Monday, 22 June 2015

Cricket at Avebury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Alastair Cook: the [relative] evil of banality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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