6.10.19

Marcus

Get up. Leave your chair, or your bed. Go outside. If you are in England, even in the balmy south-west, you will see signs of autumn. It may be mild, but the leaves are turning; it may be quiet, but, if you are very lucky now, you may just hear the last of the northern summer's swallows, swifts and housemartins as they ready themselves to fly south. Come Newlands in January, when England are playing, this is where they will be.

There may be a slight chill in the air; a chill that may be real, or metaphorical. For cricket followers at this time of year there is always a chill. For this is where cricketers' dreams die and where players' careers end.

Marcus Trescothick's career ended here.

1991. Trescothick, 15 years old, beaming rosy-cheeked from the pages of The Cricketer. A new Slazenger bat is his, a reward for scoring 4000 runs in the season. He is flanked by Angus Fraser and Carl Hooper and Micky Stewart. The runs are extraordinary, but nobody knows if they will ever hear of him again. Young cricketers do exceptional things all the time, and frequently they fade into obscurity. Sometimes they come back, often they don't.

1994. Bath, June; a hot summer Saturday at the old festival ground, now sadly lost to the county game. Ringed in deckchairs and marquees, teeming with people, Bath Abbey gazing down like a sentinel. England are playing New Zealand at Lord's and they are struggling. The sound of TMS drifts across the ground from one of the beer tents, but it is only of marginal interest. For the many devout supporters of Somerset who are there, the fact that the Wyvern county is in the ascendant against Surrey is of much greater significance. What is more, young players are thriving. A slight and shy boy from north Devon called Mark Lathwell has already made a double hundred with timing that is a thing of beauty and art. It is art that is coincidental, in that he doesn't seem to realize how he is doing it, and nor do you, or anyone else. He has already played for England, and, despite a hesitant start to his Test career, he looks certain to go far in the professional game. Ultimately, though, his Test career has already finished, and he only goes far away from the professional game. This is what can happen.

Then there is Marcus. He may also be shy, but he is far from slight. In essence he is still a bulky boy on the edge of manhood at 18, and he is just starting to find his feet as an adult cricketer. On that day you see him make his maiden century in first-class cricket with the same ripe combination of drives, cuts and pulls as you will see so many times in the future. Of course, you have no idea of the bumps that there will be in the road, and nor does he. Nobody ever knows what the future holds, especially where cricket, and the harsh pressure that it can exert on all kinds of personalities, is concerned.

After that, for seasons, things stall. Time after time Marcus's innings consist of some early boundaries followed by dismissal to a catch behind the wicket. There are glimpses of the latent potential: there is a time when you go to Taunton and people are talking about the fact that he has made 322 in a second team game, but there is another time when you are sitting in the old Ridley Stand and Marcus is behind you with his Dad, discussing his future, which still seems uncertain. When you do see him play he is often batting down the order and bowling a little. It seems wrong. But this is the thing with cricket; over an extended period, scores don't lie. You are where you are, until you find yourself somewhere else.

For Marcus, the somewhere else was the England team, and you can still recall watching his first international innings on TV, willing him to succeed. He does, but you also recall telling someone that you feel that Test cricket, with all those fielders behind the wicket, might be a step too far.

Then you are at Taunton on the day when he bats in Test cricket for the first time. Yorkshire's Darren Lehmann is making one of the best half-centuries you have ever seen, or will ever see, but you are, of course, listening to what is happening in Manchester. What is happening in Manchester is that Marcus is batting against the West Indies - the West Indies of Ambrose and Walsh - and he is taking 45 minutes to make his first run. But he goes on to reach 50, and everyone is talking about how cool his temperament is and how well-suited he is to Test cricket.

This is true, and it remains true for years, until Marcus has to return home from India in early 2006, for reasons which everyone knows about now. He plays on for England until the end of the following summer, and you are lucky enough to be at Lord's to see what turns out to be his final Test century, even though you don't know it at the time and nobody else does either.

After this, the second half of his career begins.

The County Championship hasn't yet been condemned to dwell like a neglected orphan in the season's colder and darker months, and Marcus can be found where he is happiest, doing what he does best; close to home and batting at the top of the order for Somerset.

Here is where your impressions of Marcus crystallize into lasting memories, and now, with his time at an end, they flow like the runs used to in the times before his form started to fall away.

The first thought is of a stroke. From around 1999 to 2009 I nearly always sat in the Ian Botham Stand at Taunton, and I saw this stroke many times. Usually at the start of an innings, played against the hard new ball, often in fading light, late in the day, when thoughts turn to home. It is a stroke which usually indicated that Marcus was in form, and that big runs would follow.

The bowler would overpitch around middle and off and Marcus would drive just to the off side of straight. Without much foot movement, of course, but with the straightest of bats and that distinctive little flourish at the top of the stroke which was the nearest he ever got to a trademark. And, when he was really in nick, it would always go inside mid-off, too fast and true for anyone to touch.

There are other vignettes too. There was a time when a decent county seamer, who we'll call James Tomlinson, got a few people out at Taunton and started to fancy himself a little. He dropped one short at Marcus, and the ball was last seen bouncing across the car park and heading in the direction of Priory Bridge Road. Marcus was never the arrogant type, but you don't get to be good enough to play for England if you don't believe in yourself. He didn't need to tell James Tomlinson that he'd faced Brett Lee at Perth in 2002 and so knew what really fast bowling was like. All he had to do was hit the ball out of the ground.

In the years after he left international cricket nobody in Somerset forgot what Marcus could do. We knew it all along and we were reminded of it time and time again. Perhaps others forgot, though. So there were times when he reminded them. The time when he took Surrey for 124 at the Oval in a forty over game, or the time he was applauded off Castle Park in Colchester by Essex supporters who knew that they had seen an innings of majesty.

These years, late in the century's first decade, may have been the apogee of Trescothick's career. If his health had allowed it, he would still have been young enough and good enough to play for England, but he was forced by circumstances to tread the county game's boards instead. To many this would have seemed a much more prosaic existence, but you suspect that to Marcus it never did. He was a child of the county game in ways that players from counties where cricket means less, or who leave it behind for international cricket earlier, never were.

When he and Sir Alastair Cook briefly embraced at the end of their counties' final game of the season, it marked not just the passing of a player's career but the gradual ebbing away of an element of English cricket culture. These were two players, born on the same day nine years apart, whose international careers briefly intersected, and both of them know that their personal histories might have been very different if certain things beyond anyone's control hadn't happened. They also know and understand what it is like to exchange fame and fortune for a more moderate sort of heroism at Chelmsford or Taunton, instead of the Gabba or the Oval, whether you have any choice over the timing of your departure or not.

How many players in the future will get so much professional satisfaction, so much pleasure, from simply playing four day county cricket, long after, for them, the bright lights of the international game have been extinguished? The never-ending world of bastardised cricket will claim most of them before they even have the chance to see what they might become, let alone sink back into the life they used to know before they hit the big time.

And now, as county cricket as we know and love it enters another phase of threat and uncertainty - not that it ever left the last one, or the one before that, behind - memories of Marcus and times like these are what we are left with. And, whatever exists when the pieces thrown into the air and scattered to the winds by The Hundred land, these are what we will always have.

Cherish them for as long as you can.

26.8.19

The Inevitability of Genius

Everyone who saw what happened at Headingley yesterday - and many who didn't - will have their take on it. This is mine.

With one thing and another - the demands of a job which doesn't allow me to watch cricket, mainly - unless I'm at a game these days, opportunities to sit down and watch Test cricket, in all its compelling glory, for hour upon hour, are relatively rare. On Saturday afternoon, and again yesterday, I was able to do so. I was reminded of my childhood - days of Soul Limbo, and Peter West, and Jim Laker and Richie, curtains drawn against the occasional sun, my Mum trying to drag me away from the television. 'Just one more over' was what I would always say; ten overs later I was still there. And, because my parents had paid for their television licence, I could do so without having to mute the adverts. Sky was just what I saw when I went outside with a bat and a tennis ball during the lunch interval.

In modern parlance this sounds slightly sad. I did go out (usually, in the summer, anyway, it was to play cricket); I had friends (mostly they also liked cricket); I had other interests (though never anything as intense as cricket, really) and days such as those prepared me for days such as this. You name it, I saw it - Richards and Gavaskar at The Oval, early Gower, beautiful and unique, Botham when he could swing the ball (which always leads me to kick back when people get too effusive about Jimmy A), the West Indies attack in all its terrifying potency, even innings - like Javed Miandad's 260 at The Oval in 1987 - which, for all their shimmering greatness, have been lost in the mists of time.

In July 1981 I was recovering at home from a major operation (we won't go into the details here; they are unpleasant). This meant that although school hadn't quite broken up, I was in front of the TV when England found themselves 135 for 6 at the old, open, grey Headingley, a very different ground to the modern sun-drenched stadium which was the stage for yesterday's heroics. Yes, I saw Botham, and Willis, and the catches by Gatting and Graham Dilley, and all that. Start to finish. I even scored it, although, in all the excitement. my scoring skills let me down and the sheet didn't add up right.

38 years after, on a hot Devon afternoon, I find people are asking how what Botham did then compares with what Ben Stokes has just done. As I reply I start to feel like some ageing eminence grise of cricket-watching, but I am nothing of the sort. I am 53 years old and I have spent a very large part of my life watching cricket. That is all.

As always with cross-era comparions, little is gained; they were different innings, played at different times, in different circumstances. One began and continued as a rage against the dying light of a seemingly hopeless situation; the other was a cultivated response to the possibility of victory that was at least plausible, if highly improbable. And there are other, more worthy comparisons with Stokes; Lara at Bridgetown, 1999, stands out as an example of genius bending a game to its will with the same result as we have just seen.

Two things: the first is the straightness of Stokes's bat, and the dead weight position of his head as he defends again and again against Lyon on Saturday evening, and again on Sunday morning. Even though it is hot, as the Yorkshire autumn approaches the Saturday shadows are beginning to lengthen, but, even watching on television, you can feel the strength of his determination not to do anything rash. Unlike many another contemporary English batsman he has faith in his defensive technique and his strength of will. You sense that he feels that in time, with the right support, the opportunity to cash in will come, though he cannot know how spectacularly it will happen. The second thing to say is that I felt a really strange sense of inevitability from around forty runs out. Unless Jack Leach was dismissed, England were going to win.

In retrospect, that feels ridiculous. But there was - and increasingly is - a sense of the ridiculous about the way in which Stokes bats, of the impossible being not just possible, but certain. And here, the comparison with Botham has its time again, because this is the product of ferocious competitive will and iron self-belief, the like of which English cricket hasn't seen since Botham.

Stokes doesn't feel like a genius in the way that Lara did, but then genius is more readily ascribed to elegance than to the kind of raw power and ingenuity in which Stokes specializes. But what is genius if it is not the ability to do things which are way beyond the capacity of people who, by most people's standards, are incredibly good at what they do? Could Joe Root have done that? No. Could Jos Buttler have done that? Well, perhaps, and he now has something to aim for, even if such a conjunction of circumstances is hardly likely to ever come his way.

For all his innate ability to spin the ball away from the right-hander, Jack Leach is nobody's idea of a genius. But when I spoke to him in Taunton a few years ago after he'd taken some important, game-sealing wickets under the sort of pressure which makes lesser players wilt, I was impressed by the coolness and certainty of his responses. His self-possession yesterday came as no surprise, and, in a way as understated as his character, he has also written his name in English cricket's lengthy, dusty, somewhat dog-eared, but voluminous history books.

I have seen a lot of cricket, but I haven't seen everything, so it is best not to get carried away at times like this. However, I can say with absolute certainty that this was the most skilful, multi-dimensional and outrageously courageous innings I have ever seen played by an England batsman. After what happened at Lord's in July it was never a genuine danger, but it is now certain that Ben Stokes will never be remembered for being hit for four consecutive sixes in his first World final, or for punching someone on the streets of Bristol. He will be remembered for this, and for many unknown deeds that are yet to come.

Like most professional sportsmen, Stokes and Leach are culturally conditioned always to look forward, and never, at least until they retire, to look back. But they, and those of us who were fortunate enough to see what they did yesterday, especially those who were there, will never forget it.

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.

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