Monday, 31 December 2012

The Fifth Annual OB Innings Of The Year

Is that December already? Can it really be five years of bestowing an arbitrary and unheralded gong that its recipients know nothing about? Well it looks that way. And an award that goes to a single innings* somehow feels more appropriate than ever in what has been the most atomised 12 months since this blog began.

Each of the previous winners have appeared emblematic of other things. The first, in 2008, went to Brendan McCullum's 158 in the IPL's debut game; 2009's was Thilan Samaraweera's 159, made a few months after his recovery from being shot in the legs in the Lahore attacks; 2010 went to Alastair Cook's 235 in Brisbane, the moment when England's superiority over Australia at last felt more permanent; and 2011 was Kevin Pietersen's double hundred at Lord's as England became the number one Test side (on reflection this is the one that now feels wrong: Dhoni's World Cup winning innings in Mumbai holds more ongoing meaning).

In 2012, none of the candidates carry much freight beyond the immediate enjoyment of having seen them played. If the idea was to recognise the batsman of the year, there would be just three contenders, Alastair Cook, Hashim Amla and Michael Clarke. Of the three, Cook is the only one without a triple hundred, but in his way he seems the most remorseless, his runmaking less about individual knocks than the overall effect. The circumstances of the matches change as do the settings, but Cook remains, occasionally out caught at slip or leg before, but more often than not pushing through cover, cutting behind square, bunting off his legs, hour upon hour, session upon session, day upon day. There is very little jeopardy once he is in.

Both Amla and Clarke appear more ethereal, although probably not if you're fielding at cover. Clarke in particular always seems to give the bowlers a chance. By my back of a fag packet calculations (okay, it's a guess), there has been an increase in the ratio of Test triple hundreds scored in the T20 era. Clarke's 329, made at Sydney against India four days into the year, came at a strike rate of 70.29, Amla's 311 at the Oval in July at a hair under 59. During both, two other batsman made scores of more than a hundred, all at a slower rate. Clarke and Amla are both classicists of course, and Clarke's was perhaps the more sustained effort.

All triples, though, sort of end up being about themselves, in that the score tends to supercede other considerations. Clarke embarked upon a golden run, and three doubles followed. For connoisseurs, his 259 not out against South Africa at Brisbane was perhaps the pick. It was counterpointed by an Amla hundred too, and a stoush in which that well-known digger-out of scores David Warner claimed that the South African batsmen had problems concentrating. Faf du Plessis duly made 110 from 376 deliveries in one of the great modern rearguards in Adelaide, and the Saffers took the series in Perth on the back of 196 from Amla and 169 from De Villiers.

Like David Warner, I dined at length on my own words after a conversation with a friend at the start of the English summer when I called Marlon Samuels "a waster". In this case, it was a pleasure to be proved wrong. Samuels possesses the same coiled athletic grace as Viv Richards; he is utterly unhurried. The waster comment was directed at his evident talent and this was the year it aligned with the properly matured man. His batting at Nottingham, when he made 117 and an unbeaten 76 in a nine wicket defeat, had the England side waiting at the top of the pavilion steps to applaud him off. Samuels' running battle with Jimmy Anderson was a highpoint of the tour, as was Sammy's noble ton at Nottingham and Tino Best's 95 at Edgbaston. The windows really were in danger that day.

The best of Samuels came in Columbo in the final of the ICC World T20. His matchwinning 78, in which he dominated Lasith Malinga, was an exhibition of pure skill, and perhaps alone of the innings mentioned here came closest to being that emblematic moment of previous years. If West Indies re-emerge in all forms, we may look back on it as such. In isolation, it was perhaps the most joyous, along with Tino's mad run at a Test century.

Chris Gayle's 75 from 41 deliveries in the semi-final against Australia was typical of the method that is transforming T20 batting. In the 2012 IPL, Gayle hit 59 sixes in 14 innings, during which he averaged 61.08 while striking at a rate of 160.74. This still feels slightly unrecognised. Mavinder Bisla, almost the victim of an undercover match-fixing sting, changed his life in exactly eight overs in the final, turning those 48 deliveries into 89 runs that crowned a charged tournament that remains just the right side of overwrought.

Neil McKenzie, a man who appears to have dispensed with anything as superfluous as a backlift, would seem unsuited to T20, yet Hampshire's ongoing success owes much to his wiles. This year's win was made possible by his ghostly 79 from 49 chasing down Nottinghamshire's 178 in the quarter-final. Sometimes it's what you know as much as what you do that counts.

Yet there came a feat of sustained and pure hitting that was to eclipse all others seen, at least by me, and it came from Scott Styris, a man whose resemblance to George C Scott playing Patten grows with each passing year. On a misty and mystical late July evening at Hove, he batted for 37 minutes and 37 balls, making a round hundred. Nine sixes, five fours and a strike rate of 270 told their story, as did the season's most remarkable over, bowled by James Fuller, which went for 38. He concluded with figures of 3-0-57-1.

Is Kevin Pietersen a great player or a player of great innings? The former I think, although a number of series have now slipped by without him making more than one century. He made three in 2012 and all were game-changers, which sums up his strange magic. To say he bats on emotion does not do enough to acknowledge his complexity, yet he is usually highly-charged. But the force that united these three was that they could not have been played by anyone else. His 151 in Columbo and 186 in Mumbai came on wickets that no other batsman could make sense of in the way that he did. The 149 against South Africa at Leeds was the knock of a man who had isolated himself and had just one form of communication left.

It was the Mumbai innings that produced a rare consensus among experts and veteran observers. Almost all used the word genius. It felt justified, because it was an innings that ran against all logic. A few days before in Ahmedabad he didn't look as though he knew what end of the bat to hold. In Mumbai he could have made a hundred with either end, so in control was he. He'd come in with England having just lost 2 for 2, hit his first ball for four, and the internal switch had clicked. This is why we watch cricket. Last year, he won this prize and maybe shouldn't have. This time, there can be no doubt. As a thing of wonder and beauty it stood alone. KP, the innings of the year is yours.

*The full criteria: an innings seen by me either live or on the telly. If you played a blinder in 2012 and I missed it, apologies.  I'm sure you're gutted.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Somewhere Else: Lara and the 90s

The 90s have gone. Not simply in a literal sense, that's self-evident and happened long ago, but gone in that they have slipped through that hinterland of recent memory and into history. They're in another place now.

It became obvious the other night, when ITV screened a documentary about Brian Lara. It was nothing revelatory, but it was nice to have the great man talk through his recollections of those liminal weeks in 1994 when he urged batting into its new age, making seven hundreds in eight innings, a run that began with his 375 in Antigua and ended with 501 at Edgbaston. Both records inside two months? We were somewhere else.

Lara said some things that not many people get to say - "I suppose I scored about 150 runs or so before lunch" sticks in the mind - and as he spoke, highlights of the innings played. His genius was present and total, that endless backlift counterpointed by the low and level head, his certainty and speed through the hitting area contrasting with the languorous beauty of his follow through; it's timeless. Yet all around him was context. His bat, the classic Scoop, was slim and straight, lacking the great bows and edges of modern warfare. Shirts were baggy, pads buckled, scoreboards pre-electronic. No-one in the crowd had phones or cameras, the fashions and haircuts appeared odd and lost. For the first time, 1994 looked like a period piece, as all things eventually do.

It wasn't until the story rolled forwards to the mid noughties that the terrain surrounding Lara became familiar; the bats bigger, the gear lightweight, the clothing fitted, the crowds contemporary. When he made 400 to rightfully reclaim his record, only one other player from either side was still there, and that was Graham Thorpe (although Shiv Chanderpaul played in the 375 match, his fourth Test).

Viewing those games again, one belonged to an earlier time, a time that had slid into unfamiliarity. The 90s suddenly felt like the 80s, distant and filled with the heavy weight of the past. The years goes on before we notice.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A meeting with Punter

 Few careers end with novelistic symmetry, however much circumstances urge them to. RT Ponting's at least ended where it began, at the WACA, with long shadows across the ground on a perfect summer's early evening. The storyline might have suggested Ponting's circle close with his team back at number one and a big score in the book to echo his debut all those years ago, but it was not to be. It won't matter in the long run.

There will be lots of stats and anecdotes in the papers to sum up the epic sweep of those years, so no need to repeat them here. Instead, here's something else: the day I met Punter. It was in the summer of 2010, and the Australians were over for some one-day internationals. They had a press day for their sponsors at the team hotel in Kensington. In what was a rare foray into proper cricket journalism, a magazine had commissioned me to go along and ask the captain of Australia some questions sent in by their readers, except the readers hadn't sent any so I made them up on the tube on the way over.

In a low-lit conference room somewhere in the basement, its tables lined with untouched and slowly-warming tins of the sponsors' product, Ponting sat on a small sofa, his loyal lieutenant Michael Hussey to his right, and, for comic relief, Dougie Bollinger to his left. I hadn't been told that the others would be there, but seeing as I'd just made the questions up anyway, invited them to join in when they felt like it. They were all dressed identically: trainers, standard issue team kit and sponsors baseball hat. Ponting had a big white sticking plaster on his elbow. Squished together for some hours already, patiently answering what were no doubt the same daily press enquiries, it would have been understandable had they been keen to sit tight and get things over with, but Ponting rose to shake hands and introduce me to his team-mates himself rather than wait for the hovering PRs or presume that I knew who they were.

He was taller and leaner than I'd imagined, and even the famous hairy forearms weren't actually that hairy. The snaggle-toothed grin that made him look so punchable in those early years of apparently endless victory was much softer in person. We sat down. I knew one thing would be true of him just from watching him play: he was obsessive about his bats, you could tell just by looking at the clean and perfect blades he always used, so I asked him if he could remember his first one.

"Oh yeah," he said right away. "It was a Duncan Fearnley, size five. God knows how long I had that bat for. I kept patching it up, taping it up. I'll still have it somewhere."

"Mine was a County Clubman. It cost $19..." said Mike Hussey.

"Nineteen bucks, Huss... that was expensive back then."

"Yeah, for the '50s," said Dougie, and Ponting gave him a perfectly-timed reproachful glare.

Ice broken, we had a high old time, or at least I did. We talked about dreams of cricket, the moments when you're just about to fall asleep and see a ball flying at your head and jerk yourself awake, and anxiety dreams where you can't find your bat, or tie your laces. "Yeah," he said, "going out to bat and you can't find your way from the rooms down onto the pitch. I have that one."

He told the story of losing his first baggy green after about 20 Tests or so, in transit from Sri Lanka, and how anyone who lost one now would have to fill out lots of forms to get another because somewhere along the way, the cap itself had become a symbol of value (his sympathies were with the older players "doing it tougher than us" who were reduced to selling them on ebay). Mike Hussey chipped in with a vivid description of what it was like to face Murali in his pomp, the great whirr of elbows and wrists, the whites of his eyes glowing as his arm came over.

It was good to watch them interact. Dougie was funny,  but he was careful not to cross the line with his skipper. Hussey, true to form, just seemed to like talking about cricket. I mentioned that Viv Richards was supposed to have had such sharp eyesight that he could pick out individual faces in the crowd. "Ricky likes to spot fights," Hussey said. "He quite often comes down between overs and says, 'Hey Huss, see a couple of blokes having a go over there'..."

The hour passed quickly. I wanted to know if he knew what his highest Test and ODI scores were, and also his averages. "My highest in Tests is 257," he said. "In ODIs it was that game against South Africa, 167 or 174 or something. All I know is we lost." He didn't know his averages, and then Mike Hussey tried to claim that he didn't know his either, and Ponting and Dougie smiled.

We spoke about various bowlers and he said that the one who had given him the most problems had been Harbhajan.

"Does that bother you?' I asked.

"Yes," he said, and folded his arms.

For Ponting to have confronted his decline in the way he did seems entirely typical, yet the 'results' he reckoned have nudged him into retirement have not been catastrophic. In 2012, he has made 600 runs at 42.85 (better than Watson, Warner, Cowan, Quiney, Marsh, and also Tendulkar, Bell, Trott, Gambhir and plenty of others). Yet he was born into greatness. It's only a hunch, but I think he watched Michael Clarke play the way he has, and Hashim Amla too, and realised that he could no longer visit that place. It's not that he doesn't think he's as good as Kawaja or Hughes or whoever fills his spot. It's that he knows he will never again bat like Clarke or Amla are at the moment. It has gone for him. That is the mirror he has stared into, and there was only his past to stare back.

That past will soon assume its nostalgic glow. Ricky Ponting's batting was never quite beautiful but it will live long in the memory. He is what the Americans call Test cricket's "winningest" captain. Yet what gives his retirement its poignancy is the distance he has travelled as a man. He took over the Australian side knowing nothing of defeat and with a sense of entitlement that it took losing to erode and turn into something else. He grew as his team declined. The innings that summed up best the second act of his career was that day-long 156 at Old Trafford in 2005, one of the great and defiant match-saving digs.

Beyond that, he has been true to himself and true to the game. To all of the tributes with that point, add this one. He had no reason to make my hour with him enjoyable, other than his duty to the captaincy of his country, and also to himself. It was over for him as soon as the PR shut the door, but I'll always remember it. That's the secret, and the truth about him.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Pete's dream

It's one of the great beauties of cricket that a team game can sustain mad, glorious and destructive personal ambition. This thought came back to me when Chris Gayle hit the first ball of a Test match for six, because I once played with a man whose desire was to hit the first ball of a match for six, too. That simple dream had gripped his soul and would not let go. 

This was back in the days when bats were slim and sixes were rare currency. I was 13 or 14, just starting to play senior cricket along with age-group games. We'll call him Pete, because that was his name, a lovely man in love with the game. After thirty-odd years at the crease, he was still to make a fifty, in part due to the relentless pursuit of his goal. 

He opened the batting because he'd been at the club for as long as anyone, and because there was no man there who wanted to deny him his chance. It was made tougher because it was dependent on us batting first, so sometimes he would go weeks without getting the opportunity. But when it came, well... Pete died often, but he never died wondering. He heaved at every first ball he ever received, short or full, wide or straight, good or bad. I would imagine he got more first-ball ducks than any other opener in the country, but he never adjusted his game, never thought, 'I'll just bat and try and get that fifty,' never allowed reason to crush that pure and perfect vision of a bowler running in as the clock hit one, all heads turned upwards as a new red ball sailed up and out into the endless sky. 

He never did it, or at least not to my knowledge. But he did get his fifty. It came in an in-house game, when our U17 side played the first XI one hazy sunday afternoon. We had some good players in that U17 team, including a couple of very decent opening bowlers. They batted. Pete carved at the first ball, which missed everything. Then he carved at all the others, and miraculously it came off. Balls fell wide of fielders, edges went for four. He even middled a few, and he was a big, strong guy. Finally he swung, connected once again and the applause came up from the pavilion.
"Twenty-five years I've waited for that," he yelled, his bat held high above his head, his face split by a grin that said every moment of the wait had been worthwhile. He was out next ball. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

It's never worth saying 'England can't play spin'

In London, it was the kind of day that seemed like it would never quite get light; a twilit lunchtime, an afternoon of dusk. Even the weather was intent on illustrating the differences between here and Ahmedabad. As England's batting quivered in the heat-haze, the Twittersphere and the newspaper OBOs were all certain about one thing: they can't play spin.

It is said so often, it's a phrase that's losing any meaning it ever had. It's become a default position for the man in the pub, cricket's equivalent of the football punter who pronounces that Roy Hodgson's finest "aren't good enough technically". Without context or definition, it's really nothing more than moaning.

Not being able to play spin is as broad a church as not being able to play pace, or not being able to field. In a way, it reduces the spinners' art, turns a thing of subtlety into an amorphous block. To begin with an obvious example, not being able to play spin in 2012 is different to not being able to play spin in, say, 2007, or any other year when Murali and Warne were in their pomp. Not being able to play the spin of Murali and Warne meant not being able to play the ball that spun and bounced prodigiously. To counter them required specific thought-process and techniques that differ from the thought processes and techniques needed to play spinners like Ajmal or Ashwin, who turn the ball far less and skid it far more. Murali and Warne could be played on line in a way that Ajmal and Ashwin can't, for starters.

There is also the difference between playing spin in the sub-continent and playing it everywhere else. Lots of English players can play spinners in England, just as lots of Indian players can play quick bowlers in India. It's a matter of familiarity. The real difference for England last winter and this has been the alien nature of both bowlers and conditions.

Graham Thorpe, now batting coach for England Lions, could play all kinds of spin, and he speaks luminously (in technical terms) on how to do it. What's noticeable is the gap between Thorpe's descriptions of being able to pick length and use the depth of the crease, and the way some of England's senior players have approached batting (and let's exempt Kevin Pietersen right away: his method is unique to men who are six feet four and have the eye of Zeus. He will always confront spin and live or die by the sword, and that sword has on occasion reduced Murali and Warne and others to mortal status).

What was evident about India's first innings was how often they played back. Sometimes the ball disturbed the surface and kept low, and on several occasions they seemed to just manage to get the bat down in time, but it bothered them about as much as being beaten on the outside edge would bother Nick Compton on a greentop in April.

There is an old maxim usually applied to swing bowling, but equally useful here: see it early, play it late. Compton, Anderson and Trott were all out today playing forward, and all out going hard at the ball. It's the fallback position, yet it doesn't work. It takes great nerve to go back and wait for the ball when you're not used to it and not sure what way it's spinning, but it is a method that works on these pitches.

As well as reducing the bowling, the phrase 'they can't play spin' also reduces the batting. Each man is an island. Cook plays forward, but he takes a short stride and waits for the ball. Bell has wonderfully soft hands, and advances down the pitch like a dancer to hit over the top. His problem is often that he disobeys another old maxim: never cut an off-spinner. Horizontal bat shots are, as a rule, not the batsman's friend, unless the ball is a genuine pie. Samit Patel might be the best of all of them against this sort of spin, he plays insouciently late: even when driving, the ball is under his nose.

It's easy to be critical of men who are playing at a level beyond the comprehension of most of us. None of them are trying to fail. Remember how foreign conditions reduced India's batting, and give England a break. This is the hardest of tours. Let's not damn them with a meaningless phrase.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Andrew Flintoff: Black holes and revelations

No man tells himself that he will be alright more often than a boxer does. He might not use those words to do it - Ali had his poems, Tyson said stuff like 'I'm going to eat your children' - but they all mean the same thing. Because their bodies are vulnerable and their skills are pregnable and their hearts are breakable, they psyches must be impenetrable, and if they're not convinced by themselves, then no-one else is going to be, either.

It's part of what can make defeat in boxing so devastating. The physical pain and the natural disappointment of sporting loss disappear; destruction of a sense of self is harder to recover from. In the most basic of ways, they're not the man they thought they were. Cricket has its sorrowful burden of suicide, yet boxing might be just as damaged. It's a sport with no structure, so the evidence is anecdotal, but it is everywhere if you look.

There is an unforgettable documentary called Assault In The Ring, which is about a fight between Louis Resto and Billy Collins Jr in 1983. Resto was the underdog, but he won after his trainer, a man called Panama Lewis, removed some of the padding from Resto's gloves, apparently without the fighter's knowledge. Collins sustained a severe beating, permanent eye damage and never fought again. He began drinking heavily and died a year later in a car crash that his family believe was a suicide. Resto was convicted of assault and served ten years in prison.

In 2007, Resto admitted that he knew what Panama Lewis had done. He apologised to the Collins' family, and in some of the most revealing scenes from the film, tried to confront Lewis, a man who still had a strong psychological hold over him.

Resto's is just one of hundreds of stories from the city of boxing, the city of delusion. Ricky Hatton's is another. After losing to Manny Pacquiao he retired, began taking cocaine, drank heavily and sat in his kitchen with a knife to his wrists while his family slept upstairs. His hard-won millions, his beautiful girlfriend, his son, his new baby, the regard in which he was held by his fans, could not stop his depression because they were never what it was about. Perhaps inevitably, he is making a comeback.

Hatton is a pal of Andrew Flintoff. They are a couple of uncomplicated Lancashire lads whose natural joy in what they did inspired something close to love in their followers. Flintoff experienced his own bouts of depression and heavy drinking while captaining England, and he's now taken up boxing. It's for a television programme, but there will still be a fight and he will have to face the moments that all fighters must, when all that's left is the other guy in the ring and the truth about themselves.

In most of the fight PR he's done, Flintoff has been talking up boxing, describing the attritional joys of training, and pulling muscleman poses for his photos. But in an interview in the Daily Telegraph, perhaps because it was with Celia Walden rather than a sports writer, he said this: "I'd swap everything I have now to play cricket again.... That last day (against Australia), it went by so quickly."

What he's missing is impossible to replace, with boxing or anything else. "It made you feel taller, stronger somehow. You'd get this hit of energy like you're a kid at Christmas and you're so excited about the next morning that in bed your legs can't stop running. It was an amazing feeling. And that's one of the things I miss most."

“Part of me still thinks I could play. I haven’t been as fit as this in a long time… The other day they put an old game on telly; I was playing in it but I didn’t at any point think it was me. It was bizarre – there was this complete detachment there, like I was watching someone else. I’d reached a point where cricket seemed so long ago. But now that I’m fit again… Well, you start thinking: could I?”

Flintoff's heavyweight opponent has yet to be announced. It's inconceivable that he could face anyone with pedigree; it will have to be a doorman, a cabbie, a part-timer. For all of his training, this is a stunt, and it's happening because Andrew Flintoff has a hole to fill, just as Ricky Hatton has. The great problem is that boxing can be a dangerous place to fill it, not physically but mentally. It's almost certainly not the place for Andrew Flintoff.

And Panama Lewis is still in boxing, too.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Mark Cosgrove: let him eat cake

One of the marks of cricket's ineffable genius is its scale. The distance of 22 yards, the size of bat and ball, are somehow perfect; they have survived for almost the whole history of the game and they allow a bowler the size of Steve Finn to compete against a batsman the size of Sachin Tendulkar on equal terms. Unlike golf, where courses have been lengthened, or tennis, where the balls have been made slower, or team sports that have resulted in generally homogenised physiques, it is unaltered since Grace's day - and Grace of course was a giant of a man by Victorian measures.

Cricket has a grand tradition of girth. Some of the greats have been well upholstered and none the worse for it. Men of appetite are attracted to it, and not just because there are two square meals on offer during the day's endeavours.

All things change, and the post T20 era offers little mercy to the less than perfect, almost entirely because of requirements in the field (ah fielding, that dreary pursuit, that necessary penance...). More than that, there is a vaguely fascistic undertone that a 'fat' player is lazy, is less motivated, more blase than his team-mates, uncommitted to the endless round of bleep tests, BMI measurements and broiled chicken.

Mark Cosgrove has begun the Aussie season with runs, enough of them to encourage the odd long-shot twitter punt that he might have been under the eye of selectors who currently have David Warner, Ed Cowan and Shane 'two hundreds' Watson as their top three - a not entirely convincing confection. Cosgrove was a non-starter, unless he put Don-style numbers on the board, yet his talent is undeniable and extravagantly expressed. With the frizz of hair and flash of teeth, he's a fat, left-handed Barry Richards, not quite in Bad Baz's class (who is?) but surely of his type.

The general view  of Cosgrove is one of waste. A prodigy, he made a first-class debut at 18, was the Bradman Young Cricketer Of The Year, a player of innings so unequivocal and shot-packed they outshone illustrious champions. Then three ODIs in 2006, then the slide, the promise turned sour, the move from South Australia to Tasmania, some time at Glamorgan while others edged past him, and all the while the whisper that all would be different if he'd only, you know... lose some weight.

Yet what's fascinating about Cosgrove, what drives at some of the deeper psychology of the game, is why he didn't, why he won't. What are the upsides of being fat*? Well, none that relate to fatness per se, but plenty that come with the comfort of being yourself.

The golfer Colin Montgomerie once said that his rapid weight loss had negatively affected his swing, and anyone who has seen that swing up close would know that it was a thing of beauty even if Monty wasn't. Like the golf swing, the physical act of batting is governed by repeatable muscle memory and fine motor skills, and it doesn't always pay to mess with them when they've been happening a particular way for a lifetime.

The mental act of batting has even more complexity. Within the context of teams sports, it is one of the great expressions of individuality. All batsmen ultimately do what they do alone. The inner life is key, and crucial to that expression. In choosing not to join the club and shed the pounds, a player like Mark Cosgrove may not be lazy or unmotivated; in fact it's almost trite to think that he is.

More likely is that Cosgrove has a contrary streak a mile wide, as many great batsmen have. It can be a crucial part of the psychic armoury, and it's the same mentality that made players like Barry Richards, King Viv, and Ian Botham walk their own path, choose their own battles. It comes from the id, not the ego, and can express itself in many ways. It can't always be reasoned with, but its value cannot be weighed against a few pounds of body fat, either. In a perverse way, it's about personal pride and being true to yourself, and the mental equilibrium that brings.

Cricket in the new age is on a constant search for the smallest advantage. Poor fielding has been its major battleground, and it has had its casualties. Carrying timber has been seen as a weakness rather than a difference. In the case of Cosgrove, rather like that of Samit Patel, maybe the scale should tip back the other way. After all, England aren't worrying so much about his waistline while Samit's showing the super-fit how to play spin bowling on sub-continental wickets...

Ultimately, skill in batting has nothing to do with size, as everyone from Grace to Inzamam and Sehwag have shown. It's about the mental as well as the physical, about what is on the inside as well as the out. There may be many reasons to discount Mark Cosgrove, but his weight ain't one of them.

* That's fat in sporting terms, not in Jerry Springer coming round to cut the side of your house off terms.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

One-day cricket: the end of the affair

County cricket in England can be an anachronistic thing, a once-beautiful, now mad old aunt who should be visited dutifully each April, cared for but not really listened to, ancient and ever present as the world speeds by outside the window.

Yet it has been the engine for change in the international game. On 2 May 1962, Leicestershire played Derbyshire and Northamptonshire met Nottinghamshire in the Midlands Knock Out Cup, sixty-five overs per side. They were the first professional one-day fixtures: at 130 overs it was a long day, admittedly, but a day nonetheless. The following season, the Gillette Cup began (and the first fixture took two days to complete because of the weather). Forty one years later, on 13 June 2003, English counties played the initial round of games in the Twenty20 Cup. That idea kind of caught on, too.

This week, the ECB announced another revamp to the county fixture list, one that has been surveyed and workshopped and heralded with a press release that went out a couple of hours after the one that announced Kevin Pietersen's return. Guess which story made the papers...

The thinking was interesting: T20 games to move to a Friday night, the bulk of Championship games to begin on a Sunday, the 40-over game to be dropped and replaced by a 50-over competition. They were reactionary measures, though. Perhaps it is time for the old girl to lead once more, to do something really revolutionary, to set an agenda.

The first limited overs game I saw live was one of the most famous, the Prudential World Cup Final 1979 at Lord's, ODI number 74, England versus West Indies. King Viv 138 not out, Joel Garner 5-38 and, as anyone who was there will tell you, Collis King's matchwinning 86 from 66 deliveries when the West Indies were rocking a bit. West Indies made 286-9 from their 60 overs. To little kid sitting in the top of the Compton Stand, that total seemed vast, unassailable, futuristic, and so it proved.

It's hard to describe how different the one-day game was then. The teams played in whites. They selected pretty much their Test XIs. England, for example, opened with Brearley and Boycott, and no-one found that odd or thought that they should change. Richards' century felt like a hurricane, but he faced 157 balls in all. The fielding had no relay throws, no boundary riders, no dives, yet England had Gower and Randall, the Windies Lloyd and Richards, the best of their era. Joel Garner's yorkers were considered not just unhittable but unplayable.

Since that day, there have been another 2,929 ODIs, and we are all played out. There is nothing about them that we do not know, technically, statistically, emotionally. The format is exhausted, and there is nothing left to discover. Had they ended with MS Dhoni's on drive screaming into the Mumbai night to make India World Champions, it would have been the perfect fin de siecle moment; there really was nothing more to say, nothing more to see, nothing more to be done.

The point is, all things change. For all of the tweaks and twiddles with Powerplays and fielding regulations, it's evident that the great and predictable hole in the middle of every innings cannot be filled. Not even the rippling power of transferred T20 skills has moved that period on - or even, curiously, overall scores, which still seem to have 300 as a benchmark. The players, as several have admitted, are bored by its formula and its ubiquity. No-one sells himself as a 50 over specialist.

The only truly compelling reasons for its continued existence are commercial. As a format for filling TV hours and selling adverts it is hard to beat, yet it will be beaten, and probably soon, by a combination of franchise leagues and shifting calendars and changing priorities. T20, as a vehicle for raising money, is a more urgent proposition for investors: nothing exceeds like excess, and newness.

Imagine for a moment then, a county season that didn't bother with 50 over cricket, that made a bold gamble on how the game will pan out, that said the future is Test and T20 cricket and we want to dominate both. At a stroke, the calendar would open out, the treadmill would ease up, time for training and preparation would increase, and perhaps a little scarcity might get some more people through the gate. It's hard to imagine that the skills of the players in both forms would not improve, and the English game needs that.

There might be short term financial pain, but there are lots of ways that counties might benefit. The T20 format allows two games to fit easily into a day, and weekend double-headers could fill grounds and screens. The women's international game has benefited from being played alongside the men's. Why not put a county T20 game on before an T20i too?

About the only thing that everyone can agree on is that something has to give. Players are being burned out by travel, boredom, ennui. There will, ultimately be an IPL window; the international calendar will shift. It's genuinely difficult to think twenty years ahead and imagine 50 over cricket being played.

The county game in England has been an odd force for change, but it has been intrinsic in shaping cricket. Maybe it should make another bold move before the world leaves it behind once more.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Saj Mahmood and the infinite sadness

There's a tremendous passage in Leo McKinstry's Boycs, in which Boycott describes his final game of cricket. It came at Scarborough on 12 September 1986. "Something had come to an end, something wonderful," the great man said. "I just thought, this is it then. I waited for the ground to clear. Then I wandered around among all the newspapers and food wrappers and tin cans".

I thought of it the other day when I drove past one of my own favourite grounds. The leaves had begun to come down over the outfield. The grass was uncut and already starting to thicken for winter. The chains were up around the square. Early evening rain swept overhead. Something had come to an end. When I got home, the counties had announced which players they wouldn't be retaining, and one of them was Saj Mahmood.

Lots of others were on their way, a few of them quick bowlers, too; Brooks, Shazad, Punkett. But they all had new gigs. Saj hadn't had his contract renewed. It's always a melancholy time, but in Mahmood was a story of more than just a county and a player running out of steam. He'd been at Lancashire for ten years, had more than 300 first class wickets, but his last game for them had been a Friends Life game against Derbyshire in which he'd conceded 42 from 2.3 overs. He'd gone to Somerset on loan, and taken eight wickets in three games at just over 30.

In 2005, Duncan Fletcher had seen a vision of the future. Injury, bad luck, hubris, whatever meant that his Ashes-winning side would never play together again. Fletcher looked around, not for old school fast bowlers like McGrath and Pollock, but for men like Lee and Tait and Malinga. In his analytical way, he stared into the game that was starting to emerge and deduced that the next generation of batsman would need to be detonated from the crease by swing at high pace. He wanted men who could bowl at 90mph, and Saj Mahmood, who was 22 and had been playing in the Bolton leagues not too long before, could. So could Liam Plunkett.

The game did morph, but not quite in the way that Fletcher thought it might. Tait, Malinga and to an extent Brett Lee became white-ball specialists. Saj played eight Tests and got 20 wickets at 38. He bowled fast but inconsistently. Sri Lanka climbed into him in an ODI at the Oval; in 11 of his 26 one-dayers he went for more than 50. In the last of his four T20 internationals, he bowled four overs for 61. Liam Plunkett's record was quite similar.

When the news about Saj came out, several reports mentioned Duncan Fletcher's idea about the 90mph bowlers. It seems that Saj will forever be its public symbol. It was couched in terms of failure, a failure echoed by the decline of Mahmood and Plunkett. And yet England are at the moment stocked with more men who can bowl at 90mph than perhaps ever before: Broad, Finn, Tremlett, Dernbach, Meaker, Shazad, and with lots more tweenies on the way at Loughborough, where David Parsons and his men have identified the physiological factors common to those who will be able to propel the ball at such a speed. Australia have a new batch of their own, who are about to go up against Steyn and Morkel in what looks to be a series that will be decided by quick bowling.

The truth may be that the international careers of Mahmood and Plunkett dropped into a gap in the game, a brief interregnum between generations, between old and new, between pre and post T20. It might be that they were just below international class, too. But as a concept, the notion that fast bowlers would have to bowl fast was being borne out even as Fletcher's idea was being stitched once more into stories about Saj Mahmood.

Fletch is with India, now, of course, where his thought about 90mph bowling is about as relevant as those on using the sweep shot to get off strike. Saj Mahmood, for the moment, isn't with anyone. Something had come to an end after all, something good, an opportunity that proved fleeting and elusive and not quite his to seize.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The world moves away from England

In the fog of the phoney KP wars, its easy to forget that hostilities began with him pilloried as a mercenary for wanting to play in the IPL, and ended with Andy Flower saying that 'ideally' England's players should participate in franchise cricket but 'the calendar doesn't allow it'. That seems to be a significant shift, almost unremarked upon.

As Muttiah Muralitharan said in the summer, English T20 cricket is already behind the curve. Shorn of Pietersen and put up against sides studded with men who share his worldliness and  experience, 'callow' was the adjective that attached itself to them. And it attached itself most to the younger players, who have grown up in the era of T20 cricket, who have known nothing else. Bairstow, Hales and Buttler may only be 23, but then so is Virat Kohli. The two English batsmen who can wreak the appropriate havok, Wright and Morgan, are franchise players - indeed England owe the Big Bash one for Wright's re-emergence.

It's easy to say the T20 game has moved on and slightly harder to anatomise how, but at its centre has been Chris Gayle. His method (blogged about here) is based around hitting sixes, and he has an IPL championship and a World title to back up his point. It's obvious now that the side that hits the most sixes usually wins (just as the side that takes the most singles usually loses). In Sri Lanka, five of the top six runscorers in the tournament - Watson, Samuels, Gayle, McCullum and Wright - also hit the most sixes (the exception was Jayawardene, and after him Kohli, who are players of the very highest class). West Indies, who have achieved the rare feat of winning a sub-continental World Championship while coming from outside the region, have, in Gayle and Pollard, the two most prolific six-hitters in the history of the format.

If England saw their chance to sample a future without Pietersen, well now they know. The scale of their decline should worry them. It may cause deep pain in the dressing room, but how he was missed.

For KP, who is said to have trousered $2m for his commentary work, things could hardly have worked out better. His deep-rooted instinct that the IPL is not just a chance to make money, but a place to learn how to play T20 cricket while competing with and against the very best under high pressure and in front of big crowds, is deeply right. The ECB, who, while England held the World Cup had the semblance of an argument for their insistence that the only things that will save Test cricket are two early-season games against weakened opposition, now don't have that. Their team director now agrees with Pietersen. KP really is winning big, here.

Perhaps they can now see that dogma will not save Test cricket, just it will have no effect on the doomed 50 over game (and it is doomed, it's just dying slowly). What will save Test cricket is meaning and competition, not frequency. Its genius will not be dimmed by adjusting the calendar.

NB: it's interesting that while contractual dogma meant England played a World T20 competition without the world's number one ranked player, they also played it without the fifth-highest runscorer in all of T20 cricket. His name is, er Owais Shah.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Making bats: an addendum

Further to the post below, the provenance of pro cricketers' bats remain the source of intrigue and rumour; the only thing we know for sure is that the stickers offer only the sketchiest of clues. I've yet to meet a batmaker who hasn't shaved one for Sachin...

Objects Of Fetish vii: Laver's got wood

The malleable, ultimately pregnable psyche of a batsman can turn to just one physical prop, and that's the bat itself. With its owner beset by doubt and by failure, never more than one ball from disaster, it's no wonder that the cricket bat becomes more than an interchangable tool (and if you don't believe it, just ask any cricketer a simple question - what was your first bat? - and then pin back your ears for a five-minute answer).

That it was once alive; that it is willow, the rare and ancient wood of diviners and dowsers; that it is hand-made using old tools; that its creation is dependent to a degree on the arcane knowledge and intuition of the bat maker; that it is, ultimately, a one-off, as individual as a fingerprint; all add to the feeling of destiny when the right one falls into your hands. Like Excalibur, there is, you presume, one out there that's got your name on it.

In an age when people queue overnight to buy an identikit phone assembled in sweatshop conditions, the idea that something is made so organically has a sense of myth about it. And never has the cricket bat been as fetishised: its last decade has been its most glorious. In the 70s it got sexy: the Scoop, the V12, the Jumbo, but in the noughties it got dirty; thick edges, massive profiles, deep bows. It has developed its own language, it has reinvented itself from nut-brown, hard-pressed utility club to bone white, shark-finned driver, its new-found power happily coinciding with the rise of a format of the game that would showcase it like never before.

There are more brands than ever; there are internet forums on which batmakers themselves are minor celebrities. In the same way that a bog-standard Ford car of 2012 performs better and is more technologically advanced than the marque of twenty years ago, so the standard, mid-range bat is unlike anything available to players of just a couple of generations back. There is probably just enough leeway in the bat's physical dimensions to allow the makers to tweak and spin each year, to let them salami-slice the market.

With that, there is now a prime cut, a slice so rare that it takes the object beyond function and into form, from artisanship and into art. Newbery, noble podshavers of Sussex, offer the Cenkos, a bat that costs a grand, made to the buyer's specifications. That though, however beautiful (and it is) is still a tool. Laver & Wood's Signature range is something very slightly different. In thirteen years, James Laver has found just 87 pods of willow good enough for the Signature, and the first of those he kept for himself.

The extraordinary thing about the others is they are supplied with an exact copy of the bat made from the next grade of willow down, "if you prefer to keep the Signature as a piece of art". It also comes with a display stand. It's strange and wonderful and slightly sad to think of a bat that might actually be too beautiful to use, and yet here it is. That James Laver makes them far away on the edge of the world in New Zealand, mailing them out once they are finished (and the bounty of $1,999NZ is handed over) only adds to the mystery of their creation. Even Laver himself is slightly in awe: "The finished bat is always a marvel to behold, and it is often a shame to let it leave the workshop".

Bats like that are at the very edge of actually being bats, unique and beautiful objects that transcend their purpose to exist simply as art, as examples of what can be done. They fire the imagination, not the ball.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Hampshire and the Theory of Doing Without

Given Hampshire's recent record with the white ball, it's hard to deny that they're onto something. Many have noted the production line of young local players, but what is just as impressive has been their thinking. Forced to marshall their resources, they appear to have developed a Theory of Dispensability. They probably don't call it that, but it's available for license from this blog, at a fee...

It's an interesting method of calculation, not unlike Duckworth Lewis in that it measures resources against requirements. It manifested itself on T20 finals day, when they fielded Dimitri Mascarenhas despite a shoulder injury more severe than anyone let on. Dimi couldn't bat or throw, but he could bowl. Hampshire gambled that his four overs with the ball were less dispensable than the 16 in which he would have to hide in the field. When they batted, he slid further and further down the order, until it became obvious that they wouldn't need him at all.

What they had figured out is that 20 over cricket is a game that can, in the right circumstances, be played without eleven men. In the semi-final Mascarenhas took 2-11, in the final 2-20. On both occasions he opened the bowling and bowled out, meaning his contribution effectively ended after eight overs of the 80 played. He was dispensable for large parts of the day, because Hampshire bet, and won, on his effectiveness at very specific moments.

They used the theory again, I think, on Saturday in the final of the CB40 competition. Just 21, Michael Bates is already an artist in gloves, his key skill an ability to stand up to seam bowling under the highest pressure. He is not yet, and may never be, a batsman in the vein his contemporaries Kieswetter, Bairstow or Buttler.

Yet few would deny Bates effectively won Hampshire the game. The amount of runs he prevented Warwickshire from scoring is actually incalculable, because the outcome of his skill is that it removes from the batsman the ability to bat out of his crease or run down the wicket. In an age when those methods are central to fast scoring, Hampshire had a proposition that prevented it from happening.

Bates' lack of batting was dispensable when compared to his value as a keeper. Going by the Theory, his value will rise in T20 cricket, because their are less overs for the others to bat, and an entire innings for him to influence in the field.

Everything in the modern game is analysed, and it would be a surprise if someone hasn't noticed that, as batting methods have changed, having a keeper who can take away so many runscoring options may outweigh the value of having another power hitter.

It would be something of an irony if T20 cricket were to be the arena that saw a return of the specialist keeper, but it is certainly not impossible.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Buying one...

This morning, a colleague pointed out that I'd snapped at her for using the word 'autumnal' during August. It could mean only one thing: the end of the season, with all of its unsettling melancholy, has slipped into view. Only a few more games now, and they already feel under siege from football, the X-Factor and other chilling harbingers of winter. This is always the worst time; for some reason once the last game's over it's alright again.

There is one consolation, though. The bat's done a couple of seasons; it's the nets only for the noble Gray-Nicolls from now on, and the sales are coming up. Not really joining the pantheon, that Nicolls, bloody nice bat, but have never really had the connection with it, that indefinable feeling of oneness that you get with your favourites. Found a few of them in a cupboard the other day, some of them decades old: a vintage County, Boycott-inspired probably, that always looked slightly wider than other bats; a beloved Slazenger with cracks in the face as familiar as my palm (pre-the really thick edges, that one, but still not bad on that score); a decent Powerspot gone in the splice; a Puma that enjoyed one outstanding day... always worth keeping your old bats, because they all hold something.

For a club player like me, the new acquisition has to be savoured, anticipated, relished, because they don't come around too often. There's no manufacturer knocking on our dressing room door with a van full of virgin willow, no sponsor keen to re-sticker with next year's look (though if anyone's interested, you know, I'll do you a little blog every now and again; give you an ad...), so the selection process should be long and thoughtful. 

Have seen some very nice bats out on the field this season. In our side there are a couple of Gunn & Moore's, an Epic right out of the factory with a ruler straight grain that picks up like a dream, and a handsome Luna; there's a glowing Laver & Wood with a supernatural middle; a Millichamp & Hall with some serious ping. In the various oppos we've faced, every M&H has sounded magnificent, and I'm big on how a bat sounds. Can't cheat on the sound it makes, and those boys have a deep, throaty bark that sounds like no other. Most impressive though have been a couple of old Newbery's. Both have seen better days, which makes them even greater, just generous, lovingly made bats that keep on giving and going. Die in the harness, they will, like a couple of aging shire horses...

The retro brands have a lasting nostalgic pull for me, especially the Scoop and the V12, two bats that have given me lots of runs, but no... can't go back, feels wrong. Can't go back in batting because I'm not that player any more, haven't been for a long time so have to resist. Good prices though, and affectionately done.

This time it feels like it has to be something new, a make I've never owned, something light and understated, not flash but definitely, quietly true, a bat that will bring sorrow in the parting when it comes. That's what I want, and I'll know it when I hold it. Sussex, Somerset and Kent are the places on the shortlist, so you can probably hazard a guess...

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Anniversary

Today is the 64th anniversary of Bradman's last Test innings, perhaps the most famous duck ever made, and certainly the most statistically significant.

John Arlott was the BBC commentator as Bradman came to the crease. Arlott was 34 years old at the time, five years younger than the Don. Rex Alston had described Bradman's entrance, and he handed to Arlott as Bradman took guard. The day had already been dramatic enough, with England dismissed for 52 and Australia already past a hundred when Bradman walked in.

"I'm not as deadly as you Rex," Arlott began, "I don't expect to get a wicket, but it's rather good to be here when Don Bradman comes into bat in his last Test. And here's Hollies to bowl to him from the Vauxhall End. Bradman goes back across his wicket and pushes the ball gently in the direction of the Houses of Parliament, which are beyond mid-off. It doesn't go as far as that, merely goes to Watkins, the silly mid-off. No run."

The scene was set. No-one, Arlott included, could have known immediately the full implications of what happened next. There might have been a second innings for start, but the moment had weight even as it occurred. Here is what Arlott said:

"Hollies pitches the ball up slowly and... he's bowled... Bradman bowled Hollies, nought. And what do you say under these circumstances? I wonder if you see the ball very clearly in your last Test in England, on a ground where you've played some of the biggest cricket in your life and the opposing side has just stood round you and given you three cheers and the crowd has clapped you all the way to the wicket. I wonder if you see the ball at all."

The way that "I wonder if you see the ball clearly" is echoed in his final sentence is the work of a poet. "In through the eyes, out through the mouth," Arlott used to say. He drank it in that day.

Monday, 13 August 2012

KP and the Art Of War

Many years ago, when I worked in magazines, I was at a planning meeting headed by the company's chief executive. He wasn't the usual sort you find in jobs like that. He'd grown up in a pub in North London, and he didn't use the burgeoning business-speak of the era. I made a suggestion, a decent enough idea, but it would have cost some dough to pull off.

He knocked it back kindly but firmly and said something that stuck with me: 'never raise the stakes unless you have to.'

It's a very simple bit of advice, but it's not easy to apply because for one thing it it requires you to know when the stakes have to be raised, and for another it goes against human nature, or at least against male nature. 

Kevin Pietersen compulsively raises the stakes when in conflict. At the crease it is instinctive, a fight or flight thing; he understands perfectly the 'him or me' moment and he has described it several times. One came on the final afternoon at the Oval in 2005, with the outcome of the greatest series of them all swaying back and forth and Brett Lee trying to remove his head with a volley of shells that Pietersen hooked at wildly, sending the ball further and further back into the stands. 'Him or me', were the exact words he used afterwards. Another happened at Leeds in the last Test, when Morne Morkel decided to bounce him from around the wicket with three men back, and, jolted by the adrenaline kick, he engaged and won. 'Him or me' he said again.

The same compulsion is evident in his reaction to conflict off the field. Like many sportsmen, he is perfectly attuned to the brutal logic of the game, and sometimes mystified when life does not respond in the same way. He has left a trail of psychic destruction as his career has moved ever upwards, and it's interesting to note, from his twitter account and his public comments, who he regards as his real peer group - players in the very highest echelon: Warne, Gayle, Dravid, Jayawardene, Steyn, de Villiers. He once played in a charity game for Piers Morgan in return for an introduction to Simon Cowell, a man who, to Pietersen, represented contemporary power and achievement.

It's partly why he sees the IPL in the way he does. The competition is a vast, pulsating stage on which the best are treated like the best; paid, feted, sought after, loved uncomplicatedly. With his sharpened playing instinct, Pietersen can interpret the IPL as the ultimate meritocracy, a 'him or me' arena that is watched, absorbed and obsessed over by billions. Through his eyes, it's hard to gaze back at England and the establishment and comprehend why they would not just accept its virtues and adjust the calendar. He feels the 'him or me' moment looming, and he is right.

Pietersen is the classic high-maintenance sportsman, a drama queen, a capricious, self-regarding, insecure outsider with a misunderstood ego. He is also the hardest working, most diligent and inventive of cricketers, capable of organising a meet and greet session off his own back for fans stoically sitting out a rainbreak - publicised on Twitter of course.

In the 90 minutes of endlessly replayable comedy glory that is Spinal Tap, there is a scene following the debacle of the band's performance of Stonehenge where their manager Ian Faith is trying to explain that the miniature triptych lowered onto the stage and almost crushed by a dancing dwarf was made to guitarist Nigel Tufnell's exact specifications.

'Yeah,' counters singer David St Hubbins, 'but it's not your job to be as confused as Nigel'.

There in perfect miniature, is the ECB. It is not their job to be as confused as Kevin. Anyone visiting their shimmering glass offices at Lord's will find an organisation that is essentially made up of managers, a tower of management devoted to the micro-management of the game, from who plays it to how they'd like us to write about it. Management is their job, their credo, their thing.

Much of their management is very good. The last week's has been worthy of David Brent. It's tempting to imagine Hugh Morris writing 'Hugh Morris Investigates' on a piece of A4 and sticking it over his office window as he tries to locate the smoking gun of KP's text message to Dale Steyn.

It is a very British farce that the team's best player is publically humiliated over a message that they haven't actually seen. What is less amusing is the language they have used to justify it. Here is the pernicious side of modern management.

"The success of the England team is built on  a unity of purpose and trust", is a phrase that looks great on a whiteboard, but that means little beyond its rhetoric. Which of the teams that England play again doesn't have "a unity of purpose"? How much trust does a team actually need? The game has been built on centuries of feuding team-mates. As Shane Warne tweeted, there were plenty of players he didn't like and who didn't like him. They were simply required to play cricket together, and to win.

Warne detested John Buchanan, his wallcharts, his bootcamps and his his references to The Art Of War. The great leggie knew that Australia would have won anyway. It's easy to overcomplicate things and then attribute success to the wrong places.

Dave Brailsford is the ur-manager in British sport. He has delivered Olympic success and the Tour de France by micro-managing the controllables like equipment and training and so on. So, to their credit, have the ECB. But Brailsford has also managed Victoria Pendleton, another emotional, driven star who has demanded much of him and his organisation. He found a way to keep her and the rest of team together, because the team was better with her in it.

The ECB's job is to put the best side out on the field for the punters who pay their money for tickets and lay out for their TV subs. Pietersen is emphatically in that XI. Everything else - the bruised egos, the fake tweets, the England player who passed a dressing room TV while Pietersen was batting and said 'get that South African twat out soon', the divided camps dripping their poison to the press - is secondary, and manageable if you know how to manage.

Faced with their equivalent of 'him or me', the ECB have raised the stakes. They really didn't have to.  'Him or me' moments are reserved for on the field, that's where the war is. By dropping Kevin Pietersen they have failed in their only real purpose.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Graeme Smith: the size and the shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Boucher and Ramps, and the manner of their leaving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Garry Sobers and ODIs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 June 2012

Talent and Tom Maynard

There were many tributes today to Tom Maynard, and some, from his mates and fellow cricketers, were heartbreakingly raw, such is the immediacy of the form in which they now come. As you get older what you feel most is the weight of life unlived. Twenty-three years is half a lifetime away from me now - all of those days he cannot have seem very poignant.

Among the Twitter posts was one from Scyld Berry that said: 'Tom Maynard was so talented that when at Millfield [school] he played for the neighbouring village of Butleigh, batted left-handed and hit a 100. RIP.' 

Stories like that one are really about the difference between us, the distance between not just the amateur and the pro, but between professionals and internationals and between internationals and the genuinely great. Ultimately, they see the world differently. Martin Amis described it brilliantly as 'the natural severity' of the truly talented ball-player. What they do is different; when they strike the ball it makes a different sound, it goes to a different place, at a different speed.

Barry Richards once made a fifty against a club side while turning the bat sideways and using the edge, back in the day when the edge of a bat was slightly thicker than a padded envelope. David English recalled the time that Richards turned out for his charity side, the Bunburys: 'He flew from Queensland specially to play against Norma Major's XI at Alconbury. He had no gear, just a well worn pair of golf shoes. With hastily borrowed equipment and a bat so old cobwebs still adorned the handle, the Master, bespectacled, stood at the crease and proceeded tentatively at first, to perform his strokes from memory. He had not lifted a bat for 12 years but scored 52.'

Just this weekend, Mark Ramprakash tweeted that he'd loaned Viv Richards a bat for a charity game, and Richards had made 40 with it. Jeff Thomson remembered a net with Don Bradman in India: 'On a rest day, Bradman was around in the nets. I was bowling only legspin to him, but he had a couple of young blokes trying to get him out. With no pads, no nothing ... for a 68-year-old, he belted the hell out of them on a turf wicket. And he hadn't batted for 20 years.'

It's the same in other sports. My dad, a very decent representative table tennis player in his day, once played against Johnny Leach, the world champion, who beat him using a matchbox instead of a bat. Andre Agassi used to talk about beating players 'both ways' - playing left and right handed. Ben Hogan was said to have thrown some golf balls down on the fairway and hit one onto the green using every club in the bag from driver to putter.

That's the difference, and most of us can only imagine what it must be like to occupy it, as Tom Maynard did.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Will the second-best T20 batsman in England go to the World Cup?

England are now so good, they can admit out loud that certain Test matches mean more than others regardless of what they charge for the tickets, the staging fee or the TV rights, and they can divest themselves of their best T20 batsman, a man in no small part responsible for their only ever international title, in the pincers of contractual small-print. Either that, or hubris is beginning to set in.

They might go to Sri Lanka for the title defence without their second-best T20 batsman too, because that is Owais Shah and they don't seem to like him much, either. But the great meritocracy of sport sends its messages whether they are acknowledged or not and on Shah the free market has spoken. Pietersen aside, he is the one successful English player in the IPL. He has been bought on four different occasions by four different teams, and this year got his first decent run, for Rajasthan Royals. He played 13 games and made 340 runs at almost 38, at a strike rate of 132. That put him inside the top 20 batters in the tournament. In the Big Bash, where he played for Hobart, he averaged 70 at a rate of 150 over eight games.

At the crease he is a magnificent oddity, a one-off, a wired bundle of quirks and ticks, eyes wide and brain burning with the sheer range of possibilities he brings to each delivery. Last year he played the shot of the season at Chelmsford, a defensive prod that went over the stand. With his limber wrists, he might just have easily got the same ball through fine leg, or slipped it past third man. Equally, on another day, it might have struck him plumb in front, or been popped back to the bowler from a leading edge. In attitude, in approach, in appearance, he is an enigma; in short, everything that England distrusts.

The other day, he came in for Essex in a CB40 match with the game won and Ravi Bopara on a hundred. He played incredibly straight; his bat looked like a barn door. He flicked one to the boundary, took a few singles and did nothing really extraordinary, but that was sort of the point: even in so little there was something about it that illuminated Bopara's conventionality. Bopara is very good, and his desire and attitude deserves respect. But the shimmer of something extra.... no, it was all down the other end.

More than any other format, because it is condensed and amplified, T20 cricket needs that something extra, some dynamism from players who will walk the tightrope. Pietersen did, Eoin Morgan does, and so does Shah. It's a quality that's most effective and magnetic when the player has learned to control it, to bring it out when it's needed, and Shah seems to be at that point now.

He should replace KP, but he won't. In fact, they should both play, but neither will. Last year, in the post about Shah's shot of the season at Chelmsford, I wrote that he had 'a racehorse temperament' that had stopped him playing more for England. This was disputed in an anonymous first-person response underneath. I have no idea whether it was genuine or not (it's still there, if you scroll down) but I regret writing it now anyway: it's too glib a description of a complex player. Shah has made his case in the arena where it counts. Wonder if England are going to notice?

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The art of not fielding, while fielding

In a game at the start of the season, we fielded for 47 overs in the bone-deep cold. The distant pavilion glowed like a cottage in the paintings of that old fraud Thomas Kinkade. The grass on the outfield was thick and stringy, the ground soft and heavy underfoot. I was wearing trainers following a pre-match incident with the sole of my boot. We didn't even get drinks, but then they would probably have been brought out by a St Bernard. In the warming clatter of the pub afterwards, a team-mate said that he thought that the moments that the field came together after the fall of a wicket were a way of reconnecting with the game after the solitary time spent in one position or other. That seemed true.

No batsman goes to his grave thinking, 'I wish I'd spent more time fielding'. Time in the field is the other side of an unequal equation. No-one can really like it can they? The only similarity between the two is the sense of absorption, although it is absorption of two different kinds. Batting really well (admittedly more of a memory than anything else these days) induces an interior state that you don't really want to come out of, because when you do you have to confront ordinary life again. It is not something that you want to end. Fielding for long periods is about introspection of another kind, starting in bursts of claps and shouts and then slipping gently into fairly eventless solitude as the overs tick past.

In Netherland, Joseph O'Neill describes the 'pulmonary' rhythm as the field walks in and out. It's a lovely image, but a little too lyrical for the aimless trudge it becomes after an hour or so. Fielding's tasks are essentially menial: returning the ball to the bowler, stopping the odd one, hoofing after the ball when necessary (and what fresh hell is this relay throw - two of you chasing it now, can't just leave it to the other bloke who's you know, nearer...). The chance of a catch is a hiding to nothing, and a drop often reminds you of how withdrawn from the rest of the game you've become; its shame and embarrassment and exposure.

Not liking fielding is one of the game's dirty little secrets. You have to pretend it's alright. It's a team thing, and more than that it's a game thing, because if you didn't field there wouldn't be one. It's different for bowlers, because it's their arena and time in the field will be punctuated by what they do. But for batsmen it remains a deal made in order to play the game. It's a deal that feels slightly different every time. Fielding before you've batted is different to fielding afterwards, and fielding after you've scored runs is different to fielding after you haven't.

Most of all though it's a mood thing. Sometimes, on a beautiful ground it's just too churlish, too ungrateful, to do anything except be thankful that you're there. Other times it's about smothering anxiety, killing boredom, finding humour and life in the little things. Occasionally it's just about getting it over with, and every now and again it can be extraordinary. The art is to do it while not doing it, to let it wash over you, its lulling effect opening the window to an implacably calm interior state that can resist its length and its demands and takes you somewhere else until you come up smiling.

Even so, 47 overs. I mean, come on...

Friday, 18 May 2012

Chris Gayle: Grace, Bradman

A few days ago, two of the three top stories on cricinfo were about one man. The headline of the first was: 'West Indies want to mop up 'residual matters' with Gayle'. The second read simply, 'Gayle goes berserk in Pune'.

The two were connected, but laterally rather than literally. Gayle was not yet on the roof of a municipal building negotiating to release his hostages if only Ernest Hilaire would agree to stop Skyping him. His carnage was of the more usual kind - he'd just hit Bhuvneshwar Kumar for four sixes in five balls, in the process re-emphasising the hold he has on his board and on the game.

Next year, professional T20 cricket will be ten years old. It has distorted thinking more than Bodyline did, reshaped finances more than Packer could, demanded the most complete revolution in technique since Grace began hitting across the line, offered players a new career model beyond central contracts. Chris Gayle's employers have included the Barisal Burners, the Matabeleland Tuskers, Sydney Thunder, Royal Challengers Bangalore, West Australia, Kolkata Knight Riders, Jamaica and of course the immortal Stanford Superstars, and they have had value for their coin. If not T20's Bradman, then Gayle is its WG, its Ranji. In its infant years, he is a conceptual force, its vision of the future.

Even to those looking towards us from the not-so-distant 1990s, the limp times after the Windies and before Waugh introduced four an over to Test cricket, Gayle would seem like Kubrick's Obelisk, dressed in his space-garb, his gold pads and his gridiron helmet, his muscle shirt tight on his giant shoulders, beefed-up bat in his shimmering gloves, a quarter of a billion people watching on TV as his blade scythes through...

One in every nine deliveries that Gayle has faced in T20 cricket has been hit for six. One in nine. It feels like a key indicator of how he is shaping a format in which we are really not sure what the prime stats should be. Certainly the side that hits the most sixes usually wins. But even measured in the old-school way, Gayle is getting ahead of the rest by the sort of percentages that Bradman did. By the blunt tool of average, his mark of 43.81 is miles beyond those who can reproduce his strike rate (155.48), while those who can come within five of that average cannot approach his speed: Kieron Pollard strikes at 161.34, but averages 28; Sehwag 159.83 but averages 29; Kallis averages 39.64 but strikes at 113, Sachin 37.48 but at 123. Or consider this: Gayle has as many T20 centuries as Kallis, Pollard, Pietersen, Warner, Sehwag and De Villiers added together.

Lots of other batsman can do what Gayle does once or twice, it's just that Gayle does it so often. His last nine innings in the IPL have been 87, 4, 86, 71, 26, 82 not out, 57, 6 and 128 not out. He has the most runs at the highest average, as he did last year, and it is over that period that Gayle has really separated himself from the rest. Because the T20 game is shortened and heightened, his refinements are harder to spot, but they are there.

His 128 not out from 62 against Delhi illustrated perfectly his current thinking. He didn't score from his first eight deliveries, and by the end of the first powerplay had 10 from 17. In his 'berserk' 57 from 31 against Pune, he had four from his first eight deliveries and 17 from his first 16. In his 82 from 59 against Delhi in the match before that, he had two from his first ten and 22 from his first 19; in his 71 from 42 against Kings XI, it was 21 from his first 19; in his 86 from 58 against KKR he had 23 from his first 25.

The other half of the equation is that the acceleration, when it comes, is unprecedented. Gayle's strategy is not just to hit boundaries but to clear the ropes. He has hit more sixes than anyone in T20 cricket, his 279 put him 81 ahead of the next best, Kieron Pollard. And he is ratcheting it up; in this year's IPL, he has 57 in 14 games. A loose study of his boundary counts shows that he tends to hit fours in his first 20 or so deliveries and then moves on to sixes.

It would be fascinating to hear him talk about it, but he is deliberately enigmatic. His Twitter stream is a flow of emoticons. He rarely gives interviews and when he does, like his mate KP, they tend to yield the wrong kind of headlines. He sees no benefit in demystifying himself, and in truth it is adding to his legend.

All of this makes that lateral connection between those cricinfo stories. Players have always been exiled by boards, but Gayle's illuminating brilliance in T20 cricket, on a global platform, is a mirror that reflects the WICB's own stupidity back at them.

Cricket will reach its agreements with T20, and years from now people will recall its first quaint decade and smile at how old and proper it all looks. A few sages, cryogenically preserved, will be able to say they saw Chris Gayle bat, this format's Grace, this format's Bradman. WG would certainly approve of how little he says, and of how little he runs.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Shane Watson: Against Nature

Few batsmen fail as rarely as Shane Watson. Unfortunately for him, few batsmen succeed as rarely as Shane Watson, either. Here are his consecutive Test innings from July to December 2009: 62, 53, 51, 34, 40, 0, 96, 48, 89, 30, 93; and from October 2010 to September 2011: 56, 57, 32, 36, 41, 51, 57, 13, 95, 5, 54, 45, 38, 22, 0, 36. They are arbitrarily selected, but they represent nearly half of his career, and reflect his almost morbid consistency.

If you were to imagine average as a horizontal line on a graph with each innings marked as a dot either above or below that line, great players would produce something like the cardiograph you get in soap operas as a lead character lies liminally between life and death, with its peaks and with its valleys. Shane's would look more like the moment that the patient flat-lines and the doctors rush in to close the curtains, usher out the mistress and fire up the defibrillator.

Watson is an Australian straight off the drawing board. He presents such a convincing physical embodiment of their sunny idyll that the selectors seem to be investing in the inevitability of his success. You don't need Moneyball or the Availability Heuristic to think that if Shane Watson looked like Simon Katich, he might not have had the same opportunities. In the great certainty that his batting produces lies the uncertainty over him and his team.

He opened the batting in all of the innings listed above, something he has done 45 times out of the 64 occasions he has gone to the crease for Australia. A further six have come at his new position at number three, where, along with David Warner and Ed Cowan, he completes a trio of batsmen far less convincing than the three that follow.

It might not be fair to compare him to Ponting, who he periodically enjoys running out, or Dravid or Lara or Sanga, but it's worth looking at players of the same generation as him who fill that spot. Jonathan Trott has batted 48 times for England, making seven hundreds and nine fifties. Hashim Amla has gone in 103 times for South Africa, and made 14 hundreds and 23 fifties. Multiplied out, Trott is making scores at roughly the same rate and weight as Amla. Watson, who falls between the two in terms of experience, has batted 64 times, making two hundreds and 18 fifties. Trott's centuries include two doubles, a 184 and a 168. Amla has a highest score of 253, and four others above 140. Watto's best is 126. He has one less Test ton than Ravi Bopara.

It's against the nature and the history of batsmanship to be out for a median score as often as Shane is. Ultimately the greatest quality in batting is to be able to stay in, because everything else springs from that. Why can't he do it? Well, that might be asking to know something of his psyche or his soul. From the outside, he seems to be a momentum player, internal rhythms attuned to constant motion, disrupted when the flow is dried by the inevitable raising of defences by the bowling side as the game moves on.

Hashim Amla has made 52 per cent of his Test runs in boundaries and sixes. Jonathan Trott has made 44 per cent of his that way, Alastair Cook 46 per cent, Ricky Ponting 48 per cent, Kevin Pietersen 54 per cent. Watson has a percentage above all of them at 57. Only freaks like Sehwag with 67 per cent and Chris Gayle with 75 per cent go beyond him, and they each have two triple centuries in Test cricket. The stats suggest two things about the way Watson plays: that he needs boundaries to build his score, and that he gets out trying to hit them once the field goes back. Both are symptomatic of a player who either doesn't look at where the field is, or who can't keep hitting the gaps. That's guesswork, though. Perhaps Shane is just a rebours.

NB: Australia's best batting order, as selected by an entirely unqualified Englishman: Warner, Cowan, Hussey, Clarke, Ponting, Watson.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Vale, Simon Massey

The other morning, I'm not really sure why, I googled an old friend and team-mate. His name had come into my head, and it made me smile. I knew he'd have been playing somewhere because he always was. The first result was a notice of his death at 50 years old, just a few months ago.

I don't suppose I had seen Simon for ten years and it had been far longer since we'd played together, but the time didn't feel like distance. Sitting in front of that screen with its unwanted message, the memories became almost overwhelming. Bloody sad, too.

His early hero was Tony Greig. A while back I was going through some old boxes in the loft and I found a magazine that he'd made himself and photocopied. It had a pencil drawing he'd done of Greigy on the cover, playing a drive in those SP gloves he used to wear. Simon looked the complete opposite to Greig, he was short and powerfully built even as an U17 player, but he approached the game in the same fearless way. The first time I saw him bat he hit seven or eight sixes when puny kids like us, a few years younger, could only dream of doing something like it.

He always wore a sunhat when he batted, and in an act of hero worship of my own, I drove my dad mad to get me one. He came home one day with an odd acrylic sort of thing that I took down to the club. 'What's that?' Simon asked, 'a bloody hairnet?' He did it kindly, though; he was always good at dressing room banter. He could do it effortlessly, with his stream of terrible jokes, and he never went too far with them.

We started going to nets together and because he was older and better, I got better too. He could bowl as well as bat. He was bloody quick, with a very sharp bouncer and he could bowl really extravagant inswingers. One summer soon afterwards, when there were stories that Hampshire were interested in him, the county side came down to our club for a benefit game. He must have been around 18. He went in, and all I remember was that he got hold of a really powerful pull-shot off of Nigel Cowley, and Richard Gilliatt, who was Hampshire captain then, caught him on the boundary on the Pavilion side of the ground, the kind of catch that professionals take easily but club players drop.

He got on the staff though, and I remember being amazed to discover that he'd been employed mainly as an off-spinner, even though I'd hardly ever seen him bowl it. This was back in the days when contracts were only really for the summer, so in the winter he started coming down to Alf Gover's school with me and my dad. After lessons, we'd stay all afternoon, bowling at anyone and using a net for ourselves if there was one spare. He eventually got a job there coaching, too.

We had some mad drives home down the A3, Simon at the wheel in the outside lane, the car strewn with gear and rubbish and him telling funny, mostly unprintable stories about the other players at Hampshire. When I think about it now, what I remember most is laughing: the time he turned up with an ill-considered perm, his impressions of various team-mates, the nights he made me go to the gym with him, where he could bench-press god knows what and I had to re-set it on the lowest weight, this weird make-it-yourself-by-adding-water orange cake he used to buy at the supermarket...

He stayed at Hampshire for two or three years, I think, and life slowly took us in different directions (especially after my realisation that I was nowhere near good enough to play the game for a living on The Day Of The Pig, a trial at Northlands Road that Simon organised), but I always felt like I would run into him again, and the few times I did, we picked up exactly where we left off.

He didn't make it as a first-team pro. I always thought he was unlucky. His off-spin, which I faced a lot, wasn't even the best part of his game to me. He was a tremendously powerful batsman before that kind of hitting was really in vogue, and he could bowl all kinds of seam and swing, and field brilliantly too. Most of all though, he was wrapped up in it. I don't know how he felt when he had to let it go, but I can imagine, and I know he gave it everything.

Looking back at some of the online messages from the teams he played for, it's obvious that no-one could have loved the game more. He left an impression everywhere he went, for his fearless cricket and off field jokes. I'd sometimes see the notices he put up around town for the summer coaching courses he ran, with 'ex Hampshire player' on them, and a picture of him. That was typical of Simon too.

Not that long ago, I saw a story on cricinfo about Henry Allingham, then the last man alive to have seen Grace play. In the picture, there were a couple of guys holding onto Henry's arm, and one of them was Simon. I don't know how he did it, but he deserved that, being one degree of separation from the great Doctor. They were both cricket men.

In his obituary, I was so glad to see that his coaching had been recognised, and that he'd been working at the Oval at the indoor school, because the best thing a coach can pass on to anyone is enthusiasm and love and that was what he had. He was a playing member of MCC too, and the Berkshire Gentlemen.

As the years went by, I sometimes thought of looking him up, seeing if there was a net on somewhere. I never did, and now I can't. Simon, I am so very sorry, and so sad that you're gone. You were too full of life for that, and bloody brave, and if it's not trite to say so I hope you're looking out on a good green field, and padded up. The game is richer for having had you in it. Thank you, old friend.