16.6.19

Great Days

Driving to Sussex from Devon in the rain and gloom. It is 6.10 in the morning and it feels mad.

The rain clears around Portsmouth; soon after 10 we park and walk through Arundel. It is a small town which embodies a certain type of storied Englishness. Beautifully kept houses from many eras, antique shops, a War Memorial decorated with wreaths. A castle; a cathedral; vintage pubs which look welcoming and well-stocked.

You would not need to be told that this is the home of a cricket festival. Not one in the loose sense of the ICC Cricket World Cup, with all its noise, its forced crowd participation and its saturated and breathless media coverage. This is a festival of County Cricket as it still can be at certain times and in certain places: white clothing, red ball, Jack Russell selling paintings, others selling books. Modesty, tolerance, subtlety and elegance are built into the fabric of the day. A man playing an electric guitar made out of a cricket bat would look as incongruous here as a herd of pigs taking off from the castle ramparts.

If seen through a white ball prism, the day’s play is also full of incongruity. Will Beer, a man of thirty looking to leave his bit-part leg spinner’s career behind, bats through all the day’s 96 overs for just 76 runs. This is, by any standards, slow batting, but nobody tries to start a Mexican wave. People know what he is trying to do and they see no need to disturb him. In most cases they are simply happy that days such as these still exist. The sun becomes warm and the conversations grow slightly more animated; late in the day a few people drift away early for the alternative comforts of home, but most stay to the end. It is a time nobody wants to leave behind.

The next day, in Taunton, everything, on field and off, is faster, noisier, brasher. It is also more ephemeral, but this is not a condemnation. The game is completed in one day, it ebbs and it flows, the enthusiasm, knowledge and good humour of the immense Pakistan following is infectious and the play is of a standard far beyond anything which most of the players at Arundel have known. Many of them would like to, of course, but deep down they know they never will, and they might perhaps be happy with that.

It is one of the many strengths of the contemporary game that it can captivate and entrance in such contrasting ways. But amid the differences there are similarities; as at Arundel, an opening batsman is working to establish himself, although in this case he has travelled the road before. This is about resuming an interrupted career.

All David Warner’s trademarks are there; his century is studded with powerful drives and pulls, and he even casts off the cloak of inhibition which hampered Australia’s chase at The Oval. He lays the foundations for Australia’s victory; later the job is completed by Cummins and Starc.

Both of these, in their very different ways, have been great days, but this is not the time to consider which is best. Both are part of the pageant of modern cricket, and they can easily co-exist, with each reminding us of the virtues of the other.

Just as long as the will for them to do so is there.

14.4.19

A Time of Doubt

April, for cricketers, is a time of optimism, but it is also a time of doubt.

If you are a county opening batsman who was once a prodigy - you were a Test player at 19 - but you have endured two seasons of abject poverty in an environment where the only hard currency is runs, you may have more doubts than most. Yes, you may have taken a student bowling attack for a double hundred the week before, but you know that is important only because it has refreshed your muscle memory and renewed your fragile confidence a little. That is all. You know that you need serious runs; runs made against hardened professional bowlers, three of whom, even though they are currently plying their trade in Division Two of the County Championship, know what it is to celebrate Test match wickets, and another who was once a prodigy himself. Former prodigies are everywhere; many become known mainly for their pasts and lost futures, and you do not want to join them.

At the day’s start the sun is briefly out but it soon gives way to leaden cloud. A strong easterly breeze scuds across Lord’s, and, by early afternoon, it feels like a raw day in late autumn or early winter. In a sense this is appropriate, for April’s doubts are not confined to the players. An early season crowd is, by definition, composed of devotees, and most of them will have concerns about where the game is heading. Thoughts of ‘The Hundred’, thoughts of the ECB’s gift for inflicting damage on the game it is supposed to be protecting, thoughts of how Championship cricket has come to this, and of how much further it may fall.

These are concerns that are as penetrating as the savage wind, but they can easily be rendered temporarily ephemeral by what goes on in the middle. The game is the thing, and any straw of aesthetic beauty or technical skill will be grasped and used as a defence against the worries, the pessimism, and the resentment.

This is how it is with Haseeb Hameed’s innings. Within a few overs it is clear how well he is timing his shots - you only need hear the sound his bat makes as it connects with the ball to know this - and the decisiveness of his footwork makes him look what he is: a player, for all his youth, and his slightness and his air of modesty, who genuinely knows how to bat. The crease is his natural home and it is where he is most comfortable, but he has spent precious little time there in recent seasons, so the impression is of someone - like a brain-injured patient re-learning how to talk with fluency - rediscovering a language they speak well, but in which they have temporarily lost their eloquence.

The drives - both eased through mid-on and caressed through the covers - and the flicks through midwicket are one thing, but what defines the innings and ensures its longevity is Hameed’s forward defensive. It is played time and again, and it is both watertight and positive; like any player of high talent he judges length quickly and his huge stride and the straightness of his bat make the stroke look as co-ordinated and smooth as a natural body movement. In reality it is the product of thousands of hours at the crease and in nets, facing bowlers and their mechanical doppelgängers, but other players have done all that and can’t play it like Hameed can.

A last vignette: As Hameed comes through the door into the Long Room to resume his innings after tea, he pulls on his gloves with an unfeigned air of nonchalance. The early tension has gone, to be replaced by familiarity and assurance. He is still short of his hundred but it is nothing to be concerned about. He has passed this way before, countless times. It will come, and it soon does, with a six to the short Grandstand boundary.

His innings comes to an end before too much longer, but no matter. His work is done.

Winter in England has ended, really, but in all kinds of ways it didn’t feel like it at Lord’s on Friday 12th April. Until a few seasons ago, Championship cricket wouldn’t even have begun by this point in the calendar, but this is life’s new reality. What a player like Hameed gives us, and what an innings like his signifies, is the way in which, at a time of unpleasant and unwanted change, so many of us - please count me right in - are looking to cling to anything that represents cricket as we know and love it.

And we want more. much more.

It is a lot to ask of a boy from Bolton, but this should not be a concern. If he can handle expectation like he can handle a bat, he will be fine.

And so - at least for a time, and even if only in our minds - will the game.

17.2.19

Annie and Gary and Me

If you like cricket and you're on Twitter, and you follow everybody that everyone else follows, you will probably have heard of Annie Chave. These days, it seems, most people have. Among other things, Annie commentates on Guerilla Cricket, and she recently had the privilege of being flown to Barbados to broadcast on the First Test between the West Indies (they will never ever be called the 'Windies' around here) and England. The only thing stopping it being the trip of a lifetime is the fact that she'll probably do it again.

While most people out there have only heard of Annie in the last year, she and I go back a long way. Her Dad - a remarkable man well worth knowing in his own right - had the dubious pleasure of captaining me many times on the Devon village circuit either side of the turn of the millennium. Annie, with her sister and her brothers and her mother, and later with her husband and son, was often around. Annie watched, Annie scored, and on one occasion Annie missed an important game (the time we said farewell to our old ground before it was turned into a housing estate) because she was detained in a maternity suite. Life gets in the way of cricket sometimes.

During the game in Barbados, Annie posted a picture of herself talking to Sir Gary Sobers. This set me thinking.

I met Gary Sobers once too. And, many years before that, I saw him play.

This is not point scoring; unlike me, Annie met him properly and had a conversation with him. More, much more, than I will ever do.

The time I met him came when he paid a visit to a public school with which I have a tenuous connection which gets me invited to things. My memory is a bit hazy, but there was a Question and Answer session, incongruously conducted (unless I’ve dreamt it, and now it sort of feels like I might have done) by the former Glamorgan and Sussex batsman Tony Cottey. After that, it was a question of queuing up for the great man’s autograph behind a large number of sixth formers who had presumably been told about Sobers by their Grandparents. Initially I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother with this, affecting to think of myself as a bit too cool (well, a bit too old) for such things, but, with my mind drifting back to the time at Lord’s (after the 1978 Gillette Cup final, which, don’t forget, Somerset lost) when I was last in a seemingly endless line of kids seeking Viv Richards’ signature (and he waited, and he signed my scorecard), I decided it was worth it.

I took along my prized copy of Alan Ross’s classic account of England’s 1959-60 tour of the West Indies, Through the Caribbean, and selected a photo of the young Sobers, hooking. Sobers signed it with a flourish and handed it back, commenting ‘That’s a rare photograph. I’m batting in a cap’. I thought about it afterwards and it was true that virtually all my other recollections of him - easing his way on to the path to 254 at Melbourne, or the 150 at Lord’s on his final England tour, or hitting Malcolm Nash ‘all the way down to Swansea’ saw him bare headed. I also remembered the time - the one and only time - I saw him play in the flesh.

September 1982; The Oval. Two end of season games: one between a ‘Barbados Board of Tourism XI’ and a World XI, and another, the next day, between the World XI and an Old England XI. The Barbados side was distinctly useful: the attack comprised Marshall, Garner, Hall and Griffith, with Sobers, Greenidge, Haynes, Collis King and Seymour Nurse to provide the runs. I can't remember whether I went to both games but I know I went to the second one, as my memory tells me it was the last day of a long summer holiday between school and college, which, for all kinds of reasons, was a time of change and adjustment.

Of course, detailed recollections are few after all these years, but my memory of Sobers coming out to bat for the World XI that Oval Sunday are crystal clear. He came in at six, with his old colleague Rohan Kanhai at the other end. Bobby Simpson, Farokh Engineer and Neil Harvey (Neil Harvey? Jesus. It dawns on me now that I saw one of Bradman's invincibles bat, a fact I didn't recall years later when I sat in the back of a minibus with him one Melbourne night.) had come and gone. I don't know who was bowling, but I think it was a spinner, so it would have either been Don Wilson or Brian Close, but, very early in his innings, Sobers, who wasn’t wearing a cap (or indeed a helmet, which would have been an option by 1982) unfurled a cover drive of such epic majesty that I've never forgotten it.

When it comes to cover drives by left-handers, people talk about elegance and purity of timing (think Gower, think Moeen) or they talk about punchiness and raw, elemntal power (think Warner, maybe, or, from the T20 generation, someone like Corey Anderson) but my memory is that this shot by Sobers (the bowling was from the Vauxhall End, so it was played towards the Harleyford Road) stood perfectly on the razor sharp cusp between one and the other. It had elegance, but it also had withering power. No matter that the fielder it passed may have been someone, like Sobers himself, born in the 1930s. This, as old Jim Laker would have said back then, was ‘four from the moment it left the bat'.

It says much about the selective nature of memory that I can recall that single shot so perfectly after nearly forty years. Is it because it was the best shot I've ever seen, or simply because someone - perhaps my Dad, who took me to the game - had told me that I was watching the greatest player who had ever lived and that I should make an effort to remember it as I would never have the opportunity again? Possibly it's the latter, although my Dad, unlike me, was never really one for the long view or the grandiose statement, so I'm doubtful. A more self-regarding way of reflecting on it would be to say that even as a sixteen year-old (but one who was obsessed with cricket) I knew a great shot - no, that's too prosaic - I knew a thing of beauty when I saw one. But then anybody, even someone with no knowledge of the difference between a cover drive and a reverse sweep, would have instantly recognised it as a supreme blend of athleticism and that which can’t be defined or described, but which we know as timing.

Few people have ever got close to emulating this aspect of Sobers’ game. To me, Yuvraj Singh at his best - against Australia in Nairobi when nobody had seen him before, or killing England in the 2006 ODI series - is the player who has come nearest. But nobody ever will, really.

Time moves on. Of the 22 men who played that afternoon at The Oval, 12 (including nine of the England team) are no longer with us. One of those who still lives to tell his tale is Gary Sobers. I know he tells a good tale, because Annie has told me so. A tale of the Caribbean of old, but also of a Swansea day in 1968 and of an England he still visits and loves.

Perhaps, when he is in the right mood - when his thoughts stray to 1966 and to Graveney, to Murray, to Snow and to Higgs - or even to a day late in his cricketing life, he will talk of The Oval.

Because we all have memories.

16.9.18

When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease

When the moment comes, and the gathering stands
And the clock turns back to reflect
On those years of grace, as the footsteps trace
For the last time out of the act
Well this way of life’s recollection
The hallowed strip in the haze
The fabled men in the noonday sun
Are much more than just yarns of their days

Roy Harper, When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease

When John Murray - a man who was simply ‘JT’ to a generation - died in late July, Mike Selvey, who is old enough to have played with him and knew him to the very end of his life, posted a link on Twitter to a video of Roy Harper’s agelessly evocative song When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease. It represented Selvey’s sadness at the loss of a colleague, hero, friend and mentor.

In the maelstrom of recollection and emotion that filled the space between the announcement of Alastair Cook’s retirement and the end of his final Test match, thoughts of the song seeped inexorably into my mind.

In Cook’s case the song seems both fitting and also ludicrously inappropriate. While he has left the Test crease for good, he is very far from anybody’s notion of an old cricketer. If anyone normal had played in as many games, seen off as many opening bursts with the lacquered, hard, new ball denting bat, flesh and bone, or spent hours on the field in weather hot enough to kill, or captained his country through the physical and psychological torment of crushing defeat to their bitterest rivals, they would be wizened and bent double like a cricketing Quasimodo. Not Cook, though. None of these experiences seems to have aged him at all.

Although Alastair Cook hopefully has many decades of life ahead of him, his retirement can be viewed as a kind of death. The death of a certain style of batsmanship, perhaps; or, alternatively, the death of an era.

Few people are going to get too misty eyed over the loss of Cook’s collection of staccato half-strokes, even if I will always contend that he wasn’t as ugly a player as many thought, at least on those occasions when - such as those two days in Melbourne, when, perhaps just starting to feel his career slipping away - he trusted himself to really drive the ball through the offside, rather than merely helping it into the gaps with the air of grim suspicion which years of opening the batting had induced.

However, in some ways, the fact that so many found Cook's style jarring was a welcome counterpoint to all the other aspects of him that could seem too good to be true: The matchless fitness, the failure to sweat, the seeming inability to ever sustain an injury, the apparent imperviousness to stress, the way in which his Test career concluded. True heroes can never be too perfect.

Great sportsmen make the difficult look easy, but Cook frequently did the opposite. If that alone means that for all his unique longevity he isn’t quite up with England’s very greatest players in aesthetic, rather than the purely numerical terms in which he is king, his significance goes far beyond the legacy of a thousand bent-kneed nudges through the leg-side.

It’s purely a coincidence that I began writing about cricket on the Web during the months following Cook’s Test debut. Loads of people were doing the same then. Many have fallen by the wayside, some have gone on to bigger things, others, like me, are still around in the shadows, occasionally stirred to write something by an event which particularly resonates with them. For each and every one of us, love him or loathe him (and, in case anyone doesn’t know, there are people who really loathe him), Cook has always been there.

That was a different time. The Ashes had just come home, and English Test cricket on terrestrial television was a fresh memory, not a distant dream. For many of the summers that followed - and the occasional extraordinary winter - Cook stood at the fulcrum of an England team which was as good as any in the world.

It will soon be Cook’s fate to rejoin the likes of Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott on the county circuit, as well as his other compatriots - Strauss, and KP, and Matt Prior, and Monty, and Swanny, doing whatever it is they’re doing in the half-life of near memory.

Even Cook’s greatest innings rarely quickened the pulse. They were efforts of will, of concentration, of understated poise. Monuments to the triumph of the mind. But perhaps an even greater impression was left by his courage, his dignity under pressure, his innate modesty and his decency.

In England, autumn is setting in now. Anyone who knows the country - as Cook, settling into life as a former Test cricketer by striding across farmland somewhere in southern England, assuredly does - recognizes what this feels like. Cooler mornings, fresh breezes, early sunsets. A time of change, a time for reflection, and a time for memories of what has been lost.

One memory of Cook: It is Melbourne; it is two days after Christmas, 2017. Cook, not for the first time, has seemingly rescued his ailing career from the brink of terminal decline. At the day's end he is 104 not out. Although, as usual, he is reluctant to talk about himself and what he does, he agrees to answer questions from some of BT Sport's shifting cast of characters. He says a few things about what he's done, about settling in when you're wondering if you can still bat, about the hesitant embrace of some semblance of form, about the drives starting to flow, about reaching his hundred in the day's final over, bowled by Australia's captain.

These are the themes. I can't remember everything he said - with Cook you rarely could - but something I strongly recall is Cook saying, clearly, without artifice, that 'it sounds like I'm making myself out to be a good player'.

You were, Alastair. You really, really were.

19.5.18

The Language of Batting

On a May Saturday morning on which Dublin Bay, looking across from Blackrock to Howth in the shimmering sun, was just a little reminiscent of the bays of the western Cape, cricket was on people’s minds. Well, some people, anyway.

To the lad in the newsagents who asked if the game was ‘up at Trinity’ it didn’t mean a lot, but to the Irishman in the White Rose cap at the station, whose self-proclaimed hero was Geoffrey Boycott, this, with Friday’s rain behind us, was the day of days. The culmination of years spent waiting, but never quite believing.

Cricket in Ireland has had its ups and downs. From proscription by the GAA to bowling the West Indies out for 25; from beating England at the World Cup to being denied the opportunity to compete in it again without having to qualify. It has never been a popular sport in the wider sense, but it has held its own. This, both literally and metaphorically, was Irish cricket’s day in the sun.

The DART train grows steadily fuller as the stations, with their familiar names from the worlds of sport and revolutionary politics - Lansdowne Road, Pearse, Connolly - pass. The English county hardcore are there, with their dog-eared hats, their trusty bags and their leftfield conversational gambits. As the crowds pour through the barriers at Malahide Station, a Lancashire fan seems more concerned with solar eclipses of the future than with the first Test match on Irish soil. The world’s cricketers are there too; a French international, born in India, but living in Dublin, talks of his overwhelming desire to see Mohammad Amir bowl. This day he will be disappointed. But, above all, the Irish cricket family is there. This is a day they have waited for for longer than most can remember and their characteristic bonhomie barely veils the air of suppressed excitement.

At the lovely tree-ringed arena in the grounds of a castle, it is the same; a feeling of togertheness, pride and faith. In the programme there is a summary of the laws of cricket for the uninitiated, but the impression is that this isn’t really needed. Possibly on account of its smaller size, this crowd appears more knowledgeable than the average Test crowd in England; these are players, administrators, members of the cricket family. Unlike a typical Test match in England, nobody seems to be there just to get drunk and draw attention to themselves. The cheerleader in the huge green top hat - ‘Larry Leprechaun’ - draws attention to himself, but he doesn’t need to be drunk to do so. A walk behind the stands reveals members of the family from both sides of the border who have done the hard yards - the ODIs at home, maybe some trips to Europe, or Scotland, or Lord’s, perhaps even a World Cup or two - greeting each other and swapping reminiscences as they absorb where they are and what they’re watching.

Play begins with a collision. It could easily be described as a clash of cricketing cultures, but this is really more mundane; it is simply a meeting of bodies of the type which, though not commonplace or required by the structure of the game, happens from time to time. There is plenty of laughter; ice is broken, and the game moves on.

Anyone who cares enough about what happened at Malahide to be reading this will know what happened at Malahide, so a blow-by-blow account is unnecessary. Vignettes come thick and fast, though.

Saturday afternoon. Tim Murtagh has played in more than 200 first-class matches and taken over 700 wickets. With his grooved, economical action and undemonstrative demeanour, he embodies the skill and nobility of the English county seamer. He has bowled sides out, he has won the County Championship, but he has never before played Test cricket, or even been close to doing so. So, as the hazy sun warms the ground and he walks towards the hospitality tents and reticently acknowledges the crowd’s applause, his thoughts can only be imagined. For him, late in his career, this must be the time of times.

Just after lunch on Sunday, Niall O’Brien is lbw to Mohammad Abbas and Ireland are 7 for 4 in their first innings. As he leaves the field there is that sudden hush you get, even in crowded places, when bad things are happening and people, through fear and embarrassment, can’t find the words to express what they’re feeling. What they’re feeling is the sudden realisation that things are as bad - and probably worse - than they could have imagined. New Zealand’s 26 all out in 1955, still the lowest Test total, is mentioned. They can surely only improve from here.

They can, but it takes time.

When Pakistan enforce the follow-on with Ireland 180 behind, the two Irish openers, William Porterfield, the captain, and Ed Joyce, stride to the wicket for the second time in the day. This, to a professional batsman, is as bad as it can get. You should never have to bat twice in a single day.

Joyce and Porterfield. Porterfield and Joyce. They sound like a firm of Dublin accountants, and they go on to bat like that as they take Ireland to 64 without loss by stumps. Ed Joyce is 39 now, a little slower on his feet and more careworn around the eyes, but the distinctive, crouching stance is still there, as is the muscle memory of years of elegant run scoring. All over the county circuit, in the world’s cricketing outposts, for England at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He knows what the situation demands.

Porterfield is younger, but his better days are also behind him and he is a less naturally fluent player than his partner. But he has also experienced situations like this before when the county circuit was his place of work. They both understand the language of batting, and the session leading to the close on Sunday evening is resonant and moving. Both Porterfield and Joyce are simultaneously fighting the dying of the light and lighting the way forward for their country’s cricket. It is tough as hell, but by the day’s end there is renewed hope.

This is confirmed on Monday, as Kevin O’Brien - ‘Big Kev’, known in many places just as a white ball hitter - builds on the poise and common sense he showed in the first innings to become his country’s first Test centurion and take his team to a position of relative strength. In the end it isn’t enough, but the feeling that this has been a triumph can’t be shaken.

We won’t talk about it as Irish cricket’s ‘coming of age’. It’s a hoary old cliche, and, in any case, it probably ‘came of age’ in the West Indies in 2007, or even at Sion Mills in 1969. Whatever.

And we won’t say that it’ll save Test cricket, because it won’t. Test cricket isn’t beyond saving, but Ireland’s performance in this match won’t affect its future one way or the other.

No, this was just about how it felt to be there. And it felt really good.

There are, of course, clouds on the horizon. It has taken a very long time for this team to achieve the right to play Test cricket and many of the players have grown old together. Before long, new blood will need to be found.

But that can wait for another day. For now, the sun still shines on Dublin Bay.

18.3.18

Retirement

On a sleepy March Sunday when the world has turned a shade of brilliant white for the second time in three weeks, it seems incongruous to be musing on the retirement of a cricketer.

But actually it is appropriate, as this feels like no ordinary day and Kevin Pietersen was no ordinary cricketer.

Screeds of statistics, and partisan analysis of who said and did what to whom in the years, months and days leading up to January 2014 can wait for another time. In point of fact I was never quite sure where I stood on the fall of KP, but I always knew where I was with his batting. Anyone did, because if you couldn’t appreciate his batting you couldn’t appreciate the game.

There could be more, but here are some vignettes of memory (which seems right, as, for all that he could bat long and score big, Pietersen’s genius is best appreciated by reference to moments, to shots, and to times).

In the back row of seats on the eastern side of the Oval, in front of the ageless gasholders as the distinctive afternoon warmth of September, muggy but with a hint of changing temperature and light, mingled with the anxious hopes of a crowd which hadn’t seen the Ashes come home for years, was one such time. The decision, with lunch over and a long afternoon to see through, to take the attack to Brett Lee. The crystal memory of Shaun Tait on his hands and knees, his grovelling in the Kennington dust weightily symbolic of changing times, hours before the choruses of Viva Espana (Ashley Giles, Pietersen’s stolid sidekick for much of the day was then briefly known as the ‘King of Spain’. Remember?) rained down and the bar was drunk dry. An afternoon which was the start of something special and the end of something equally precious. The start of the era of Pietersen and the last day of Test cricket ever shown on terrestrial television in the UK.

Taunton in late August 2012, with Pietersen banished to the Westcountry with the brownhats in a trail of inflammatory texts, was a very different time. Most of the history and the runs had been made by then, and, although Mumbai was still to come, the downslope had been reached. A Somerset attack based around Peter Trego, George Dockrell and Saj Mahmood held few terrors, and so Pietersen made a century of obscene ease, occasionally rousing himself, when he felt the need, to hit Dockrell into the River Tone. Those of us who were there will wait a very long time to see a first-class hundred made with such casual mastery. Brian Lara used to do things like that, but the idea that there was an England player who could do so still felt like an alien and unusual discovery.

This, of course, was the thing about Pietersen. With his accent, and his gifts, and his swagger, and his self-certainty (occasionally illusory, but real enough much of the time), he could never really be mistaken for an English player. We don’t produce players who can bat like that, and if we did they’d be prisoners of an ingrained modesty which would prevent them from achieving their potential. Pietersen, cut from very different cloth, was never encumbered by such conventions, with the result that he became what he was: One of the greatest batsmen on God’s earth, and one who knew just how good he was. This, in a British culture which values self-effacement above all else, was a recipe for trouble.

Cliches are ten a penny at times like this.

‘We shall not see his like again’, people will say. Mostly, when people say that, they turn out to be wrong.

In the strange and unique case of Kevin Pietersen, though, they would be very, very right.

24.12.17

The Dying of the Light

Australia is where English cricketers' dreams go to die. Joe Root knows this all too well.

Joe Root, rising 27, with his wispy would-be beard, and that hardening of eyes and features which stress produces, is at one of life's cusps. Until recently he always looked young and carefree, apart from when he was out. In the aftermath of Perth, in the harsh, unforgiving forcefield of the cameras and the microphones and the pundits' egos, he started to look, for the very first time, just a little bit old. Like many another man before him, he is starting to experience the uneasy feeling of his life changing as it turns on the wheel of the England captaincy and the difficulty of playing Test cricket in Australia. He has played in seven Test matches in Australia and he has been on the losing side seven times.

With a few exceptions, Australia - big old Australia with its huge grounds, its vivid light and scalding sun, its flies, its harsh, sarcastic crowds, its batsmen and its fast bowlers - has always been a difficult place for English teams to triumph. Go there with a Larwood, or a Tyson, or a John Snow, together with a crystal clear tactical plan, and you have a chance. Catch Australia at a point where they are rebuilding and you have a strong side touched by genius, and you have more than a chance. Other times, like now, forget it.

In some senses what has happened recently is neither as shocking nor as debilitating as the pitiless defeats of 2006 or 2013. The absence of Ben Stokes tempered expectations, and there are other things to cling on to; Craig Overton's spirit, Dawid Malan's burgeoning confidence, James Vince's cover drive. With this said, though, there is the inescapable feeling that old certainties are ebbing away. Jimmy Anderson is there, 35 and still running in with his customary liquid rhythm. He is barely tainted by age, but time is not his friend, while for Stuart Broad and Alastair Cook things are worse. They are younger but they have fallen further and more quickly, leaving them wide open to the old sporting cliche: how much do you want it? When you have been there and done it so often, how readily can you muster the energy to rage against the dying of the light? You can deny that there is a problem - that much is easy - but what are you going to do about the fact that you can't take wickets or score runs?

As the sun rises so the light dies, and for Joe Root, and for England, there is a wider sense that the skies are darkening; that before long they may be looking for two opening batsmen instead of one; they may be looking for someone with the potential to take wickets with the old and new balls, and make aggressive lower-order runs; they, if they are Root himself, will be looking for a way to turn fifties into big hundreds in the manner that is second nature to Smith or Kohli. And all this in an environment of marginalisation and complacency; where those taking game-shaping decisions are more interested in promoting a putative competition which there is little evidence many people want, while relegating to the season's margins the type of cricket which could produce another Stuart Broad or Alastair Cook. And where the expectation is always that there will be an early season greentop on which England will win the toss and Anderson will go through a shivering group of Sri Lankans like a hot knife through the butter in the Lord's dining room and all will be right with the world. England keep making 400 and losing matches by an innings, but that happens in countries abroad about which we know little and care less, apart from when the Perth seagulls or the Chennai vultures are circling.

Who needs Josh Hazlewood or Ravi Ashwin when you can bowl a side out for nothing in unfamiliar conditions and think you're a good team?

In truth the embrace of marginalisation for money began years ago, when, after the greatest home Test series anyone had seen, English cricket hid itself behind a paywall. Stuart Broad was just starting out on a professional career, Alastair Cook was on the verge of international cricket, and Joe Root was 14 and already good. To him, then, little mattered beyond playing the game, and he had all the answers.

Now, as 2017 closes in Melbourne, he and his side face only questions. Finding the answers to them will take a lot longer than five days, and many more dreams will die before they do so.

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