22.7.14

Antidote to Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.7.14

Local Boy Made Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

He chooses to bat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day Jos Buttler will do the same.

22.6.14

A Very English Batsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26.4.14

Wisden

I recently wrote a review of the 2014 Wisden for John Fuller's excellent Cricket Yorkshire website.

For anyone who didn't see it there, here it is:


There is a conception of the world – chiefly a certain kind of south of England, middle-class conception of the world, but a conception of the world nonetheless – which tells us that one of the first signs of the coming of spring in England is the publication of a squat hardback book with a chocolate cover, housed in a yellow dust jacket.

I'm not sure that this is true any more, if indeed it ever was. Over its many years on the bookshelves of the world, Wisden has been admired, it has been revered, it has increasingly been fetishised. It has even, in some cases, been read. However, when all has been said, it is simply a book about cricket.

Wisden's chief virtue, though, in both physical and psychological terms, is as a source of stability in a changing world. Since Wisden first appeared in 1864 (with its scorecards, of course, but also with its rules of Knur and Spell, and its concordance of the canals of Britain and Ireland, and its lists of the winners of classic horse races), the game of cricket has evolved through the legalisation of overarm bowling, the development of Test cricket, Bodyline, the World Cup, and, most recently and probably most significantly, Twenty20. It is easy to know when these things happened, because it is in Wisden (pages 1529 to 1532, since you ask).

The world has moved on too. Global wars have come and gone and technology has burgeoned to a degree which old John Wisden, sitting in his shop near Leicester Square stroking his whiskers, could only have dreamed of: photography, telephones, moving pictures, ultimately television and, most recently and probably most significantly, the World Wide Web.

The contemporary world of cricket is circumscribed by many of these things. Wherever you look it is on television, though you may have to pay extra to watch it. Where it is played live, people photograph it, they film it, they write about it. Increasingly this is not for newspapers; it is for websites and for blogs, or, in a more abbreviated form, on Twitter.

This is the world into which Wisden emerges every April. Because of people's awareness of the way in which the world has changed, its annual appearance is increasingly seen as a test; a test of format, a test of style, a test of relevance.

How, then, does Wisden shape up?

Over recent years, especially under the editorship of Lawrence Booth, Wisden has changed. In years gone by, while there were always feature articles in Wisden, the writing was rarely as good as it is now, and its primary function was at least as much as a document of record – history, statistics, laws – as a mirror on the world game. Aspects of it were absurdly cumbersome and archaic – until quite recently, its coverage of overseas cricket was a year behind – but now, largely thanks to Booth and his predecessors Scyld Berry and Matthew Engel, it occupies a distinctively independent niche, somewhere between cricket's traditional media arena of newspapers, magazines and ghosted autobiographies, and the wide world of the Web, with all its opportunities, triumphs and flaws. Of course, the statistics and the history are still there, but the real strengths of modern Wisden lie in the quality of its writing and its images, and the pungency of its comment.

Booth is a skilled, and, from personal experience, distinctively courteous editor, but he is also a sharp and distinguished writer. In his editor's notes, he takes aim at the way in which India, England and Australia conspired in early 2014 to alter the ICC's governance structures to ensure that they would receive a larger share of international cricket's income. It is obvious that Booth views the much maligned BCCI as the leading villains of the piece, but the smaller boards fail to escape censure for their response to the proposals and the ICC, of course, gets it in the neck. Booth's criticism focuses on its vacillation over the semi-mythical World Test Championship – if you ever see this take place, let me know – and what it says about the unhealthy relationship between world cricket's governing body and that of the country in which the game is most popular. Further on in the book, cricket's greatest contemporary writer, Gideon Haigh, delves deeper into the 'carve-up of world cricket' with characteristically forensic scepticism. In the scepticism at least, as Haigh makes clear, he is not alone. With admirable balance, Wisden allows Giles Clarke right of reply; he puts the ICC's side of the case well, but ultimately fails to convince.

We will hear much more about this.

Elsewhere in his notes, Booth broadly concurs with the England management's decision to terminate Kevin Pietersen's tenure in the England team, dutifully covers England's era-defining defeat in Australia and pays tribute to Andy Flower and the man who, perhaps more than any other, ultimately did for him and his team, Mitchell Johnson. To lighten the gloom (from the viewpoint of an England supporter), the achievements of England's women's team, twice Ashes winners over the past year, are given their due, and Booth pays a short but sweet tribute to the departed Sachin Tendulkar, while politely acknowledging his doubts about the manner and location of his departure. The continued absence of Test cricket from terrestrial television in Britain is also mentioned. And, quite rightly in my view, not in an approving way.

The rest of the book's Comment section contains a range of contributions which, while all interesting and well-written, do not quite match the standard of some of the landmark articles which Wisden has carried in recent years such as Christian Ryan's truly remarkable Jeff Thomson is annoyed from 2013, or Peter Gibbs' sublime and resonant memoir of Sydney Barnes (2012).

But this is a matter of personal taste; from this year's book I particularly liked Martin Crowe's Time to smell the roses, which is a timely counterpoint to what might be seen (from the game's fringes, or 'the outer' as Australians used to say) as prevailing professional opinion about sledging. There is little doubt that Crowe's call for cricket to rediscover the virtues of competitiveness without vitriolic personal abuse will receive much approval from those of us who feel that the amount of unnecessary verbal interaction between bowlers, fielders and batsmen has demeaned the game and the reputations of many of its leading protagonists for too many years already. Crowe also, intriguingly, describes Michael Clarke as 'a gentle, misunderstood man'. Well, misunderstood, perhaps.

Sachin Tendulkar is the almanack's cover star, and he is also the subject of a perceptive and finely-crafted tribute by Tunku Varadarajan which pays welcome attention to the man beyond the arena, and a further piece by his former Test match colleague Aakash Chopra, which describes what it was like both to play with him and to mix with him off the field. Tendulkar, as he always does, emerges with shining credit from both, and leaves one with the thought that if more international cricketers had his level of humility the problems described by Crowe would be substantially alleviated.

As anyone reading this will probably know by now, the Five Cricketers of the Year are Shikhar Dhawan, Charlotte Edwards, Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers and Joe Root, while the leading cricketer in the world is named – and it is hard to argue against unvarnished greatness – as Dale Steyn.

This year's five feels like a low-key selection, and, as such, perhaps reflects the fact that the English summer of 2013 wasn't, in strictly cricketing terms, all it was cracked up to be. The (male) Ashes series was disappointingly one-sided and relatively pedestrian, and, unlike many previous years, none of the candidates absolutely demanded inclusion. That said, Dhawan deserves it for his brilliance, Root for achievement and potential, Harris and Rogers for persistence and Edwards for brilliance, achievement and persistence.

Indeed, the selection of Edwards (and a fine feature article by Tanya Aldred) emphasizes another of the virtues of the modern Wisden. It is inclusive, and it is democratic. Another aspect of this is the writing competition, inaugurated by Booth in 2012 in order to open up the possibility of publication in the almanack to a wider range of writers, and won in its second year by Liam Cromar, with a clever Shakespearean take on the old game of hypothetical team selection.

Over recent years Wisden has become notable for the quality of its photographs. This year is no different, even if the monochrome pictures which precede each of the book's sections aren't quite as outstanding as in 2013. An exception to this is the picture of Ricky Ponting, batting for Surrey against Sussex at Arundel, which appears before the section on English domestic cricket. Ponting, with head level and still, awaits the ball in a manner prescribed by any textbook; the majority of the crowd and the umpire watch his every move, knowing they are witnessing the last days of a great player, but far away, on the grass bank to Ponting's leg-side, a solitary spectator stands with his back to the cricket and gazes into the rural distance. It is about the importance of everything and nothing.

Elsewhere there is a range of outstanding pictures of both Ashes series, and the winner and runners-up in the Wisden-MCC photography competition. The winner, by Atul Kamble, shows Tendulkar emerging from the Wankhede Stadium dressing room to resume his final innings in Test cricket. The picture carries echoes of a Renaissance painting, the arms of Tendulkar's worshippers raised as if in supplication (although, in reality, each one holds a digital device), with the man himself bathed in sunlight from the back of the stand as he looks into it to atune his eyes. It captures a singular moment; if it had been taken a split-second earlier or later, it would not be the picture it is. This picture is so astonishingly brilliant that it would be entirely justified to buy Wisden 2014 for it and it alone.

There is a pithy and well-timed appreciation of Graeme Swann by Vic Marks – just in case anyone has forgotten how important he was to England and how difficult he will be to replace – and a moving interview with Mark Boucher about his leaving of the game and his battle to regain the sight in his left eye. If you are a wicketkeeper and you read this, you will never again stand up to the bowling without wearing a helmet.

The obituaries, as always, are beautifully judged and written. I have long held the view that the best way to learn about a cricket personality is to read their Wisden obituary (if they're dead, of course). Nothing changes.

However, more generally, as has been said, these are changing times. Wisden has reacted to them. The laws were dropped in 2012 and the records section is now much nearer to the back of the book than it used to be. While it is usefully arranged, there is little if anything in this which cannot be found online, and it is out of date as soon as it is drafted. To take an especially telling recent example, no mention is made of the re-writing of New Zealand's Test record book by Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling; that will have to wait until next year.

Now in its 152nd year, Wisden endures. It still has its importance and its gravitas and its detail; most importantly it has its writing and its photography. It also, in a way it never used to, has humour. The final page of the book carries an 'index of unusual occurrences' which contains such entries as 'county player injured by medicine ball' and 'batsman dislocates shoulder celebrating hundred'.

Whether you start reading it from the back or the front, Wisden, as a result of skilful adaptation to a changing environment, is still as relevant as it ever was.

Perhaps, after all, it is a sign of spring.

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.

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