17.4.16

Thousands of Runs Unscored

James Taylor is a batsman. That is what he does. Or, as of last Tuesday, that's what he did. Batting, something he has done since he was little - well, he's always been little, but you know what I mean - has gone, in the beat of a defective heart, from being both what he does best and the source of his income, to something he used to do but which he cannot, for circumstances beyond his control, do any more.

This is a profound source of sadness. To Taylor, of course, and to his family and friends, but also to many cricket followers, most of whom have never met him.

Cricket is like that.

In modern professional rugby union, players are forced to retire before their time with increasing frequency. It happens so often that it barely causes comment, still less any great outpouring of sentiment or regret. It happens in football too. Always has done. Time and the game move on with barely a backward glance.

Cricket is different. Players sometimes die young, but comparatively few have to retire early. The tragic deaths of Ben Hollioake and Philip Hughes, and the circumstances surrounding them, are etched on memories throughout the world; young lives abruptly ended, careers curtailed with thousands of runs unscored, wickets not taken, hours in the field denied.

Although losing the ability to do the thing that you are best at is awful, it is not as bad as dying. Hopefully Taylor has a long and fulfilling, if sadly compromised, life ahead of him. But he will always be susceptible to thoughts - early on spring and summer mornings, and as the evening shadows lengthen on cricket grounds - of what was and what could have been. Memories of Shrewsbury School, of early games at Grace Road, of taking that double hundred off Surrey that everyone talks about, of digging in amid the chaos caused by Pietersen's genius at Headingley, and of batting long for the Lions in the cloying heat of Dambulla. Thoughts of the innings at Manchester and Sharjah and Durban, and the magical short leg catches at the Wanderers, and what they might have led to in the era of Bayliss and Farbrace.

Amid the doubts and quandaries which never seem to go away - over spin bowlers and opening batsmen and levels of public engagement - these are times of renewal and optimism for the England team. They are finally, after longer than many people have been alive, getting to grips with one-day cricket, and, in Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, they have three cricketers under the age of 26, all of whom who, in their own ways, are world-class.

Taylor may never have quite made it into that category, but there was enough about him, from the way in which he instantly adapted to county cricket, to the way he took the knocks and the rejections and the redundant jibes about his stature, and came back stronger, to suggest that he could have had a long and successful career in international cricket. The summer of 2016 may have decided which way his career would go. Instead, it has ended before the summer has even begun.

There are few things better than being young and being good enough at a sport to make a lucrative career out of it. Most of us would settle simply for being able to play a single off-drive or pull like James Taylor, let alone hit the ball clean out of Headingley as he once did, or manage a run chase as he could. We wouldn't need to be paid to do so. Just doing those things would be enough to take our lives to a higher plane. But, in an instant, Taylor has been forced to leave that world behind and retreat to the foothills of life which the rest of us occupy. Nothing will ever quite feel as good again.

There is a salient lesson in life's unpredictability there, but, while most of us can only dream of having been a contender, James Taylor will always know that he was.

13.3.16

Art or Science?: Martin Crowe (1962-2016)

Cricket, and the world, and the cricket world, move on so quickly that it already feels a little late to be posting something about Martin Crowe. I wrote this piece last weekend and offered it to ESPN Cricinfo. They haven't replied, so it feels like it's time to post it here.

Martin Crowe was one of my very favourite batsmen of all, and I don't think he quite received the recognition he deserved during his career. It's a well-observed phenomenon in all kinds of areas of human activity that when people die - especially if they die young - they receive all the dues that they didn't when they were at their peak.

So it goes. I was just happy that he was widely described as New Zealand's greatest batsman. I believe that's what he was, and while there's little doubt that the magnificent Kane Williamson will beat most of his records, I don't think he'll reach Crowe's level of technical perfection. As I say below, the only player I've seen who's got anywhere near doing so is Rahul Dravid.

When I first heard the news, on News Briefing on BBC Radio Four, very early on the morning of Thursday 3rd March, he was described as 'the former Somerset and New Zealand cricketer'. This was unusual, but it was gratifying, and it felt completely right, because his years at Somerset were some of his most important and influential. Influential on him and influential on the club. In the last fifty years, Somerset County Cricket Club has employed some of the greatest players the world has ever seen. There's no need to list them; everyone knows who they are. Martin Crowe is fit to rank with any of those.


Is batting an art, or is it a science?

It may be one, it may be the other, it may be both, or it may be neither, but batsmen, nevertheless, are often categorized as artists or artisans. Geoff Boycott was unquestionably an artisan; David Gower an artist. Brian Lara was an artist; Graeme Smith an artisan.

Martin Crowe was both. Rahul Dravid was too, but Martin Crowe was Dravid before Dravid. Patient, rigorous, endlessly disciplined, but with the great player's essential ability to instantly take advantage of the bad ball, and to bend bowlers to their will.

If someone's defence is so sound, their ability to leave the ball so finely honed, their capacity to counter your skills and variations so good, it is easy to slip into the feeling that you will struggle to ever dismiss them. Shoulders drop, and, as night succeeds day, bad deliveries follow.

Of course, while there are similarities between Crowe and Dravid, there are also contrasts. Like every other batsman who came into the Indian side between 1990 and 2013, Dravid batted in the reassuring shadow of Tendulkar. While Martin Crowe was far from a lone standard bearer in New Zealand's greatest team – Richard Hadlee, of course, was always there – as a batsman he was largely surrounded by artisans. Fine players, yes, like John Wright, like Bruce Edgar, like his own elder brother Jeff, but artisans nonetheless. Crowe was always the artist, and was distinctive in other ways. He was young, he was cool, he was stylish.

Another contrast with the experience of Dravid is that in New Zealand cricket is a small game in a small country where Rugby Union is king. In India it is precisely the opposite. While Dravid and his compatriots were continually exposed to the demands of countless millions, Crowe was subject to differing pressures, expectations and vulnerabilities. The pressure of being the best batsman in the team, and, in later years, the need to maintain your customary level of performance in the face of debilitating injury problems. The feeling of being at the fulcrum of a small country battling against the world, or, as it was in Crowe's time, the might of the West Indian machine.

The premature death of Martin Crowe has been mourned around the world, the sorrow undiminished by the widespread knowledge of his protracted illness. Many people – Mike Selvey, Mark Nicholas, Gideon Haigh, Jarrod Kimber – have written about their personal interactions and friendships with him. I can do no such thing, but I can still think, and write, and talk, of the many occasions I saw him bat.

When he came to England with his national side for the first time in 1983, Crowe's purity of technique was instantly apparent, and I followed his career, with New Zealand and with Somerset, unusually closely, although, in those distant days before worldwide television coverage of anything resembling an international cricket match, this could be a hard thing to do.

There were many peaks: Brisbane, November 1985, where he supplied most of the runs and Hadlee most of the wickets; the two Lord's centuries against England, the second made while in intense pain; the twin centuries, at Wellington and Auckland in early 1987, which helped his team to draw a series with the West Indies. His unbeaten hundred against Somerset at Taunton on his last tour in 1994, when the crowd rose in memory of what had been and in recognition of what was coming to an end.

In those days I used to get sent the New Zealand Cricket Almanack every year. The 1987 issue sticks in the mind, and now is a good time to get it out and dust it down. There is the beautiful moment in time colour photograph on the cover of the two musketeers, Hadlee and Chatfield, who have just bowled the greatest side in the world out for 100 at Lancaster Park. But there are also two pictures which frame the mastery of Crowe in his halcyon days. On the back cover he is hooking Malcolm Marshall to the Wellington fence in a way that few could ever do; inside there is a monochrome shot of a straight drive which could easily have been posed for the camera, such is the purity of Crowe's style.

For some players, moving images are needed to capture their essence. For batsmen like Crowe (and there haven't been many players like Crowe), for whom poise and timing is all, still photography can serve just as well.

As many have said, as well as being a great batsman, Crowe was a deep and innovative thinker about the game, its problems and its consequences. While, like many of his ideas, this could seem counter-intuitive, with the originality of his thinking contrasting with the orthodoxy of his batting, it is both logical and understandable. A mind which can produce and refine a batting technique like that is a fertile and varied one.

No game has the same depth of emotional resonance as cricket. Losses are always keenly felt and deeply mourned. The past year alone has seen the deaths of one of the greatest cricket figures of all, Richie Benaud, one of the greatest opening batsmen, Arthur Morris, and a man who was a special kind of hero for a certain generation of Englishmen, Tom Graveney.

But it is the early deaths which hit hardest. Since 1999 world cricket has lost Malcolm Marshall himself, Ben Hollioake, Manjural Islam, Philip Hughes and now Crowe. Two cancers, two road accidents and one death at the crease.

In his first season as a Somerset player, in 1984, Martin Crowe flourished with the bat after an uncertain start. However, in many ways, his most important role was played off the pitch, where he used his experience to coalesce the efforts of a group of young players whom he felt to be drifting. Ultimately, many of these players – players like Richard Ollis, Hugh Wilson and Mark Davis – had short careers in the game, but, wherever they are now, it would be surprising if they had failed to spare a thought these past few days for Crowe and those he has left behind.

Cricket is like this. When players die, the whole game bleeds.

9.3.16

Hamid Hassan and the Power of Junoon

When you run a blog like this, which has been around a while and has gained the odd bit of praise and notoriety here and there, people contact you from time to time about contributing guest posts. Invariably you rapidly develop the impression that what they're likely to contribute isn't going to add very much to the sum of human knowledge. My favourites are the ones (not as rare as you might think) who don't seem to have noticed that the blog is about cricket and offer to write about something completely different. On those occasions, I tend to say no.

However, when Nihar Suthar contacted me about writing something for the site, I decided to say yes. Nihar is the author of The Corridor of Uncertainty, a new book about the rise of Afghan cricket. As everyone knows, the way in which Afghanistan has risen to relative prominence in a historically and culturally alien world is one of the most remarkable cricket stories of the new millennium.

With the World T20 getting under way, Nihar has contributed a profile of Hamid Hassan, one of the stalwarts of the side, who has just been recalled to national duty.

By now, the fairytale story of Afghan cricket has spread around the world. In the 2015 Cricket World Cup, the Afghans proved that they could compete against the best, giving the Sri Lankans all they could handle. Cricket has become contagious in Afghanistan. It is an integral fuel of life.

What is different about this team, though? We see nations full of cricket promise climbing through the ranks of the ICC all the time, yet, none of them have made the full ascent from Division 5 to Division 1 as quickly as Afghanistan has. Put simply, it’s because of cricketers like Hamid Hassan. Hamid is without a doubt the best fast bowler in the Afghan team, and arguably one of the most powerful bowlers in world cricket. Yet his talent is not what sets him and his team apart.

He constantly reinforces the importance of junoon with his teammates. Junoon is an Urdu expression for passion. Hamid is just one of the many players on the Afghan side who eats, sleeps, and breathes constant junoon for cricket. He can never stop thinking about it. His mind is always immersed in cricket.

Hamid grew up in the refugee camps of Kacha Garhi, Pakistan, and it was there that he fell in love with cricket. At the age of just sixteen he had to make a major decision for the game he held so dear. Taj Malik, one of the people who is credited with getting the Afghan national cricket team off the ground, came to Kacha Garhi in 2003 to recruit future stars for Afghanistan. He was drawn to Hamid and tried to convince him to come back to Afghanistan. At that time, Afghanistan's cricket infrastructure was non-existent.

Taj went straight to Hamid’s father and said, “Salaam. My name is Taj Malik, and I am the coach of the Afghan national cricket team. I want to request you to leave Hamid with me. He wants to go to Afghanistan to play some cricket in Kabul.”

Hamid’s father was far from happy. He started cursing at Taj, and angrily responded, “Get lost. Hamid is my son. I don’t want to let him go. He has school exams coming in ten days.”

Taj kept pushing. “Hamid has great talent to be a professional cricketer.”

Hamid’s father scoffed. “No he does not. Look at his weight!” Hamid weighed 268 pounds.

“Have you asked Hamid what he wishes to do?” asked Taj.

Hamid’s father exploded. “It doesn’t matter. Just take Hamid and go away from here. If anything happens to him, you will be responsible.”

Taj was alarmed, but Hamid quickly interjected before the episode could escalate. “Stop arguing! Taj, go and wait for me on the road. I am coming.”

Hamid had no idea what to do. He was torn. He was just a boy. Confused, he went to his mother and broke down. “Mother, I wish to go to Afghanistan to play cricket with Taj, but father does not want me to go. What should I do?”

Hamid’s mother simply advised, “Son, this is your love, this is your choice. If you see a future for yourself in cricket, just go for it. If there is no future, why do you wish to waste your time and life like this?”

Hamid sobbed. He fully believed that he had a future in cricket. After receiving blessings from his mother, Hamid left with just $35 to his name and trekked over 200 miles to Kabul. It was the beginning of his professional cricket career. He called his father from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “Dad, I’m sorry I left without saying anything. I’m going to Kabul. Please don’t mind. One day, I promise I’m going to make you very proud.”

Since that point in time, Hamid has devoted his body and soul to the junoon for cricket. He is driven to make his parents and his country proud. Furthermore, he has infused that same junoon into all the cricketers around him. Hamid is truly an example of how far the idea of junoon can take a cricketer and an entire nation. Ultimately, raw passion and drive for the game is even more important than natural talent or honed skill.

Nihar Suthar (www.niharsuthar.com) is a narrative non-fiction writer, and has written The Corridor of Uncertainty, about the miraculous and inspiring rise of the Afghan cricket team. It features never-before heard stories and narratives from the players. Purchase your copy at www.thecorridorofuncertainty.com.

25.2.16

Eulogies

Retirement. Over the near ten years that this blog has been running, many great players have slipped, always voluntarily, from the limelight: Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Lara, Ponting, Tendulkar.

There is usually a pattern, certainly for those who, even marginally, outstay their welcome. The form starts to slip, the player's age is repeatedly mentioned, possible retirement dates are proposed and debated. Then, when it has happened, eulogies are written.

I should know. I've written many of them myself.

When Shivnarine Chanderpaul recently announced his 'retirement' (He bats on for Guyana, which is hardly surprising. Will there ever be a time when, even in his head, Shiv isn't batting?) many tributes were paid. The best of these, by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan and Liam Cromar, emphasized Chanderpaul's status as almost the last of a kind. The batsman who is best known for being very, very difficult to dismiss. In the art, or the science, or perhaps just the bloody-minded discipline, of outlasting bowlers, Chanderpaul was the nonpareil.

He was, of course, far more than a mere accumulator; the thing I always liked most about him was the counter-intuitive contrast between the ugliness of his stance and the transparent class of many of his strokes. With Chanderpaul gone we have Alastair Cook, who does a very similar job, but without quite the accumulative powers or the class. This, perhaps, is the greatest mark of Chanderpaul's status as an outlier; he batted longer, and harder, and in poorer teams, and in greater denial of the traditions of his country's batting (the country, lest we forget, of Kanhai, of Fredericks, of Lloyd, of Hooper), than anyone else in the last twenty years, even Alastair Cook. With the way the game is changing, nobody will ever do that again.

When anyone retires, personal memories come to the fore. After the Test match between the West Indies and England at Lord's in July 2004 - a match in which Chanderpaul made undefeated scores of 128 and 97 in the face of heavy defeat - I stood at the door of the Long Room as he prepared to run the gauntlet of the supporters massed outside the pavilion's rear door. His face is a mask of characteristic seriousness and intensity; he has felt the pain of defeat once again, despite his best efforts. He wants away, but you sense that he would rather be able to leave in private, without having to deal with the adulation which he will receive. But the thing that leaves the strongest impression is his physical stature. He is one of the slightest people I have ever seen in an adult sporting context. Seemingly he is a boy in a man's world. Except, of course, in the matter of batting.

Now we have had the international retirement of Brendon McCullum. This is different in many senses; for one he is still at the peak of his powers, and, much to his credit, he is finishing while people are still asking, as the old aphorism goes, 'why?' instead of 'why not?'. For another he was never anyone's idea of an accumulator. While Chanderpaul would keep a contest alive to the end of his days, McCullum's way was to grab a match by the scruff of the neck and throw it out of the window.

As Rick Walton's superb, thought-provoking piece on the 'Wondrous Carnage' created by McCullum at Christchurch shows, he can provoke varying and contradictory emotions, but what McCullum deserves most respect for is the way in which he has been at the fulcrum of everything that has changed the world's perception of New Zealand cricket. New Zealand play uncomplicated, attacking cricket, but they do it with a lightness of touch and a lack of sourness which is refreshing and distinctive. Apart from the short period in the eighties when they had the advantage of one of the greatest bowlers of all time, New Zealand have never been anyone's idea of world-beaters, least of all their own.

Now, though, if you watch cricket in New Zealand you can watch it at the Hagley Oval, the sanctuary of post-earthquake Christchurch, and you can watch the batting of Kane Williamson, which is as good as anything of its kind that can presently be seen anywhere on earth.

In population terms, New Zealand is a small country at the end of the earth. It has its vivid natural beauty, it has its rugby, parodically it has its sheep.

Now, thanks in large part to Brendon McCullum, it has cricket.

31.1.16

Learning to Fly

The District Six Museum is a short walk from Cape Town's centre. Across the Grand Parade, where the hustlers, the hawkers and the traders ply their wares under the scalding, shadeless sun and the unflinching and incongruous gaze of Edward VII. Past City Hall, where Nelson Mandela gave his famous speeches. Past the Castle of Good Hope and into a network of mean streets. Not necessarily in the sense in which that phrase is usually used – although you wouldn't linger here after dark – but because, here, evil was committed.

The District Six Museum commemorates the old and new life of a part of its city which apartheid tried to destroy. Those days are gone now, but the bleak legacy of memories endures and the road to restitution is long and far from run. This was the nature of the ancien regime writ large – in place of cosmopolitanism there must be uniformity, in place of spontaneity there must be predictability, in place of racial interaction there must only be white people – and, when you go there, the thought of what went on makes you reflect very deeply. For people of a certain age, the District Six Museum, with its monochrome photos and its banners and its people's maps, more even than Robben Island (although that has its moments, of course), takes you back to a time when unrest in South Africa was headline news every night, and nobody knew when, if ever, it would end.

These, of course, were the days of the sporting boycott, when it would have been impossible to imagine a side comprising the South African game's many lost white players taking the field in an official context, let alone a team captained by a representative of the Durban Indian community, or a tiny man from a Cape township, or a twenty year-old fast bowler from the Highveld.

Returning to South Africa after a twenty year absence – it is a salient thought that Kagiso Rabada was yet to walk, much less bowl, when I was last here – there was a palpable although indefinable sense of a more mature country, one that was embracing the future (even if it is still not sure if it likes it), rather than looking towards it with trepidation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began its hearings after I was last here, is long passed, and the system which gave rise to the need for it has faded even further into history. The flag of the old South Africa, which, in a strange moment of elemental and retrogressive madness, I saw paraded at St.George's Park in Port Elizabeth in December 1995, is gone for good too. Everywhere there is red, blue, green, black, yellow and white.

Newlands, in the city's affluent suburbs, is representative of a very different South Africa. Head out on the M3 past the university, and you enter a world of electronic gates, high walls and security notices. Here, paranoia is all.

Inside the ground, in its wondrous natural setting, the atmosphere is friendlier and more congenial. All sorts of South African are here, as well as many thousands from the British Isles, enticed by the January sunshine and a currency which is declining faster than the South African batting.

Day One. The sun beats down from a bottomless azure sky, while the pitch is the colour of bleached concrete. A batting day if ever there was. For once, Cook wins at the toss. He then goes early to a blinding catch, but Hales leaves with unusual care, building to 60. But he gets out when set, and others – Compton, Root – follow, while Taylor goes immediately to a poor shot. At 223 for 5 in the 68th, the day is in the balance. But it ends with Stokes and Bairstow powerfully settling in against the new ball, while never quite hinting at the carnage which is to follow.

It is trite now to say that Ben Stokes is a gifted batsman. Everyone has seen what he can do. But the loose limbed sixes, the balls which, on small grounds like Taunton, appear to be destined for orbit, are only part of it. To fully appreciate what he is capable of, watch him early, settling in, when in form. He must be in form because if he isn't he will more than likely be out before you have had a chance to form an opinion. He plays very straight and the ball leaves the bat with a rhythmical ease of timing which you only see from the very, very best. Later, when he's really in – and this can happen quicker than you realize – the timing is cast aside in favour of raw brutality, and this, in the first three hours of the second day, is what we get. Bairstow, who is still at this point trying hard to establish himself, provides dutiful support, before opening out when he's past his first Test hundred. Simply put, nobody in the ground has seen anything like it before. Self-awareness can be hard to find at times like this, but at a point quite early on, as I sit in the shade and watch cricket from the Gods in a temperature and crystalline light which carries an air of unreality when you have departed the gloom of the British winter just a few days before, I take a few moments between balls to focus on the fact that, seriously, life cannot get much better.

With a range of records cast to the winds that drift in off the mountains during a typical Newlands afternoon, South Africa have no choice but to bat long. After early losses, on a pitch without demons, this is what they do. Amla sniffs the ball with exaggerated care as he tries to piece together his muscle memory and recover his lost form, while always having the time to dismiss the bad ball from his presence with an elegance given to few. For the next day or so, the game seems to have entered a kind of stasis.

More than a day later, Amla is out. From the raised area at the back of the Railway Terrace, within earshot of the trains and the brewery, the dismissal is largely unseen. In this environment it is easy for minds to wander. Another wicket quickly follows, and then, with a hint of trouble in the air, Temba Bavuma is at the wicket. A Cape Town boy, born in the year of Mandela's release, he carries the air of a child among men, at least until he starts piercing the field. De Kock soon goes but, between his fall and tea, Bavuma, with a succession of compact drives and pulls, sets down a marker, while, in partnership with the debutant Chris Morris, bringing the balance of the game back within South Africa's reach. At the time a few people compare the neatness and self-possession of Bavuma to what the early stages of a Sachin Tendulkar innings were like. This seems a little fanciful. It is probably his tiny stature which prompts this as much as anything he does with the bat, but it is a sign. Here is a black African who can obviously bat, but this is not enough. People want, people need, him to succeed. To cement his place in the side in a way that no other man of his race, apart from Makhaya Ntini (and batting was never his strong suit), has ever done.

Later on the fourth day, as the torpid heat settles on the ground like a blanket, everything slows again as Bavuma gains on his century. Then, with five o'clock behind us and the shadows beginning to lengthen, he edges a drive at Finn wide of the only slip left to complete the first Test century for South Africa by a black batsman. It is coincidental and appropriate that by this stage Rabada has joined him, and in the lower tier of the President's Pavilion, the crowd – or at least those who are truly aware that they are witnessing history – rise to acclaim it.

Amla, in what will turn out to be one of his last decisive acts as South Africa's captain, declares almost immediately, with his side two runs behind.

The final day dawns cooler but more humid. The increased cloud cover encourages the South African bowlers, and England rapidly lose three wickets. After lunch they are falteringly drawn into an unexpected battle for survival. A match that, while it has contained moments of huge excitement and deep significance, has lacked any sustained dramatic tension, comes to life before sliding to a damp grave as the light closes in and rain briefly falls.

On trips like this life moves on quickly. There are buses to catch, cruises round a windswept harbour to negotiate, farewell dinners to enjoy. And, when you return to the English winter, which has become colder and harsher in your brief absence, the reality that such experiences are outliers in your life hits home. But this is no bad thing. The mundanity of normality provides the contrast against which times like these can be fully enjoyed for what they are.

From the Cape the teams travel to the country's higher northern latitudes. England secure the series in Johannesburg, before being cast aside at Centurion by a combination of their own fading focus and the bowling of Rabada, who starts to look like a prospect for the ages.

In Cape Town, although the mighty Stokes punishes him hard, he has periodically impressed with his lithe action and deceptive pace, but he has been overshadowed by his compatriot Bavuma. At Johannesburg and Centurion it becomes apparent that South Africa have a bowler around whom, as the era of the great Steyn draws to a close, they can build their recovery to the world game's heights.

It is too obvious, and it is also unrealistic and dangerous, to try to draw parallels and significances between what is happening to a country's cricket team and what is happening in the country itself. The rise of Bavuma and Rabada tells a small but possibly illusory truth about the evolution of South African society as it is reflected by cricket. Although Bavuma began life in Langa, the low-slung township you see as you drive from the airport towards central Cape Town, both he and Rabada had the benefit of being educated at church schools in Johannesburg where cricket played a central role in the sporting curriculum.

For most of South Africa's population, the world is not like this. But even from a short visit, impressions and memories beyond the priceless feeling of warm sun on the face in early January, can be taken away. While the District Six Museum portrays the worst which South Africa's bleak past threw up, its displays are far more about the multi-faceted nature of a society. Banners and photographs feature cricketers and their teams. Messages are sent, one of which is that, although in the years of division they were not allowed to compete on equal terms, cricket was always a vital and important part of black and coloured society. Whatever their adolescent privileges, Bavuma and Rabada are the heirs to a noble and resilient tradition.

Like so many other traditions, though, apartheid tried to crush it. For years players had to move abroad to get anywhere. However, these were not always players from the majority communities. On the third afternoon of the Newlands Test there is a ceremony on the outfield. Commemorative 'heritage blazers' are presented by Cricket South Africa to players from the old days who never had the chance to represent a united country. Among the unfamiliar local names there are players who, to someone of a certain age and mindset, are instantly recognizable from county cricket – Steve Jefferies of Hampshire, Ken McEwan of Essex, others. Sporting isolation affected everyone. It is little wonder – and it is entirely right – that England and South Africa compete in Test matches for the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy.

For all the feeling that it has advanced and stabilized, South African society remains unequal, turbulent and confusing, But then so, increasingly, is the whole world. A sensation of hesitant advancement is perhaps the best that can be hoped for, both on the cricket field and away from it.

From this place and time I will always retain the memories of Robben Island, of Table Mountain, of District Six; of Stokes batting like there was going to be no tomorrow; of Bavuma passing his century and leaving the field, shortly after, with Rabada. A walk that was interrupted at frequent intervals by England players, aware of the moment, running to shake Bavuma's hand.

As I have already said, it is necessary to be careful not to draw too many conclusions from moments such as this. The older ills and wounds of the country will take longer to cure, but, from the way in which Bavuma signed autographs for a kaleidoscopic crowd of admirers outside the South African dressing room at Newlands after the game had been laid to rest, to Rabada's penetrative and mature bowling at Centurion, which hinted strongly at potential greatness, there are good signs for South African cricket.

For one reason or another, these boys are special. Watch them fly.

8.11.15

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.

18.10.15

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.

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