19.4.14

The Tension of Expectation

It is a sunny afternoon at the County Ground in Taunton, and the April sky is a crystal shade of blue.

Away from the breeze it feels moderately warm. Jackets and jumpers are shed and the atmosphere feels somnolent as the Somerset openers begin their reply to Yorkshire's first innings total of 450.

However, though the crowd is quiet as lunchtime fades into mid-afternoon on the game's second day, the cricket is compelling. The Somerset openers represent both ends of the professional batsmen's spectrum: one is Chris Jones, 23 years old and with a century against Australia but little else to show for his nascent career. He needs time at the wicket, and runs, to begin the journey from promising youngster to seasoned batsman, and to justify the faith of himself and others. His partner is Marcus Trescothick. He is 38 and has been around the professional game since his partner was in short trousers. He also needs time at the wicket, and runs, to prove to others - and, though you should whisper it, to himself - that he can still perform as he used to. There is expectation, but there is also uncertainty and unspoken tension. This could go either way.

In the first over of the innings, bowled by Ryan Sidebottom, Trescothick eases away two boundaries. The second is an on drive which leaves the mid-on fielder scrambling fruitlessly for balance. I always used to say (still do, in fact) that you always knew when Marcus was playing well as he would usually get an off drive away early between the bowler and mid-off and that the timing and pace would, if his touch was right, always beat the fielder. This is that in mirror image. The ball is full and covers middle and leg, so Trescothick uses just a bit more left hand to guide it wide of the fielder, who has no chance of stopping it.

The fours are applauded, of course, but the crowd is barely more animated. There is suppressed recognition that Marcus looks good. Perhaps better than he looked in the whole of the 2013 season, which was his worst since before he became an England player. The tension of concern gives way to the tension of expectation, and of hope. These people have watched Marcus since he was the same age as Jones, and younger, they have known his triumphs and his setbacks, both on the field and off it. They are desperate for him to succeed.

Jones looks solid and fluent too, but his innings doesn't carry the same level of importance to others. For him there will, at whatever level of the game he finds himself, be many more opportunities. Trescothick doesn't have the same sort of time on his side.

In the sixth over Trescothick drives Sidebottom's partner Jack Brooks through the covers. He doesn't quite time it to perfection, and the bat turns slightly in his hands, but the ball easily runs to the boundary. Trescothick's call is loud and decisive. You can tell from its volume and tone that he feels as though he's starting to see it well. Expectation levels are raised again.

In the eleventh Sidebottom again strays towards the leg-side and Trescothick glances him to fine-leg for four. The stroke is wristier than is common from Trescothick, and so the ball travels finer. This is good.

The tension eases, slightly.

The very next ball, though, it is over. The delivery is full, and Trescothick plays over it. His stumps are broken.

It's one of the old truisms of batting that being dismissed is like dying. It can happen slowly, or it can happen suddenly, but it can happen at any time. The only advantage to batting is that after each death you can return for another go.

As you get older, though, it gets harder. More doubts enter minds, more questions are asked. One of the central ones, sometimes unspoken, sometimes not, is the question of when a poor run of form becomes a terminal decline. This is the question which hangs over every innings Trescothick plays now.

Last Monday there were hints, just hints, of old glories.

Tomorrow, far to the north in County Durham, it all begins again.

6.4.14

Just Another Victim

Michael Carberry's interview with the peerless Donald McRae for The Guardian last week was both refreshing and concerning.

Refreshing in that Carberry, perhaps feeling that his brief England career is over, was happy to disregard the modern convention that no England cricketer should ever, on any account, say anything controversial, heartfelt, spontaneous or interesting when conversing with somebody from the media.

Carberry is clearly unhappy with the way he's been treated, and he gave it both barrels. This is a great thing, and we could do with more of it.

Not that we're likely to get it. Carberry's goose was probably cooked as an international player before last weekend - he's well past thirty and probably didn't quite show enough in Australia to make him worth persisting with - but if it wasn't you can be fairly sure it is now. The precise identity of England's next coach is still a mystery but you can be sure that, certainly if it's Ashley Giles, his comments won't have passed unnoticed.

The tales of Carberry being left high and dry, unsure of where he stands with England, were unwelcome but far from unusual. Back in the old days, this was how everybody felt. For a while, though, it seemed as though England had moved on. England under Flower, under Strauss, won Test matches, won whole series, won the Ashes. This winter more or less everything associated with England's flimsy house of cards has come crashing down, and, if it ever really improved, communication with players has gone down with it.

Something I found especially depressing was Carberry's revelation that his request that his mother be his invited guest for the Melbourne Test was turned down by the ECB on the grounds that it is apparently 'policy' only to pay for wives, girlfriends (or male partners, presumably) and children. For Carberry to be treated in this way comes uncomfortably close to discrimination, and reveals that the ECB's commitment to player welfare is both poorly developed and inflexibly applied.

Michael Carberry is a player who has been through a lot in his career - changes of county, a battle to establish himself as a first-class cricketer, let alone an international one, serious illness - but, like Andy Flower, and Kevin Pietersen, and, as likely as not, Monty Panesar, he is just another victim of perhaps the worst period English cricket has ever known.

Unlike one or two of the others, Carberry has had his say already. And it's clear that, for all the defeats and for all that it may have ended too soon, Michael Carberry relished playing Test cricket:

"It was the ultimate test. Everything was ramped up tenfold, the intensity, the cricket, the way Australia played. Mentally, every innings was a challenge. But I thrived on that challenge. Walking out to bat and Johnson and Harris are flying in? I like that and I like big crowds. It heightens all your senses. You definitely feel alive. In county cricket you very rarely get those experiences."

The Rose Bowl on a grey Tuesday will never quite seem the same again.

8.3.14

Gravitas

It already feels late to be writing about Graeme Smith. Most of what needed to be said - and this, in truth, wasn't a player to inspire great literature - has been said. Best and most comprehensively of all by Jarrod Kimber here.

Time is short, and so one memory from the mind's eye will suffice.

It is a sunlit Lord's evening, 3rd August 2003. South Africa are about to defeat England. Graeme Smith, 22 years old and South Africa's captain, stands with his hands on the shoulders of Makhaya Ntini. Ntini has taken nine wickets in the game; he will take ten. Smith himself has scored 259.

Smith fixes Ntini with an unwavering gaze and speaks quietly, assuring him, reassuring him, that victory is about to be theirs. Its significance could go unstated, but Smith recognizes the importance of the moment and seizes it.

It is a gesture which speaks of gravitas and maturity.

This is a man destined to captain his country for a very long time.

2.3.14

Cricket in Winter

English winters come in varying forms. There is difference - some are cold, this one has been wet, wetter than anyone alive has ever seen or experienced - and there is also similarity, uniformity. There are always long months of predominantly grey skies and early darkness. This is normal.

For anyone who loves cricket, and, for reasons of time, or money, or both, cannot travel to those parts of the globe where cricket takes place throughout the English winter, the months between October and April are strange ones. Cricket goes on; indeed, if you have access to Cricinfo and Twitter, and, most important of all, Sky Sports, cricket is everywhere.

But it is not cricket as it really is. It is the easiest thing in the world to turn on your television and see cricket; one day it is Perth, the next it is Sydney, then it is Wellington, Dubai, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Antigua. But as much as you can see the skies, and marvel at the depth of their blueness, rare in Britain even in summer, or almost convince yourself that you can feel the heat or the humidity by thinking back to a time and place when you were there - or somewhere similar - you cannot really feel the rhythm of the game. It is refracted and distended through the lens of the TV camera, while the commentators' perceptions - skewed by experience and biased by nationality and personal taste - can influence the way in which you see things. Moreover, you can never feel the wind on your face, or properly hear the shouts of the fielders, or the crowd. If you tire of watching from behind the bowler's arm, you cannot watch from midwicket, or low down at long-on, or chatting at square-leg. You have not travelled to the ground, or arrived there; you will not have the experience of packing your bag and leaving at close of play. Unless you have an unusually barren life, perhaps one where you have no work to do and little need to eat or sleep or leave your house, it is rarely possible to watch entire sessions of cricket in the way you would do if you were there. Thus, some of the light and shade of batsmen's innings - fluctuations of tempo and mood - and bowlers' spells - changes of pace, of flight, of spin, of field, are lost. If a bowler's field is altered it may be mentioned by the commentators, or the moved fielder may be shown, but the way in which that changes the impression and the purpose of the field as a whole can be obscured.

What a winter of televised cricket can do is reduce the game, with all its grandness and glory, to a series of distilled impressions, presented to you by the director and his cameramen and mediated by the commentators' personal tastes and opinions. It is a very different way of experiencing the game, but it is by no means an entirely bad thing.

Advances in technology increasingly mean that a television viewer has a closer view of the action than someone at the ground will ever have. Seam position, rotations of the ball as it spins, the way in which batsmen's eyes instinctively close upon impact as they play a hook or pull off their nose, or the way the blade of the bat wobbles on impact with the ball, are all evident to the television viewer in ways they will never be to someone watching from the boundary. And in the Test match arena, as in anything long, and stirring, where emotion and feeling play their part, you can draw many conclusions from being able to see the whites of the players' eyes or the precise way they use their bodies.

Over recent English winter weeks it has been possible to experience the impression of surprise and incidental pride on BJ Watling's face as he hears the announcement that he has broken a world partnership record, and to see him shake hands with Brendon McCullum as the crowd on one of the Basin Reserve's banks rises to acclaim them. Or it has been possible to look in detail at the way in which, as his form slowly returned at St.George's Park, Hashim Amla's bat emerged from its distinctive backlift with all its straightness and ethereal timing, relying on the nuances of wrist and hand positioning for its power and direction. As Australia slid to defeat in the same game, it was possible to see the way in which reverse swing took hold of the ball in the split second between it leaving Dale Steyn's hand and destroying the stumps of Brad Haddin. Or, also from Wellington, it has been possible to enjoy the beautiful, persuasive neatness of Ajinkya Rahane, or Brendon McCullum's return to the changing rooms, 302 to his name and a small, vulnerable, but immensely proud cricket nation saluting him. Week in, week out (it seems), there is the compactness, power and technical efficiency of the man who currently looks like the best opening batsmen on the planet, David Warner. And there is Kohli. There is always Kohli.

Cricket viewed through the prism of television is different. In many ways it is a more limited, less rounded, less involving experience. In others it is richer and more concentrated, while also more artificial.

Now it is March in England, things begin to change. It still rains, but the days are longer, and, when the sun is out, there is a meagre warmth in the air and the quality of the light is indefinably distinctive.

Soon, as surely as the world turns, it will again be time in England for the real thing.

9.2.14

The Forces of Conservatism

Once upon a time, Viv Richards made 322 in a day for Somerset against Warwickshire at Taunton. One of the Warwickshire side who had the misfortune (or, looked at another way, the good fortune) to have to field to it was Robin Dyer, a young opening batsman and the son of a cricket bookseller from Yorkshire who used to advertise in The Cricketer and Wisden Cricket Monthly. Perhaps he still does.

Since then I've spent many days on the County Ground at Taunton. Twenty years after Richards, I even saw another Somerset player called Graeme Smith make 300 in a day there. Stuart Broad, a nineteen year-old bowler then, remembers that as well.

But when Richards made his runs I was the one who was nineteen, and I lived far from Taunton. I was obsessed with cricket, and I knew that things like that didn't happen very often. I read all the reports, collected all the cuttings. This was the era of Richards.

I haven't got it to hand so I can't recall it word for word, but Robin Dyer said something resonant that day. It went along the lines that here he was, struggling to establish himself and make a living from a difficult game, when he witnessed an innings that was so far beyond anything that he would ever be capable of - or perhaps anything that he imagined anyone would be capable of - that he began to question what he was doing. By most people's standards, Robin Dyer, with his two thousand plus first-class runs and three centuries, could bat. But the following year, 1986, he retired. It may have been illusory or simply wrong, but at the time there was a sense that Viv Richards had made him give up the game.

At times I feel like Dyer did when I read the writings of Jon Hotten, The Old Batsman. Last week, in the most lyrical and apposite of the many pieces written about the fall of Kevin Pietersen, he wrote:

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.

Here Jon is, of course, right. There was always a good chance that Pietersen, with his naked ambition, his outspokenness, his tattoos and his unveiled genius, would end up a victim of the innate forces of conservatism which are as strong in English cricket now - in the age of prescriptive coaching, rigid gameplans and ubiquitous nutritional advice - as they ever were. In his time they also laid waste to David Gower, who didn't have the tattoos or the outspokenness, only the genius.

A more wide-ranging discussion of the qualities which made Pietersen the nearest thing to Viv Richards that England have ever had will have to wait for another day, but at the end of the Perth Test, I wrote that England's tour was starting to develop a fin de siécle quality, and, of all those involved with the England shambles, the futures of Flower, Pietersen and Swann were all shrouded in uncertainty.

Eight weeks on, with Flower, Pietersen and Swann all gone, and only one of them truly the master of his own destiny, the sense of an era ending is stronger still. And, while Flower and even, perhaps, one day, Swann, will be replaced, Pietersen never really will be.

It is a horribly trite cliché, but, for all kinds of reasons beyond the cricketing, it will be a very long time before we see Pietersen's like again in an England shirt.

2.2.14

Coming Home

It is still early in the year in southern England. For those of us who have been here all winter it does not seem cold. But still the rain lashes down. Everything looks dirty. The entire country feels as though it is drowning.

Alastair Cook notices this. He feels the chill and does his England blazer up. Alice, his wife, has brought him a heavy overcoat from home; he puts it on and turns the collar up. As the beads of water drip down the car window, the realisation sets in that he is home. For months, those killing, unforgettable months he has spent on the other side of the world at the focus of what is perhaps the most savage and pitiful defeat English cricket has ever known, the weather has made little impression on his consciousness. It has been hot, of course it has been so hot, but he has been there before and he is famous for never breaking sweat. The only thing disorientating or unusual has been the intensity and clarity of the sunshine, and the burning dryness of the air. All this is gone, now.

As the car leaves Heathrow Airport behind, images of defeat cluster his mind. It is a chilling montage of lost tosses, dropped catches, poorly executed strokes and the harsh, unforgiving glare of the camera eye. Unwanted post-defeat interviews in soiled kit, with thousands of Australians leering and jeering and laughing. Mark Nicholas, a preening martinet in a tailored suit, firing the questions with a forced mixture of levity and accusation. Why? Why? Why? Airless press conferences with all the Aussies there, Conn and his mates, with their crude and tedious jibes, laughing behind their notepads as they mock the fact that England's only truly successful player was born in New Zealand.

Nothing has prepared him for this. Not the gilded childhood, singing in the St.Paul's choir, nor those adolescent summers piling up runs on the school ground at Bedford as public schoolboys in museum piece caps bend to his will. Not the previous winter's glory in India, defying tiredness, searing heat and the weight of the past. There have been times these past few years when it has seemed as though Cook may be superhuman. We now know that he is not.

He was almost dropped by England once. But then came the Oval century against Pakistan, and the rest is history. 100 consecutive Tests and counting. Today, with jet lag setting in and defeat on his mind, he feels every one of those games in his legs and in his mind. The comforts of home cannot come soon enough.

The key turns in the lock. The house is warm. The bags are left in the hallway. Now, at last, a time to shed the layers of formal clothing crumpled by hours of international travel. A time to reflect on what has happened to him, and to the team which he has captained.

As the days turn into nights and back to days again, with Cook barely recognizing their passing, the recollections have an unwelcome tendency to come thick and fast, a bit like the Australian attack on one of its many good days. Cook relishes the opportunity to get away from everything - from holding a bat, from thinking constantly about bowling changes and field placings, from people, with microphones, or with beers in their hands, asking him 'why? - and he enjoys the serenity and security of being in his own space. He watches television, he reads a little, he talks to Alice, he sorts through the mountain of tedious paperwork which has arrived while he has been away. He spends some time outside, with the farm animals which have failed to register his departure, his absence or his return. This is how he likes it. He has been noticed far too much over recent months, usually for the wrong reasons.

But, as the activity lulls, the memories and anxieties return. In an instant he is back at the Adelaide Oval, late in the day, his mind and body scrambled by the relentless heat and noise, by the batting of Clarke and Haddin and Harris, and by his team's threadbare bowling. He is facing Mitchell Johnson, who is bowling to him as quickly as anyone has ever done. He sees the ball, but in an instant it is through him as his reactions, slowed by tiredness and stress, fail to cope. He hears his wicket break, and then, a heartbeat later, he hears the roar of the Australian crowd. In a sense this is flattering, as it signifies how highly his wicket is prized, but he knows that. He has no need for flattery. He needs runs.

Another time he is back in Perth. The heat has not receded and his team, theoretically, are chasing 504 to win. This time it is the hulking frame of Ryan Harris which confronts him. He sees the ball better this time as it doesn't quite have the pace of Johnson's delivery, but it swings in slightly through the air before cutting away off the pitch and hitting the top of his off stump. He knows he couldn't have done anything more to counter it - few left-handed batsmen alive could have done - but it cuts to the quick even more as it is the first ball of the innings and he knows that in all probability the Ashes are about to be surrendered.

These are extracts; he also recalls dropped catches, poor strokes, captaincy decisions. While his confidence - the sort of confidence which derives from a life of almost unbroken success - has been affected, when it comes to his batting failures he knows very well that he can bat. He always could, and the numbers are in the book. Form is temporary, class is permanent, all that. But captaincy is different. He hasn't done very much of it, and it shows, both on the field and off. He knows that what he has said about wanting to continue in the job, at least in Test cricket, is genuine and heartfelt. He wants the chance to show that he is capable of improvement. He wants the chance to help bring his England side back from its darkest hour. He feels, with Andy Flower, a man he likes and admires, still in charge, that better times lie ahead. Come the early summer in England, the pitches will be green, Jimmy and Broady will be fresh, perhaps Finny will be back, Stokes will be there. He knows how Sri Lankan and Indian batsmen play the seaming and swinging ball in English conditions. In his mind, for all its concerns, there is hope for the future.

A few days in, Cook is lazing around the house when the doorbell rings. Alice is nearer so she goes to the door. There is a brief, and, to Cook, inaudible, exchange of pleasantries. Then she calls to her husband:

“Alastair, Andy Flower is here to see you”.

5.1.14

After the Hard Yards

It has become a commonplace these past few weeks - not that it did England any good at all - that Australia aren't a great side. This is true; they aren't. Leaving aside the unpleasant reality of where that leaves the England side that they've just eviscerated, the current Australian team contains one great batsman, Michael Clarke (who also happens to be an excellent captain), and three men, Harris, Johnson and Haddin, who have given convincing short-term impersonations of era-defining influence. In the case of Harris and Haddin, age and fitness are against them, but, after their deeds of recent weeks, they will one day retire happy in the knowledge that they decisively defined the course of a series which, for all its deeply unsatisfying one-sidedness, has added an indelible chapter to the annals of Ashes history.

Another player who, for all his vast corpus of first-class runs, will look back on this as the time of his cricketing life, is Chris Rogers. Rogers, with his pinched, serious expression, his slight stature, his understated body language and his clunky, workmanlike left-hander's game, is nobody's idea of a hero, and, as a batsman, he is easy to underestimate. In the early part of this series, Geoff Boycott, who has made a career out of being unpleasantly disrespectful to people who deserve better, repeatedly described him as a limited (and, by implication and tone, very ordinary) player who would be lucky to last the series. The thought that he was merely continuing to grow into a role which he would have felt until earlier this year had passed him by for good, clearly didn't occur, although, to give him his due, by the time of Rogers' polished centuries at Melbourne and Sydney, even Boycott appeared to have developed an awareness that he could play a bit.

As a professional opening batsman who spent the best years of his career in the twin shadows of Hayden and Langer, Rogers has done the hard yards on both sides of the globe. In England, from the slow club tracks of Devon and Shropshire to the bleak, unconsidered county arenas of the east Midlands, and, more recently, to the broad and beautiful acres of Lord's; in Australia, from the hardness and pace of the WACA to the intimidating vastness of the MCG. There is little he hasn't seen or done, and, now in the autumn of his career, he has played a vital role in his team's regaining of an Ashes urn he would never have expected to be given the chance to compete for.

Parallels can be drawn and similarities observed between Rogers and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Both are studiedly unflamboyant, often ugly, but with a suppressed class which can be hard to recognize and define. But there the similarities end: Chanderpaul made his Test debut at 19 and has spent most of his career in a poor side trying to stem the tide of defeat; Rogers made only one Test appearance before the age of 35, but, at 36, has played in a side which has won every game of a five Test series and humiliated its oldest foe.

England's players, brought low by a perfect storm of complacency, hubris, staleness, poor selection and Australian verve and excellence, will take time to recover from this. Chris Rogers will finally feel that he belongs, really belongs, at the game's top table.

For varying reasons, this has been a time which neither of them will ever forget.

Subscribe in a reader