25.9.16

Taunton, 22nd September 2016

It starts at the railway station.

This has seen many things since the trains came to the south-west in the nineteenth century, but in the era of four day County Championship cricket it has seen nothing like this. Play starts early in September, so people's natural rhythms are disrupted. Earlier trains have to be caught, bags have to be packed more hurriedly, food and drink have to be procured. Getting off the 9.33 from Exeter is to enter a shuffling, mildly hurried serpent of humanity with one thing on its mind.

As always in circumstances where there is excitement, and anticipation, and tension, humour is never far away. There is plenty of laughter here, as people are optimistic about the outcome of this day's play, but uncertainty and trepidation take hold when they think of what might happen elsewhere. The problem is that nobody knows what will happen. And what happens will determine how they approach the rest of their cricketing lives. Either Somerset will have been County Champions for the first time in 2016, or it will have been yet another glorious failure in a recent history of glorious - and less glorious - failures. Nobody wants that, but the possibility is on everyone's mind and it will have to be confronted in due time.

The short walk to the station is hurried and suffused with chatter. This is a natural reflection of the significance of the day and the importance of comradeship. Nobody wants to face the possibility of disappointment alone or enjoy what seems likely to come today without the feeling that others, many others, are doing the same. There is, however, little chance of that.,br />
It continues at the ground.

Walking to a seat in the Somerset Stand, the atmosphere is distinctive and intoxicating. As someone who was there, and who will never forget it, it reminds me of The Oval on another September day in 2005. The season is fading, but this is big, so big, that any sense of loss, whether literal or metaphorical, is postponed, at least until tomorrow afternoon.

As Rogers and Davies and Trego build the lead through the morning, and early alcohol is consumed, the level of noise among the crowd increases. 'We are all in this together' is what it says. And, as Rogers goes in at lunch with the latest, and what will transpire to be the last, of his seemingly eternal sequence of centuries, he is richly applauded. People know that he is a batsman of very high class, but more importantly that he is a good man whose presence at the helm of this side has been pungently influential in bringing them, and us, to where we are. For anyone who cares to notice, there is a valedictory air to the way in which he lifts his bat and salutes all the ground's corners. He has done this 76 times in all, but he knows that he will never do anything like it ever again.

For Rogers, and for us, though, nostalgic reflection is for the future. For now there is a match to win.

For the first hour or more after lunch, the attention of many switches to Lord's, where Yorkshire are inching towards 350 and a fourth batting point which will enable them to be champions if they win their game against Middlesex. With their score on 349-9, the players leave the field for bad light, then rain. The tension increases again, although Somerset hold the reassuring knowledge that they have more than four sessions to bowl out a Nottinghamshire side that will need to equal the highest score ever made to win a first-class match. For the away team's players, a sense of defeat has been in the air for days, if not weeks, and after tea, their slide is inexorable, their loss inevitable. No final day will be needed in this game.

For the next twenty-four hours the ultimate fate of Somerset's season rests in the hands of twenty-two of their fellow professionals - people they know, people they have played against and with, people they like, people they dislike - who are plying their trade elsewhere.

The Somerset players lap the ground. They are applauded by all and they thank those who have made this possible, even if it isn't yet clear what it is that has been made possible. It could be the most glorious of triumphs, or it may not. We, and they, will find out tomorrow.

Viewing this from the very back of the new Somerset pavilion, the sense of elation and pride is there to be relished, as is the view. It is the greatest thing that these seats now allow a panoramic view of northern Taunton and of the Quantock Hills, but something they also give is a broader view of the sky.

Big skies are more commonly associated with places like Nebraska or East Anglia. Here, so the legend goes, they can be unsettling in their way, but, while this is unlikely to ever be the case in undulating Somerset, they have different resonances. As the temperature drops slightly, and the altostratus clouds build in, the even, pale nature of the light emphasizes that autumn and winter are coming. Some of us will be back tomorrow, but most of us will be elsewhere until next season.

For many of us, this has been a day of days.

1.7.16

Thousands of Runs Unscored (17th April 2016)

I've been writing here for a full ten years now. I've seen and commented on a few things in that time, but nothing, nothing at all, has moved me as much as the story that has unfolded around James Taylor over the last few months. The humour, maturity, perspective and dignity with which he has dealt with something which would have shattered a lesser man, has been a remarkable thing to witness.

These were my thoughts in April of this year, just after the news had broken.

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

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

Cricket is like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30.6.16

Coming Home (2nd February 2014)

This piece was the product of thinking about what Alastair Cook must have felt like, both during England's doomed 2013-14 tour of Australia, and after returning home. You can never really know, of course, but you can make a judgement based on what you've seen and how you think you would feel.

You would feel grim, and it would take you a long time to recover from the experience. It was that kind of tour.

It is still early in the year in southern England. For those of us who have been here all winter it does not seem cold. But still the rain lashes down. Everything looks dirty. The entire country feels as though it is drowning.

Alastair Cook notices this. He feels the chill and does his England blazer up. Alice, his wife, has brought him a heavy overcoat from home; he puts it on and turns the collar up. As the beads of water drip down the car window, the realisation sets in that he is home. For months, those killing, unforgettable months he has spent on the other side of the world at the focus of what is perhaps the most savage and pitiful defeat English cricket has ever known, the weather has made little impression on his consciousness. It has been hot, of course it has been so hot, but he has been there before and he is famous for never breaking sweat. The only thing disorientating or unusual has been the intensity and clarity of the sunshine, and the burning dryness of the air. All this is gone, now.

As the car leaves Heathrow Airport behind, images of defeat cluster his mind. It is a chilling montage of lost tosses, dropped catches, poorly executed strokes and the harsh, unforgiving glare of the camera eye. Unwanted post-defeat interviews in soiled kit, with thousands of Australians leering and jeering and laughing. Mark Nicholas, a preening martinet in a tailored suit, firing the questions with a forced mixture of levity and accusation. Why? Why? Why? Airless press conferences with all the Aussies there, Conn and his mates, with their crude and tedious jibes, laughing behind their notepads as they mock the fact that England's only truly successful player was born in New Zealand.

Nothing has prepared him for this. Not the gilded childhood, singing in the St.Paul's choir, nor those adolescent summers piling up runs on the school ground at Bedford as public schoolboys in museum piece caps bend to his will. Not the previous winter's glory in India, defying tiredness, searing heat and the weight of the past. There have been times these past few years when it has seemed as though Cook may be superhuman. We now know that he is not.

He was almost dropped by England once. But then came the Oval century against Pakistan, and the rest is history. 100 consecutive Tests and counting. Today, with jet lag setting in and defeat on his mind, he feels every one of those games in his legs and in his mind. The comforts of home cannot come soon enough.

The key turns in the lock. The house is warm. The bags are left in the hallway. Now, at last, a time to shed the layers of formal clothing crumpled by hours of international travel. A time to reflect on what has happened to him, and to the team which he has captained.

As the days turn into nights and back to days again, with Cook barely recognizing their passing, the recollections have an unwelcome tendency to come thick and fast, a bit like the Australian attack on one of its many good days. Cook relishes the opportunity to get away from everything - from holding a bat, from thinking constantly about bowling changes and field placings, from people, with microphones, or with beers in their hands, asking him 'why? - and he enjoys the serenity and security of being in his own space. He watches television, he reads a little, he talks to Alice, he sorts through the mountain of tedious paperwork which has arrived while he has been away. He spends some time outside, with the farm animals which have failed to register his departure, his absence or his return. This is how he likes it. He has been noticed far too much over recent months, usually for the wrong reasons.

But, as the activity lulls, the memories and anxieties return. In an instant he is back at the Adelaide Oval, late in the day, his mind and body scrambled by the relentless heat and noise, by the batting of Clarke and Haddin and Harris, and by his team's threadbare bowling. He is facing Mitchell Johnson, who is bowling to him as quickly as anyone has ever done. He sees the ball, but in an instant it is through him as his reactions, slowed by tiredness and stress, fail to cope. He hears his wicket break, and then, a heartbeat later, he hears the roar of the Australian crowd. In a sense this is flattering, as it signifies how highly his wicket is prized, but he knows that. He has no need for flattery. He needs runs.

Another time he is back in Perth. The heat has not receded and his team, theoretically, are chasing 504 to win. This time it is the hulking frame of Ryan Harris which confronts him. He sees the ball better this time as it doesn't quite have the pace of Johnson's delivery, but it swings in slightly through the air before cutting away off the pitch and hitting the top of his off stump. He knows he couldn't have done anything more to counter it - few left-handed batsmen alive could have done - but it cuts to the quick even more as it is the first ball of the innings and he knows that in all probability the Ashes are about to be surrendered.

These are extracts; he also recalls dropped catches, poor strokes, captaincy decisions. While his confidence - the sort of confidence which derives from a life of almost unbroken success - has been affected, when it comes to his batting failures he knows very well that he can bat. He always could, and the numbers are in the book. Form is temporary, class is permanent, all that. But captaincy is different. He hasn't done very much of it, and it shows, both on the field and off. He knows that what he has said about wanting to continue in the job, at least in Test cricket, is genuine and heartfelt. He wants the chance to show that he is capable of improvement. He wants the chance to help bring his England side back from its darkest hour. He feels, with Andy Flower, a man he likes and admires, still in charge, that better times lie ahead. Come the early summer in England, the pitches will be green, Jimmy and Broady will be fresh, perhaps Finny will be back, Stokes will be there. He knows how Sri Lankan and Indian batsmen play the seaming and swinging ball in English conditions. In his mind, for all its concerns, there is hope for the future.

A few days in, Cook is lazing around the house when the doorbell rings. Alice is nearer so she goes to the door. There is a brief, and, to Cook, inaudible, exchange of pleasantries. Then she calls to her husband:

“Alastair, Andy Flower is here to see you”.

A Day at the Cricket (12th September 2013)

As I mention in the original intro below, this, a distillation of personal memories from the last day of the 2005 Ashes, was written on the eighth anniversary of the day. I can't pretend that some of the style doesn't owe a nod or several to Christian Ryan, but I feel it adds up to a pretty accurate representation of the way I experienced the day, and what I felt. They're memories which will last a lifetime.

The final day of the Oval Test match between England and Australia in 2005 has, in the years since, achieved semi-mythical status as the most memorable day of the most memorable Test series most of us have ever had the pleasure of watching. I was at The Oval on that day, having paid just £10 for the privilege. On the eighth anniversary of that day someone reminded me that those eight years had gone by, and it prompted me to pour out some of the random memories which have occupied a small corner of my mind's eye ever since. As a day at the cricket, it had its moments.

A short, fitful, uneasy sleep. Up before 1.

Wash, shave, dress. Get the bag together. Don’t forget the ticket. The £10 ticket. Bought in the spring and now as prized as gold dust. You could sell it for a hundred times as much but you never would. Taxi into town. On the coach to London by 2. More semi-sleep. M5, M4, along the Embankment and into Victoria. London is dry, cloudy, humid.

There is tension in the air. In London, even at 6.15 in the morning, there always is. The tension of the incipient working week, of course, but something else. The tension of expectation. Of anticipation. The Ashes will end today.

Side street café breakfast. Over Vauxhall Bridge. Down to The Oval. People are everywhere. Touts and their would-be clients. How much?

God, this is different. Perhaps this is what 1953 was like.

Into the ground and take your seat. Block 18, Row 24, Seat 568. Right at the back in front of the gasholders.

The players net, do their fielding drills. The noise rises as the ground fills. After the players have left, some broadcasters walk across the pitch from the old pavilion to the new OCS Stand, where their commentary boxes are located. They are cheered.

In a sense this is surprising but then again not. This is the mood of the day. And they are Tony Greig, Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham. Richie Benaud, of course, is less conspicuous. But this is his day. He will be cheered by the whole ground later.

10.25. Bowden and Koertzen. Australian fielders, led by Ponting. Chewing gum, meaning business. Then Trescothick and Vaughan. Hopes of a nation and all that.

Warne on straight away. This is chaos. Second ball, full-toss, Vaughan, always elegant and alive to the chance, hits it straight for four. The ground erupts.

McGrath at the other end. A maiden to open. Soon Lee is on too. Erratic, but high pace. Boundaries come at both ends.

Two overs only to Lee then Warne is back. He will bowl long today.

McGrath gets Vaughan and then Bell, first ball. This will be mighty tough. Now Pietersen is there. No hat-trick, just.

Trescothick holds out against Warne but it is hard, so hard. Later Haigh describes him as being ‘like a London bobby trying to quell a riot’. The description fits like a glove.

Pietersen settles in. We know that he is good but how good? Today will tell. He is dropped. Warne off McGrath. Next over Warne is hit for six. Salt in the wound.

Then Trescothick goes. To Warne, of course, lbw.

Now Flintoff is there. The summer’s hero of heroes. But this is not his time. You feel he cannot last and he doesn’t. Warne gets him and England are on the brink.

Time for consolidation. Collingwood gets his head down. Sniffs the ball as he was taught to do on the capricious tracks of the north-east, far from here in place and time.

Lee bowls a bouncer. 93.7 mph. Pietersen, desperately hurried, arches his back and jumps to evade it. Shit. The mind scrolls back to the West Indies, years before. Hearts beat faster.

Lunch. It is needed.

Early afternoon. Sun. KP opens out. Really opens out. Lee is hit for six, then six, four, four. The boundary boards in front of us take a battering, as does Tait. He tries to save the runs but is left on his knees, head down, gazing into the dirt like a boxer taking a count.

Collingwood is still there. Virtually scoreless but no matter. Pietersen will provide the runs.

Then Collingwood goes to Warne and Jones to Tait. Trouble.

England must bat the day to secure the urn, but the doubts are strong now. Someone has to stay with Pietersen. Giles?

The afternoon wears on. Warm for September and racked with anxiety. Giles and Pietersen bat. And bat. The overs tick down. Safety draws closer. Pietersen’s ton is passed and the possibility of relaxation starts to present itself. But not now. They must bat some more, and they do.

It goes on. Giles ungainly but full of guts and common sense, Pietersen turning the screw with flamboyance. The overs tick down and things start to look good. Then very good. Giles is hitting fours now. The Ashes are coming back.

With the pressure released, it feels like time to go to the bar. But it has been drunk dry. Three bottles of Red Stripe is all they have. Take them, drink them.

Back to the stand. Now people are happy. Langer fields on the rope, further down. He smiles through gritted teeth as the songs and jeers crank up and the Spanish flags are waved. This feels special. Like a time you will remember well enough to write about, years later.

Pietersen goes, but his job is done now. As is Benaud’s. It is announced and the ground rises.

Giles and Hoggard stick around for a bit. After Giles finally goes for a quietly epic 59, England subside, but no matter. It is done.

Australia bat, but time and light are against them. They cannot win. The Ashes are England’s again.

Presentation. Fireworks. Lap of honour.

Darkness falls.

Back to Victoria in a muck sweat. On to the coach. Exeter in the early hours. Taxi home. The driver forgets to engage the meter, but you pay up anyway.

Bed for a few hours then up for the open-top bus and Trafalgar Square.

Cricket in England has never been like this. You wonder if it ever will be again.

Eight years on, you’re still wondering.

29.6.16

Stranger to Failure (24th July 2013)

This was written after Joe Root made 180, opening, for England against Australia at Lord's in 2013. It was obvious, even then (in fact it was obvious from about ten minutes into his debut Test innings) that he was an outstanding player. He was so impressive in all the usual ways - in the skill of his batting, but also the lightness and charm of his demeanour - that I may even have thought his future lay in opening the batting.

It was also a bit of an attempt to capture some of the enjoyment of watching cricket from the Lord's Long Room.

I think some of it works.

For a fully paid-up cricket tragic, the Long Room at Lord's is a dreamlike place. It is also multi-faceted: part art gallery, part social centre, part grandstand, part green room to one of the greatest sporting theatres on earth. The right to enter it during a Test match - conferred after many years waiting for people to die and the procurement of a substantial sum of money - gives you the opportunity to study players with a proximity granted to few. At Twickenham, at Wembley or at Wimbledon it isn't possible to hang around the dressing rooms or follow the players' progress to the arena without being arrested. At Lord's, it is.

I once saw Darren Gough leave the field at the end of the last spell he would ever bowl in Test cricket. England's opponents South Africa had scored 682 for 6 declared, and Gough had bowled 28 wicketless overs for 127. His face was scarlet and he walked with an uneasy gait that spoke of mental and physical exhaustion. He appeared disillusioned, on the verge of tears. He wouldn't be walking that way again.

I've also seen many batsmen walk from the dressing rooms to the pitch's edge. Convention and the demands of their profession dictate that they wear a serious expression. The message they are conditioned to give off is that this, what they are doing, what they have wanted to do since they began to play the game, is work. They are not there to enjoy themselves. They are there to make runs. After they have done so, from the safety of the middle, where people they don't know cannot see the whites of their eyes or guess at their deepest emotions, they will allow themselves to show that they are enjoying what they are doing.

Last Saturday, with Joe Root, things were different. With Root they usually are.

As Root, who is 63 not out, returns to the field after lunch, he strides ahead of his older partner and fellow Yorkshireman, Tim Bresnan, and his soft manchild's eyes betray a brief hint of levity and recognition. Then, before he puts his helmet on, he breaks into a smile. It seems to me, standing right in his eyeline, that he may have realised that he is going out to bat for England against Australia at Lord's and that he is in a position to fulfil the childhood ambition both of himself and of virtually everyone who is watching him. He can make a century for England at Lord's and he is not daunted by the possibility of failure. Instead he is relishing the prospect of success. There is also the feeling that he is a little flattered and amused by the fact that a roomful of people he does not know, and who are far removed from him in age, background and experience, are applauding him, a lad from Sheffield who simply knows how to bat very, very well.

From the time he came into the England side at Nagpur at the end of last year, Root's performances in all three formats of the game - with their combination of poise, judgement, technical acuity and nerveless flair - have been those of a phenomenon. But he is, in some ways, an unlikely phenomenon.

To watch Root at the wicket is not to be awed by genius. His stance is a little ungainly, perhaps as a result of his relatively recent transformation from a slight lad to a tall young man, although he retains a freshness of face which can make him appear 17 instead of his chronological age, which is 22. He has no signature shot, although he is perhaps happiest working (and sometimes stroking) the ball through the off side off the back foot. When anyone overpitches he is quick to recognize the length and drive the ball, with an exaggerated crouch through the off side, or with fine timing straight or through the leg side. When the ball is dropped short he will pull, when the nature and circumstances of the game demand it he will improvize. He is a workmanlike, predominantly orthodox batsman in the classical Yorkshire idiom, where runs, not empty style, are all.

His batting carries echoes of Atherton, although, where Atherton was hunched, Root is upright, and where Atherton was careworn by the demands of captaincy and the stresses of playing in a consistently overmatched side, Root is carefree. His Long Room smile is far from unique.

For now Root is a stranger to failure. Watching him bat, or bowl his sharply ripped off-breaks, or skip around in the field, or simply take his place with unforced self-assurance among his seniors on the dressing room balcony, it is possible to see the years sliding away into the future. Where now he is 22, one day he will be 34. He will have known failure, and the smiles will be less common, but the powerful sense is that he will still be there and he will still love what he is doing.

Joe Root will be walking through the Long Room for many years to come.

27.6.16

Standing Out (29th August 2012)

It's difficult to convey just how good the century which Kevin Pietersen made for Surrey against Somerset at Taunton, at the end of August 2012, was. He'd been dropped from the England side after the controversy over him sending text messages to South African players, and the result was just about the greatest example of easy dominance (with the possible exceptions of Lara at Trent Bridge in 1995 or a fifty at Taunton by Darren Lehmann in 2000) that I've ever witnessed. As on both other occasions you knew full well that you were witnessing genius at work.

In his classic football supporter's memoir Fever Pitch, published exactly twenty years ago, Nick Hornby wrote about a young player who first represented Arsenal in the mid-1980s named Gus Caesar. Gus Caesar had a promising start to his career at the club before finding that, at the highest level of the game below international football, he couldn't cut it.

The point Hornby was making was about the way in which football has a series of levels, of standards. Local park, county league, regional semi-professional league, Vauxhall Conference (as it was then), Football League (as it was then). Now, at the head of everything - and it has been so for exactly the same twenty years - is the FA Premier League. At each and every level there will be players who have been outstanding at the level below, but who, when they step up to the next, are found wanting. At the very top - in the modern football world this is where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo reside - are the players who have never really been found wanting. They are the best of the best of the best.

Cricket is the same. At the level of cricket which I've played for the last couple of decades - friendly matches between village sides in England's west country - a player capable of playing in the local premier league will stand out. Go and watch a match in that premier league and a player who represents the local minor county, or who once was among the best teenagers in the country, will stand out. Go and watch that minor county and a player who has played a lot in the County Championship will - if he is not a physical or psychological wreck (long cricket careers can do that to you) - stand out. Go and watch a County Championship match and someone who has played in 88 Test matches and scored 21 centuries, including some of the most brilliant innings played by an England batsman in the modern era, well, he will stand out.

So it was with Kevin Pietersen yesterday. So much has been written over the past few weeks, so many opinions offered, about Pietersen's undeniably complex psychology, that it has been possible to forget, or at least briefly overlook, the fact that he is, when all has been said, a batsman of the purest genius.

And, if the eleven players in Somerset's side, or his Surrey team-mates, or the thousand or so in the Taunton crowd, were in any danger of forgetting how good Pietersen was - and some would never before have seen evidence of his ability at first-hand - they will not do so for a very long time.

In many ways Pietersen's century seemed understated, largely on account of the ease and assurance with which it was made. Such was the superiority of Pietersen over a useful Somerset attack that the need for extreme violence or self-preservation was obviated. It was bloodless.

In the early stages of his innings Pietersen occasionally played and missed at seaming deliveries from the eternally fiery Steven Kirby and his erstwhile England colleague Sajid Mahmood, but, when he had settled, it was simply a question of how often he felt like hitting the ball for four or six. Far worse players than Peter Trego - a locally-raised all-rounder having his best season with the ball - have played for England. Pietersen, when he desired an acceleration in the tempo of his side's innings after lunch, danced down the pitch and flicked Trego to the leg-side boundary with the disdainful ease of a teenage elder brother humiliating a younger sibling. And then, when, as night follows day, Trego dropped the ball short, Pietersen pulled him for a flat six with the venom of a cornered snake.

The young Irish slow left-armer George Dockrell is a spin bowler of huge potential. Until yesterday he had found that his easy, grooved action and fine control of pace and spin were enough to see him through against some of the better batting sides in the first division of the Championship. Against Pietersen, receiving little help from the surface, he found that he could do nothing to prevent himself being milked for run after run, and then, when Pietersen felt it was necessary, he was hit out of the ground into the River Tone. Although he took three wickets, the lasting value of the day will be as a lesson in what players from another realm can do. One day - perhaps with a Test career behind him - he will look back on it with wryness and appreciation of its value.

Pietersen's celebrations were also understated. There was none of the leaping and fist-pumping which always accompany his international milestones. Here there was simply a raised bat, first to the Surrey dressing room and then to all the ground's corners. There were friendly conversations with Alfonso Thomas and, later in the day, with all the scoreboard damage done, with Mahmood. This, somewhat incongrously, was Pietersen attempting to play the part of the humble everyman. Something about his body language suggested contrition, and even, perhaps, a longing for forgiveness.

The saga of the last few weeks is far from over - it will probably take another twist within the hour - and the sense is that, for all Pietersen's gifts, things will always happen around him which people will not understand or like.

Many words have been expended on Kevin Pietersen and many more will be used before his career is done.

You can say what you like about Kevin Pietersen.

Just don't ever say he can't bat.

25.6.16

Runs and Trust (8th January 2012)

A piece about Michael Clarke, from early 2012. There was a time when everyone had an opinion about Clarke, many of which didn't seem to make much sense to me. My opinion was that he was a bloody classic batsman.

Michael Clarke could always bat.

He could bat when he came to England with the Australian Under-19 side in 1999. He could bat when he made his Test debut in India in 2004. He could bat when he took over the captaincy of his country a year ago and he can bat now. If you wanted, you could even take his Sydney epic as evidence that he can bat. But why would you need to do that when he has proved his worth, his mettle, and his skill many times before?

Australia remains a country with a deep, knowing, vital relationship with cricket. Not as visible, or as showy, or as brash as India’s, but important nonetheless. In Australia, as in India, one of the leitmotifs of the game’s growth was the way in which it enabled a young country to show its nascent capabilities to its former colonial masters. Because of this, and because it’s just a great game, cricket remains a central part of Australia’s cultural DNA.

And Australia produces great cricketers. Among batsmen there is Trumper, there is Ponsford, and, of course, there is Bradman. There is Archie Jackson. There is Greg Chappell and Border and Ponting. There are the Waugh twins. Well, Steve, certainly. Perhaps there is Hayden. At a stretch you could possibly even consider Mike Hussey. And if you can consider Mike Hussey you can certainly consider Michael Clarke.

With the exception of Greg Chappell - a man who some of us feel doesn’t quite receive his due either - all Australia’s post-war greats have been simple, unembellished players and men, their personalities as reflective of the characteristic Australian capacity for bluntness and distaste for pretension as the way they go about building an innings.

Clarke is perceived to be different. He has tattoos, has dated models. As Mike Selvey put it so well this past week, he is ‘a smooth-skinned, bright-eyed, baby-faced fellow from the metrosexual generation’. Someone, perhaps, a little out of step with most Australians’ perceptions of themselves and how an Australian man - and especially its most senior sportsman - is supposed to be.

All this is true, but it doesn’t stop you being surprised by the way in which he has often appeared to be held in such lukewarm regard by his compatriots. For Clarke is as good, and mature, and passionate a batsman as it is possible to find on the contemporary world stage.

In traditional Australian style his batting is without artifice. Early in an innings he will be watchful, maintaining his shape, leaving when necessary, working the ball around. Once set he will look to attack, especially against spin, his decisive footwork and range of shot keeping him one step ahead of the bowler. There is little that stands out or makes him unusual, apart from the smooth edges of his technique and his calling, which is as loud and definitive and easily identifiable as you will ever hear, repeatedly reminding the watcher of his assertive commitment to the task at hand. In front of a microphone he is balanced and jauntily articulate. His love for the game, the way it lives inside him, is obvious and unaffected.

All the truly great players who made Australian cricket what it was in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first were born well before Clarke: the Waughs in ‘65, Warne in ‘69, McGrath in ‘70, Gilchrist in ‘71, Ponting in ‘74. With the exception of Ponting all have left the stage. Now is a time of adaptation and adjustment such as Australia hasn’t known for a quarter-century

Clarke, born in 1981, is comfortably the best Australian batsman of his generation, and he, as captain, will be his country’s standard-bearer as the coming years unfold and a different, younger side seeks to regain its place at the top of the world game.

All the signs are that Clarke, orthodox but adaptable, and a more instinctively perceptive captain than his predecessor, is the right man to do this. What is more, it increasingly appears as though the Australian public know this to be so. It may, strangely, have taken 329 undefeated runs at the cradle of the Australian game to convince them, when 151 at Newlands, or 136 at Lord’s, or many other past innings, should have done just as well.

This time last year, with Ponting deposed and Australia humiliated by their oldest foe, things were very different. Clarke was captain, but he neither had runs nor trust. Now he has both.

As someone once said, form is temporary but class is permanent.

Michael Clarke could always, always, bat.

24.6.16

Pausing to Remember (5th October 2011)

This, written just after the death of Graham Dilley, is a piece I'm very proud of.

For all his fine if injury-ravaged career, for people of a certain age - and I was a boy in front of a TV set on that day - Graham Dilley will always be steadying himself under a catch on the Headingley boundary on 21st July 1981.

Cricket is a game of pauses. Although there is always activity, there is the sense of a pause between each and every delivery. The bowler walks back to his mark, the batsman regroups and prepares for the next ball. Fielders pause too, their thoughts momentarily elsewhere.

The most noticeable, most pregnant pause of all, is the pause between a skied catch leaving the bat and it falling into the hands of a fielder who may or may not hang on to it. For those moments, everything is uncertain. Sessions, innings, games, entire series have been turned by dropped catches. The batsman knows it, the bowler knows it, the crowd know it and the fielder sure as hell knows it.

And when old cricketers die, people who saw them play - and especially so if they did so in childhood or adolescence, or they were part of a team who did something truly special - pause to remember them.

Graham Dilley was never famed as a fielder. Like many a quick bowler from the days before diving, and sliding, and all-round fitness became compulsory, and before the magnificent Jimmy Anderson showed what was possible, he just did his bit.

What he did best, and really well when everything clicked, was bowl. With his mood right and his fragile confidence bolstered, often by some powerful runs, he could be distinctly quick, with swing and sharp bounce as additional and potent extras. Like many an England player from the bad old days he never came close to fulfilling his potential, but he was admired at Canterbury, and at Worcester, and remembered with affection by all who lived through and witnessed the 1981 Headingley Test. Botham and Willis took the glory but neither of them could have done what they did without the help of Graham Roy Dilley.

A thirty year-old memory has the young Dilley, with a visorless helmet perched unsteadily on top of his blond mane, creaming Lillee and Alderman and Lawson through the covers on a grey Leeds afternoon and sharing a joke with Botham as Australia wilted and the course of history changed.

For me, though, the strongest image of all sees him the following day, steadying himself on the long-leg boundary as Rod Marsh's uncontrolled hook shot to a Willis bouncer directs the ball his way. A brief glance to check his distance from the rope, hands cupped upward, body braced to absorb the ball's impact.

Everything pauses.

Then he catches it.

He staggers back, but manages to steady himself. Marsh is out, Australia are 74 for 7 and defeat is on the cards.

He leans back and throws the ball high, high into the Yorkshire air.

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