11.4.15

Richie Benaud (1930-2015)

Deaths come in different ways. Some are sudden, unexpected; others come after a long, slow fade from life's prime.

In keeping with the measured laconicism which was an intrinsic element of his unchallenged status as cricket's voice, conscience and heartbeat for more years than most of us have been alive, Richie Benaud's passing was one of the latter. He'd suffered a car accident in Sydney in October 2013, and, as the months afterwards passed, the intermittent reports on his health painted a picture of decline in the face of a cancer which was probably the legacy of long years spent in the burning sun of the world's Test match arenas. Benaud died yesterday in the country where he was born, which he represented, and in which he became a genuinely iconic figure, but the influence and legacy of his life extended far beyond the shores of Australia.

To anyone who grew up in England at any time from the middle of the 1960s onwards and who was interested in cricket, Richie Benaud didn't just represent or evoke the game. As in his home country, he was cricket.

Benaud never again commentated in England after the Oval Test of September 2005. After that, coverage of cricket in England became restricted to satellite television and Benaud wanted no part of it. So, at a time when English cricket is mired in one of its regular bouts of angst about the pitiful state of its representative team, its hopeless, befuddled administrators and its declining number of participants, the memory of Benaud in his glory years is, at one and the same time, a memory of a simpler era. A time when televised cricket meant turning on BBC 1 at 11.25, Soul Limbo and Peter West, Benaud and Jim Laker, and not an advert in sight. As I approach my fifties I like to think that I am resistant to reflex sentimentality about my youth, and in so many ways cricket is more varied, more colourful and more entertaining than it was then, but, as in many areas of life, there is a yearning for the ephemeral, ungraspable memory of those experiences which made us what we are. If you have spent what now seems like your entire life obsessed with cricket, the death of someone who exemplified and defined the game as you fell under its spell is sure to hit you hard.

Two memories of Benaud's life and commentating times: In the first I am eleven years old. It is a sunlit June day, with bottomless blue skies. I have walked home from school and turned on the television. I cannot, of course, remember if I knew that there was cricket on, but, as the set, our first colour television and some five years old at the time, warms into life I can at once discern the sound of a throbbing, excited crowd. Hampshire are playing Gloucestershire at Southampton's Northlands Road ground in the semi-final of the Benson and Hedges Cup. The first thing I see is a blonde fast bowler charge towards the wicket, sweat flying from his brow and his white shirt unbuttoned almost to the waist. I think I know that this is Mike Procter, but I have no idea that at this precise moment, he is seeking to complete a hat-trick. As his yorker disturbs the stumps of Hampshire's John Rice with a mixture of precision and inevitability, Richie Benaud's voice surges upwards with an air of barely controlled excitement, his normal wry detachment momentarily and involuntarily abandoned.

38 long years later, when Benaud dies, this is one of the moments that is replayed and replayed on the television news. It is both a replay of an essential chapter in the Benaud legend and a fundamental part of my childhood.

On 12th September 2005 I am at The Oval, in south London. It is again sunny, and a batsman is again bowled. This time it is Kevin Pietersen, who has scored 158 to take England to the brink of regaining the Ashes. Benaud's final spell of commentary concludes with Pietersen's dismissal. The ground rises, not just to salute Pietersen's achievement but also Benaud. The Australian players, about to become the first team from their country to lose a Test series against England for almost two decades, break from their drinks to applaud Benaud. This signifies what he has meant to cricket.

The last half-year has been, to put it mildly, a mixed period for Australian cricket. A Test series win and a World Cup triumph, bookended by the deaths of Philip Hughes and Richie Benaud, one tragically unexpected and one sadly inevitable. The response to both, though, has shown the vitality and fundamental dignity of the game, both in Australia and around the world.

It is far from an exaggeration to say that Richie Benaud was one of the most significant figures in all the game's long history. When someone like that dies, especially during a period where there is - as there always is - anxiety about the game's turbulent present and uncertain future, the temptation is to suggest that nothing will ever be the same. This is true, of course, for we shall never hear Benaud at the microphone again, but, as the World Cup showed, the game will continue to thrill, fascinate and entertain.

Benaud, never a rose-tinted nostalgist, would agree. Memories of Benaud will sustain all of us long into the future, but it is best if they are viewed as examples of the game's endless possibilities, not as signifiers of a lost past.

RIP.

5.4.15

Vettori

Last week a cricketer retired. This happens all the time.

Some go when it's not what people expect - or when, as the old, somewhat trite, advice goes, people are still asking 'why?' instead of 'why not?' - others go when they have no choice, when thier virtues are starting to be forgotten as a result of their inability to face up to the future. You could perhaps put Ricky Ponting in the first category, and Sachin Tendulkar in the second, although Ponting had his share of moments when the leaving became inevitable. Even now, with years having passed, the vision persists of him face forward in the Adelaide dirt, his stumps rearranged by another ageing great. When things like that happen, retirement is the only way to go.

As in so many things, Daniel Vettori didn't fit any of the obvious templates. Over recent years, as injuries took their toll on a body that had spent half its time on earth playing international cricket, you could be forgiven for thinking that he'd slipped away quietly. As New Zealand's cricket has been transformed over the last few years, the days when he was the fulcrum of a struggling side have faded into the background, but the closing weeks of his career, with all that they meant for New Zealand as a cricket country, were a fitting and memorable way to go.

As with Ponting and anyone else, visions will persist. In Vettori's case, from his very last weeks it will be the sight of him jumping off the ground with perfect timing and catching a ball with his left hand as it heads inexorably for the Cake Tin crowd, but this, brilliant and remarkable as it was, will never capture the essence of a cricketer, who, in New Zealand terms, ranks with the very best.

No, with Vettori the sights to fix in the mind's eye include that of a gangling, floppy-haired teenager with long hair taking his first steps in international cricket against England in 1997. This is about how long his career was: the grainy video on YouTube, with the England of Caddick, Croft and Tufnell in their MCC sweaters against the New Zealand of Blair Pocock and Heath Davis, fixes the match in an era that might as well be prehistoric. Then there is Vettori the batsman, bottom-handed, rigid, consistently looking overmatched, but counter-intuitively capable, with all the temperamental soundness, courage and timing you could want. And Vettori the bowler, with the perfect pivot, the control of flight and pace, the under-recognized subtlety. 4,000 Test runs at 30 and 362 wickets say that he could play, really play.

But perhaps most of all, the thing to take away is that, as Brydon Coverdale said last week in a fine distillation of his career, 'soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, Vettori is the very essence of what New Zealand cricket has become'. In the immature and mean-spirited universe occupied by Brad Haddin and his apologists, virtues such as playing the game in the right spirit count for little. Success justifies everything. The New Zealand which goes on from here - not the New Zealand of Vettori, but the New Zealand of McCullum, of Boult, of Guptill, of Southee, of BJ Watling - will, I am sure, continue to show that playing the game with passion and with flair does not have to mean playing with disrespect.

Perhaps it is a failing in me, perhaps it is the effect of getting older and growing softer, but I hate, really hate, what Haddin did. This is not a partisan issue. I detest Jimmy Anderson's tedious, shallow, false, aggression too.

For Vettori's virtues, read New Zealand's. International cricket need not be a war zone. There are enough of those around the world already.

28.3.15

Cricket Country

After more than a month of hard labour - early, early mornings, snatched sessions in front of the highlights, fast forwarding through the introductory guff from Ward or Gower and that dog, that bloody infuriating dog - memories of the 2015 World Cup are hard to categorize.

For sure though, for all that the time difference and the need to earn a living and be vaguely awake while doing so has meant that the amount of live cricket I've seen has been limited, memories there are, and most of them revolve around New Zealand.

Not just the New Zealand of McCullum, batting and captaining like there's no tomorrow, or Guptill, with his signature orthodoxy and power, or Boult, hooping it with pace and control, but the New Zealand of Dunedin, of Hamilton, of Napier, of Nelson. Intimate, verdant grounds, where you didn't need to be there, or even be within 12,000 miles, to feel the extent of the country's new-found love for the game.

Orange shirts everywhere, people realizing, sometimes for the first time, that the country's sporting fabric, even its wider identity, need not just be about fifteen men with a white fern on their chests. England humiliated, Australia and South Africa defeated with late sixes. Crowds, with Tuesday at Eden Park the apogee, going utterly, wonderfully, mad.

The New Zealand of 2015 looks like the cricket country many of us would like England to be, both on and off the field.

Australia is different. Grounds are characterless and monolithic, success is expected, players and commentators grate. As a neutral approaching the final, little time needs to be wasted in deciding who to support.

Can New Zealand, this time away from the comforts of home, make one last push?

This time tomorrow all the questions will have been answered.

22.2.15

How to Do It (and how not to)

One of the more salient aspects of England's defeat to New Zealand was that, even in the alternative universe in which England win games like that, you simply couldn't imagine them doing it in that way.

Why?

McCullum, that's why.

Or, more precisely, the type of cricketing culture which McCullum represents. A culture in which flamboyance, optimism and spontaneity are embraced. Alright, McCullum may be a one-off, or near enough (this, perhaps, may have been how Shane Warne would have captained Australia had he been given the opportunity), but the way in which he was prepared to attack, attack and then attack some more, simply threw the pedestrian, conformist, tactically bewildered nature of the England team's collective mentality into sharper relief.

Tim Southee is maturing into the world-class bowler he always threatened to become, and his work at the Cake Tin was devastating. But England have, and have had, outstanding bowlers too. On another day, in another time, Jimmy Anderson could have bowled like that. Even - though in the light of his brainless performance in Wellington this appears to be stretching credibility - Stuart Broad could have done the same. But you know, you just know, that a captain like Cook, or Strauss, or probably Morgan, wouldn't have backed his bowler in the way McCullum instinctively did. McCullum's tactics were innovative in that they went against what has become ingrained thinking about how one-day innings should be conducted, especially in (or by) England, but they weren't used in a self-conscious or hesitant way. They were simply what he felt to be the best way to win the match. It's been said many times - though more, one suspects, in stands and commentary boxes than on the pitches of the international world - that the best way to slow a side's scoring rate down is to take wickets. But how many captains will actively try to do that? How many bowlers would love to feel the type of confidence in them which such an approach represents?

There has to be a touch of arrogance in it, sure - 'you're pissing on this lot, just keep bowling' was what McCullum was saying to Southee - which goes against the natural English instinct too, but it sure as hell beats putting the field back and brining on someone to bowl darts hook when you have a side on the slide. Okay, it could all have gone wrong, but on this day you knew it wouldn't. This was a rapidly improving side, brimming with confidence and feeding off home advantage, against a team that have long since forgotten (if they ever knew) how to play one-day cricket.

English cricket has been mired in ponderous, hubristic conservatism for as long as you care to recall. Though he was complicit in his own downfall and there are a myriad nuanced complexities to it that most of us will never know about, this is what fed the long-term distrust of the greatest batting genius England have ever had. This is what fed the retention of Alastair Cook as one-day captain long beyond the point where his position had become untenable. This is what fed England's part in the carve-up of international cricket by the 'big three' (the idea of England being part of a big anything in cricket terms just seems mad). And this is what fed the rejection of a different type of domestic Twenty20 competition when the chance was there. Possibly most damagingly of all, this is what feeds the underlying feeling that, because England can still win the odd Test series, and people actually turn up in numbers to watch it, that continually failing in one-day cricket doesn't really matter.

McCullum can bat, too.

27.11.14

Playing Hard Ball

I don't really play cricket anymore. The last time I did, in 2011, I batted for quite a long time and then couldn't move properly for several weeks. Not for the first time, my back had gone.

I never say I've retired though. Once I could have been a contender, and I could be again, in my mind anyway.

My brother, though he is nearly ten years older than me, still plays village cricket in Derbyshire. Earlier this year, in the summer, I visited him and spotted a ball - a brand new cherry red ball - lying around in his house. Prompted by me, we went outside on to a large grass area near his house and threw it to each other. We weren't far apart and we didn't throw it very hard.

I grew up with cricket balls. Back when I was young they hadn't invented the sort of soft balls I see kids playing with on the Taunton outfield. There were tennis balls, which we tended to play with in the garden to avoid breakages, and there were what were then called composition balls, which, in truth, weren't much softer than the real thing. They were just cheaper and less responsive.

When I was younger, cricket balls and their hardness never really concerned me. Many's the time, as a dour front-foot prodder of an opening bat, I returned home with garish bruises on my thighs, and my stomach, and one time a pain in my hip bone that took half a year to subside. This time, though, I was struck (both literally and metaphorically) by just how hard a cricket ball is. In comparison with the ball used in virtually any other game, cricket balls are stupidly hard. Dangerously hard. Get hit by one in the wrong place and you could get badly hurt.

I made the comment, only partly in jest, that if someone invented cricket today and made the ball as hard as that, the game would be banned for Health and Safety reasons.

I grew up with other things too. I am old enough to remember Thomson and Lillee terrorising England's batsmen, and I am old enough to remember Michael Holding bowling to the helmetless Brian Close and John Edrich at Old Trafford. I am old enough to remember Peter Lever hitting Ewan Chatfield on the head. I also remember reading that one of Jeff Thomson's mates - Martin Bedkober he was called - had died after being hit in the chest by a cricket ball.

I knew then that cricket balls could kill you, but somehow it didn't really enter my thinking again until this morning, 39 years on, when I heard that Phillip Hughes had died.

Other people had things like this, but they always recovered. Chatfield was nearly killed - his heart stopped - but years later he was still tirelessly running in for the best side that New Zealand ever had. Phil Simmons almost went the same way at Bristol but still had a Test career ahead of him. Michael Schumacher, Jules Bianchi. Nobody knows what state they are in, but they are still alive. It was only boxers who died.

Until today.

Cricket has had days like this before. On hearing the news my mind instantly went back to the time I woke up on a similarly dark November morning and heard that Malcolm Marshall had died. And, later, I thought of the time that I was listening to TMS and heard Christopher Martin-Jenkins say that Ben Hollioake had been killed in a car crash.

This morning seemed a little different, though. Marshall had cancer; car crashes happen all the time, to all kinds of people. An international cricketer had never been killed by a ball before.

Now cricket has Twitter. People from all over the world post messages, montages, pictures, say profound things, say stupid things, say insensitive things. But the feeling is of a community coming together. The world is full of people who know nothing of cricket, and people who think they know enough of cricket to say that they dislike it. But for those of us who are left, no game engenders such loyalty and love, both for the sport itself and for the people who play it.

I hardly saw Phil Hughes bat live. Just his two Lord's Tests, in 2009 and 2013, when he failed as his homespun New South Wales country boy's technique was badly exposed. But I had seen him enough on TV and I had seen enough of his statistics to know that he would probably have come good in time. People always say things like this, but it is true to say that his best years were ahead of him. He was a contender.

Sadly, another thing being middle-aged teaches you is that 25 is no kind of age to die.

12.10.14

The Age of Pietersen

As Kevin Pietersen himself has said in the past few days: 'How did it come to this?'

When Kevin Pietersen made his debut for England in a one-day international against Zimbabwe in Harare in November 2004, Twitter was something birds did.

How did we end up with England's most-capped cricketer arguing via the radio with a bloke from the East Midlands who just happens to know a few England players, about who had access to a Twitter account that was, when all has been said, a parody?

It is squalid, and it is pointless, but it is more than that. As others better qualified to comment than me have said, it is sad. Sad that an era in which the England cricket team were really successful - as we have seen and been told they were far from popular, but they did win matches, and series, and played some great cricket in their way - will, at least for a time, be recalled as an era which ended in dispute and recrimination, claim and counter-claim.

The truth according to Pietersen, or the truth according to Graeme Swann.

What actually happened, or 'the greatest work of fiction since Jules Verne'.

Unless you were there, you will never know.

We are only days into this but it already seems as though all that can be said has been said. Of course, this is never true. There is always more. In this sort of stupid, childish situation, someone will always want to have the last word.

Something which I haven't seen said yet is that 'it was always going to end in tears'. But you can be sure that someone, somewhere, will be thinking that, and saying it. And, as with many people you met around the grounds of England during the age of Pietersen and who would tell you for nothing why they didn't like him, or didn't trust him, they will be spectacularly wrong. Because, for a long time, for all Pietersen's unorthodoxy and flamboyance and apparent immodesty, it did work.

Christ, it worked. 8,000 Test runs at 47, with 23 centuries, say that it worked.

For a long time there were no tears, except, perhaps, the tears of joy which may have been shed by people who saw an England batsman doing things which they never thought they'd see.

These days few people remember the Norwich Union League, but a fair few Somerset fans will recall the time in 2002 when Pietersen took their county for two centuries in two days, one at Trent Bridge and one at Taunton. 269 runs off 201 balls, with 25 fours and 10 sixes. This, it seemed, was a player.

Then there were the ODI tons in South Africa; a time which gave new meaning to the phrase 'batting under pressure'. Then the Test debut at Lord's, head hung low on a gloomy last afternoon as the England lower-order disintegrated around him. Then, seven epoch-making weeks later, the last day at The Oval. Opening out against Lee after lunch, Tait scrambling in the dirt at fine leg, ticking off the overs to safety with Giles, the crowd going wild as they embraced a future most didn't expect and rejected a past many couldn't remember.

Then more great times at Lord's. For some reason I have a particular memory of being in the Long Room when Pietersen returned after scoring a second innings 134 against India in 2007. The members applaud him to the rafters and Pietersen, who walks with his customary upright stride and air of detachment, smiles slightly, his mask of coolness temporarily lost. You sense that it has occurred to him that he has been accepted. Things ran like this for a long time - through the captaincy, through the first Moores era and into that of Flower - there were detractors, of course, in many cases people who couldn't see past the accent and the tattoos, but there were just as many of us who saw him for what he was: a player of genius, playing for a country which doesn't really do players of genius.

For many, 2012 was a watershed, but still we had Headingley and Mumbai, two of the greatest innings ever played by an England batsman.

Many people have written about what it was like to grow up following England in the barren nineties. Those of us who are a little older can remember the Brearley era, and 1981, and 1985, and Botham and Gower, so the success enjoyed by England in recent years hasn't seemed quite so unusual. But, for all the relative joylessness, and the surplus aggression, the years between the regaining of the Ashes in 2009 and the end of it all in Australia in the winter of 2013-14 have been sweet ones. Of course, it has been just as much the age of Cook, or of Swann, or of Prior, or of Flower, but such is the nature of the English cultural psyche, whereby genius - and especially genius combined with outspokenness - is innately mistrusted, the greatest thing about them was the fact that we, England, had a batsman who, on his day, could frighten any team in the world.

Now this is gone for good. Whatever Pietersen may say - and, as an intelligent man, you have to doubt whether he really believes it - it is over. He will never play for England again in any form of the game.

So it is best to recall the Age of Pietersen for what it was. Because, for all kinds of complicated reasons, it will be a very long time before anything like it ever comes again.

17.8.14

Starting Out

In early 2013, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the annual Wisden dinner, held at Lord's each April to celebrate the publication of the most famous annual publication in the sporting world.

I wrote about it here.

The people around my table in the Long Room that evening included Mike Selvey (who was frustratingly out of easy conversational reach) and the ageless Wisden Middlesex correspondent and sometime radio commentator Norman de Mesquita, who is now, sadly, no longer with us.

At the far end of the table was a young man from Taunton, sitting with his father. Tom Abell, who was there to receive the Schools' Cricketer of the Year award, was polite and quietly impressive company. After he'd received his leather-bound Wisden from David Gower the talk was of his degree at Exeter University, his ambitions for the future and anecdotes from his father's playing days, which coincided with various teams and players of my own acquaintance. At the end of the evening I advised him to savour the moment, as it was something which, in years to come, he would look back on with affection, even if it didn't seem such a big deal at the time.

Sixteen months later I am at the County Ground at Taunton as Tom Abell makes his debut in first-class cricket for Somerset against Warwickshire. This time there is more distance between us: I am in the Ian Botham Stand and he is on the pitch.

After winning the toss his Somerset team bowls and he fields. He takes two catches, one to remove the centurion Ian Westwood late on the first day, and another to end the Warwickshire first innings, early on the second morning. He performs these duties competently, but it is no more than we should expect from a professional cricketer. A sterner test seems certain to come when he is required to bat, and so it proves. Abell, in at 4, comes to the wicket after Johann Myburgh is dismissed, and Somerset are 55 for 2. As Myburgh is out to the last ball of an over from Richard Jones, Abell has the temporary sanctuary of the non-striker's end to collect his thoughts, but any reverie he experiences is abruptly shattered as Nick Compton edges the second ball of the next over, bowled by Oliver Hannon-Dalby, into his stumps. Somerset are 55 for 3, and both batsmen are yet to face a ball. One of them, Tom Abell himself, has still to face a ball in first-class cricket.

From here, assisted by the experience of James Hildreth (although, given Hildreth's shaky form, it is hard to discern which is the experienced man and which the rookie), Abell slowly finds his feet, picking up runs on either side of the wicket with nudges and glances and covering up when required, his bat as straight as a die. He receives his fair share of short stuff, but, unlike his senior partner, he is never drawn towards recklessness. He ducks, he weaves and he leaves with the maturity and patience of the old pro that he is not.

As wickets continue to fall, Abell silently and unspokenly mutates into the senior partner. As Alex Barrow, Peter Trego and Craig Overton come to the wicket, he is the one who does the talking, focusing on the uncertainties of the situation and emphasizing the way they should play. When they each depart, he is still there, defending the good balls with efficiency of technique and economy of effort, and dealing with the rare bad ones with the sort of timing which can surprise and unsettle even experienced fielders. An example of this comes when he forces Jeetan Patel towards Jonathan Trott, who is fielding at mid on. As the ball comes towards him, Trott moves slowly, feeling that he has it covered. However, as the ball reaches him it is clear that it has much more pace on it than he first thought and he is forced into a late, scrambling dive. It is too late, though, and the ball is past him and into the boards.

On another occasion, Patel bowls a rare long hop and Abell is quick to abandon his circumspection. His bat comes down somewhere in the hinterland between a square cut and a back foot drive and the ball races to the fence like a shot from a gun. The thought starts to intrude that not only is this uncommonly assured batting for an inexperienced player, it is, in its adaptability and recognition of opportunity, batting of quite high class.

When Lewis Gregory comes to the crease the tempo rises, and Abell finds himself drawn in. In part this is an unconscious effect of the freedom and aggression of Gregory's strokeplay, but also the fact that Abell has realized that making runs in professional cricket is something he can do. They put on 84 in an hour, saving the follow-on, before Gregory is caught in the deep attempting another pull into the crowd. Soon after, the players leave the field because of bad light with Abell on 73, but within a short time they are back and Abell, with the impassive maturity he has shown throughout his four hours at the crease, continues to collect runs, assisted by the flamboyance of Alphonso Thomas and George Dockrell.

Once Abell reaches the nineties it is possible to sense the tension among the crowd, which, as the autumnal evening closes in, barely numbers three figures. To the left of where we are sitting, in the Old Pavilion, which has just weeks to go before demolition, there is a hill named after Harold Gimblett, a local folk-hero and the last Somerset-born batsman to make a century in his first innings in the County Championship.

Just as people are starting to believe, Abell turns a ball from Patel into the hands of William Porterfield at short midwicket. Abell has spent the afternoon dealing easily with such deliveries, but perhaps this one has stopped a little on him, or perhaps he has gone a little hard at the ball as the tension of the approaching landmark starts to weigh on his mind.

We will never know. As Abell, the last man to be dismissed in Somerset's first innings, walks towards the Andy Caddick Pavilion with 95 to his name, several of the Warwickshire players shake his hand. Some of these men, like Rikki Clarke, have been around, and they know that they have seen something which speaks of high promise for the future.

Nothing, though, is ever assured. Should Abell think that it is, he need only ask his erstwhile partner James Hildreth, who knows all about the way in which early promise and recognition can slip through the fingers before you really know what has happened.

Like everyone else who has ever batted for a living, Abell faces an uncertain future. There will be many cheap dismissals at the hands of skilled bowlers and errant umpires, but there will also be times, such as yesterday, when almost everything goes right.

This was only the start.

Subscribe in a reader