27.11.14

Playing Hard Ball

I don't really play cricket anymore. The last time I did, in 2011, I batted for quite a long time and then couldn't move properly for several weeks. Not for the first time, my back had gone.

I never say I've retired though. Once I could have been a contender, and I could be again, in my mind anyway.

My brother, though he is nearly ten years older than me, still plays village cricket in Derbyshire. Earlier this year, in the summer, I visited him and spotted a ball - a brand new cherry red ball - lying around in his house. Prompted by me, we went outside on to a large grass area near his house and threw it to each other. We weren't far apart and we didn't throw it very hard.

I grew up with cricket balls. Back when I was young they hadn't invented the sort of soft balls I see kids playing with on the Taunton outfield. There were tennis balls, which we tended to play with in the garden to avoid breakages, and there were what were then called composition balls, which, in truth, weren't much softer than the real thing. They were just cheaper and less responsive.

When I was younger, cricket balls and their hardness never really concerned me. Many's the time, as a dour front-foot prodder of an opening bat, I returned home with garish bruises on my thighs, and my stomach, and one time a pain in my hip bone that took half a year to subside. This time, though, I was struck (both literally and metaphorically) by just how hard a cricket ball is. In comparison with the ball used in virtually any other game, cricket balls are stupidly hard. Dangerously hard. Get hit by one in the wrong place and you could get badly hurt.

I made the comment, only partly in jest, that if someone invented cricket today and made the ball as hard as that, the game would be banned for Health and Safety reasons.

I grew up with other things too. I am old enough to remember Thomson and Lillee terrorising England's batsmen, and I am old enough to remember Michael Holding bowling to the helmetless Brian Close and John Edrich at Old Trafford. I am old enough to remember Peter Lever hitting Ewan Chatfield on the head. I also remember reading that one of Jeff Thomson's mates - Martin Bedkober he was called - had died after being hit in the chest by a cricket ball.

I knew then that cricket balls could kill you, but somehow it didn't really enter my thinking again until this morning, 39 years on, when I heard that Phillip Hughes had died.

Other people had things like this, but they always recovered. Chatfield was nearly killed - his heart stopped - but years later he was still tirelessly running in for the best side that New Zealand ever had. Phil Simmons almost went the same way at Bristol but still had a Test career ahead of him. Michael Schumacher, Jules Bianchi. Nobody knows what state they are in, but they are still alive. It was only boxers who died.

Until today.

Cricket has had days like this before. On hearing the news my mind instantly went back to the time I woke up on a similarly dark November morning and heard that Malcolm Marshall had died. And, later, I thought of the time that I was listening to TMS and heard Christopher Martin-Jenkins say that Ben Hollioake had been killed in a car crash.

This morning seemed a little different, though. Marshall had cancer; car crashes happen all the time, to all kinds of people. An international cricketer had never been killed by a ball before.

Now cricket has Twitter. People from all over the world post messages, montages, pictures, say profound things, say stupid things, say insensitive things. But the feeling is of a community coming together. The world is full of people who know nothing of cricket, and people who think they know enough of cricket to say that they dislike it. But for those of us who are left, no game engenders such loyalty and love, both for the sport itself and for the people who play it.

I hardly saw Phil Hughes bat live. Just his two Lord's Tests, in 2009 and 2013, when he failed as his homespun New South Wales country boy's technique was badly exposed. But I had seen him enough on TV and I had seen enough of his statistics to know that he would probably have come good in time. People always say things like this, but it is true to say that his best years were ahead of him. He was a contender.

Sadly, another thing being middle-aged teaches you is that 25 is no kind of age to die.

12.10.14

The Age of Pietersen

As Kevin Pietersen himself has said in the past few days: 'How did it come to this?'

When Kevin Pietersen made his debut for England in a one-day international against Zimbabwe in Harare in November 2004, Twitter was something birds did.

How did we end up with England's most-capped cricketer arguing via the radio with a bloke from the East Midlands who just happens to know a few England players, about who had access to a Twitter account that was, when all has been said, a parody?

It is squalid, and it is pointless, but it is more than that. As others better qualified to comment than me have said, it is sad. Sad that an era in which the England cricket team were really successful - as we have seen and been told they were far from popular, but they did win matches, and series, and played some great cricket in their way - will, at least for a time, be recalled as an era which ended in dispute and recrimination, claim and counter-claim.

The truth according to Pietersen, or the truth according to Graeme Swann.

What actually happened, or 'the greatest work of fiction since Jules Verne'.

Unless you were there, you will never know.

We are only days into this but it already seems as though all that can be said has been said. Of course, this is never true. There is always more. In this sort of stupid, childish situation, someone will always want to have the last word.

Something which I haven't seen said yet is that 'it was always going to end in tears'. But you can be sure that someone, somewhere, will be thinking that, and saying it. And, as with many people you met around the grounds of England during the age of Pietersen and who would tell you for nothing why they didn't like him, or didn't trust him, they will be spectacularly wrong. Because, for a long time, for all Pietersen's unorthodoxy and flamboyance and apparent immodesty, it did work.

Christ, it worked. 8,000 Test runs at 47, with 23 centuries, say that it worked.

For a long time there were no tears, except, perhaps, the tears of joy which may have been shed by people who saw an England batsman doing things which they never thought they'd see.

These days few people remember the Norwich Union League, but a fair few Somerset fans will recall the time in 2002 when Pietersen took their county for two centuries in two days, one at Trent Bridge and one at Taunton. 269 runs off 201 balls, with 25 fours and 10 sixes. This, it seemed, was a player.

Then there were the ODI tons in South Africa; a time which gave new meaning to the phrase 'batting under pressure'. Then the Test debut at Lord's, head hung low on a gloomy last afternoon as the England lower-order disintegrated around him. Then, seven epoch-making weeks later, the last day at The Oval. Opening out against Lee after lunch, Tait scrambling in the dirt at fine leg, ticking off the overs to safety with Giles, the crowd going wild as they embraced a future most didn't expect and rejected a past many couldn't remember.

Then more great times at Lord's. For some reason I have a particular memory of being in the Long Room when Pietersen returned after scoring a second innings 134 against India in 2007. The members applaud him to the rafters and Pietersen, who walks with his customary upright stride and air of detachment, smiles slightly, his mask of coolness temporarily lost. You sense that it has occurred to him that he has been accepted. Things ran like this for a long time - through the captaincy, through the first Moores era and into that of Flower - there were detractors, of course, in many cases people who couldn't see past the accent and the tattoos, but there were just as many of us who saw him for what he was: a player of genius, playing for a country which doesn't really do players of genius.

For many, 2012 was a watershed, but still we had Headingley and Mumbai, two of the greatest innings ever played by an England batsman.

Many people have written about what it was like to grow up following England in the barren nineties. Those of us who are a little older can remember the Brearley era, and 1981, and 1985, and Botham and Gower, so the success enjoyed by England in recent years hasn't seemed quite so unusual. But, for all the relative joylessness, and the surplus aggression, the years between the regaining of the Ashes in 2009 and the end of it all in Australia in the winter of 2013-14 have been sweet ones. Of course, it has been just as much the age of Cook, or of Swann, or of Prior, or of Flower, but such is the nature of the English cultural psyche, whereby genius - and especially genius combined with outspokenness - is innately mistrusted, the greatest thing about them was the fact that we, England, had a batsman who, on his day, could frighten any team in the world.

Now this is gone for good. Whatever Pietersen may say - and, as an intelligent man, you have to doubt whether he really believes it - it is over. He will never play for England again in any form of the game.

So it is best to recall the Age of Pietersen for what it was. Because, for all kinds of complicated reasons, it will be a very long time before anything like it ever comes again.

17.8.14

Starting Out

In early 2013, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the annual Wisden dinner, held at Lord's each April to celebrate the publication of the most famous annual publication in the sporting world.

I wrote about it here.

The people around my table in the Long Room that evening included Mike Selvey (who was frustratingly out of easy conversational reach) and the ageless Wisden Middlesex correspondent and sometime radio commentator Norman de Mesquita, who is now, sadly, no longer with us.

At the far end of the table was a young man from Taunton, sitting with his father. Tom Abell, who was there to receive the Schools' Cricketer of the Year award, was polite and quietly impressive company. After he'd received his leather-bound Wisden from David Gower the talk was of his degree at Exeter University, his ambitions for the future and anecdotes from his father's playing days, which coincided with various teams and players of my own acquaintance. At the end of the evening I advised him to savour the moment, as it was something which, in years to come, he would look back on with affection, even if it didn't seem such a big deal at the time.

Sixteen months later I am at the County Ground at Taunton as Tom Abell makes his debut in first-class cricket for Somerset against Warwickshire. This time there is more distance between us: I am in the Ian Botham Stand and he is on the pitch.

After winning the toss his Somerset team bowls and he fields. He takes two catches, one to remove the centurion Ian Westwood late on the first day, and another to end the Warwickshire first innings, early on the second morning. He performs these duties competently, but it is no more than we should expect from a professional cricketer. A sterner test seems certain to come when he is required to bat, and so it proves. Abell, in at 4, comes to the wicket after Johann Myburgh is dismissed, and Somerset are 55 for 2. As Myburgh is out to the last ball of an over from Richard Jones, Abell has the temporary sanctuary of the non-striker's end to collect his thoughts, but any reverie he experiences is abruptly shattered as Nick Compton edges the second ball of the next over, bowled by Oliver Hannon-Dalby, into his stumps. Somerset are 55 for 3, and both batsmen are yet to face a ball. One of them, Tom Abell himself, has still to face a ball in first-class cricket.

From here, assisted by the experience of James Hildreth (although, given Hildreth's shaky form, it is hard to discern which is the experienced man and which the rookie), Abell slowly finds his feet, picking up runs on either side of the wicket with nudges and glances and covering up when required, his bat as straight as a die. He receives his fair share of short stuff, but, unlike his senior partner, he is never drawn towards recklessness. He ducks, he weaves and he leaves with the maturity and patience of the old pro that he is not.

As wickets continue to fall, Abell silently and unspokenly mutates into the senior partner. As Alex Barrow, Peter Trego and Craig Overton come to the wicket, he is the one who does the talking, focusing on the uncertainties of the situation and emphasizing the way they should play. When they each depart, he is still there, defending the good balls with efficiency of technique and economy of effort, and dealing with the rare bad ones with the sort of timing which can surprise and unsettle even experienced fielders. An example of this comes when he forces Jeetan Patel towards Jonathan Trott, who is fielding at mid on. As the ball comes towards him, Trott moves slowly, feeling that he has it covered. However, as the ball reaches him it is clear that it has much more pace on it than he first thought and he is forced into a late, scrambling dive. It is too late, though, and the ball is past him and into the boards.

On another occasion, Patel bowls a rare long hop and Abell is quick to abandon his circumspection. His bat comes down somewhere in the hinterland between a square cut and a back foot drive and the ball races to the fence like a shot from a gun. The thought starts to intrude that not only is this uncommonly assured batting for an inexperienced player, it is, in its adaptability and recognition of opportunity, batting of quite high class.

When Lewis Gregory comes to the crease the tempo rises, and Abell finds himself drawn in. In part this is an unconscious effect of the freedom and aggression of Gregory's strokeplay, but also the fact that Abell has realized that making runs in professional cricket is something he can do. They put on 84 in an hour, saving the follow-on, before Gregory is caught in the deep attempting another pull into the crowd. Soon after, the players leave the field because of bad light with Abell on 73, but within a short time they are back and Abell, with the impassive maturity he has shown throughout his four hours at the crease, continues to collect runs, assisted by the flamboyance of Alphonso Thomas and George Dockrell.

Once Abell reaches the nineties it is possible to sense the tension among the crowd, which, as the autumnal evening closes in, barely numbers three figures. To the left of where we are sitting, in the Old Pavilion, which has just weeks to go before demolition, there is a hill named after Harold Gimblett, a local folk-hero and the last Somerset-born batsman to make a century in his first innings in the County Championship.

Just as people are starting to believe, Abell turns a ball from Patel into the hands of William Porterfield at short midwicket. Abell has spent the afternoon dealing easily with such deliveries, but perhaps this one has stopped a little on him, or perhaps he has gone a little hard at the ball as the tension of the approaching landmark starts to weigh on his mind.

We will never know. As Abell, the last man to be dismissed in Somerset's first innings, walks towards the Andy Caddick Pavilion with 95 to his name, several of the Warwickshire players shake his hand. Some of these men, like Rikki Clarke, have been around, and they know that they have seen something which speaks of high promise for the future.

Nothing, though, is ever assured. Should Abell think that it is, he need only ask his erstwhile partner James Hildreth, who knows all about the way in which early promise and recognition can slip through the fingers before you really know what has happened.

Like everyone else who has ever batted for a living, Abell faces an uncertain future. There will be many cheap dismissals at the hands of skilled bowlers and errant umpires, but there will also be times, such as yesterday, when almost everything goes right.

This was only the start.

31.7.14

Retirement

The old shibboleth which has it that there are only two certainties in life - death and taxes - missed one out. Or at least one that presents itself at the end of most working lives.

Retirement.

In cricket, as in most professional sports, retirement comes early. A cricketer departs the stage just as his peers are getting into their stride; he is required to pick up the pieces of his life - often an abruptly terminated adolescence - at just the time his school and university mates will be sorting theirs out.

Professional sport gives you the chance to do many things which most people will rarely, if ever, experience: you can earn your living - and by most people's standards it is a very good living - by doing something you love and would happily do for nothing; you will have regular opportunities to perform in front of crowds of people who will hang on your every action and applaud, even idolise, you if you do what you do well; you can travel the world (or at least the United Kingdom) and stay in the best hotels, with someone else picking up the tab. And in most cases you will do all this before you are thirty-five years old.

The payback is that you then have to start living your life all over again in the knowledge that nothing you do again will ever be so much fun.

In cricket, like life, retirements come and go. Some, such as that of Jacques Kallis, attract world-wide attention. Others, such as that of David John Grimwood Sales, who also announced his retirement this week, resonate a little less. Unless you've followed county cricket closely these past twenty years or so you may not have heard of David Sales. I have, though, and these are some fragments of his story.

David Sales grew up in Surrey. In his very early, and so talented, years, it seemed obvious that he would become a Brown Cap, but something I once knew about but which is now lost in the mists of time, went wrong, and he fetched up at Northampton. At Wantage Road. A venue never prominent in an England selector's diary, then or now. But it fitted Sales, and things started to happen.

70 not out in a Sunday League game at Chelmsford, aged 16, 1994. 210 not out in a championship match at Kidderminster, aged 18, 1996. 303 not out on his home ground, aged 21, 1999. 276, again at Northampton, in the first home championship match of 2000.

Sales could bat. This much was obvious, but, for all the scores, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that in these years England were a poor, turbulent, often rudderless side, he never seemed to be talked about too much as a potential international. Consistency was a problem, but what really set him back was the knee injury he suffered while playing beach volleyball on the England A tour of the West Indies in early 2001. It cost him a tour, and the whole of the following season, at a time in his career, anyone's career, when lost momentum can do terrible damage. He returned in 2002 but a season's average of 25 saw him fall back into the pack. Despite 7000 runs at 50 over the next six English seasons, double centuries scattered around like confetti on a windy day, he never left it.

In these lost years Wantage Road was a long way from my regular beat too and Northants never seemed to be on TV very much, so, in my mind's eye Sales remained an uncomplicated seventeen year-old in an England under-19 shirt on a clear blue day at Taunton in the summer of 1995, holding his own as he vied for attention with the likes of Trescothick, Flintoff and Alex Tudor, who charged in from the Old Pavilion End like our very own Walsh or Ambrose. In the seasons afterwards he often felt like a mirage: that player who once promised so much but who seemed destined to play his days out under leaden skies in soulless midlands towns. No matter how many runs he made, the vacancies weren't there, or, if they were, the selectors weren't looking in his direction.

Sales returned to my consciousness when he made a fine 70 against Middlesex at Southgate in a 40 over play-off game, late in the 2007 season. This was the Sales of legend: uncomplicated, technically sound, powerful and indefinably classy. But it wasn't enough. It never would be.

As with most players who were never given the opportunity to sample even the briefest taste of the international game, it's impossible to define or classify the reasons why with any certainty. A lack of form here, a lack of opportunity there. Injuries. Where they played. Everyone knows that historically it's been harder to get noticed by the selectors if you play for one of a number of counties. Broadly speaking these are those on the western fringes of the English first-class game - Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Somerset - and the unfashionable counties of the East Midlands - Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire.

Ask Don Shepherd, ask Alan Jones, ask Peter Trego, ask David Sales.
Other counties have players like this too. Once upon a time Hampshire had Peter Sainsbury; in Sales' own era Lancashire have had Glen Chapple.

If Sales, as he once seemed destined to, had spent his career at The Oval, he would probably have played for England.

Success at the highest level, or even having the chance to show what you can do, isn't everything, though. The county game, with its cultural richness, its history and its folklore, is a pretty good arena in which to spend the short years between apprenticeship and retirement.

There was a time when everything about David Sales - the prodigy's upbringing, the irresistible strokeplay and the massive scores - suggested that he would grace Test cricket. That he never did does not diminish Test cricket and it does not diminish him.

As he said this week: 'I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career...and whilst disappointed that I didn’t play at the very highest level, I will look back with pride at my achievements.'

22.7.14

Antidote to Madness

When people make definitive statements about places, or about books, or about people, there is always room for doubt, for contrary opinion.

Some you take, others you leave. Some you agree with, others you dismiss.

When people, as people often do, say that Lord's is 'the greatest cricket ground in the world', I tend to agree (Although that other familiar cliché 'the Home of Cricket' I'm less sure about. The Home of Cricket these days surely lies, literally or metaphorically, somewhere in India.).

I've been going to Lord's since the summer when Sunny Gavaskar batted through sixty overs for 36 not out. Today the ground, and the game, and the Indian cricket psyche, are very different. But they still fascinate and compel.

Friday 18th July 2014 is the hottest day of the British year. The mercury is in the low thirties - Lord's is a Fahrenheit sort of place, you feel, but these twenty-first century days Celsius is king - and, in the early afternoon, with the sky a deep and bottomless shade of blue, the fading vapour trails left by soaring aircraft traverse the sky. They, and the outside world they represent, seem abstract and separate, as they always do when cricket, even slow Test cricket, captures the attention.

The game is an antidote to the madness of the world.

Late the previous afternoon the news comes via Twitter that a civil airliner has been blown out of the sky over the Ukraine, probably by a ground-to-air missile. Then there is Gaza, where defenceless people are killed on a daily basis. Syria, where much the same thing has been happening for more than three years, has been temporarily relegated from the front pages, but it will, as surely as night follows day, return. These are examples of the lunatic chaos of a world in which millions of people have more important things on their mind - simple survival will do - than the outcome of a bat and ball game.

At Lord's, though, things are different, especially in the old Victorian pavilion and the adjacent Warner Stand. The talk is of the lives of sons, of daughters, of former pupils, of the price of London property, which, it seems, is rising faster than the shade temperature. In certain conversations there are deaths and serious, painful injuries, but these are the result of leisure time accidents, suffered while hiking, or skiing, or playing rugby; not of unavoidable exposure to terrorism or war.

During the hour before lunch in the Warner Stand the incessant chatter is punctuated by the sound of corks being forcibly expelled from champagne bottles. Such is their velocity, many of these end up on the beautifully manicured turf, which can often look more like a carpet than something composed of living, growing, grass. And, on a Sunday, when the pavilion fills with a younger class of member, with their pristine yellow passes and their sharp dress sense, the prevailing sensation for the older member is that of a friendless outsider at a public school reunion.

Lord's, with its hotchpotch of ancient and modern buildings, is a very different place from virtually any other cricket ground in the world. And, despite the heat, for the Indian players, brought up on the parched dustbowls of Uttar Pradesh or the cramped suburban fields of Greater Mumbai, that difference must seem especially pronounced.

But it is also welcome and inspirational. At different points in a match which remains even and compellingly contested until lunch on the last day, we are treated to the beautiful yet combative neatness of the Mumbaikar Ajinkya Rahane, and the versatility of Uttar Pradesh's Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a man who knows he can bowl but is finding out at international level that he also has an unsuspected gift for batting. Ishant Sharma, a man who has always looked to have the potential to take on the world but has rarely hinted at consistency, supplies the coup de grâce.

On the English side there are only poignancies and uncertainties and regrets. As the match hurtles to its conclusion on Monday afternoon, Matt Prior and Joe Root are both dismissed pulling the ball to deep fielders placed specifically for such errant shots. It is a kind of collective madness, based on the confidence deficit which repeated failure to win brings, and the uncertainty of the confused mind, brought low by injury and defeat.

As he leaves the field and walks slowly through the Long Room, Prior holds his head high. Although he surely knows, as we do, that not only has he played a poor shot but that it may be the last thing he ever does in an England shirt, he shows little remorse. He is the old warrior leaving the stage. Root, by contrast, can barely drag himself off the field, such is his obvious regret. For all his runs, Root is still a young pro who has yet to learn to guard his emotions. He wears his heart on his sleeve.

A short while later, with the game over and Alastair Cook, a drowning man clinging desperately to a sinking ship, answering Michael Atherton's questions with the same bland assurances we have heard so often before, the eye turns to Paul Downton, standing on his own, close to the pavilion gate. He looks around him with unfeigned seriousness, but you sense that he isn't seeing or hearing much.

He is wondering what on earth he has got himself into.

5.7.14

Local Boy Made Good

I wrote this last week for the Somerset supporters' site The Incider, where it appeared under the title 'Jos Comes Home'.

It is Sunday morning on the County Ground in Taunton, in England's lush south-west. The sky is an anaemic shade of grey, and, although the weather forecast is good, light rain begins to fall. As it does, the players of Somerset and Lancashire go through the elaborate warm-up routines which distinguish the modern professional cricketer from his predecessors. Some run after a football as a means of shedding Saturday night's sleep from their eyes, while others work on specific skills. They bat, they bowl, they catch, they field.

As the rain begins to get heavier, the players drift without purpose towards the Andy Caddick Pavilion. It is starting to look as though play will not start on time, and there seems little need to go through the motions. It is time for rest and contemplation. The toss, and play, will come later.

A young man with light brown hair, sharp, expressive eyes and the lithe, muscular build of the natural athlete moves among the Somerset players. His white T-shirt, bearing a time-honoured red rose, distinguishes him from his former colleagues. A glance here, a chat there, a hug, followed by a roar of laughter, somewhere else. This, if ever there was, is a local boy made good.

When Jos Buttler left Somerset to play for Lancashire at the end of the 2013 season, there was no animosity. Everyone, from the players who shared his hopes, fears and triumphs at the closest of quarters, to the rootless drinkers who occupy the Old Pavilion bar from start to stumps every day, knew that it was just business. In time, he would be back, and he would be welcomed. This is that time.

Eventually the rain clears and the toss is made. Buttler's county captain, Glen Chapple, chooses to bat. Chapple has pounded the county beat with unrecognized distinction since Buttler was a young child, and he grew into the professional game at a time when Taunton pitches were synonymous with runs.

He chooses to bat.

Times have changed, though, and modern Taunton pitches offer help to bowlers who know what to do. The Somerset attack is aware of this, and all of them, from the ageing but eternally competitive Alfonso Thomas, through the coolly flamboyant Peter Trego, to the young Devonian confrères Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton, make the ball bounce and move. Batting is difficult.

Mid-afternoon, 47 overs gone, Steven Croft plays a poorly-judged slash at a ball from the young Irish spinner George Dockrell and is caught behind It is time for Buttler, batting at six, to come to the crease.

The Taunton crowd is knowledgeable and loyal. It is customary for Somerset players to be greeted with warm applause but this courtesy does not always extend to the opposition.

When Buttler emerges on to the playing surface, things are different. The applause builds in rhythm and volume to the point where the announcement of his name is hard to hear. But it is, of course, unnecessary. Everyone here knows who Jos Buttler is, and what he has done.

For a brief moment there is the feeling that Buttler might, like Bradman in 1948, be applauded all the way to the middle, but, as he reaches the edge of the square and confers with Paul Horton, who has been batting since the start of the innings, the applause begins to die away. Normality reintrudes, but the thought occurs that Buttler, although he is simply a young man doing his job, would need to have a heart of stone not to have been moved by his reception.

Buttler's innings is an uneasy affair. As ever, he wants to dominate, but he is forced on to the defensive by the sluggishness of the pitch and the accuracy of his former team-mates. There are hints of his characteristic fluency of timing, but he finds the fielder too often, and even his two sixes are not quite struck with his usual robust clarity. At one point Thomas makes as if to Mankad Buttler, before embracing him to show that he wasn't serious. The crowd laughs along, but Buttler doesn't crack a smile. He was unhappy about what happened to him at Edgbaston and he is well aware that he needs to concentrate harder, both when backing up and when facing. This is especially true today, but, when he has made 18, Gregory gets one through his defence and shatters his stumps. The cheers of the crowd are even louder than the applause he received on the way to the wicket.

Jos Buttler knows what it is to walk through the Long Room at Lord's with the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears, and, before he is done with the game, he will know what it is to be applauded from the field at many another of the world's great arenas. For all his quietly-spoken modesty he is still at an age where action and achievement are everything and nostalgic reflection is for the future. Sport as a job demands that.

However, we that have been around for longer and have never had to depend on the bounce of a ball for our living can reflect on the significance of what we have seen. It has been a demonstration of the common humanity which, particularly at the heart of the county game, still suffuses cricket.

One day Jos Buttler will do the same.

22.6.14

A Very English Batsman

Despite his Australian upbringing (and the fact that he was crassly written off as a 'poor man's Nick Compton' by Bob Willis after his first Test appearance), Sam Robson cuts a figure which seems far from out of place at the top of the English order, with the result that he already radiates a curious sense of belonging.

With his pale, pinched features, his diffident seriousness, his hunched, mildly idiosyncratic, ball-sniffing method, and his steadiness of tempo, Robson seems a world away from the popular notion - fed with relish these past couple of years by another Sydneysider - of the gum-chewing, Baggy Green wearing, top-order slasher, bristling with confrontational aggression. If you want to fall back on Aussie stereotypes from a dimmer past, years before Robson was even a glimmer in his now well-recognized father's eye, he's a good deal more Bill Lawry than Keith Stackpole, let alone David Warner. He bats as if he was brought up on the capricious surfaces of his adopted county, with their boundary roads and their exhaust infused atmospheres, rather than the true surfaces of the Australian world city where he grew up.

In this he fits. English cricket has always subsisted on an underlying conservatism of method, a mistrust of the unusual, a reluctance to embrace and celebrate genius. With Pietersen - a foreign-born and raised player whose contradictory nature and self-celebrated brilliance always ran counter to this - cast to the winds, there is a sense that, even though three of its newest recruits were born abroad, that the English side is retreating towards that which it knows best and feels most comfortable with. This may not, of course, be an entirely good thing.

Although sterner tests await, Gary Ballance has looked well-organised and temperamentally sound at three, replicating much of Jonathan Trott's calmness and resilience without his obsessive ritualism and sense of restrained, scowling anxiety, while Moeen Ali has exuded languid class at six, although each of his dismissals so far has raised questions. Chris Jordan has the air of a gifted and versatile operator, if one who still doesn't quite grasp the limitations of his technique or the limits of his potential. Joe Root, back in the side after a year of being messed around, accumulates with the unpretentiousness assurance of one who, for all his lack of distinctive elegance, knows that he can perform at the highest level and isn't afraid of being seen to enjoy the experience.

And then there is Robson's more experienced opening partner. With Cook we have been this way before, and, in the end, he always comes good. And, on account of his much-derided captaincy, the end for him will be further away than for many others, which, in its turn, reinforces the impression of a team which is rebuilding by retreating to the mode which it knows best, new players from around the globe or not.

This grates a little. England may be more stable sans KP and ultimately - although one's hunch is that it will be a long time - they may become as successful as they were with him. But it will also be a long time before they will excite in the same way.

For all that Robson appears to fit his role like a glove, he will never set many pulses racing. For that we may have to wait in hope for a player who was born in the county which Robson has adopted.

But Alex Hales still isn't deemed good enough for England's fifty over side, which, if you stop to think about it, says quite a lot.

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