a simple solution: some club cricket, some charity games, a few knocks to ease those feelings of loss. That wasn't possible for Boycott because the love was too great. A pale reminder would serve only to reinforce the fact that it was gone.

It's a fascinating dichotomy. Tom's question was about sportsmen who had never played again in any capacity since retiring. It's not really a choice a boxer has to make: no-one fancies having their face caved in when they don't have to. An F1 driver can't really enter a local Grand Prix. Footballers and rugby players might be inhibited by injury or lack of fitness. Golfers don't have to worry about the question; theirs is a golden twilight of monied senior tours and ceremonial glory.

Playing cricket is perhaps more nuanced psychologically as well as physically. Mike Hussey, whose childlike enthusiasm bestowed the 'Mr Cricket' nickname, spoke of the overwhelming relief he felt at giving up the international game. Boycott played his entire career with a terror of failure, and according to Mckinstry, 'any bowler who dismissed him cheaply [in a charity match] would be able to dine out on that story for the rest of his life. Once again he would sense the eyes of his critics, watching for any error...'

Then there were the almost impossible standards he set for himself. When he was bowled by the final delivery of Michael Holding's famous over in Barbados in 1981, Boycott wrote in his tour diary: 'for the first time in my life, I can look at a scoreboard with duck against my name and not feel a profound sense of failure'. He was almost 40 years old, and made a century in the next Test.

When a friend asked him to appear in a charity XI, he wrote a letter explaining his reasons for declining. 'I have played with the best, for the best, against the best. Only the best will do'.

As ever with Geoffrey, it was complex and self-involved, but it's easy to see his point. Few men have loved the game more, or given more of themselves to it. It wasn't until his bout of throat cancer that he found a different perspective.

A while ago, I heard a radio discussion on the retirement theme. Darren Gough, who plays a lot of charity cricket in the same good-hearted way he did for England, said that if Alec Stewart ever accepted an invitation to play again, 'he'd probably have to have an all-day net before it'. Stewie, like Boycott, was a man of method who set himself the highest standards.

On the other side, I remember seeing Viv Richards play in a legends game in Australia. He barely hit the ball off the square, but the entire crowd rose to applaud him in and back out again, and the noble head was held as high as ever. His great pal Botham headed for the first tee and the salmon river without a second thought.

In cricket and after, each man must be an island.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Cricket and sadness

Somewhere within it, cricket has a deep, maybe unending, payload of sadness. It's there in its history, in its psychology and perhaps more than that, it's part of what the game acually is.

By sadness, I don't mean melancholy or unhappiness: they are something different. It's not about tragedy, although the game has had its share of those. Rather, it's an emotion that cricket in some way seems designed to evoke.

The late Jonathan Rendall captured something like it when in one of his books he described a man he'd seen sitting in a bar on his own, a drink in his hand and a tear running down his face. "He just needed to let something pass through him," he wrote. Having done so, he drank up and left. That's sadness.

As a writer, Rendall had that exquisite sadness to him and in Twelve Grand he has some wonderful passages about cricket matches at school. The game attracts many people of this character; they see something they need reflected in it. There's a German word, sehnsucht, which is hard to translate exactly. It means hunger but also longing, and describes an emotion both positive and negative. It's there in the first lines of John Arlott's poem about Jack Hobbs:

There falls across this one December day,
The light, remembered from those suns of June,
That you reflected, in the summer play,
Of perfect strokes across the afternoon.

Arlott knew the sadness of the game as well as anyone, and how closely it was linked to the joy and fleeting moments in time, too. At the end of his career, he was visited at his home on Alderney by Mike Brearley for a TV interview, and there are passages of great tenderness and poignancy. Arlott is at times wordless in it.

There's something about the vastness of cricket's interior landscape that can absorb emotions as ineffable as this. In Bret Easton's Ellis' novel Imperial Bedrooms he writes: 'sadness - it's everywhere'. He's right, sometimes it is.

Playing Japan at cricket

They say that international cricket is no place for the forty-something player, but then Sachin's taking no notice of that. Forty is the new thirty, anyway. So what about the semi-international game?

Having been ignored by the England selectors for my entire career despite repeatedly stressing my availability, I've played for the last season for the Authors XI, a team that once featured Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle and PG Wodehouse, but that fell into inactivity until its revival in 2012 by the captain, Charlie Campbell and novelist Nicholas Hogg. results are best described as patchy, so the news that Hogg had somehow arranged a fixture against Japan, the 37th ranked team in the ICC international list, had been met be equal amounts of incredulity, excitement and fear.

The venue was Chiswick House, the match the first that Japan would play on a tour to mark the 150th anniversary of cricket in their country. While the Authors arrived in Chiswick via the usual combination of scrounged lifts, delayed trains and reluctant WAGs, Japan came on a coach. They looked chillingly young and they immediately embarked on proper fielding drills with those flexible plastic stumps and tiny traffic cones, apparently oblivious to the lumps and bumps of the early season outfield.

Japan Cricket's 150th anniversary only came to light last summer. Until then, they'd thought it was next year, but a historian had chanced upon a line in the Wisden obituary of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson that referred to him taking part in 'the first game of cricket ever played in Japan', between The Royal Navy and a team of civilians in Yokohama in June of 1863.

A trail that led to the Harrow school archive and the British Library, and then the MCC Library at Lord's produced sepia images of both teams and papers that told the story of the game, surely the only match in the history of cricket in which both sides were armed.

This is the first part of a post for Cricinfo's new blogger's section the Cordon. You can read the rest of it here.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

England's blue moments

Writing about the 1986 world championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, Martin Amis said of chess: '[They are playing] the foremost game of pure skill yet devised by the human mind, a game that is in fact beyond the scope of the human mind, well beyond it, an unmasterable game'.

Eleven years later, Kasparov was defeated by a computer called Deep Blue. The match and its aftermath were conducted in an atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue, of fear and loathing. Kasparov claimed to have detected a 'deep intelligence and creativity' in the machine, his suggestion being that there had been some human intervention in its play. By 2006, a software programme called Deep Fritz was beating another world champ, Vladimir Kramnik, and now the various machines even play each other and gain their own rankings.

Ultimately, the machines beat the humans through sheer grunt: they could calculate more outcomes more quickly. They never got tired or paranoid, they didn't suffer from the anxiety that Kasparov felt while representing the entire human race against them. The only achievement ahead of the machines is whether they can actually 'solve' chess; that is, calculate the perfect outcome of any game from any position.

There is no element of 'chaos' in chess: there are no bad bounces or freak weather, the board and the pieces don't change. Its variables are perhaps finite. It might be a leap to suggest that sport is as vulnerable to computing power as a game, but there is no doubt that it will shape its future.

Some sports will be more resistant to numbers than others. Football generates a haze of meaningless TV stats because it exists in chaos, statistically speaking. It's a fluid, random game that lacks the rigidity to support really conclusive analysis. Gridiron exists towards the other end of the 'scale' in that it's quite rigorously positioned and patterned.

Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball, the book that represents a kind of year zero moment for modern sporting stattos, also wrote about Gridiron. Blindside was in part the story of the importance of a certain extremely rare physique playing in a particular position. Here, where biomechanics meet statistics, are the threads of cricket's future.

At Loughborough University, where the ECB has its Performance Centre, almost every ball bowled in any form of international cricket is logged, its outcome added to an already vast database. It becomes a kind of anatomical chart of everyone playing the game. Broad and specific patterns in each format emerge, and from those come not just tactics, but the types of player needed to implement them.

You could call this the 'known half' of stats research, in that it's open to anyone with the resources to do it. It's also in its way unmediated and random. It's produced by a wide base of playing skills, from guys that grew up playing tape-ball to players coached systematically from their early teens.

The other half, lesser known, comes where biomechanics meets with statistical analysis. England's coaching teams believe that they have identified five common factors that all international fast bowlers have, and similarly, five possessed by all top-level spinners. There is specific work on six hitting, on revolutions on the ball in spin bowling and lots more.

This work creates paradigms into which suitable players are fitted and then driven up the elite coaching 'pathways' devised to produce players for the England team. There's some brilliant and revelatory work going on, but it is in a way reminiscent of the way that Deep Blue began to 'solve' chess. It strips away mystery, and to a degree individuality.

England are a very good side, but they did not come up with reverse swing, they have never produced a mystery spinner. Their two really innovative players, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan, come from outside of their systems. What they do very well is refine technique in a ruthless way to produce the fine margins needed to win at the highest level. 'Executing their skills' as they call it. As such, they are already becoming the product of the research work done.

Martin Amis thought chess was an unmasterable game, but the machines are proving him wrong. Cricket, with all of its variations and oddities, its geographical sweep, its luck and its superstitions, its weather and its deadly psychology, actually might be. But some of its deeper mysteries are being revealed, and new kinds of machines are emerging to play it.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Pondulkar, the IPL and nostalgia

Something strange happens to our old enemies as they prepare the leave the field. Age strips them of their armour, and as it does, they become something else, something different. Their power fades, and from underneath it comes the fuller man.

The blindness has been ours rather than theirs of course. Cricket is a game built on nostalgia of one kind or another: for what was, and for what might have been.

The IPL's fusion of high commerce and eye-melting spectacle may be designed for the future, yet corners of it are filled by the past. It's a happy by-product of the competition's need of fame to power its expansion that it has become a benign and accepting old folks home, an annual reunion for semi-retired warriors. There's Adam Gilchrist, chin a little sharper now and some grey in his stubble; Here comes Brett Lee, bowling an unplayable leg-cutter to a kid who was six years old when he made his Test debut; Over there is Murali, that weary arm looking ever more slender and tortured after many thousands of overs. Big Jake Oram's arrived, patched up and wobbling in to bowl. There are more, too: the noble and eternal Dravid, bristling Brad Hodge, those Hussey brothers...

Till now, they have been small pools eddying in the river,  hidden by the flow, but this year they have a headline act in Pondulkar, that irresistible pairing at the top of the Mumbai batting order. It doesn't matter that they haven't yet got many runs, or that one half of the duo is still a fully engaged international cricketer. Instead, it's just enough to see them together in an arena with some meaning. Ten years ago, they might have done some serious damage, too, but the IPL didn't exist then, and anyhow there's something uplifting about watching Ponting in particular searching for method in a format that, in his orthodoxy, he initially disdained.

Two men who will have a combined age of 78 before the tournament closes have given it exactly the kind of widescreen, technicolor glow that softens the bellowed commentary, that leavens the sponsored inanities, that connects thrusting modernity to its past.

And if that weren't service enough, they give it heart. Their epic careers trail behind them, and we all have our memories vested in those. They are champions brought back to the pack by age, old men in a young man's game, the last light of the comet's tail. It's almost impossible to watch them walk out and imagine that once, there were hundreds of thousands of people urging them to fail, because nothing befits them more than success.

That's the pull of nostalgia, and in the IPL, it pulls harder than anywhere else.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Nine words from Steve Waugh

He can still do it, can't he. He can still induce that vivid chill that blows back in from the early years of the century, when the things that Steve Waugh said came true (and some of the things he didn't say came true as well - 'you just dropped the world cup, son' being a case in point).

It wasn't just what he said but the way he said it, which was bluntly through thin lips, the baggy green pulled down almost to the top of his eyeline. Those eyes too, almost closed in a permanent squint, brought on, it seemed, by batting for so long on bone-white pitches from which the sun glared back at him.

Waugh is an indistinct presence in the game now, not in the media, not a coach, instead working on a couple of committees and keeping the kind of profile that preserves his mystique. He speaks rarely, so when he does, it retains impact.

'England aren't as good as they think they are,' he said at the New South Wales end of season awards, and if there's an England cricket fan that didn't feel that gentle tremor of truth to those nine words as they travelled halfway across the world, then they have probably come recently to the game.

It's a perfect piece of Steve Waugh theatre, brilliant in its understatement. It's no blithe McGrath prediction, not a lengthy piece of pre-series hype. Instead it's subtly undermining, it's suggestive, and it's also realistic. If there is a sensitive point to touch for England at the moment, then this is it. They bristle at any accusation of hubris.

Steve Waugh has not lost his sense of the fine margins that dictate the course of the game at the highest level. A stone-hard realist like him will understand why England are heavy favourites, and why they will most likely win. But he also understands what it takes to construct the psychology of a team, of how a myth is built up around it and how that myth can be reduced in the minds of those that must confront it.

They're a small thing, those nine words, but they're a start, as SR Waugh well knows.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Batting and Fear iii - The Last Testament Of Michael Hussey

In the title sequence of the 1970s TV phenom Kung-Fu (ask your parents, kidz...),  Grasshopper was challenged by his Master to walk across rice paper without leaving a mark. It came to mind today when thinking about Mike Hussey, one of the game's most diligent students, and the revelatory interview he gave to Daniel Brettig this week to mark his international retirement.

Hussey stepped softly through his impeccable career, often traceless as brasher legends stomped ahead, but he peeled back the skin of the pro game at the highest level in just a couple of paragraphs. Here was a place of constant doubt, of relentless hostility, of ongoing challenge, a place in which the beautiful surface of things is distorting an endless fight.

This is Hussey on batting with Michael Clarke: "Out in the middle it might look like it's entertaining and fun and free-flowing, but we're both very insecure. There's a lot of doubts and a lot of negative talk: 'I can't score a run, I don't know where it's coming from', and Pup's saying, 'Just back up mate, I just want to get down the other end - I can't face this guy.' So a lot of people say we looked like we're doing it easy, but it's never ever like that."

'I can't score a run...' 'I can't face this guy...' These are not the words of mugs, of tailenders or baffled novices. They are (still) Australia's best two batsmen, averaging over fifty in Test cricket with 42 hundreds between them.

And they are very human emotions, natural reactions to the constant grind of starting again and again, as every batsman must. It is this mental effort that drained Mike Hussey, that had him looking to the finish line with such relief. "I didn't want the stress and the anguish that comes with international cricket anymore."

When professional cricketers draw the wagons around themselves and make out that they are engaged in a game that the outsider can't really understand, it's feelings like these that they don't or can't really articulate. It's the point at which the amateur love of the sport disappears and a new and more oppressive reality takes over.

Aside from the heightened physical ability they possess, the best batsmen must be able to confront and defeat the doubt and the fear, the sure and certain knowledge that out there somewhere is a delivery with their name on it. To stave it off for as long as possible, ball after ball, day after day, game after game, season after season is the true confrontation of one's limits, a genuine rejection of fear. It's why cricket, as a game and as a test, is unmatchable.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Ghost grounds

It's hard to write about a feeling as elusive as this one, yet it's that elusiveness that makes it both rare and worthwhile. It happened the other day, for the first time in a couple of years. I was driving through a town somewhere when the road became familiar in a way that might have been real or imagined. On one side was a high wooden fence with another chain-linked one behind it, reaching even higher. Ivy was growing up through its gaps. The traffic slowed, caught by a set of pedestrian lights just ahead. Through a couple of fence panels that had warped and come apart from one another I caught sight of a blade-width of green field and a fragment of a two-story pavilion, then, in the next gap, a section of scoreboard.

It felt right away like I had played there. I could even recall a fragment of the game, fielding second while their opening bat, a big lad with black hair and a Gray-Nicolls, started belting the bowling indiscriminately over mid-on and midwicket, not slogging exactly but swinging, the ball falling just out of reach of the fielders who, in true club style, were being carefully positioned to stop the delivery just gone. I don't remember much more: he hit quite a few, but got out eventually. They probably won. What really came back was the cast of the ground - its shape, its size - and the weather, which was warm but overcast, the sky full of darkening summer clouds with no wind to move them.

The traffic eased, and the ground was gone. There was an old painted sign with the name of the club on it, but I couldn't quite read it in the rear-view mirror. It probably wouldn't have helped. The feeling was almost dream-like in the way it refused to become clearer or more solid in the memory. It certainly happened, but did it happen there?

I've played a lot of cricket in a lot of places, and lots of it was a long time ago now. Where do they go, those games and those places... If I had to sit down with a piece of paper, I'm not sure how many I'd remember. It seems to take something more than just effort to bring them back; it needs a sense memory or a chance encounter that trips some kind of synapse. It's the odd and ethereal familiarity that you have been somewhere before.

Sometimes I dream about playing on unknown grounds too, so perhaps a place occasionally makes something imaginary seem slightly more real.

It's a strange sensation, and it's not one that needs a definite answer even if that answer existed. These are the ghost grounds of half-remembered games, and it's good when they appear.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Batting and fear - a coda

Alex Massie marked the eightieth anniversary of Bodyline with an excellent Spectator blog. Amongst other things, it brought home how distant it is. Bodyline exists now in those few flickering black and white images of Woodfall staggering away, and also in the layers of myth and memory that surround it. There's also the amusing, but still hovering apparition of the 1984 mini-series, with its catch-line of 'The Day England Declared War On Australia', and Hugo Weaving as a dastardly Jardine: "Harild... lig theory..." as his famous line used to go...

So one sentence in Alex's piece jumped out: 'Perhaps no more than (at most) 25% of the overs England delivered that series were bowled to Bodyline fields.'

Having just written the post below this one on the changing nature of fear in batting and read some of the comments underneath it*, this seemed like a piece of Machiavellean genius worthy of Weaving's lofty fop. Knowing that something bad is coming, but not necessarily when, is a fear that's set in childhood. It's easy to imagine how it felt to suddenly see that legside ring tighten around you, with Larwood at the end of his run... Such a thing affects not just the psychology of facing it, but of waiting for it to happen, too.

What's easy to forget is how physically vulnerable a batsman was eight decades ago. No helmets, obviously, but more than that, no real thigh pads, no chest or arm guards, barely any gloves... Young pups might find it hard to comprehend, but a batsman might have had on their hands a thin covering of some kind of flannel, often with an open palm and with sausage padding stitched onto the fingers. They might even have worn spikes, a flimsy rubber mould intended to repel the worst of the impact (there's a picture of Jardine batting in a pair here).

As late as 1970, when Colin Cowdrey was flown in to face the onslaught of Lillee and Thomson at the age of 41, he opened his suitcase to reveal home-made foam-rubber padding he'd improvised after watching the Australian attack on the TV highlights. David Lloyd, who opened against the pair, half-joked about having a folded towel as a thigh-pad. Facing very fast bowling then was different to facing it now. Part of the reason that technique has been able to shift from 'classical' methods is down to the emancipation brought by better gear (or in the case of Bodyline, any gear).

In everything other than combat sports, physical danger is supposed to be a by-product of competition. We live in more cynical and knowing times than the cricketers of the Bodyline series, so it's easy to overlook the mental shock that being deliberately targeted would have provoked. Here was a stark choice: fend the ball towards our trap, or be hit.

Part of Bodyline's devastation was its newness, its intimations of the future.

* This blog is blessed to have so many good and regular commentators who know more than I do: Russ, John Halliwell, Tim Newman, Brian Carpenter, David Barry and many more. Thank you all.