Friday, 19 December 2014

Selectors' notes

Yesterday in (or is it at?) the Big Bash, Kevin Pietersen stepped back deep in his crease to make an angle and hit a delivery from Shaun Tait timed at 149.4kph over wide mid off for a one-bounce four, using a full swing of the bat.

Not a lot of people can do that. And not a lot of the people that can do it are eligible to play for England. Such is our loss.

Today the England selectors are 'debriefed' on the tour of Sri Lanka. Should that take no time, or a long time? It's hard to know. On the one hand, it was entirely predictable. On the other, a few weeks from the climax of another four year 'cycle', almost nothing, from the captaincy downwards, seems certain.

The internal debate has become circular. English ODI cricket is isolated from the rest of the world in the way it's played and the way it is thought about. There's lots of introspection and lot less looking outwards. Partly this is ego and attitude: richly financed and one of the 'Big Three', English cricket feels it can work out the answers for itself. And yet in the series just gone, they faced one man with 434 ODI appearances, another with 390 and another with 300. You can't buy experience like that, and you can't replicate it with statistical analysis. The most matches a single England player has ever appeared in is 197. Big Three? It is the only Test-playing nation not to have capped an ODI player 200 times.

That first Big Bash game was instructive. It may have been a T20, but one side knew how to bowl on the Adelaide wicket and one didn't. The side that did conceded 148. The side that didn't conceded 149 in twelve overs, 83 of those in the first five and a half.

The Melbourne Stars, who lost, knew how they were supposed to bat, they just couldn't do it, or at least most of them couldn't. The two that succeeded to a point were both England players, Pietersen, who made 66 from 46, and Luke Wright who got 45 from 37. Pietersen, who was miked up throughout his innings, sensed after nine or ten deliveries that a big score was needed. He knew they were already falling behind. Wright, dismissed in the twelfth over and interviewed immediately afterwards, admitted he should have scored more quickly. Both tried to react but were constrained by thoughtful bowling, and constant changes. When the Stars bowlers couldn't do the same, carnage ensued.

Luke Wright is the third highest scorer in the history of the Big Bash, yet neither he nor Pietersen will merit much discussion in the England selectors' room.

There are two types of market that judge the worth of England players. One is run by the selectors. The other is decided by the various franchises across the world. Wright, Hales, Morgan, Lumb and Pietersen are part of a fairly small group that are valued by the latter. It's true that some of England's centrally-contracted regulars may work their way onto that list were they to be more available, but equally, plenty haven't.

It's one example of how England value different skills to everyone else. They go to this World Cup with their statisticians having convinced them that totals of 220 may win matches on wickets like Adelaide and Melbourne, which can be low-scoring in certain conditions. They must be the only nation that is factoring this information into their thinking.

England also seem vaguely astonished by how many runs teams now score in the last ten - and certainly the last five - overs of their fifty. This is the impact of T20, of the kind of knowledge that players like Wright and Pietersen have built and been immersed in.

Superfically, the strike rates of England players stack up reasonably well, but perhaps strike rate has now become as blunt a tool for analysis in white ball cricket as average is in the longer game. A batsman like - for example - Pietersen may have a strike rate of 86 in ODIs and 140 in T20s, but that's over the course of an innings. What also needs measuring is the difference between the two (because this indicates how much faster he can score in a different mindset) and his fastest rate of scoring across say 18 deliveries (because this shows his 'top speed' or maximum potential).

Stats like these would offer a guide to the explosiveness that any team possesses, and in Australia, explosiveness will probably be the decisive quality over a long tournament.

I would wager that it's the players that England consider 'fringe' - Hales, Wright, Roy, Taylor, Lumb - that possess it, along with Moeen, Morgan, Jos Buttler and Ravi Bopara. They can probably afford one of the Trott/Root/Ballance type alongside them, but certainly not more.

What they truly lack of course is the fully-rounded, genuinely World class, totally seasoned and proven player. They have no equivalent of de Villiers, Kohli, Sharma, Sanga, Mahela, McCullum. There's only one Dhoni, of course, and one Gayle, one Warner.

The selectors can talk for as long as they want and no-one like that will appear, so England set off with limited expectations, which may be their only advantage. Their best bowlers are the Test specialists Broad and Anderson. The white ball doesn't seem to be swinging, which may render Anderson toothless, and Broad is returning from long-term injury, which almost always means another niggling strain or pull while the body re-toughens itself to competition.

The rest are much of a muchness. The pacemen are erratic and inexperienced. The spinners are ordinary. Pick which ones you like, because they ain't going to scare anyone.

It's another area of deep concern. A generation of promising quicks, from Finn to Meaker to - yes - Dernbach and more, have withered on the vine, victims of coaches telling them to do too much. An outside view is needed. The suspicion of any kind of unconventional spin seems irresolvable too.

As a country, in the development of bowlers, England are reaping what they have sown.

So roll on the squad announcement. Roll on the arguments and the handwringing. When it's all over, we can start the whole process again.

NB: My squad - Morgan (c), Pietersen, Hales, Moeen, Taylor, Root, Bopara, Wright, Buttler, Broad, Finn, Tredwell, Woakes, Jordan, Plunkett.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Blaming of Alastair Cook

Don't blame Alastair Cook for having ambition.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for wanting to captain his country.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for believing he can play one day cricket.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for trying to take the opportunities that he's been given.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for keeping faith in himself.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for being stubborn.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for wanting to appear at a World Cup.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for being seduced by dreams of winning it.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for worrying about what the effects of not being ODI captain may be on his Test captaincy.

Don't blame Alastair Cook for getting out. He's not trying to.

In short, don't blame Alastair Cook for doing what he's doing, because in all honesty we'd probably do the same thing too. Or at least those with the mindset of an international cricketer would. Many of the qualities that irritate in defeat are the same ones that are essential to success.

Cook and his captaincy are a lightning rod for the frustration of watching England play ODI cricket, something that they have been reliably average at since about 1992. If Cook is not fit for purpose  then the attention should be on those who are enabling him to stay in place.

What's going on with Peter Moores? How well is he doing? Is his vision for this England team any less prosaic than last time?

What about Paul Downton, iron-man decision-maker? How clear have the reasons - long-promised - for his big decisions become?

Both can give thanks for the crumbling of India last summer - and in fairness, the brilliance of James Anderson in toppling them. Without that series win, their reign would look grim indeed. A poor World Cup a year into their plots and plans would contextualise their efforts further.

No-one likes the sound of a stuck record, but the support of Alastair Cook as ODI captain has its roots in the post-Ashes meltdown. Blaming him for stubbornly believing he should be captain is like blaming Vince Neil for having a good time: it's simply the nature of the beast. Cook is there to compete, and that is what he is doing.

England's problem is not that Alastair Cook is ODI captain. England's problem is the thinking of those that have kept him there. They're the ones that see English ODI cricket in that way, distinct and distant from the rest of the world. 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Big Syd Gets Swole

Sometimes worlds collide in unexpected ways. I remember exactly when it started because it was the day after Princess Diana died. I'd arranged to go to Cardiff for a newspaper piece, to interview a bodybuilder called Grant Thomas. Neither of us saw any reason to cancel. The roads were empty as I drove down there.

Grant was trying to become Mr Universe. He thought it might be a way out of an ordinary life for him and his girlfriend and their baby. He sat in his living room sipping de-ionised water, several ornate plastic trophies he'd won arranged by the TV. He was on his pre-contest diet which made him feel weak, but he still looked big, even under the baggy tracksuit he was wearing. Through Grant I discovered that although Mr Universe was probably the most famous title in bodybuilding and the only one that people outside of the sport could name, it was actually an amateur contest. Winning it brought no money but instead a potentially more valuable prize, the 'pro card' which would enable him to compete for the really big titles - the Night of Champions, the Arnold Classic and the greatest of them all, the Mr Olympia.

Becoming Mr Olympia was the goal of every pro bodybuilder. Mr Olympia got a $110,000 cheque and a contract worth double that to appear in Joe Weider's bodybuilding magazines. He could charge thousands of dollars for personal appearances at gyms and expos and waltz through smaller contests in which no-one could beat him. Mr Olympia had been going since 1965 but only nine men had ever held the title, including the most famous of them all, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had won seven times before he went to Hollywood and became a movie star.

It was hard to win because building the amount of muscle required to be Mr Olympia took years and years of heavy training, vast calorie consumption and the careful application of steroids and other artificial aids like insulin and human growth hormone. It was impossible to become Mr Olympia, or even a pro bodybuilder, without using them. It was the main difference between the professional and amateur sides of the sport. As Grant admitted, wryly, he couldn't afford to take steroids. In fact, he could only eat the 21 chickens that he consumed each week because he had a deal with the local butcher.

Yet drugs were not the key to becoming Mr Olympia. If they were, any tragic iron junkie or addled gym rat could win. What it took was an extremely rare genetic suitability, plus the will to train hard and live an ascetic but nonetheless dangerous life. And from Grant I discovered that throughout the 1990s, while England's cricketers and footballers, rugby players and tennis stars had found a hundred ways to fail, we had an unbeatable champion that no-one knew about.

His name was Dorian Yates, and he was just about to become Mr Olympia for the sixth time. In doing so, he had ushered in a new era of the sport, the era of the freak, in which even men like Arnold Schwarzenegger were puny by comparison. At his terrifying peak Dorian Yates looked like no-one else on earth, some sort of strange post-human.

A few years later, when I was hunting for a sport to write about that didn't involve interviews set up by PR companies and copy approval and endless, meaningless cliches from both sides, I thought of bodybuilding. It was wild and mad and hidden, and while I might never get to speak to say, David Beckham, I could walk right up to Ronnie Coleman, the man who had succeeded Dorian as Mr Olympia, and ask him whatever I wanted, because outside of bodybuilding, no-one had any idea who he was.

It was a dream of a story. I got to know Dorian Yates, and his business partner, an amazing man named Kerry Kayes, and spent the next couple of years periodically jetting off to see the Dutch Grand Prix and the Arnold Classic and the Mr Olympia itself. Everywhere I went with Dorian, he was mobbed. I learned about the vicious rivalries, the bitter feuds, the drug deaths, the judging fiascos, the nobility and the sacrifice and the determination, the redemptive power of posing to music in a tiny pair of spangly trunks. I got locked in a room with Arnold Schwarzenegger and stuck in a lift with Ronnie Coleman. It was one of the weirdest, funniest things I've ever done.

The last bodybuilding show I saw was the Mr Olympia 2003 in Las Vegas, when Ronnie won his sixth title and got $110,000, a Cadillac Escalade and a gold dagger. Arnie had just been elected governor of California and made a special guest appearance. It was always going to be hard to top, plus once I'd finished writing I didn't really have an excuse to go any more.

It's a world that seems very distant from cricket, but then came the news last weekend of David 'Syd' Lawrence, erstwhile England quick bowler, who, at the age of 50 has become the NABBA West Of England over 40s Champion. He describes getting into contest shape as "the toughest thing I've ever done, physically or mentally".

NABBA is the UK's amateur bodybuilding organisation, and at 50, there's no chance of Syd entering the mad, bad world of the pros - he's far too sensible for that anyway. But to get into the kind of shape he's in still requires Herculean effort. Well done, big man.

NB: The piece about Syd refers to him being at 'zero per cent' body fat. This is impossible. The average pro footballer is at about seven or eight per cent. A contest-shape pro bodybuilder is somewhere between three and four per cent. Anything less is fatal, as the only fat left in the body is that surrounding the vital organs. The things you learn from bodybuilders...

If you want to know the difference between amateur and pro, this is Ronnie Coleman.

NNB: A plug for the book I wrote about it - Muscle.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why is Kevin Pietersen's book unreadable?

In The Information, Martin Amis' novel about literary envy, the protagonist Richard Tull publishes Untitled, a book so impenetrable that not only can no-one finish it, no-one can really start it, either. They become ill trying: headaches, nausea, narcolepsy.  Tull ends up lugging the only remaining copies around America in a sack, which duly puts his back out. I'm starting to feel the same way about KP: The Autobiography.

There it sits, on the coffee table, in the same place it has sat since it arrived three weeks ago, the year's most anticipated cricket book, and certainly its best-selling. Having skimmed it once, I am on page 79, and I'm not sure I'm going to get any further. Its moment already feels over.

I got a copy for free, too. My friend Tom blagged us in to the London launch, where Pietersen spoke for almost an hour and a half. It was comfortably the longest period I or probably anyone else in the audience had listened to him for, and as he loosened up and his natural defensiveness fell away, a more rounded man emerged from the public image.  He may be hard to get along with sometimes, but he's not that hard to understand.

His insecurity, in cricketing terms, is a rare strain of the same insecurity that dogs every batsman, certainly every introverted batsman. It's the highwire act of batting itself, and Pietersen walks it without a net. He is constantly telling himself not to look down.

Unlike every other great of the modern era, he did not grow up with a bat in his hand. He didn't begin batting seriously until he came to England to play for Nottinghamshire; instead he bowled off spin. He doesn't have the emotional and psychological foundation, that rock-solid confidence that comes with a lifetime's endeavour. He is obsessive over practice, perhaps to compensate.

One of the most revealing moments of his talk came when he described the days when he felt like he couldn't play at all; how he would know as soon as he took guard that the bat "felt wrong" in his hands. He didn't really understand why it happened, and his good days appeared from the same kind of haze. He admitted to having long sessions with the England team psychologist to try and unravel the reasons why. I would guess that they are rooted in the very rootlessness of his batting. In a way, the height of his talent has surprised him.

His insecurity is reinforced by the role he plays in the team, where he is encouraged to take the game away from the opposition. When he can't, or when it doesn't happen right away, he gets out and faces the familiar criticism of not caring enough (or perhaps being 'disengaged'.) He protects himself by saying he's never been scared of dismissal. That may be true, but equally, getting out can sometimes be an escape from the pressure.

The enigma of Pietersen is actually the enigma of batting itself, and its great psychological depth. It was evident from the way he spoke that he has a grasp on this. It was easy to feel the mood in the hall shift: what had begun as an already familiar run-through of his split from England became something far more diverse and interesting. During the Q&A at the end, someone asked the obvious question:

"When are you going to write a cricket book, Kevin?"

"I definitely want to," he replied, perhaps unguardedly.

KP: The Autobiography is not it. In fact, KP: The Autobiography isn't an autobiography, either, at least not in the conventional sense. It's a howl of rage and pain, a distorted scream coming through tinny speakers. Like the angry mind, it is (so far, anyway) repetitious, circling around recurring thoughts. The rest is just window-dressing, thrown in there to make it look like something it is not.

His criticisms are not invalidated by this approach. He's particularly good on the IPL and what it means for cricketers, and the dressing room intrigue that he finds so hard to navigate feels oppressively real. But it presents a skewed view of his career, lacking in worldview, lacking in nuance.

What makes it unreadable is the voice it's told in. It's flat, didactic journalese that relies on repetition at the end of almost every key paragraph.
Short. Sharp. Like that.
Yeah, just like that.
It gets old. Fast.
Real fast.

After listening to Pietersen talk for ninety minutes, it's clear that this is not his voice, or even his character. It may have the cadence of some his post-match interviews, but when he speaks at greater length he is far more likable and engaging, almost geeky at times, with a high laugh and a thoughtfulness that belies the brash TV persona.

Capturing him on the page would have needed more time than his ghost-writer got, and a different idea of what the book should be. As it is, KP: The Autobiography is a terrific commercial success that reinforces the binary notions of Pietersen as the most divisive player of the age. What a shame, for him and for us.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Days of Grace

After one of my worst seasons ever with the bat last year, I began 2014 by scoring one run in May (compadres for all-time, me and that run; a prod to extra cover for a harassed single...) Something had to give. Maybe it would be me. I just wasn't sure any more, and batting has always demanded a kind of certainty - of footwork, of judgment, of many things that I was no longer certain about.

Yet the game has a habit of turning round to face you for no reason other than it sometimes does. It's not so much fickle as implacable, neither for you nor against in the long run. It happened for me at Sheffield Park in deepest Sussex, where Grace once turned out for Lord Sheffield's XI and hit an old oak that stands by the pavilion on the full (the square's been turned around since then, but it's a good eighty yards, perhaps more, and it was nice to stand in the middle and have a sense of his power).

It was a shimmering summer's afternoon, with clouds of midges glinting in the soft air by the edge of the woods, and we were facing familiar and friendly opponents. I'd made a few - well more than one, anyway, which was an improvement - when a ball going down the leg side brushed my heel on the way through to the keeper. There was a half-hearted appeal for a catch and the umpire gave it.

'Oh come on...' I said.

It was out of my mouth before I could stop it. I felt bad about that, but not as bad as I did about the decision. I was trudging away when Matt, the opposition skipper, asked me if I'd hit it.

'No,' I replied, completely honestly, and he withdrew the appeal and called me back. It was a generous act on his part, and something that's never happened to me before. I got an unlovely fifty that day, and for whatever reason everything changed. Oh I didn't suddenly become Brian Lara, but my mind cleared. In the dreaded vernacular of the sports psychologist, I got out of my own way. I forgot about the plan I had to stop worrying and play more freely, because I do worry, and I don't play freely, at least not until I've been in for a while (and even then it's debatable.) I started worrying again. It felt good, or at least it felt normal.

Ultimately, the most important thing in the mental half of batting is self-awareness. You can yearn to be the player you're not, but it's more purposeful to embrace the player that you are. I had a few matches in my old position as an opener, and it helped me to realise what I was okay at: reasonable defence; good judgement; I can be hard to get out; I know my scoring shots. It's not the glorious vision of cricket that I carry in my head, but it's something.

And I had the noble Kudos in my hand. Newbery offered it to me at the start of the season (not that I took much persuading) and thinking about not batting with it is already giving me the horrors. It's been a while since I had a bat that I've really bonded with, but me and the Kudos, well... is there language to describe our love?

What a thing it is, played in now and bearing its scars - a hairline crack running horizontally across its slender shoulder, the bite marks from the seam of the ball that did it just below, the blade blushed with the remnants of dye from red leather.

I can still remember the first time I found its true middle, that deep, sweet spot where you feel only a suggestion of contact in your hands. It was a full toss from the opening bowler that I managed to hit straight to mid-off - no run, but a defining moment for me and that bat: the ball left the blade with a throaty crack and rocketed away. I got a few runs that day, but that point of pure connection with the absolute centre of the bat remained something rare and wondrous, a quest worth chasing.

I stopped wearing a thigh pad too. What a revelation that was. My team-mate Hoggy tipped me off to it.

"What's it going to hit?" he said. "Just your muscle. And there's no-one quick enough for it to really hurt..." So I rid myself of the cursed thing and gambolled around like a spring lamb.

It's my final tip to anyone that wants one. Ditch the thigh pad. Let it go. Run free, my friend, and be yourself. Worry, mither, chip them runs out however you can. Let it flow, baby, let it flow...

Saturday, 6 September 2014

England: Jumping The Shark Since '79

In June 1979, I went with my dad to Lord's to watch England play West Indies in the World Cup final. It was the second edition of the tournament, West Indies having won the first with a hundred from Clive Lloyd. They would win this one with a century from Viv Richards, but their total owed its impetus to Collis King, who played one of the great forgotten innings in the history of the game, 86 from 66 deliveries.

That total? West Indies made 286 from from their 60 overs. It seemed then, at the halfway point of the 74th one-day international ever played, a vast score, a forbidding, ice-laden mountain that England could not climb, indeed that no team might scale. And so against Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner, England's openers, Mike Brearley and Geoffrey Boycott reached 129 in 38 overs, leaving the other frontline batsmen, Randall, Gooch, Gower, Botham and Larkins, 158 from the remaining 22.

It all feels like a long time ago, the images of both sides all in white - Packer's 'circus', with its 'coloured clothes' and its vulgar floodlights, was still a dirty phrase around these parts - as Joel Garner established the eternal value of the yorker, pinging England out for the addition of just 65 runs. The Almanack sounded vaguely gobsmacked too, describing Collis King's innings as 'an amazing display' and Richards as 'the hero of the day'. We went home in the haze of a warm evening and didn't really worry too much more about it. Was it 'proper' cricket or not? No-one seemed quite sure.

Turns out it was, and England were already up against it. Although the maths and stats of that day seem arcane - 158 from 22 overs with nine wickets in hand? The WASP would be buzzing - the ambivalence towards it all remains. As players, pundits and punters tear each other apart after India's 3-1 win, now, as much as ever, we look at the limited overs game through the eyes of those who existed way before it.

A win in Friday's final match was welcome, but as meaningless as any in the 3,451 ODIs that have followed that long-ago day at Lord's. England's current methodology is from around the mid 2000s of that number; they're still quite excited to score 290, and still quite daunted by the pusuit of it. The rest of cricket, meanwhile, roars on into a future that is being written from the bottom up - through T20 into the 50 over game - rather than the top down.

The arguments don't need repeating: you can read them anywhere. It's interesting though to consider exactly how much England have changed since 1979, psychologically and philosophically. The answer is, not as much as you'd think. I'll believe they are serious about winning any kind of ICC tournament when they clear a window for the IPL and join in with the rest of the world at last.

NB: That window doesn't need to undermine the primacy of Test cricket, which will become greater by becoming slightly more rare. Seventeen Tests in a year post-World Cup is less about commitment to form than to TV deals, cricketing realpolitik and finance.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

How many problems have England actually solved?

Somewhere in the Multiverse is a reality where Ravi Jadeja held on to Alastair Cook's tremulous edge at the Ageas Bowl, the England captain walked off with 15 to his name and failure dark by his side. His team took another beating, and now he will spend the winter 'working on his batting' at Essex while Eoin Morgan leads the ODI side to the World Cup.

Such is the glorious uncertainty of the game. Instead of the fog of war comes the fog of winning, an equally confusing and deceptive state. On our side of the Matrix, the New Era lives, but how well and for how long?

The captaincy and succession
When questioned over a decision he'd made Mike Brearley often used to reply, 'you never know, the alternative might have been worse'. This early iteration of Multiverse theory was a neat deflection, but Brearley, twinkly-eyed, blessed with success in a different age, did not have the weight of scrutiny that has so benighted Cook - it's hard to imagine, say, Richie Benaud, criticising him on air and in the paper so severely that a clear the air phone call is necessary. What the summer has proved is that on-field strategy is simply a focal point for discontent. The problems Cook faced were more fundamental. He essentially had to conceptualise a new team and a way of playing, and he was going to have to bottom out before any improvement came. That improvement is fragile so far, contingent too on India unexpectedly screeching into reverse.

Yet as Cook's reception at Southampton showed, as a nation we love an underdog. That ovation at lunch marked the moment that the public decided enough was enough: on a human level, Cook was being bullied. As well as Jadeja's drop, this was a watershed. Winning helped, but this moment came first. He will cherish it, and it was won through perseverance.

Cook has dug the ECB out of a hole because there is no realistic successor in view yet. The schedule means that the captain will have until the end of the Ashes next summer to answer the question of what an 'Alastair Cook side' actually is.

Problem solved? For now. 

The opening partnership
Like marriages, the true nature of the chemistry of an opening pair is known only to its participants. It partly what makes finding a good one so difficult. Cook began the summer with another divorce, Michael Carberry following Nick Compton and Joe Root onto the list of post-Strauss exes (he's kept in touch with Joe, though - he's a nice lad). Carberry has every right to feel cheated. He fended off Australia as well as anyone, and nobody was grumbling about his age as another Mitch missile shot towards his throat. The cards fell Sam Robson's way, but to have his technique, such as it is, interrogated and then unpicked by India's attack should see him subjected to the same ruthlessness handed down to Carberry and Compton.

To really establish an opening partnership, both parties have to be in form at the same time. Cook's lack of it has impacted, too.

Problem solved? No.

Talent development
Imagine the England organisation's philosophy as a train on a railroad. It goes forwards in a straight line with inexorable logic. By contrast, the rest of the cricketing world are in cars, driving all over the place, sometimes wasting petrol, sometimes finding shortcuts, able to turn off the path when they need to.

Three years ago, before David Warner had made his Test debut - in fact when the idea of Warner playing Test cricket seemed to some hilarious and offensive - Virender Sehwag said that Warner would not only play Test cricket but would be more successful at it than T20, because there are far fewer fielders to hit the ball past in the opening overs of a Test innings. Viru was right, and visionary too: here was a new career path evolving before our eyes.

On the England train, they still get the agonistes about someone graduating from the T20 side to the 50-over team. The 50-over team in turn is a safety-first endeavour filled with Test players, obsessed with the two white balls and what will happen if someone plays aggressively and gets out. The IPL is regarded in the same way that you imagine Martin Amis views Jeffrey Archer. The forthcoming World Cup is already a write-off.

The evolution of the game is actually quite a complex series of call-and-responses that result in an apparent forward motion. England's modern history has gone from the splintered 90s, when the team strategy lurched from match to match, through the creation of Process that led to 2005 and then the number one spot and the T20 World Cup in 2010, to now, where Process is everything. The response has gone too far. It's divorced from the fluid way the rest of the world sees the game.

Andy Flower is a magnificent human being but he needs to ask some deep questions about England's systematic approach. Loughborough's spin department has produced no spinners. Pace bowlers go in fast and come out slower. The maverick batsmen arrive from outside of the system. Ian Bell had to tell Moeen Ali to bowl faster. Middlesex fixed Steve Finn up, and so on.

The T20 World Cup win was a time of glorious risk. There's little sign of such adventure any more, and that's sad. Who wouldn't love to see a 50 over squad with such zest and life, and who would not forgive them if they came up a little short?

It's time to embrace the new world game, to love the IPL as well as the Ashes. Choose hitters and wicket-takers and crowd-pleasers. Choose life.

Problem solved? No.

The wicketkeeper
Superficially this would appear a simple answer. After all, Jos Buttler is exactly the kind of selection discussed in the section above. And yet... As Viv Richards observed, he is some player. But Viv wasn't talking about the keeping. Jos will never be great at that. He is potentially a dynamic, game-changing top order batsman, a number four who could do what KP did, but in his own sweet way. It's never going to happen if he's stuck with the gloves, which essentially mean a career wasted by expediency at number seven.

Like Sangakkara and De Villiers, he should look to give them up. My choice would be Craig Kieswetter, a better keeper and a big-game player who could inhabit the number seven role while Buttler bats much higher.

Problem solved? Temporarily. 

The fulcrum
Replacing Graeme Swann was about more than finding a spinner. Swann enabled England to play in a particular way, with four bowlers and seven batsmen (including Prior). When I interviewed Alastair Cook for All Out Cricket magazine at the start of the summer, he said that blueprints like that can't be planned for, they have to evolve, and I think he's right.

No-one could have planned for Swann, and similarly no-one planned for Moeen Ali, but he has offered Cook's side a new way. He is obviously a high-class batsman. During his century at Headingley and his rearguard at Lord's, his judgement of line was magnificent. You can't coach that. Where he has suffered is in being slightly unclear on how to bat when the match situation is less defined, a choice made harder by the presence of Buttler behind him. He may need some very clear guidance on exactly what the captain and coach want from him as he walks in.

Yet he is certainly a top order player, and his off spin has progressed to the point that England can pick four seamers, thus offering that new way. His bowling reminds me a little of Nathan Lyon's, not stylistically but in the way it has quickly become much better that it first appeared. He's also wonderfully natural with media and fans, a new cult hero.

Problem solved? Yes.

Kevin Pietersen
There was a moment this summer when, had Pietersen opted to play four-day cricket, he could have applied almost irresistible pressure on Downton, Moores and Cook. His decision not to, and the effect that playing once a week has had on his batting, has been his major miscalculation. He has won the PR wars comprehensively: it's a rare moment when someone in authority isn't apologising to him for something or other.

Thus even his biggest fans (like me) have had to question how much he actually wants to play for England again. I don't think it's impossible, but his tacit admission in signing up to a couple of end-of-season champo games for Surrey is that he must respect his talent and the game. Australia and South Africa are to come, and four of England's top five are unproven against bowling of that class. Opportunity will emerge.

The way that Pietersen has receded as an issue this summer shows how short-term modern sport is. His autobiography, when it comes in October, already feels like it is about ancient history. However, Downton, Cook and the ECB may still be vulnerable to its revelations should they be damning, and Pietersen can afford to play the long game here.

Problem solved: Not yet.

The Schedule
Here, insanity lies. After the World Cup, England play Test series against West Indies away, New Zealand and Australia at home, Pakistan away and South Africa away in a calendar year. How has this happened? How can the players be asked to do it? Geo-politics is the broad answer. The ICC takeover that concentrates financial power in the hands of India and its couple of mates compels them to generate that money. The global ratcheting of the value of sports television rights for media giants trying to sign up customers for all kinds of services means that the next round of contracts will see unprecedented sums paid - and an unprecedented number of games and tournaments in return.

Domestically, the deeply flawed system of the allocation of international games to bidding grounds has manifested in a kind of nuclear arms race of development, with stands and hotels and whatever else cramming themselves around the edges of ambitious venues desperate not to be left behind, who then somehow have to rake their money back. Dead pitches and seven Test summers are the visible tip of that.

 Caught in the middle are the players, already away from home 260 nights per year, and now facing a new kind of compacted, concentrated career that will see them retiring not from age and the fractional diminishing of skills, but burn-out in its many physical and mental forms.

Problem solved: No.

Relationship with the fans
Along with winning a couple of games, the reconnection of England and the fans was Alastair Cook's mission and became his greatest success. It's been quite touching to see him try so hard, both with the media and the public. It has not come naturally to him, and even the inflections in his speaking voice, with its upward lilt at the end of his sentences, works against him, but he has been honest and forthright and approachable and it has worked. It's great to see the team walking around the boundary after games - it's a simple thing, but worth its weight. The players, if not the ECB, have moved closer to the public.

Problem solved: For the players, Yes.

Fast, short-pitched bowling
It may seem a peripheral subject on which to end a screed like this one, but I think it is England's major on-field issue. Australia opened deep wounds, and they are unsteady against it. They were bombed out by India at Lord's and have wobbled on other occasions this summer too. If they can't hack it against India and Sri Lanka on slow pitches, then they won't against Australia and South Africa.

Whoever opens with Cook, along with Ballance, Root, Ali and Buttler, are untested by attacks of that class. The New Era is most vulnerable here.

Problem solved: No.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Zaltzman's Over

I have been playing in cricket matches since I was eleven years old. During that time I have seen most things, and seen them often enough to realise that the game's genius lies in its quotidian variations, its subtle, almost infinite changes to a grand and familiar theme.

And yet last week at Wormsley I was on the field for an over that will live in the memory, and that quite probably will never be repeated - at least not by another bowler. It was delivered by Andy Zaltzman, cricinfo's polymath statistician who runs a parallel career as a stand-up comedian and another as a writer. These duties mean that he doesn't play often, and when he does it's usually as a rather elegant left-handed batsman who - he is quick to remind us - has apparently plundered untold centuries in an obscure Sussex Sunday village league.

He was called on to bowl as a run chase heated up, and he immediately marked out a 40-yard approach to the wicket that began in the shadow of the sightscreen. Most club cricketers have seen this done, usually by a batsman, and usually during a practice match or as a game peters out into an unavoidable draw. The same thing happens every time: they begin their run at pace, dipping into a Bob Willis impersonation a third of the way in, before the realisation that they are still nowhere near the stumps dawns and they start to slow down and worry about what will happen when they actually arrive. The result is either that they stop and deliver a gentle off-spinner or chuck down one that bounces twice and is called a dead ball.

Zaltzman, who sports something of Bob Willis hairdo of his own, did not disappoint on the first part, almost immediately spearing his bowling arm behind him and bobbing his head as he ascribed Willis' semi-circular approach. Yet having gone early with the Bob, and faced with another 30-odd yards before the stumps, he began a remarkable series of leaps, like a cat jumping through tall grass. Each one ate at the distance between him and the crease. His momentum was now unstoppable, perhaps catastrophically so, but somehow he arranged his feet into a delivery stride and slightly off the wrong foot conjured a perfectly acceptable medium-paced outswinger that the batsman, less surprisingly, missed.

Alone this performance might have been enough, but after another couple of outswingers from a truncated run, he announced a change of bowling action from right arm over to left arm round, and proceeded to pitch and turn both of them.

He continued to bowl with both actions throughout his spell, taking a couple of wickets right-arm, and almost one with his left. He has, he said later, bowled an over featuring all four actions: right arm over, right arm round, left arm over and left arm round.

Perhaps more predictably for a comedian, he's given to sledging, but only his own team-mates and only by means of inverse flattery - "like a young Glenn McGrath," he may shout at a veteran medium-pacer who somehow lands a couple in the same spot.

Imagine my delight when I discovered, halfway through writing this, that his first ball was captured on film. You can see it here, now and forever...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Arlott at Words And Wickets

I think of John Arlott as cricket's quiet conscience, a man with soul. He was equally at home with Ian Botham and Dylan Thomas; a wonderful writer and an unforgettable talker: 'in through the eyes and out through the mouth,' as he used to say. One of the most resonant things he ever wrote was a single word, when he arrived in South Africa in 1948 and was told to fill out a landing card. In the box marked 'Race' he put simply, 'Human'.

It is his centenary this year. It's hard to picture him in the current media culture but I think he would have liked some parts of it at least, the great clamour of voices that now comes online. It's democratic in its way, and as the son of a cemetery keeper from Basingstoke who began his working life as a records clerk in a mental hospital, he would appreciate that.

His life, which had its burdens of personal tragedy along with its brilliant, sometimes boozy highs, and which was suffused with cricket and poetry and wine throughout, is being celebrated on Saturday at the Words And Wickets Festival at Wormsley, a ground with enough beauty to have many who see it attempting a stanza or two of their own. Arlott's biographer and friend David Rayvern Allen leads the way.

The idea of the festival is to unite cricket with its literature, and it's almost certainly the only place where you'll get John Arlott and Jarrod Kimber on the same day. Check it out.

"I had a lucky life," Arlott said once. "Well, lucky in some ways..."

Perfectly put, as ever.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The New Era: player by player

England's new era is so new that its landscape shifted not just day by day but session by session during the series loss to Sri Lanka, a nation destined to be forever underestimated here. Their intent was obvious from the moment Kumar Sangakkara arrived early to play for Durham. Here was an object lesson from a man with a Test match average of 58: never settle, never get comfortable. Durham was uncomfortable, and cold. He appeared briefly on Sky, swaddled in more knitwear than Christmas, and duly made nought. Not much was going to stop him after that. His team had been on the road for months, but they proved that road-weariness can lead to road-toughness too.

So this appraisal should be read with due deference to Sri Lanka and their captain Angelo Mathews, a formidable cricketer. They won the series more than England lost it, and England's faults must not be taken as detracting from their quality.

I've rated the prospects of each player remaining in the side on a scale of excellent to poor, for both the short term (the India series) and long-term (through to the end of next Summer's Ashes).

Alastair Cook
Short term: Good. Long-term: Moderate*
It has been frustrating to hear the debate over England's future polarised around Cook's captaincy. This is not football, where the single, lumpen answer to failure is to sack the manager. The threads must be separated out: the wider, deeper and more pressing problems are systemic and will continue to exist whoever leads the team. Sacking Cook will not produce a Test-class spinner; that is the job of the spin department at Loughborough, who have failed. It is the single biggest threat to Cook and to England. It has brought about a four-seamer strategy through necessity, and that has chilling implications in a seven-test summer. After just two of them, Anderson and Broad are limping, and now they face five matches in 42 days on chief exec pitches against a stellar batting team.

Sacking Cook will not stop the reverberations from the removal of Kevin Pietersen, either. Instead it has become a lightning rod for discontent and division under which Cook or his successor will labour. This is the fault of Paul Downton, who swaggered out of a job in banking to say he'd never seen a more dispirited team that England at Sydney (perhaps that's because he'd been in a bank for years). It was a piece of grandstanding that did not address the wider reasons for England's decline (the backbreaking schedule; the 300 nights a year in hotels; the bubble; the grind; a generation of players growing old at the same time, and so on). Pietersen wasn't actually the issue but now he is. This single decision has warped everything else Cook has tried to do. The rapid reappointment of Peter Moores, "the outstanding coach of his generation" in Downton's view, added to the feeling that we are back in the days of how well a face fits.

Cook is by nature a conservative cricketer and that will not change. He leads best by example, as his record shows. When he scores runs, England tend to win. His future hinges more on this than on any funky fields or genius bowling changes. There's nothing wrong with it per se: Waugh and Ponting were great attritional captains. The almost unconditional  backing he has been given by the ECB has, I think, made him feel that he is responsible for everything. If he can forget about some of that and just bat, he'll be okay.

*As captain. He will be opening for England long after  the armband's gone.

Sam Robson
Short-term: Fair. Long-term: Moderate
As I blogged here, evidence is so thin that any prediction is mostly guesswork. However, however... Robson's dismissals so far suggest that he is vulnerable in the most destructive way for an opening batsman: he can be beaten on both edges of the bat around off stump. His slightly odd set-up, with a split grip and stiff, hard hands, mean it may not be an easy problem to solve. A lot of top golfers compensate for fundamental faults in their swing with quick and instinctive corrections at the point of impact. Robson has the hand-eye co-ordination to do the same in a cricketing sense, so when everything is working well, he makes runs. The key will be what happens when he is slightly out of sync. I'd guess he'll survive India, but perhaps not the Ashes, but a guess is all it is.

Gary Ballance
Short-term: Good. Long-term: Good
Ballance also has a very obvious flaw in that his trigger movements set him so far back in the crease that even when he then goes forward, he's not much more than three feet from the stumps. Any lefty is prone to late inswing, and Ballance's position will magnify that. A move to number three will also expose him to high-class bowlers early in the piece, but he appears to have a natural sense of tempo, and he hits the ball hard. There's a bit of Yorkshire dog in him too. He's more Graeme Smith than David Gower, and there's nowt wrong with that.

Ian Bell
Short-term: Excellent. Long-term: Excellent
Bell's only problem at the moment is that he is batting so well it's making him loose. He was bowled twice almost walking at the ball (though both deliveries were killers, flicking the top of off stump). There seems to be no real will from Bell or anyone else for him to replace Cook - he is too diffident a character.

Joe Root
Short-term: Good. Long-term: Moderate
I'm in a minority in being unconvinced by Root, but the Sri Lanka series showed only what we already know. He gets big scores at Lord's and almost nowhere else. That might be unfair (okay, it's a cheap shot) but he was worked over with short stuff in both games, and his survival against it seems to be down to chance rather than method. It's unusual in a back foot player, too. He needs to solve it, or his career will deviate from its apparently pre-ordained course.

Moeen Ali
Short term: Fair. Long-term: Good
Ali's prospects don't reflect his game, rather the problems that England have in trying to balance their team. At the moment he's being used as a spin-bowling all-rounder, when actually he is a high-class batsman who can send down some useful overs. Of the new intake, he has the best technique and looks the most naturally talented. I think he is potentially a top order player. His discipline at Headingley shows that he could probably open, so fine was his judgment of line. That would probably require a mental reboot (although it hasn't stopped Shikar Dhawan), but he could bat at four right now. It would be a great shame if his career stalls because of his bowling, but it could certainly happen.

Matt Prior
Short-term: Fair. Long-term: Poor.
His recall was understandable given the callow nature of England's newbies, but he has had some woeful moments already. Most worrying are the two dismissals to short-pitched bowling directed at his body. Is he a shot fighter? His fitness was tested in the field, and by his erm, prior standards, he fell short.

Chris Jordan
Short-term: Poor. Long-term: Excellent
Jordan will add sunshine to any team. He's exactly the kind of player who will lighten England's mood because he has a natural joy in his game - he's like a young Flintoff, swinging the bat, running in hard, catching flies at slip. The problem is how to fit Jordan, Stokes (and Moeen) into the same team, so he may have to endure a few Bresnan-style rotations before he secures a permanent place. At the moment, neither his bowling nor his batting is quite potent enough to demand inclusion. It would be good to ask a really experienced fast man - a Lillee, a Gillespie - to look at his run-up and see if there is a way to produce more pace without breaking him down in the way that Anderson and Plunkett were broken by the bio-mechanists.

Liam Plunkett
Short-term: Excellent. Long-term: Good.
After an early bout of nerves, Plunkett's return was impressive. Thanks to Jason Gillespie and Yorkshire, we are finally seeing the bowler that Duncan Fletcher thought he would be. It could easily have gone the other way, as it did for Saj Mahmood, so it's good to have someone bowling at almost Mitchell Johnson pace for England. He should be given the new ball at some point, and used in the way that Clarke used Johnson, but that will depend very much on England's other bowlers, speaking of whom...

Stuart Broad
Short-term: Poor. Long-term: Good.
Broad doesn't seem to have recovered from his injuries, and was down at 80mph by the end at Headingley. It's hard to see him making it through five Tests against India, and I hope that England will consider the rest of his career. Players like Broad and Anderson always want to play and push themselves on, but Graeme Swann's fatal breakdown should be taken as a warning. All three have bowled themselves into the ground over the past four years.

James Anderson
Short-term: Good. Long-term: Good.
Caricatured by his great pal Swanny as England's grouch, his tearful post-match interview at Headingley showed the emotional pitch at which he and most international players are asked to operate. Within it was the real story of the Ashes loss: imagine the turmoil that brutal defeat brought about. We all forget this side of the game, and yet it is always there. I was critical of Anderson in Australia. Often his opening spells would begin at under 80mph, whereas Johnson was coming out and bowling full-pelt from ball one. It transpired that Jimmy was injured but felt he had to fight on. He must have trained very hard to be bowling in the high 80s again now - the first time he's been that quick for a while. He was limping by the end of the Headingley Test, and with Broad also struggling, his workload doesn't look like declining. The inevitable will happen at some point - who knows when. At least the first Test against India is at Trent Bridge...

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Sam Robson and the rush to judgment

Geoffrey Boycott was on radio commentary when Sam Robson went to his first Test match hundred. It was an interesting moment because Boycott, in common with almost every expert pundit, had been dubious of Robson's credentials at Lord's. In fairness it was hard not to be: the lad had a horror of a match with the bat, and looked almost as adrift as Simon Kerrigan had with the ball at the Oval last Summer.

Before the applause for Robson had died down, Boycott was asked about his grip, left hand high on the handle, right hand low.

'I don't look at all that, how he holds the bat, whether he picks it up over gully, I just watch his feet, his head and where the ball goes.'

Geoffrey went into a long reverie about technique, taking in Bradman, who had brought the bat down to the ball in a semi-circle - 'no-one's done it since, but he did alright' - and then George Hirst, who had arrived at the Headingley nets from Kirkheaton and immediately started slogging the ball into the rugby club grand stand.

'Now then lad, tha better stop that...' said the coach.

'Look where the ball is...' replied Hirst.

'Everyone's different aren't they,' Boycott went on. 'The good players find their own way.'

It tied in with something I've been thinking about for a while, probably since I blogged this about the golf coach John Jacobs, and the wisdom of sixty years that he had distilled into a single sentence: 'you can tell everything you need to know about the golf swing from watching where the ball goes'.

This, especially in batting's new age, is surely becoming the defining criteria in coaching. The game and its methods are now too diverse to begin from anywhere else. Yesterday, West Indies needed to chase 93 in the fourth innings of their Test against New Zealand and Chris Gayle scored 80 of them from 46 deliveries, walking at the bowlers and baseball-batting consecutive sixes out of the ground from somewhere near the middle of the pitch. 'Look where the ball is,' you could almost hear him say.

England's new intake are symptomatic. Robson has a laundry-list of quirks from a low crouch and heavy head to that odd grip; Gary Ballance plays from so deep in his ground he's often driving with his front foot just past the popping crease; Chris Jordan's decelerating run-up is one of the great mysteries of modern times. Plunkett, who is almost new, has had to reinvent himself having been ruined by the era of bio-mechanics. Only Moeen Ali wears the air of a classicist.

As a credo, 'look where the ball is' means something else too, and that's not to rush to judgment. As poor as Robson appeared at Lord's, he has a Test hundred a few days later. Neither should have too much weight attached to them. Robson hasn't yet offered enough for there to be certainty as to whether he'll make it as a Test opener. If I had to, I would guess that he'll fall short against better bowlers than Sri Lanka's, when his methods get pushed out to their limits, but then I might well have been one of the idiots telling Bradman to bring his bat down straight too. For a while, we'll just look at where the ball ends up.

There is a wider point to be made about the mixed bag that is the nation's top five, and it it comes down to watchability. Cook, Robson, Ballance and Root are an offbeat combo of unspectacular grinders and/or accumulators, with only Bell to break them up. They won't empty bars, and they won't necessarily sell tickets either. It seems odd to say so, but there may be a commercial dimension to their future prospects.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Joe Root: nothing new to report

It would be unfair to start dumping on a player who has come through a desperate winter to make a Test match double hundred, but equally, it shouldn't be taken as a sign that the winter was simply an aberration. Joe Root's innings has yet to be contextualised by the match, the series, the summer and the future in the way that his 180 against Australia was last year. Describing his 200 not out as 'stunning' and 'masterly' as it has been on television is more a symptom of commentators reaching for empty adjectives that a genuine attempt to assess Root's innings or where he stands as a Test match batsman.

It was instead an innings that played into the enigma of his batting. It was most impressive in its opening passage, played when England were within sight of difficulties that, given the parlous state of their cricket, could have caused significant image problems. Yet at the start of the second day, when a seam bowling attack best categorised as of county div 1 standard went all Bodyline for half an hour or so, the deep-set problems in his technique came running back out. As all of cricket knows, Root can be forced back into his crease and squared up, and he'll waft his bat with his weight and body travelling in opposite directions. Sri Lanka's attack simply lacked the pace to exploit the errors. They are still there, waiting, like the troll under the bridge, for better men.

Root has his first thousand runs in Test cricket at an average of 44, a return that suggests that his seamless upward climb from Boy Wonder to star player is still moving frictionlessly on, and yet he has made a third of those runs in two innings, and both at Lord's.

Part of his problem has been a pervading feeling from within the England set-up that Root had been annointed as a player long before his debut. It's built a sort of gentle resentment that might not be there had he been presented in a different light. The better we're told he is, the less good he seems.

England's batsmen essentially have a free pass this summer against Sri Lanka and India if they care to take it up. The wider narrative will be the reconstruction of the bowling, and how regularly they can take twenty wickets without Graeme Swann. Root certainly looks more comfortable at five than anywhere else he has batted, and it's a position that could in time allow him to boss the second half of the order in a way that Steve Waugh or Michael Hussey used to for Australia, when they looked at their line-up as having two cracks at a big score, the top order breaking the bowlers and then that second unit of players piling them on.

Alastair Cook grew up in an England side that made monolithic scores and used them to grind opponents down. On the slim evidence of one innings at Lord's he still likes the idea. It will be interesting to see whether the extra hour or so he batted to let Root get to 200 has any impact on the final outcome if England are racing to take wickets in the last session of the match.

The ultimate meaning of Root's innings may be as simple as a setting aside of the winter horrors. Cricket felt quiet and normal again while he was batting, and that will be of solace to a nervy captain. But it was a knock that told us nothing more than we already knew.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

One (thousand) run(s) in May

Last season was probably my worst ever with the bat. I remember clearly driving home from the final game feeling relieved that it was all over. I've been long reconciled to the idea that I'm not going to get any better. But I didn't really plan on getting much worse, either. A sort of gentle decline which nonetheless contained flashes of old glories and was compensated by extra nous, by know-how and cricket awareness* was more what I had in mind.

Instead, what was in my mind was a kind of white noise, brought on by a series of dismal, self-inflicted failures which had culminated that day in hitting a knee-high full toss straight to square leg. There was no common factor to them that I could figure out, except an increasing desperation. I've always had a rough game-plan to get to twenty and then see what comes. For some reason, probably dating way to back youth cricket, twenty always seemed like the liminal point between failure and success. Twenty wasn't great but it wasn't terrible either, and more often than not, you can go on from it. It's when batting always began to feel enjoyable.

Because I kept failing to get there, it became a thing, self-sabotaging and damaging. On the way to games I'd imagine unlikely scenarios - hitting five fours in the first over I faced, for example - just to be past the hurdle and into the sunlit uplands of a half-decent score. It threw me out. I lost sight of what I'd always been alright at, which wasn't hitting lots of boundaries right away but getting in and set, at riding out the early angst.

On that drive back after the last game, I turned it all over in my head. It was hard to think of a way forward. But as winter came the angst kind of drained away and some good vibes returned. I could start to imagine how it felt to play well again, and I decided that next season would be different. I'd be willing to accept failure - after all, there was nothing riding on how I batted. There are far better players than me in our side, and we'd won plenty of games that I'd contributed very little to. I'd just get out there and enjoy it.

I had a bit of luck too, in that Newbery got in touch through my blog and offered me my first ever free bat - their stunning new Kudos - to play with. 'At last,' I thought, on the smug drive back from their showroom at Hove, 'Sponsored... Exactly as I should be' (I'm not really. They've given me one bat not six, and I somehow doubt they're going to give me another one either, but in my head, it's a sponsored bat).

So, some lovely willow, a new season, a team that, of all the teams I've played for, I love the most. And as we reach the end of May, I have, so far, made one run. Not a thousand. Not even a hundred. In fact not even ten. One. And as today's game is off and we don't play again until next sunday, which is June 1, one it shall remain.

It's happened like this. First game at the end of April - rained off. Our second game, played out in the shadow of Windsor Castle versus the Royal Household CC, was as majestic in setting as it was disappointing in outcome. They had several fearsomely young and hard-hitting South Africans and Australians, one of whom got 140-odd, and who it transpired, didn't actually work for the Royal Household.

That's right, even the Queen has ringers.

I got a four-ball duck. I played back at the first, which ran down the bat face and bounced over the stumps. In my new mood of carefree abandon I drove hard at the second, which was wide, and missed it. I left the third and was bowled by the fourth. It seemed to keep low, but as Jammo, who'd been batting at the other end, pointed out, I'd just not moved my feet. Classic early-season dismissal. I could live with that.

Third game was cancelled, and in the fourth I got in for the last over after some excellent batting from the skipper and others. My job was simply to get that apparent ever-present in my new batting life Jammo back on strike, which was accomplished with a first ball prod to extra cover. One not out (I did get a bowl though. Bowling - it's so stress-free...)

Fifth game - cancelled.

Yes, that's it. Newbery, that's your return. One run in May (the bat has, however been much admired in warm-ups, and the middle really goes).

We all have our dreams, fed by the game. Mine are still there. I can feel those runs, just around the corner. Serendipity, come my way. Bring on June, flaming June. I'm ready...

* It's this year's 'executing your skills'. Cheers Nasser.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

One of the greats, DIG?

The post a couple below this one wondered about the last great batsman that England produced (as opposed to those developed outside of the system). There were some tremendous tweets and comments in response and one name came up repeatedly: that of David Ivon Gower.

To digress briefly, the point of a blog (to me at least) is that it's written quickly, a sort of instant repository for a passing thought. Admittedly, the lack of research is a good get-out for whatever glaring omissions come along but when I wrote the post in question I'd thought of Gower, and had an undeniable flicker as I went to type his name alongside those of Geoffrey Boycott and Graham Gooch - and then didn't.

I've had to question why. Statistically, Gower's Test match average of 44.25 sits perfectly between those of Gooch and Boycott, as does his total of  8,231 runs. Many England fans, perhaps a majority, would pick Gower ahead of both in a heartbeat, and it's easy to understand that. His languid, trippy batting was hardly difficult to love.

Gower's Test career was the first that I saw from start to end. I can clearly recall watching his first delivery, a pirouette pull for four from Liaqat Ali, a seamer who bowled left-arm over. It remains the one thing anyone remembers Liaqat for: from the beginning Gower was sprinkling stardust from his hem.

His batting lives in the memory as something shimmering and ephemeral. He used a wafer of a bat, the Gray-Nicolls GN400, a four-scoop version of the legendary GN100, and he hardly seemed to swing it, yet the ball whispered to the boundary. Watching him live, his pick-up and follow-through both felt late: the gods had given him time, and he understood how to use it. He was a dream.

This drives at the heart of the arguments about him. I've always been fascinated by the role that aesthetics play in sport. Who can objectively know whether Gower found the game easier than Boycott? It's like trying to discover whether we all see colours the same. What's possible to perceive is that Gower made it appear easier. By physiological fluke, through the notions of art and beauty, he  looked better.

Once this was established a whole series of prejudices begin to apply. Gower's public persona as the gifted dilettante was set. Like Kevin Pietersen, he didn't seem overly bothered by getting out. Like generations of gentry, he appeared to regard cricket as a diverting way to pass the time, rather than an all-consuming obsession. Last in the nets and first out, that was David.

His county career pales when compared to Boycott's or Gooch's. He was apparently dropped from his school rugby team for 'lack of effort'. In his long-standing role as a TV presenter, he conveys the impression that the gig is another extension of an enviable lifestyle. As with his batting, charm is persuasive.

And yet... You don't score all of those runs without wanting to. No-one goes 119 Test innings without a duck by not being switched on from ball one.

Gower faced some fearsome attacks. His average and hundred count against Australia compares well with Boycott and Gooch, but against West Indies he made just one century and averaged 32, compared to Gooch's 44.83 and five hundreds, and Boycott's 45.93 and five tons. They both opened, too. It's here, against the best of all, that perhaps Gower falls short.

What is greatness anyway? It's easy to grasp when a player is considerably superior in terms of stats and longevity and success, less so when they play for a weaker side or burn bright and short. Ultimately, Gower's batting spread joy and grew a love for the game in those who watched, and that is an enduring legacy.

It's the best answer I've got, too...

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Pete and Ali's first day, brought to us in partnership with Waitrose

Pouring money into Team England is no longer a frictionless exercise in logo-led corporate brand recognition, as the supermarket Waitrose are discovering. Today was the launch of their partnership with the national side and a jolly morning it should have been, hosted at their kitchens in central London, with lots of photo opps of Alastair Cook cooking and maybe even feeding Peter Moores with a long spoon while cracking a few gags about their recipe for success.

It was Moores' first public engagement since his reappointment was made official at Lord's and with a fresh ODI squad due to be announced too, all was set for a good news day - the first for a while.

Within minutes though, they were announcing the sacking of Graham Gooch, a parting that may have been inevitable given England's diminishing returns with the bat, but one that immediately cast minds backwards rather than towards the future. There was no replacement lined up to leaven the news, no full reshuffle of the backroom staff to be presented as a progressive move.

Alastair Cook was soon on Sky Sports News, Waitrose logo shining from his shirt, explaining the decision to part with his mentor. Perhaps it was designed to show a decisive kind of toughness. It really didn't. Humiliating a 61-year-old man who has given his life to the sport - and it's hard to imagine that having your sacking announced to the nation at a media launch is anything other than humiliating - seems like a callous misjudgment.

Cook has been let down here - and again it was he, rather than Moores, who was explaining the decision. Far better advice would have been to begin the new regime with good news, perhaps the ODI squad announcement with the accent on a couple of young guns being given their chance.

Moores and Cook could have appeared strong and decisive had they waited until the backroom staff had been fully reshaped and then presented them to the nation as a brand new team. Now, any further changes will start to feel like death by a thousand cuts. Cook endured the indignity of having a facetious Tweeted application for the batting coach's job from Kevin Pietersen read out to him during his live Sky Sports interview. The feeling of day-to-day chaos continued.

Waitrose must be wondering what they have let themselves in for. All they wanted to do was sell a few more groceries.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Who was the last great batsman that England produced?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Alastair Cook and The Monkey's Paw

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Fergie, Gilo and the meaning of control

There's a terrific scene in Class Of 92, the documentary about Manchester United's FA Youth Cup winning side of that year, when its six most famous players, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville, are sitting in a restaurant reminiscing about the ways in which Alex Ferguson would tell them they'd been dropped from the team.

'He came up to me once and said, 'son, you're not playing today, but don't worry about that, there's a game in two weeks that I need you for',' said Gary Neville. 'I thought, 'hang on there's three matches before then...' I couldn't work out whether I'd been dropped or whether he thought I was so important, I had to be saved...'

'He told me it was too hot once...' said Scholes.

'He said to me the pitch was too nice,' recalled Butt. 'He said, 'November's when I'll need you son, when the ground's heavy...'

'I never used to answer my door if we were in the hotel,' said Giggs.

'Yeah, you used to hear that little cough in the corridor, and you knew it was him,' said Gary Neville.

'He wouldn't come if you were playing,' continued Giggs, 'but I used to think, 'if he can't find me, he can't drop me...'

It was all said with affection, and left you thinking that they would still run through walls for Ferguson if he asked them too.

When he reflected on what made him such a successful manager, Ferguson said that the most important element was control. As soon as he felt a player was threatening that control he was ruthlessly dispensed with.

While direct comparisons between football and cricket are specious, it seemed obvious that England's most successful coaches of recent years, Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, each had a measure of that control - at least until their eras descended into horribly similar kinds of entropy.

Ferguson's notion of control was partly psychological. Being aggressive and dictatorial was only a temporary fix. His real authority came from the ongoing success of his methods, which he was clever enough to adapt to changing circumstance. Often - as with the cough in the corridor - his presence was enough.

Similarly, Duncan Fletcher's legend was neatly coined by the title of his book, Behind The Shades. He understood the value of silence, of being enigmatic. Many England players tell of the strange sensation that would overcome them when they felt his presence behind the net in which they were batting.

Fletcher would say very little to his players, thus everything he did say (and a lot of what he left out) became imbued with significance. His technical knowledge was crucial: his charges realised that he understood deeply what he was talking about. Like Ferguson, he was ruthless in his judgment. He built close relationships with his captains, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, and kept the rest guessing.

Andy Flower's control came from a different place. His record as a player was better than any of the team, and the strength of character he had exhibited in essentially exiling himself by protesting against Robert Mugabe spoke of unimpeachable integrity. Like Fletcher he appeared introverted and steely. In aligning himself with a new kind of technical analysis, he moved the English game forwards. He knew more than the men he coached.

As Ferguson had asserted, once control was gone, so, soon afterwards, was the coach. In part this was simply the natural cycle of events. External forces are often uncontrollable. Yet both Fletcher and Flower brought England momentous and joyous successes that have broadened the horizons of the game here. In his later years, Ferguson sensed that the amount of money in football had made the players too powerful to control with explosions of anger and the use of authority, and while Fletcher retains much of his enigma as he coaches India, his presence feels different and lighter there.

Now that England have been eliminated in Bangladesh, the next major event is the appointment of a new coach. If the unsubstantiated story that Gary Kirsten has turned down the job because he was unable to select Kevin Pietersen is correct, then control is already an issue. Ashley Giles is the favourite, and the idea of a coalition with Graham Thorpe and Paul Collingwood carries much of the same appeal of the rumoured takeover of Manchester United fronted by the Class Of 92. But they lack the natural advantages that Fletcher and Flower had in asserting control, mostly because of their familiarity. In an age of uncertainty, that could be key.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Jos Buttler's alternative future

'He is one of my favourites... he is a class act.'

When Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards rates a batsman it's fair to say that he may have something, and it's hard to argue with the great man when considering the extraordinary hand-eye talents of Jos Buttler. Richards himself was one of the first players to walk outside his off stump to the faster bowlers and flick the ball from his toes to the fine leg boundary. Buttler plays a new age, supercharged version of the same shot, and perhaps King Viv recognises his fearlessness. Buttler, in this early phase of his international career, either dominates or gets out.

In the generational turnover of talent England are in a downward cycle, and it's compounded by their rigid perception of what that talent should look like. A new way is coming, and it's only natural that players will make themselves known in a different manner - David Warner and Steve Smith are at the leading edge of the phenomenon.

England cannot afford to waste Jos Buttler, and by encouraging him to keep wicket they are not adding to his value but confining it. He should give it up. Anyone wanting to bat seriously in the top order in Test cricket can't keep wicket too. The matches are too close together, the series condensed by the demands of other formats. Even the masterly de Villiers can get no higher than five with the gloves, and, like Sangakkara, he's surely going to jettison them soon.

Buttler is a long way removed from such company but there is a glint of something special, as Richards has said. England have tacitly acknowledged an impending future of prosaic batting in their urge to have Eoin Morgan play Test cricket again. A top order that one day contains him and Buttler crackles in a different way.

The only prosaic part of Buttler's game is his keeping. It's painful to watch his unsuitable physique put through its stresses and his restrained character forced into its cheerleader role. The real giveaway though, is the sound. The ball whispers its way into the gloves of a natural keeper. In the West Indies, outfield throws smacked into Buttler's and then shivered uncomfortably down the stump mikes.

England have an odd attitude to keepers. For a side that believes in the advantage of marginal gains, they don't see them as coming from behind the sticks (I have an alternative theory). Graeme Swann, just out of the dressing room, probably gave away the current view on Buttler's position when he said on radio last week: 'Jos Buttler is not ready for the Test side as a keeper or a batsman... Jos needs two or three years with Lancashire. I think it could set him back to throw him in now.'

This at least is true. He should be offered the chance to fulfill his potential as a batsman, starting with a season of opportunity in first class cricket along with his international white ball commitments. England need to look again at Craig Kieswetter and also Steve Davies, who might become genuinely effective at seven in Test cricket and who are superior keepers.

Most of all, Andy Flower, in his position of almost unprecedented influence over coaching and theory, could think hard about exactly how the new generation of batsman are going to manifest themselves. It will almost certainly be in T20 cricket and the criteria for judging Test match potential should shift along with that.

There will always be the de Villiers and the Kohlis, the Sangas and the Pujaras, who are to the manor born. But the last decade has brought Pietersen, Warner, Steve Smith, Eoin Morgan, Shikhar Dhawan and others that began far less conventionally.

When the notion of David Warner wearing the Baggy Green was inducing not only ridicule but indignance, Virender Sehwag, avatar of modern batsmanship, said that he'd be a better Test player than he was a T20 hitter. 'All the fielders are around the bat,' Sehwag told Warner. 'If the ball's there in your zone, you're still going to hit it. You're going to have ample opportunities to score runs. You've always got to respect the good ball, but you've got to punish the ball you always punish.'

He wasn't far wrong, was he? It's not a bad place for Buttler and Flower to begin. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A day at Newbery

What is it with bats, those inanimate chunks of wood that somehow, sometimes appear to live in the hands? I wrote a piece about the myths surrounding Sachin Tendulkar's for ESPN's book on the maestro - the bat he used for the great rush that took him to ninety-nine international centuries, its grain split open and darkened by the dye of a thousand cricket balls, told a story of obsession. There was the time I met Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, and Punter (as I never call him) remembered his first: 'a Duncan Fearnley, size five, kept patching it up, taping it up... still got it somewhere'. Mike Hussey's was a County Clubman that cost $19, a sum that cast him as a rich kid in Ponting's mind.

The role call of mine is long and noble: the first a Stuart Surridge, way too heavy, the big red initials of its logo stamped into the wood; a St Peter my dad acquired from a man on a building site; a GN 100 Scoop (got my first ever hundred with that bad boy); a Powerspot in one of those odd white poly covers that came along for a while; a couple of Slazengers, including a V12; A County Geoffrey Boycott signature (never got out with that one... well, sometimes); Gunn & Moore, Kookaburra... had 'em all and and plenty of others too.

There's something totemistic about them, especially now, with their mad names and their glowing stickers, and yet even though cricket bats, like everything else, have entered the commercial age, they retain a mystique. They are still organic, unique, once-living things subject to infinitesimal change in weight and fibre that can make them feel one way one day and one way another.

So when an invitation from Newbery to go down to Hove and try their new bat the Kudos in the nets against a couple of Sussex bowlers came... well. I couldn't get in the car fast enough. As a declaration of interest, the deal was that I could keep the bat in return for blogging about it. And as another, my current bat is a Newbery too, bought with my own hard cash from the same showroom last year. There is a deep connection to bats and batmaking there that I wanted to try, and although I had perhaps my worse season ever, the blade itself was blameless (it was once chucked quite violently into the boot of the car after I was caught off a gentle leading edge - at deep fine leg).

The Kudos comes with a little mystery of its own, each is made by one of three brothers at a location in Sussex that no-one seems keen to reveal (one of the brothers is said to have been an apprentice to John Newbery himself, the others, who knows...?) The bat is handsome and understated, the blade very slightly shorter than usual, allowing the brothers more leeway in keeping the deep swell of its middle while taking weight out. I went for the lightest one in the shop, a hair under 2lbs 7oz, but you'd never guess to look at it. It had a slither of heartwood, too, and nine grains. I've always liked Newbery's handles, slender at the bottom and oval-shaped, and they fit particularly well with this bat. The pick-up is gentle and all of the weight low, which is where you want it on club wickets.

It faced a stern test right away at the indoor school behind the Hove pavilion, where Lewis Hatchett, James Anyon and Steve Magoffin loitered, ready to roll a few down. Young Hatchett bowls left arm over from a tremendous height. Anyon looks as though he's spent the entire winter in the gym. Magoffin watches the first deliveries and leans back on a pile of chairs, knowing that he won't be needed here...

I play the trusty 'haven't batted for two months lads...' card, and am treated gently enough. The Kudos is soon scoring heavily, though, an inside edge from an Anyon inswinger a certain boundary (to much amusement) and although I catch the inevitably short rejoinder high on bat, it flies well into the stands (or is caught at deep square leg, depending on your view - six it was, then).

The middle, on the couple of occasions I found it, is deeply satisfying, the ball staying on the surface of the bat for a fraction of a second longer, its weight biting the willow before cracking off. The notion of the shorter blade might be purely psychological but it's enough for the handle to offer some extra whip. It reminded me of the long-gone expression 'give it some long handle' - there is a nice echo of it here.

Last season I kept a weather eye on the bats that club players actually buy and use. Of the big manufacturers, only Gray Nicolls and Gunn & Moore have any real presence. I see them at every game, but alongside are lots of smaller and boutique makers. My theory is that bats are expensive now and quality and personal service add to the pleasure of choosing and buying one. Newbery, Millichamp & Hall, Salix, Laver & Wood, Chase, Mongoose - all appear more often than (for example) adidas.

Newbery, and others, are a little like ghostwriters sometimes too. In the showroom at Hove was a small huddle of bats for pros, awaiting shipping and stickering with the logos of other manufacturers. It must be slightly heartbreaking to see your work go uncredited, but the provenance of cricket bats remains an oddity of the business, one that adds to the intrigue and the myth that surrounds them.

Will the Kudos join my personal pantheon of greats, retired to Valhalla up in the loft after their sun-filled days of glory? It feels as though it might, but we will see...

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Elegy For KP

Last year a writer I liked very much died. Jonathan Rendall published three books, one of which, Twelve Grand, is among my favourites by any author. He was a boozy, melancholic soul with a low-lit style and his obituaries didn't hold back on his dissolute, sometimes chaotic life. His writing was admired by Tom Stoppard and he won a Somerset Maugham prize but almost every piece on him noted his 'wasted talent', partly because he had died so painfully young. Well he didn't seem to have wasted it to me.

It's the nature of talent, when it manifests itself as apparently effortless brilliance, for it to appear both ephemeral and carelessly used by the characters who possess it. Yet the life is inseparable from the art, indeed the art is art because it is informed by the life. Jonathan Rendall couldn't have written the way he did without being the person that he was, and it's analogous that Kevin Pietersen could not bat in the way that he does without being the man that he is. The talent might appear different because those of us with lesser ability imagine ourselves guarding it jealously, rationing it out, tending it like a secret garden.

In 2004 I had become distant from the game. I'd lived in Australia for a while, hadn't played much, just about kept up with it in the papers. It had receded in my interior life. I was in my lounge one morning in the winter, the sun was out, I was struggling to write something or other and I realised that England were about to play South Africa. The area had cable and I had a bit of money, and before I really thought about it, I was on the phone getting Sky Sports turned on. In the couple of hours that it took, I realised that I felt more excited and happy than for a while. The game was back. I didn't know why, but I could feel it.

That was the series when Pietersen played his three extraordinary one-day innings, centuries struck at an emotional pitch as true as a tuning fork. At the time, and right through until the following summer, he was talked about as a one-day player with a technique too iconoclastic for Tests but I knew with a rare certainty that it wasn't true. He hit 92 in a game at Bristol and the wave he was making became irresistible. The story was that he was picked over Graham Thorpe, but really the choice was between Thorpe and Bell. After Bristol, Pietersen was playing either way.

Lord's was extraordinary. England were hammered but on the first morning the bowlers roughed Australia up and each time Pietersen batted he murdered Shane Warne. It was obvious from the way he walked out how much he wanted it.

From that game on, I was more invested in his batting than in anyone else's. Something was happening, not just to England, but to the way the game was played. There were some batsmen more skilled and better than Pietersen in that phase, but he had this innate imagination and feel. His game was an act of creativity and it's no exaggeration to say that he broadened the horizons of batsmanship.

He wasn't playing in isolation of course. The game was changing - he arrived, essentially, at the same time as T20 - and Virender Sehwag was pushing at the limits too, along with Chris Gayle and Adam Gilchrist and then lots of others. There was a kind of kinship between them. They were not formal heroes like Tendulkar or Dravid or Ponting, and their effect on the future would be different.

But KP was English, or at least he was playing for England, and the English psyche, deeply conservative, deeply repressed, is a challenging place for the non-conformist. It was doomed from the start and I knew it. In a way, it's amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

It's fair to say he was part of the reason for starting this blog. Once he had commanded the imagination, it was hard to resist writing about him, because in working out what he was doing, I was often working out what I felt I knew about cricket, or what it meant to me.

When a player like Pietersen or a writer like Jonathan Rendall comes along, it's easy to develop a relationship with their work that leads you to think that you know more about them than you do. All you really know is that their talent speaks to you in some way.

Twelve Grand seems like an effortless book, and yet Rendall worked so hard on it he was briefly hospitalised. As Kevin Mitchell wrote about him, his love affair with writing 'ebbed away' after that.  Pietersen trained and practiced harder than anyone: the imagination demanded it. Nothing good can be effortless at that level.

I've found it quite hard to care about the arguments over who's done what and what went wrong that have raged today. Four men sat in a room and brought things to an end, and I think in years to come it will be a burden on them, maybe not publicly but when they have to be alone and remember it. If Pietersen hadn't been reintegrated, then we would not have had Mumbai, perhaps his greatest innings and one of the best of the modern era. So what will we not have now?

Overwhelming talent wants us to think it's wasted because, along with being apparently effortless, it seems somehow endless, inexhaustible. It works on the imagination. Pietersen's career will never be seen as complete, and he will have to live with hearing about it. His talent has not been wasted though. It's better to write three good books and leave 'em wanting more. Pietersen's legacy is not one of numbers, but what his batting has meant to those who have watched it.

For a while now I've wondered if he'll be remembered as a great player or a player of great innings. It doesn't matter. He will be remembered. He will live.