12.7.15

Old Pro

The Cheltenham College cricket ground is a very British type of idyll. Not the village green of a million rustic fantasies, but the epitome of the Victorian public school playing field. Flanked by the school's chapel, it is an arena born of the ideal of muscular christianity which the British, for good or ill, took to the world.

On a weekday in July, with the sun streaming from an azure sky and a light breeze taking the edge off the heat, this, for the cricket lover, is as good as it can possibly get.

And, for Gloucestershire's cast of young pros, it represents a release from the barren characterlessness of the north Bristol suburbs, a chance to play in front of a large and appreciative crowd, and, even if they do not know it, an opportunity to connect with history.

Grace played here, Hammond played here, Graveney and Procter and Zaheer played here. Hundreds of other county cricketers have played here. Christ, this is a place.

With Northants dying a prolonged but terminal death in the field in the face of a withering assault by Gloucestershire's young all-rounder Jack Taylor, it is hard, as he patrols the boundary and tries in vain to stem the flow of runs, not to contemplate the thoughts of Stephen Peters.

Stephen Peters is 36 years old now. Once upon a time, when he made a century in the final of the Under-19 World Cup in 1998, he was, briefly, a kind of star. There were expectations, ultimately unfulfilled. His long career in the game has been spent exclusively on the county circuit. For his native Essex, in the shadow of the cathedral at Worcester, and, latterly, at Wantage Road in Northampton. Somewhere along the line he has undergone the metamorphosis from promising youngster to old pro.

But, while members of the crowd have the privilege of descending into reverie, Peters is unable to do so. Having been dismissed without scoring in his side's first innings, he knows that he will be on a pair when he eventually bats again. When he does, with his side facing a deficit of 126, Gloucestershire's coltish and impressive young seamer, Craig Miles, rips one through his defences before he has had a chance to settle. He has his pair, his part in the game is done, and his side too is not long for the match. By the end of the day they have lost, badly.

Not very far away, on the other side of the Welsh border, England and Australia have spent the day locked in combat in the first of the summer's Ashes Tests. The sights, sounds, colours and throbbing intensity of a Test match are things which Peters will never know now, for it is late in his time in the game.

He has never engaged the thoughts of his country's selectors, but, for nearly twenty years, places like this, on days like this, have been his place of work. True, there have been cold days at Derby and Leicester, grey days watching the rain too, but the opportunity to play, even if just once, in a setting such as this and get paid for doing so, is a far richer experience than most of us will ever, ever have.

At the moment, such sentimentality will be far from his mind. But, in time, he will value these experiences for what they have been.

29.6.15

A Week in the Life

The fact that in certain contexts - in politics, in sport, in life itself - a week is a long time, is an old and enduring aphorism.

And, especially in the modern age, it is true, so true. Everything happens fast these days, even in cricket. Twenty20 innings are over in the blink of an eye, teams that for years have been the last word in constipated conservatism can change their very character in a few matches.

Andy Mathieson knows all about this.

On Saturday 20th June, Mathieson, a seam bowler from the North Island of New Zealand, is called into the New Zealand team for his One-Day International debut. As England chase an amended target, things go well at first - he takes the wicket of Jason Roy with his first ball in international cricket - but later they take a sharp turn for the worse. His fourth over, which turns out to be the final over of the match, is hit for 17 runs by a combination of two young Yorkshiremen, Jonny Bairstow and Adil Rashid, who are surfing the glorious wave of England's new era of limited-overs freedom. The match ends in defeat for New Zealand, and Mathieson's figures, which weren't great before he embarked on his final over, are left looking ugly. There is a wicket to cling on to, but he is left with a return of 4 overs for 40 to look back on, possibly for ever. An economy rate of 10. Not good. He is the latest person to be entrusted with the difficult job of bowling at the death as the opposition close on a total. In these situations things can go one of two ways. You can end up as a hero, or you can end up, at best, as a forgotten man.

Durham's Riverside Ground ends the day in ferment. Nothing can be heard above the noise of a crowd who, when the whole series is taken into account, can hardly believe what they have witnessed.

One week on it is Saturday 27th June, and Mathieson is opening the bowling for Sidmouth against Exeter in the Premier Division of the Devon League. On Exeter's old ground, Devon's County Ground, the ancient pavilion has been demolished to make way for a gleaming replacement, ringed by student flats. A crane dominates the skyline, the players change in prefabricated huts, and the spectators can be counted, one by one, in a few minutes. It is a humid, slightly soporific afternoon, with the morning's bright sunshine giving way to cloud. You can hear the birds singing. The players are wearing whites. Contrasts with Durham are everywhere.

Sidmouth's powerful batting line-up racks up 307 in their 50 overs. Exeter are below strength, and they are never serious contenders to win, but their chase begins with Mathieson taking the ball following an initial over of slow-medium seamers from his captain Will Murray.

On television, Mathieson's pace looked relatively benign. Here, at a much lower level of the game, it appears razor sharp, and he extracts bounce from a batsmen's track. When the Exeter batsmen have to play, they tend to play late, and in a hurry. But they don't have to play enough, and Mathieson's first spell is negotiated with relative comfort. Later, as Exeter's innings fades, he returns. Exeter's impressive fifteen year-old, Tom Lammonby, handles him without undue trouble, and he remains wicketless until he shatters the stumps of Exeter's number ten with the game's final ball, securing victory for his side by 129 runs.

For Mathieson it has been a quiet afternoon. He has not batted, and he has taken just one wicket and a single sharp catch in the deep, which, with the anticipation and sense of gathering danger which is second nature to one who has played at a higher level, he has made look easy.

This has been an unusually varied interlude in a jobbing cricketer's career. Two weeks running he has bowled the final ball of a match, but they have been worlds apart in setting, in relative importance, and in result. One has extended him to the furthest limits of his abilities and emotions; the other has been a subdued return to normality.

Who knows if the opportunity to repeat his experience at Durham will ever come again? If it does not, there is little need to worry. He is what he is, and what he will always be. There are plenty of people around with no One-Day International wickets, and nobody will ever be able to take Roy's scalp away from him.

A week in cricket can seem like a very long time.

13.6.15

Sense of Loss

When cricketers retire because of injury, there is always a sense of loss. This is true even when the departures of the two England wicket-keepers who have left the game's stage in the last ten days were very far from unexpected.

With Craig Kieswetter, there is a sense of loss born of what might have been. In the case of Matthew Prior there is a sense of losing what actually was, even if the sad reality is that it was long, long gone.

On the broad acres of his adopted home ground at Taunton, the young Kieswetter stood out in ways that were never shrouded in subtlety or mystery. He always looked the part, standing with unfeigned comfort and self-possession at the root of the cordon, usually with Marcus and James Hildreth by his side. For a few seasons, for those of us who inhabit the Hill, or the Botham Stand, or even the one named after Marcus himself, there was comfort and familiarity in that. He used to vie with Jos Buttler for the gloves, and circumstances dictated that it was Somerset's very own world-beater who left. Craig was never quite going to be a world-beater, but he could keep alright, and would have got better as time passed. And he could really bat. The one-day arena saw him at his best, but the essentials of his game were the same whatever the context. To take just one, there was his characteristic off-drive, played with a distinctive flourish and the timing and withering power of one brought up on the type of track that encourages, indeed demands, virile, punishing strokeplay.

A South African hard wicket player.

If this evokes a stereotype then it isn't appropriate. There was also an intrinsic subtlety and wristiness to his shots, while away from the arena he always seemed a balanced and understated character. You can bet that he would have played for Somerset long into the future. Perhaps England too, with the glorious rebirth of the national side's one-day cricket which the last week has seen suiting him down to the ground. It may or may not have happened, but Craig would have welcomed the chance to make it so.

A lasting memory, from a season or two back, sees me passing him as he came away from the Millichamp and Hall bat workshop that lies behind the Ondaatje Pavilion at Taunton. He had a clutch of brand new, logoless bats under his arm. The tools of his trade. Some of those probably never struck a ball in anger, and now they never will.

Unlike Craig Kieswetter, Matt Prior fulfilled his potential everywhere but in the one-day arena. During his, and England's, greatest recent days I saw a lot of Prior at Lord's, including both his Test centuries there. One, against the West Indies on debut, felt like snatching candy from kids, the other, against India in 2011, when he and Stuart Broad took the game away from England's opponents on a crystal blue Sunday afternoon, still feels to me like a matchlessly evocative summation of all that Flower and Strauss's England were. Prior the batsman was a focal part of that time, bounding onto the pitch, sweatbands on wrists, with endless confidence, aggression and damaging intent. Quick singles to start, always challenging the field, then, as bowlers tired and dropped short, there would be cuts and pulls. Overpitch and it would be one of the most powerful and reliable cover-drives in world cricket.

In those days, when Matt Prior was at the wicket, everything felt right.

Lord's against India was where it all ended for Prior too. An injury-ravaged performance in defeat, capped by a witless stroke and a proud, defiant exit. Watching him walk through the Long Room that day last July, head held high and expression fixed, there was a strong sense of an era ending.

A true sense of loss.

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.

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