19.5.18

The Language of Batting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They can, but it takes time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18.3.18

Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cliches are ten a penny at times like this.

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

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

24.12.17

The Dying of the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.10.17

Two Players

Taunton, early season 2017. As the sun fades, the blustery wind starts to chill the bones. Any county ground after play ends has a feeling of spent energy, a feeling of faded drama, a feeling of reflection, as evening settles in. This is as true of Cheltenham in high summer as it is of Taunton in bitter mid-April, a time in which cricket never feels natural, but where it is increasingly required to dwell.

At the Cooper Associates County Ground in Taunton, outside the nondescript, functional pavilion named after Andy Caddick, players often congregate after play. They will sign autographs for the men, mostly near or past pension age, who are always there with their albums and books.

The attention is drawn to a youngish man from the east of England with a fresh, windswept complexion. You sense that he always looks like this, but recent time spent in Sri Lanka has enhanced his cricketer's tan. He is surrounded by his family and friends; there is a transparent air of humour, of expectation, of cheerfulness and of hope; of wondering what the coming season holds. At this point he doesn't know it, but for Tom Westley this will be the best season of his young career. He will play in a team which wins the County Championship, and he will do something he has always dreamed of; he will play Test cricket for England. He is right to look hopeful, because he will enjoy what is to come. He will be tested by it, and, after a promising beginning, he will fail that test, but he will end the season in the same frame of mind. This time, though, it will be hope of a recall, of another opportunity. Lose that, and you lose everything.

Scrolling forward to another time and place in England's south-west, we see an older player, one who doesn't hope to play for England anymore because he has no need to. That dream has come, and it has gone.

The County Ground, Exeter, August 2017. Devon are playing Berkshire. With a typically diligent and innovative innings behind him, Chris Read walks around the boundary with his young son. Read is revered in his adopted home city of Nottingham, but now he is back in the county of his birth and his cricketing roots. He is a small man, with few unusual or distinguishing features, and someone who self-evidently feels uncomfortable in the limelight. If you knew nothing of his achievements, you would pass him in the street without a moment's thought. And he would be happy with that.

As Read stops by a well-known local sports photographer, who graciously allows his son to look through his camera's all-seeing lens, you can't prevent your mind going back to the time, more than twenty years before, when you last saw him play for Devon. He was just a kid of 16 then, with a burgeoning reputation in his native Torbay, and the same preternatural assurance behind the stumps which would see him to more than one thousand dismissals in first-class cricket. He could always bat too; not especially stylishly, but with an innate ability to seize the moment. This is a man who knows what it is like to play in front of full houses at Lord's and to win one-day trophies; to play Test cricket in the West Indies, in Australia, in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But, for good or ill, for most of his career, his natural home, his place of work, has been the county circuit, with its grounds, its devotees and its constantly evolving cast of participants.

English county cricket is a secure and civilised world. An environment which few would wish to leave behind, but for different reasons, these are two players, at distinct points in their careers, who want, or even need, to do so. In Read's case it is the march of time, with Westley it is the need to see if he can be what he has always wanted to be.

Every season, indeed every match, of an English county season is full of vignettes like this, and, as the light changes as autumn sets in, and the leaves begin to turn, they settle in the mind. One player's horizons beginning to expand, but simultaneously on the point of faltering, another's narrowing, fading, reverting.

Neither of them is especially upset about this, although, as he leaves the scene of one of his Test match failures, Westley's mind will be flooded with doubt and concern. And as Read is applauded to and from the crease on the occasion of his final game at Trent Bridge, he can be excused a moment or two of wistful sadness, even if it is usually no more his way than that of any other professional sportsman.

From the Victorian era onwards, so many aphorisms, truisms and cliches have been uttered about the qualities and values of the game of cricket that it can sometimes be hard to be sure where realistic appraisal ends and romantic fiction begins. But the English county game, especially when played over four days, continues, even in its marginalisation, to embody something unique, and, in its way, beautiful and life-affirming.

At the heart of this are the players, with all their hopes, fulfilments and regrets. When the 2018 county season begins, Chris Read will be elsewhere and he will have nothing but fulfilling memories and, perhaps, a few regrets, while Tom Westley will still be there, at Taunton, or Chelmsford or even Worcester, full, again, of hope.

29.7.17

Journeys

As I get older, as I watch more and more cricket - well, more and more cricket and more and more rugby union, for these are the sports which dominate my consciousness during many of my waking hours - I become increasingly aware of, and fascinated by, the nature of the journey (this is the type of expression which people employ to describe their progress through reality television programmes, but for once it feels like the right expression to use).

Not just my journey, although if you stop to consider it there can be a sense of your advancing life being measured out in eighty minute or four and five day segments, but the lives and careers of those fortunate enough to be employed to live out the dreams of those of us who were never good enough to fulfil them for ourselves.

Earlier this month, at the ageless Cheltenham College ground, where Gloucestershire have played since 1870, as the home side completed a comfortable two-day win over Glamorgan, a marquee at the College Lawn End contained a range of men for whom the journey through a cricket career isn't an abstract product of the imagination. For these people it is a facet of memory.

The gathering is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Professional Cricketers' Association; some of the union's founders are here, along with a range of others, all of whom are former professional cricketers. Some are instantly recognisable, in spite of the inexorable passing of the years, others are people that you assume did important things - in some cases before you were even born - but you have no idea who they are.

JT Murray, your best friend's boyhood hero, still stylish and quipping at 82; Vanburn Holder, evoking memories of New Road summers forty years past; Graeme Fowler, a man who faces down intangible demons daily; Pat Pocock, genial and ruminative. Others: Duncan Fearnley, maker of bats for the stars; Neal Radford, still with the looks that so captivated a female friend during his Worcester heyday; MJK Smith, with his perpetual air of distracted diffidence.

And there is poignancy.

A man in a motorised wheelchair leaves the tent, accompanied by his carer. We don't notice him at first, and he is moving away from us before his identity registers.

It is Winston Davis.

The last time you can recall seeing him in the flesh, he was playing for Northants at Luton during the summer you graduated from university, the summer, now rapidly fading into time's mists, when England had five captains. Even then he was better known for what he once did in the World Cup, one of the few times he got a game for the West Indies. You'd heard about him, of course. The fall from a tree in Saint Vincent which cost him the use most of his body.

Journeys can change, or end, in so many ways.

For most of the players on the field, those journeys show little sign of ending. For some, relatively speaking, they are only just beginning.
In the modern, reflexive, intolerant, shoot-from-the-hip world, professional sportsmen cop more abuse than most. As with so many other dialogues, it is the product of limited and inadequate understanding and awareness, and what often seems like a calculated and deliberate lack of empathy.

On the face of it, the life of a professional sportsman is all roses; 'Peachy Creamy', as Lesley Sharp's character Louise was fond of saying in Mike Leigh's Naked. But this is not all it is.

Yes, you can earn your living doing something you would be happy to do for nothing, even pay your own money to do. Yes, you can travel the world staying in the best hotels (although a life on the county circuit - the life led by most of the men in the Cheltenham tent - may not quite match up in this regard); if you are a cricketer you may never experience winter. Yes, you will get the girls. Being young, being fit, being famous, being relatively rich, are powerful aphrodisiacs.

Conversely - and these are important things - while you may get paid so much more than the lads you knew at school, in their office jobs or on their building sites, they don't have to concern themselves with the fact that if they have a bad day at work they will be scrutinized and criticized in the papers, on the radio, on TV, or by the trolls who populate the World Wide Web. They build you up, of course they do, but boy they will knock you down.

Also, your mates outside the game don't, in most cases, have to worry about their career being summarily ended by an injury, by a dramatic loss of form, or, perhaps, by the yips. Redundancy can come, but it will not usually entail the need to embrace an entirely different way of life. The need to commute, to work in environments where a majority of your colleagues are female, or to experience the strip-lit torpor that settles over a characterless office on a winter afternoon when darkness settles at ten past four and the rain is hitting the windows with hypnotic force, driven by a howling wind.

This is a different way of being; something which most of us have to embrace, even if we once held ambitions, or in most cases fantasies, of doing what professional sportsmen do.

Sometimes it will take until they have to exist outside the games they have known so well for a sportsman to appreciate what they have. Others, those with an uncommon maturity or breadth of perspective recognize it early, but for many it takes their career to be on the wane for them to truly know what they have. Then comes fear, and the rage against the dying of the light, whether it be swift or protracted. Sometimes you see this outside sport but in most cases it is retirement which is welcomed rather than feared. The rage comes later, as age and infirmity cloud the horizon and the end of a life, not just a sporting career, approaches.

The men in the Cheltenham tent have been through all that and have lived to tell the tale; youthful promise, careers of varying lengths and achievements, retirement, the need to find, and become used to, an alternative way of life. Some will have been more successful as players; others in the afterlife.

Cheltenham, with its encapsulation of a certain type of distinctively English idyll, always does this to me. When I returned to the ground in 2015, after seventeen years away, it was Stephen Peters, his long stint in the county game in its very last throes, who set me thinking about the nature of cricket careers and their conclusions. How is it that you adapt to the change from a life, with all its precariousness and pressures, where your places of work include arenas like this, to an existence which, while it is more stable, can never be anything other than more mundane.

The answer is that you probably never really do. When I see Ken Palmer at Taunton, 80 years, 866 first-class wickets and countless hours of umpiring behind him, he looks happy enough, but it is easy to imagine how he misses his lengthy involvement in the game.

For those of us who perpetually occupy the land beyond the boundary ropes, the way we experience the game is different. We have enjoyed some of the most exciting, joyous and uplifting moments of our lives on cricket grounds, but we have never shed blood, or much sweat, or many tears while doing so. Ours is a more limited experience, but it is no less profound. And it will continue for the rest of our lives.

Some of the occupants of the Cheltenham marquee were among the founder members of the PCA. They didn't just play the game for a living; they created something which has stood the test of time.

There are journeys and then there are journeys.

For now, for Winston Davis, the journey from one end of the ground to the other is all that is on his mind.

6.11.16

When the Eye has Gone

The retired sportsman, missing the acclaim of his career, is a familiar trope in sporting literature. It is true of those who made it, and it is true of those who did not.

I could have been a contender.

In the case of Colin Milburn, there was no 'could have been'. He was very much a contender, and then some. Although my memory of cricket and cricketers increasingly, and somewhat worryingly, seems to me to resemble that of the Ancient Mariner, I am too young to remember his heyday, although I have a vague and uncertain recollection of his fruitless comeback attempt in 1973 and 1974. But there is abundant folk memory, and literature, and the recollections of those who do remember his best days. It is clear that he could play. Really play.

Certain days and times have worked their way into the wider cricketing consciousness. Hooking the fearsome Wes Hall for six on the way to an unbeaten second innings century at Lord's in his second Test match in 1966; 243 in a day for Western Australia against Queensland in late 1968, an innings which Sir Donald Bradman memorably described as one of the greatest played by an Englishman on Australian soil; the car crash which cost him an eye and a career in May 1969. His later fading from view and his death at the age of 48.

Anyone would miss playing sport for a living. How many jobs are there in which you are well paid to do something you would happily do for nothing, and people - sometimes tens of thousands of people - will applaud you for doing things which you might not find all that difficult, but which they cannot do (however much they long to)? A few years of that and the world as it is inhabited by the rest of us starts to fade into the recesses of memory. If, that is, you ever knew what the real world was like anyway. If all you have ever done for work is sport, the adjustment will come even harder, and its effects will be all the deeper.

If you have played for as long as you can, and you know your time has come, it is easier. If you find, with shocking finality, that your career as it was is over at 27, it is never going to be easy.

This was Colin Milburn's life.

Dougie Blaxland's play When the Eye has Gone, in which Milburn and a host of other characters are played with powerful versatility by Dan Gaisford, is currently touring many of the grounds on which Milburn made his mark fifty years and more before. It comprises a series of vignettes (if that is not too subtle a word, and it probably is) from his life and times, in which his progress from the then fallow first-class cricket territory of County Durham to the game's heights and back, is charted. Here is Milburn in the school playground, pretending to be a late-career Wally Hammond facing Ray Lindwall; there he is as a young pro, taking the great Les Jackson for a ton on a Buxton green top; here he is impersonating 'Jim' Swanton as he passes Olympian judgment on his clumsy fielding; there are the would-be voices of Arlott and Trevor Bailey and The Don; here is the boundary-edge sage at Burnopfield who tells him he'll never be as good as his father; there is his mother, dusting furiously as she advises him not to neglect his schoolwork. The medics; the eye surgeon, the nurses, the doctor repeatedly warning him about the blood pressure and cholesterol levels which would lead to his death. The hollow jokes and the forced bonhomie.

The pint glass of gin and coke.

Gaisford infuses the play with relentless energy, an impeccable Geordie accent and a bullish, confrontational style, which leads you to suspect that you are watching someone who has lost everything but cannot possibly bring himself to admit it. For Milburn, as for so many ex-sportsmen (and others) life looked better through the bottom of an empty glass.

For anyone who (as I do) spends long hours watching cricket and other games on modern satellite television, it is often possible to drift towards the impression that you are watching a series of adverts for rival online betting companies, with a little cricket or rugby mixed in. There comes a time when you start expecting to see Ray Winstone's head in your dreams. As a result of repetition I hate most of these adverts with a passion, but one phrase (inserted, one assumes, to please whatever regulators take an interest in such things) has a tendency to stick in the mind.

When the fun stops, stop.

But what if you are forced to stop while it is still the most fun you could ever have?

19.10.16

Living in the Age of Root

The Nevil Road ground, in the tired northern suburbs of Bristol, was never anyone's idea of one of the world's great cricket theatres. It's been smartened up a bit recently, but back in the late nineties when it began to host one-day internationals, it was a prisoner of its own featurelessness. Crammed between rows of terraced houses and a Victorian orphanage, when there wasn't much of a crowd in - which, frankly, was most of the time when Gloucestershire were playing - for all its antique associations with Grace and Hammond and Jessop it never made the pulse quicken.

There were other days, though. Between 1999 and 2003 I went to a series of ODIs there. I saw Shoaib Akhtar bowl one of the quickest spells I've ever seen, I had an early glimpse of Chris Gayle, and I saw Sachin Tendulkar make the only serious runs I ever saw him get (I usually watched him in Lord's Test matches). And I saw Ricky Ponting. Oh yes, I saw Ricky Ponting.

In the game between England and Australia at the ground on 10th June 2001, England won the toss and batted, making 268 in their 50 overs. Marcus Trescothick made runs, Nick Knight made runs, Ben Hollioake, in his final summer, made a few at the end in partnership with Owais Shah. By the standards of the day, it wasn't a bad score. Well, we'd all seen worse. This was England, this was one-day cricket, and it was a long time before 2015.

Australia lost an early wicket - Adam Gilchrist - which brought in Ponting. The memory is still there, vivid in its clarity: I've got no idea which of the bowlers it was, probably Gough or Mullally, but Ponting, from a guard on or over the crease line, took the biggest stride you could ever see and played a forward defensive stroke of such utter and complete impregnability that only one conclusion was possible. England weren't going to get him out that day.

They didn't, or at least they didn't while it really mattered. He made 102, setting up a last over victory that never seemed in much doubt. This was Steve Waugh's Australian side, after all.

That's something worth noting about great players. The attacking strokes are one thing, but often, aside from their frequency, they are little better than the shots which mere mortals play less often. But the reason lesser players play them less often is because they don't get the chance. They're out. Show me a great player without a solid defence and I'll show you someone who isn't a truly great player.

In those days England didn't have players like that. Within a short time we had hopes for Ian Bell, never ultimately fulfilled; then there was Kevin Pietersen. Great? Well, maybe. Near great, at least, but a genius who impressed in a different way. KP could defend, of course, but it was the strokes that had you, never the impression of invulnerability.

As an England fan in the nineties - even one who was easily old enough to recall the pomp of Botham and Gower - there was a tendency to see anyone who showed any promise at all through the prism of what they could be; even who they could be. I remember seeing Alex Tudor as a seventeen year-old, loping in and bowling with chilling speed and bounce from the Old Pavilion End at Taunton. I thought he was going to be our Curtly, our Courtney, our Ian Bishop. But, for many reasons, it never happened.

Even longer ago in place and time there was Mark Ramprakash, coolly steering the Middlesex chase in the NatWest Final as an eighteen year-old. I was up in the Tavern Stand that day, and yes, we all thought, this is a great player in the making. And in every way aside from the making of Test match runs and centuries, it was. But, when you're dealing with cricket at its most rarefied level, that is what matters. It is not the ice crystal purity of your technique, it is not your longevity against county bowling attacks - that means little to anyone brought up in another part of the world - or your hundred centuries; it is what you achieve in Test cricket, it is what you achieve in one-day international cricket, it is what you achieve in Twenty20 cricket.

Joe Root can do all those things. And how.

As with any outstanding player, watch him early in his innings. Quality, even against the very best bowling, shows through early. Indeed, against the very best bowling it needs to, or you will be gone. As anyone knows, Root has all the attacking strokes anyone could ever require, and the discretion to deploy them when they are most needed, but, when he first gets to the crease, especially if he is facing someone bowling well, his class is characterized by the way he keeps them out. The forward strides are there, but less impressively than with Ponting; with Root it is the backward defensive which defines him. A precise, easy movement of his right foot, back and across his stumps. Precise and easy, not clumsy and rushed, on account of his supreme reflexes. The head and eyes level, sniffing the bouncing ball. A straight, level blade, with the ball hitting the middle and dropping dead at his feet. It is a stroke which makes a statement. A statement of impregnability, of moral permanence, while also speaking of thousands of hours facing bowling machines and net bowlers, and seeing off real attacks in testing conditions. Firstly in his native south Yorkshire, then elsewhere in the north of England, then around his own country, then around the cricket world.

Of course, this is not all Root has. For all that his early stoicism impresses, it is only, as it must be for any batsman, a fall-back. If the ball is there to be hit, whether it is a half-volley or a half-tracker, it will be hit. Depending on circumstances, and the state of the game, and the quality of the pitch, and how Root is playing, it will be dispatched either over the ropes for four or into the crowd for six.

Occasionally Root gets these things wrong. Like anyone else alive, and anyone who has ever batted, he can fall prey to misjudgement born out of tiredness, or distraction, or over-confidence. At Lord's against Pakistan in the summer of 2016 he plays two really bad shots, leading to his dismissal in both innings, and contributing to an England defeat. As he walks off, he curses himself. This should not happen. It cannot be allowed to happen. Six days later, at Old Trafford, he makes 254 against the same opposition. Unlike many another player, he learns from his mistakes. At that level of the game it is the only way to stay alive. Someone who batted with him during those matches, James Vince, knows that only too well. He will spend many quiet times reflecting on it for much of the rest of his life.

In batting, in cricket, in life, it is one thing to have the capability to do well. It is another to do so, and another still to do so again and again and again. It is wonderful to be living in the age of Root, but thoughts of Root's predecessors in the England team, and why they did not do what Root has done, continually intrude, even if their times have now been left behind. I tend to subscribe to the orthodox view that Ramprakash simply wanted it too much, while Ian Bell never fully realized how good he was capable of being. Root has these things down pat. He desperately desires success, but he doesn't let it consume him. He has tasted it and he knows he will taste it again over the many years that he will spend in the England team. Brooding, assuredly, is not his thing. The most repeated image in the mind's eye when one thinks of Root, apart from his strokes, is that of him smiling, joking and laughing, and it is these unselfconscious displays of enjoyment that have made him so popular. He is still little more than the young boy who loved batting and who subsequently found that he was very good at it and that people were prepared to pay him to do it and admire him for it. It is the type of good fortune that all of us would love to have, and we feel that if we did we would enjoy it for all it is worth. Joe Root does.

All of this is unforced. Technique can be inculcated through coaching; temperament cannot. I have a vivid memory of getting ready for work on a December morning in 2012, with the fourth Test from Nagpur on television in the background. As ever on these hurried, dark mornings, the game was incidental, but I had some time to watch which coincided with the early stages of Root's first innings in Test cricket. With spinners on at both ends, this was a test (and a Test) in the traditional Indian idiom, but there was an immediate feeling of assurance and calm about Root as he stroked his third ball from Piyush Chawla through the covers for three, and rapidly followed it with his first boundary, off Ojha. As with Alastair Cook, on the same ground some seven years before, there was a feeling of instant permanence.

Nearly four years later this has not been lost. And it will not fade for a very long time to come.

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