The Death of a Gentleman

For cricket followers of my English generation, born at a time when Tom Graveney was, as so often, biding his time away from the Test side, he is remembered chiefly as one of the team of commentators and presenters (Tony Lewis, Ray Illingworth, Jack Bannister and, of course, Richie Benaud, were others) who presided over the later years of BBC coverage of Test cricket (once again, for my generation, these can be precisely defined as the years after the retirement of Peter West in 1986).

Graveney was self-evidently a kindly man, steeped in cricket and with a western accent rich in its gentleness. And, as part of a cricket education, you gradually became aware of how much he meant to so many people.

At Worcester, of course, but earlier on the grounds of Gloucestershire, where for Jonathan Smith, at Bristol in 1952, he was 'coming down the pavilion steps now. And what a familiar sight he is, rosy faced, the elegant, tall right hander from Gloucestershire. And even against the fastest of fast bowlers Tom Graveney never seemed hurried. It was even the case when Hall and Griffith and the other West Indian quicks were battering the English top order. When the English top four seemed caught in the headlights, Tom somehow always had time. Time, ah, time: that's the thing. In sport, Having Time is class'.

I never saw Tom Graveney bat, but I knew what he looked like and admired him for what I knew him to have been. I remember two instances when I saw him. The first time he was walking round the boundary at Cheltenham in 1992, greeting and conversing with many of his long-time admirers. Both he and they have grown old, but time hasn't dimmed the richness of their memories.

Years later I saw him outside Trent Bridge with his wife, before a Test match day. Struggling with his bags, like many another mortal, but inhabiting a realm made different by his experiences. He is outside a ground on which he has made a century for England against Sobers and Hall and Griffith and Gibbs; where, years earlier he made 258, also against the West Indies. He wears his achievements lightly, but he also wears his England player's tie, proud forever of having represented his country.

Though he has gone, Tom Graveney will continue to exist in the memory as someone who encapsulated all that is special, unique even, about the English county game. Yes, there are his achievements in Test cricket, but there is a sense that, more than all those, he is Bristol, he is the old Wagon Works Ground at Gloucester, he is Cheltenham, he is Worcester, and the shadow of the cathedral.


A Kind of Greatness

I started writing this blog in the summer of 2006, just a few months after Alastair Cook made his Test debut.

I've missed a few Tests since then. He hasn't missed any.

Amid all the plaudits, and the veiled and often not-so-veiled criticisms, heaped on Cook after his epic this week, that's something worth remembering. The last Test match played by England in which he didn't participate took place in Mumbai in March 2006. It's remembered for different reasons (the mind's eye turns readily to the desperate sight of Monty Panesar circling under the Dhoni steeplers), but, since then, whenever and wherever England have played a Test match, Cook has been there. Usually batting.

I've grappled before with the thorny question of where Cook stands in the wider lexicon of English batsmanship, and, for someone who's scored so many runs, and so many centuries, assessing him is more difficult and entails more ambivalence than it should.

You can start by doing this. Think of any English batsman. Cook has scored more runs and more centuries than anyone you can think of. Not necessarily at a better average, and sometimes against bowling attacks which don't measure up to those faced by many players of the past, but the runs still have to be scored. Cook has done this in every country and in every type of pitch, match and climatic environment.

His cardinal virtues are so widely known that they hardly need further enumeration. He has unnatural levels of patience, resilience, physical fitness and self-discipline. He never gets injured, he barely sweats, he never appears to age. These are the things which set him apart in ways that the fundamentals of his batting don't.

With the exception of yesterday, he always goes in early. He leaves. He defends. He leaves. He defends. He leaves. He drives, rarely trusting himself to push the bat all the way through the line, but covering any movement, playing impeccably straight, and with beautiful natural timing. If the bowler is then prompted to drop short he will cut, and he will pull. Then he will leave and defend some more, lumbering regular singles with a gait which can seem in keeping with his alternative existence as a farmhand. In time, the bowlers tire and the runs pile up. At the other end, batsmen, usually his shifting and uncertain cast of opening partners, come and go. It is never sexy, it is in many ways old-fashioned, but, in its own way, it is brilliant and uplifting.

Away from the crease he gives the impression of being a reserved and conventional man. The most interesting and unusual thing about him is his batting. In the age of Twenty20, where speed of scoring and six-hitting is all, his approach is different and distinctive.

Wherever you look there are players who can clear the ropes at will. Could they bat for 14 hours in one innings? Could they heck.

Of course Cook can be criticized. Anyone can, especially with the benefit of a litany of grievances which paint him as one of the bad guys in a saga that is nuanced beyond the understanding of anyone who wasn't intimately involved, and with the benefit of Twenty20 hindsight.

Too much time can be wasted trying to assess the relative merits of players with different backgrounds, different approaches, different gifts. Cook may not quite be the type of player conventionally held to be 'great', and he is certainly no genius, but what he does is so far from easy that it bestows on him a kind of greatness. Nobody else, certainly among contemporary English players can do what he does. New players come into the England side to partner Cook every few matches, and none of them can do it. You can be sure that they would like to, but they cannot. In most cases they probably can't even imagine themselves doing it.

Batting at any level of the game is a hard business. A batsman is only ever one good ball or one poor shot away from failure. This uncertainty affects bodies and minds. Try going through ten years of that at the very highest level of the game, some of which you have spent failing, and you will be a mess. To be sane, and to be capable of doing what Cook has just done, perhaps you need, as I've said before about Cook, to be doing what you were put on earth to do.

This is someone who was born to bat.


Possibly Even Better

When it comes to the England team of 2015 - the England team which ultimately regained the Ashes with ease - there are plenty of players, and themes, to talk about.

There are many questions to answer. Some are easy, others are more vexed.

Just how good could Ben Stokes go on to be? Answer: Very Good. Possibly even better than that.

How good a bowler, how good a cricketer, is Stuart Broad? Answer: Very Good.

Who is going to open with Cook in the long term? Answer: Don't Know.

Who is going to be England's next specialist spin bowler? Answer: Don't Know.

How long has Ian Bell got left? Answer: It depends, just as it always did.

Elsewhere there is greater certainty. Increasingly, it seems, there are fewer questions to answer about Joe Root. He is already very, very good, and he may possibly be even better than that.

Over the forty years or so I've been watching England, a question which has occasionally preoccupied me, even in the days when we barely had a respectable team, is when we would produce our next truly great batsman. Our Tendulkar, our Lara, our Ponting.

Gower was unique. Gower, especially in his early years, was often extraordinary. But he wasn't quite great.

Pietersen was a player of great innings, as, in his different way, is Cook. These are people who have touched rare heights, but they haven't quite made it to the summit, unless Cook is considered as an opening batsman alone.

There was a time when everyone thought Ian Bell was going to be the man. And he should have been, he really should. Bell had both the talent and the technical equipment to join the ranks of the truly great, but there has always seemed to be something missing. Something hard to define, but recognisable by its absence. Now it is clear that for all his occasional charm and elegance and undeniable quality, it will never be found.

As Bell walked away from the Trent Bridge pitch, early in the afternoon of the most one-sided day of Anglo-Australian Test cricket any of us is ever likely to see, there was something which signified this. Bell, as has almost become commonplace, had been dismissed for 1, lbw to a characteristic inswinging yorker from Mitchell Starc. As he left the field he was shaking his head and muttering to himself. In a small way these have become his trademarks. Suddenly the hazy sunlight caught the lines in his features and, for just about the first time, I realized that Ian Bell, in cricketing terms, is starting to look old. He is 33, and he will hopefully play many more fine innings (for a player of fine innings is ultimately what he has become) for England.

But he will never be truly great.

It is significant that Bell was replaced at the crease by Joe Root. Joe Root, at 24, has age on his side and he has already found the peerless consistency, weight of scoring and versatility of performance across the formats which have eluded all his peers and predecessors. The certainty of footwork, the soundness of temperament, evident from the early overs of his debut innings in Nagpur, are all there. There is a relative surfeit of elegance, but great players don't need this. Functionality and runs are what they need, and Root has both those in spades.

He can also, for good measure, bowl serviceable off-spin, and he catches everything. Although he has the sense of purpose and instinctive hardness of the natural born Yorkshire pro, he has lost none of the unfettered enjoyment of playing the game which he grew up with. He looks good, he interviews well, he is certain to be England's next captain. If you stop to think about it he feels like the most outstanding cricketer his country has unearthed in many a long year.

Of course, questions remain. How will Root deal with better bowling attacks, and with adversity? This winter, you suspect, both those will test his mettle.

What is his best position in the batting order? So far, with his compatriots in the middle order failing to match his consistency, England have sometimes seemed guilty of wishing to have him batting everywhere at once. For the time being, four seems fine, although a move to three will continue to hang in the air for as long as Ballance remains outside the team and Bell struggles for regular impact.

There is also the nagging feeling that he can't go on like this. England players don't simply go on averaging fifty.

Great players do, though.


Old Pro

The Cheltenham College cricket ground is a very British type of idyll. Not the village green of a million rustic fantasies, but the epitome of the Victorian public school playing field. Flanked by the school's chapel, it is an arena born of the ideal of muscular christianity which the British, for good or ill, took to the world.

On a weekday in July, with the sun streaming from an azure sky and a light breeze taking the edge off the heat, this, for the cricket lover, is as good as it can possibly get.

And, for Gloucestershire's cast of young pros, it represents a release from the barren characterlessness of the north Bristol suburbs, a chance to play in front of a large and appreciative crowd, and, even if they do not know it, an opportunity to connect with history.

Grace played here, Hammond played here, Graveney and Procter and Zaheer played here. Hundreds of other county cricketers have played here. Christ, this is a place.

With Northants dying a prolonged but terminal death in the field in the face of a withering assault by Gloucestershire's young all-rounder Jack Taylor, it is hard, as he patrols the boundary and tries in vain to stem the flow of runs, not to contemplate the thoughts of Stephen Peters.

Stephen Peters is 36 years old now. Once upon a time, when he made a century in the final of the Under-19 World Cup in 1998, he was, briefly, a kind of star. There were expectations, ultimately unfulfilled. His long career in the game has been spent exclusively on the county circuit. For his native Essex, in the shadow of the cathedral at Worcester, and, latterly, at Wantage Road in Northampton. Somewhere along the line he has undergone the metamorphosis from promising youngster to old pro.

But, while members of the crowd have the privilege of descending into reverie, Peters is unable to do so. Having been dismissed without scoring in his side's first innings, he knows that he will be on a pair when he eventually bats again. When he does, with his side facing a deficit of 126, Gloucestershire's coltish and impressive young seamer, Craig Miles, rips one through his defences before he has had a chance to settle. He has his pair, his part in the game is done, and his side too is not long for the match. By the end of the day they have lost, badly.

Not very far away, on the other side of the Welsh border, England and Australia have spent the day locked in combat in the first of the summer's Ashes Tests. The sights, sounds, colours and throbbing intensity of a Test match are things which Peters will never know now, for it is late in his time in the game.

He has never engaged the thoughts of his country's selectors, but, for nearly twenty years, places like this, on days like this, have been his place of work. True, there have been cold days at Derby and Leicester, grey days watching the rain too, but the opportunity to play, even if just once, in a setting such as this and get paid for doing so, is a far richer experience than most of us will ever, ever have.

At the moment, such sentimentality will be far from his mind. But, in time, he will value these experiences for what they have been.


A Week in the Life

The fact that in certain contexts - in politics, in sport, in life itself - a week is a long time, is an old and enduring aphorism.

And, especially in the modern age, it is true, so true. Everything happens fast these days, even in cricket. Twenty20 innings are over in the blink of an eye, teams that for years have been the last word in constipated conservatism can change their very character in a few matches.

Andy Mathieson knows all about this.

On Saturday 20th June, Mathieson, a seam bowler from the North Island of New Zealand, is called into the New Zealand team for his One-Day International debut. As England chase an amended target, things go well at first - he takes the wicket of Jason Roy with his first ball in international cricket - but later they take a sharp turn for the worse. His fourth over, which turns out to be the final over of the match, is hit for 17 runs by a combination of two young Yorkshiremen, Jonny Bairstow and Adil Rashid, who are surfing the glorious wave of England's new era of limited-overs freedom. The match ends in defeat for New Zealand, and Mathieson's figures, which weren't great before he embarked on his final over, are left looking ugly. There is a wicket to cling on to, but he is left with a return of 4 overs for 40 to look back on, possibly for ever. An economy rate of 10. Not good. He is the latest person to be entrusted with the difficult job of bowling at the death as the opposition close on a total. In these situations things can go one of two ways. You can end up as a hero, or you can end up, at best, as a forgotten man.

Durham's Riverside Ground ends the day in ferment. Nothing can be heard above the noise of a crowd who, when the whole series is taken into account, can hardly believe what they have witnessed.

One week on it is Saturday 27th June, and Mathieson is opening the bowling for Sidmouth against Exeter in the Premier Division of the Devon League. On Exeter's old ground, Devon's County Ground, the ancient pavilion has been demolished to make way for a gleaming replacement, ringed by student flats. A crane dominates the skyline, the players change in prefabricated huts, and the spectators can be counted, one by one, in a few minutes. It is a humid, slightly soporific afternoon, with the morning's bright sunshine giving way to cloud. You can hear the birds singing. The players are wearing whites. Contrasts with Durham are everywhere.

Sidmouth's powerful batting line-up racks up 307 in their 50 overs. Exeter are below strength, and they are never serious contenders to win, but their chase begins with Mathieson taking the ball following an initial over of slow-medium seamers from his captain Will Murray.

On television, Mathieson's pace looked relatively benign. Here, at a much lower level of the game, it appears razor sharp, and he extracts bounce from a batsmen's track. When the Exeter batsmen have to play, they tend to play late, and in a hurry. But they don't have to play enough, and Mathieson's first spell is negotiated with relative comfort. Later, as Exeter's innings fades, he returns. Exeter's impressive fifteen year-old, Tom Lammonby, handles him without undue trouble, and he remains wicketless until he shatters the stumps of Exeter's number ten with the game's final ball, securing victory for his side by 129 runs.

For Mathieson it has been a quiet afternoon. He has not batted, and he has taken just one wicket and a single sharp catch in the deep, which, with the anticipation and sense of gathering danger which is second nature to one who has played at a higher level, he has made look easy.

This has been an unusually varied interlude in a jobbing cricketer's career. Two weeks running he has bowled the final ball of a match, but they have been worlds apart in setting, in relative importance, and in result. One has extended him to the furthest limits of his abilities and emotions; the other has been a subdued return to normality.

Who knows if the opportunity to repeat his experience at Durham will ever come again? If it does not, there is little need to worry. He is what he is, and what he will always be. There are plenty of people around with no One-Day International wickets, and nobody will ever be able to take Roy's scalp away from him.

A week in cricket can seem like a very long time.


Sense of Loss

When cricketers retire because of injury, there is always a sense of loss. This is true even when the departures of the two England wicket-keepers who have left the game's stage in the last ten days were very far from unexpected.

With Craig Kieswetter, there is a sense of loss born of what might have been. In the case of Matthew Prior there is a sense of losing what actually was, even if the sad reality is that it was long, long gone.

On the broad acres of his adopted home ground at Taunton, the young Kieswetter stood out in ways that were never shrouded in subtlety or mystery. He always looked the part, standing with unfeigned comfort and self-possession at the root of the cordon, usually with Marcus and James Hildreth by his side. For a few seasons, for those of us who inhabit the Hill, or the Botham Stand, or even the one named after Marcus himself, there was comfort and familiarity in that. He used to vie with Jos Buttler for the gloves, and circumstances dictated that it was Somerset's very own world-beater who left. Craig was never quite going to be a world-beater, but he could keep alright, and would have got better as time passed. And he could really bat. The one-day arena saw him at his best, but the essentials of his game were the same whatever the context. To take just one, there was his characteristic off-drive, played with a distinctive flourish and the timing and withering power of one brought up on the type of track that encourages, indeed demands, virile, punishing strokeplay.

A South African hard wicket player.

If this evokes a stereotype then it isn't appropriate. There was also an intrinsic subtlety and wristiness to his shots, while away from the arena he always seemed a balanced and understated character. You can bet that he would have played for Somerset long into the future. Perhaps England too, with the glorious rebirth of the national side's one-day cricket which the last week has seen suiting him down to the ground. It may or may not have happened, but Craig would have welcomed the chance to make it so.

A lasting memory, from a season or two back, sees me passing him as he came away from the Millichamp and Hall bat workshop that lies behind the Ondaatje Pavilion at Taunton. He had a clutch of brand new, logoless bats under his arm. The tools of his trade. Some of those probably never struck a ball in anger, and now they never will.

Unlike Craig Kieswetter, Matt Prior fulfilled his potential everywhere but in the one-day arena. During his, and England's, greatest recent days I saw a lot of Prior at Lord's, including both his Test centuries there. One, against the West Indies on debut, felt like snatching candy from kids, the other, against India in 2011, when he and Stuart Broad took the game away from England's opponents on a crystal blue Sunday afternoon, still feels to me like a matchlessly evocative summation of all that Flower and Strauss's England were. Prior the batsman was a focal part of that time, bounding onto the pitch, sweatbands on wrists, with endless confidence, aggression and damaging intent. Quick singles to start, always challenging the field, then, as bowlers tired and dropped short, there would be cuts and pulls. Overpitch and it would be one of the most powerful and reliable cover-drives in world cricket.

In those days, when Matt Prior was at the wicket, everything felt right.

Lord's against India was where it all ended for Prior too. An injury-ravaged performance in defeat, capped by a witless stroke and a proud, defiant exit. Watching him walk through the Long Room that day last July, head held high and expression fixed, there was a strong sense of an era ending.

A true sense of loss.


Richie Benaud (1930-2015)

Deaths come in different ways. Some are sudden, unexpected; others come after a long, slow fade from life's prime.

In keeping with the measured laconicism which was an intrinsic element of his unchallenged status as cricket's voice, conscience and heartbeat for more years than most of us have been alive, Richie Benaud's passing was one of the latter. He'd suffered a car accident in Sydney in October 2013, and, as the months afterwards passed, the intermittent reports on his health painted a picture of decline in the face of a cancer which was probably the legacy of long years spent in the burning sun of the world's Test match arenas. Benaud died yesterday in the country where he was born, which he represented, and in which he became a genuinely iconic figure, but the influence and legacy of his life extended far beyond the shores of Australia.

To anyone who grew up in England at any time from the middle of the 1960s onwards and who was interested in cricket, Richie Benaud didn't just represent or evoke the game. As in his home country, he was cricket.

Benaud never again commentated in England after the Oval Test of September 2005. After that, coverage of cricket in England became restricted to satellite television and Benaud wanted no part of it. So, at a time when English cricket is mired in one of its regular bouts of angst about the pitiful state of its representative team, its hopeless, befuddled administrators and its declining number of participants, the memory of Benaud in his glory years is, at one and the same time, a memory of a simpler era. A time when televised cricket meant turning on BBC 1 at 11.25, Soul Limbo and Peter West, Benaud and Jim Laker, and not an advert in sight. As I approach my fifties I like to think that I am resistant to reflex sentimentality about my youth, and in so many ways cricket is more varied, more colourful and more entertaining than it was then, but, as in many areas of life, there is a yearning for the ephemeral, ungraspable memory of those experiences which made us what we are. If you have spent what now seems like your entire life obsessed with cricket, the death of someone who exemplified and defined the game as you fell under its spell is sure to hit you hard.

Two memories of Benaud's life and commentating times: In the first I am eleven years old. It is a sunlit June day, with bottomless blue skies. I have walked home from school and turned on the television. I cannot, of course, remember if I knew that there was cricket on, but, as the set, our first colour television and some five years old at the time, warms into life I can at once discern the sound of a throbbing, excited crowd. Hampshire are playing Gloucestershire at Southampton's Northlands Road ground in the semi-final of the Benson and Hedges Cup. The first thing I see is a blonde fast bowler charge towards the wicket, sweat flying from his brow and his white shirt unbuttoned almost to the waist. I think I know that this is Mike Procter, but I have no idea that at this precise moment, he is seeking to complete a hat-trick. As his yorker disturbs the stumps of Hampshire's John Rice with a mixture of precision and inevitability, Richie Benaud's voice surges upwards with an air of barely controlled excitement, his normal wry detachment momentarily and involuntarily abandoned.

38 long years later, when Benaud dies, this is one of the moments that is replayed and replayed on the television news. It is both a replay of an essential chapter in the Benaud legend and a fundamental part of my childhood.

On 12th September 2005 I am at The Oval, in south London. It is again sunny, and a batsman is again bowled. This time it is Kevin Pietersen, who has scored 158 to take England to the brink of regaining the Ashes. Benaud's final spell of commentary concludes with Pietersen's dismissal. The ground rises, not just to salute Pietersen's achievement but also Benaud. The Australian players, about to become the first team from their country to lose a Test series against England for almost two decades, break from their drinks to applaud Benaud. This signifies what he has meant to cricket.

The last half-year has been, to put it mildly, a mixed period for Australian cricket. A Test series win and a World Cup triumph, bookended by the deaths of Philip Hughes and Richie Benaud, one tragically unexpected and one sadly inevitable. The response to both, though, has shown the vitality and fundamental dignity of the game, both in Australia and around the world.

It is far from an exaggeration to say that Richie Benaud was one of the most significant figures in all the game's long history. When someone like that dies, especially during a period where there is - as there always is - anxiety about the game's turbulent present and uncertain future, the temptation is to suggest that nothing will ever be the same. This is true, of course, for we shall never hear Benaud at the microphone again, but, as the World Cup showed, the game will continue to thrill, fascinate and entertain.

Benaud, never a rose-tinted nostalgist, would agree. Memories of Benaud will sustain all of us long into the future, but it is best if they are viewed as examples of the game's endless possibilities, not as signifiers of a lost past.


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