Monday, 28 April 2014

Who was the last great batsman that England produced?

Is there any greater pleasure in the game than watching Virat Kohli bat? Only one, perhaps, and that's watching AB de Villiers bat. This blog has often dwelt on the emerging state of the New Batsmanship, its first intimations coming with the cult of Sehwagology and its immortal, irreducible credo 'see ball, hit ball', and on through its power-fuelled expansion: Gayle's vision and its currency of six-hitting; the re-evaluation of wicket as 'resource', a new disposability, the age of McCullum's 'I'm coming anyway' and so on; the switch-hit, the Dilscoop, the ramp... Warner, Sammy, Maxwell, and into a brutal future where a double hundred in a T20 innings feels vaguely possible, or at least plausible.

And yet something strange and unexpected - at least to me - has happened. Kohli and de Villiers  have assumed mastery of all three forms of the game with a technique I'd describe as Heightened Classical. The odd backhanded swipe or head-high smear aside, their batting has a framework that adapts to all scenarios: the shorter the game, the more of it they use. Both will be all-time greats.

Watching them prompted another question. Who was the last great batsman that England produced? The simple answer would be Kevin Pietersen, except that England didn't produce him. So if not KP, then who? Ian Bell has a technique comparable to Virat or AB, but not that extra gear that gives them such edge, such life. Michael Vaughan was a classicist too, and touched the heights until his knee gave way and the captaincy came along. Alastair Cook's volume of runs will brook little argument once his Test career is complete, and yet his batting doesn't reach across formats.

England produced great teams under Fletcher and Flower, but, Pietersen aside, there was no dominant player in the way that Australia had Ponting, India Sachin, South Africa Kallis, West Indies Lara, Pakistan Inzamam and so on. The fractured 90s gave us men of grit cast against overwhelming odds: Atherton, Stewart and Thorpe played great innings but it's hard to set them amongst the gods.

For all of their faith and investment, England may have to go back to Gooch and to Boycott to find batsmen of unequivocal, home-grown greatness. Gooch made his Test debut in 1975. Boycott's was in 1964. It has been a long wait, and it's hard to see an end in sight: would you put your money on Root or Buttler? Not now, not yet.

The truth that coaches don't want to hear is that great players produce themselves. It is a light that comes from within. England's wait goes on.

Monday, 7 April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Alastair Cook and The Monkey's Paw

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

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

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

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

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

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