And Now the End is Near...

As the year draws to a close, like the final overs of a Test match day ticking over as the shadows lengthen, it only remains for me to say thanks for visiting.

Memories of 2011? Steyn v Tendulkar at Cape Town, touched upon here.

Lord's, Saturday, post-lunch, described here.

Sunday afternoon at Lord's. Prior.

Dravid everywhere, but especially Trent Bridge, which prompted this.

Oh, and Tim Bresnan - as unpretentiously excellent a cricketer as England have had in years - taking his team's score past 700 for the first time since 1930 with a straight six into the Edgbaston crowd.

See you in 2012.


Reverting to Type

After a couple of weeks with the total number of posts here standing at 666, I felt I ought to check back in.

Nothing evil seems to have happened. Apart from another lame Indian failure overseas.

India should be better than this. They have at least two - well, three actually - of the greatest batsmen in history, plus another who's eaten better Australian attacks than this for breakfast in the past. Then there's Dhoni: brazen, ingenious, competitive, talismanic. And you can add Zaheer, hugely skilled and possibly even fit, Ishant, persistently under-achieving but with much more to give, and two discoveries, Ashwin, a deliciously artful spinner who can bat, and Umesh Yadav, the latest in a long line of Indian seam hopes, and one who looks as though he might stick around.

It's hard to pin down a reason, but the really disappointing thing about India's recent serial defeats in England and Australia is the way they've carried uneasy echoes of the times when Indian sides were pushovers abroad. God knows, Australia have their problems, but, as they've shown in various locations these past few months, they compete until they drop.

They have their fair share of quality, even if, in some cases, it is ageing, and they have thrilling seam bowling promise. What they also have - and Peter Siddle, with bat and ball, embodies this - is an eyeballs-out streak of bloody-minded competitiveness which is a by- product of their entire cultural DNA. Even when they're bad, they're still pretty good (apart from when they're playing England).

Indian cricketers, raised in a gentler environment, where the pitches and bowling tend to be slower, don't quite have this. They've got nearer to it in recent years, to be sure, but old habits die hard. International cricket is a big, unforgiving place. You can't always be laying waste to the West Indies in your heartland with two spinners in the side. Sometimes you have to go to Lord's or The Oval or the MCG or the SCG and stand toe to toe.

This Australian side has many weaknesses. This Indian side has many strengths.

India should be better than this.


Shifting Sands

For Australia, little is easy at the moment. The sands have long since closed over the era of the greats, and the side which drew another unsatisfactory two-Test 'series' with New Zealand had a strange, unbalanced look to it.

Ballast, experience and expertise (theoretically, at least) was provided by Clarke, by Ponting, by Haddin and by Hussey, but, in at least one case they're not what they were, and the side was completed by a range of inexperienced players who in some cases don't belong where they are and in others don't look as though they believe that they belong where they are.

On the face of it things don't look too bad, but this impression may be illusory. As was widely repeated yesterday, Australia have become very adept at losing matches over the past few years, and, of their recent opponents, Sri Lanka continue to struggle in the shadow of Murali's retirement, while South Africa had them 21 for 9.

If the superb Pattinson continues to look as impressive against India as he has against New Zealand, and Cummins returns, they will have an attack capable of causing problems. Consistent, big runs may not be needed and Ponting may get some more breathing space. What seems more likely, though, is that because the series is twice as long and India's batting line-up is stronger than New Zealand's (and is backed by superior spin bowling), something extra will be needed, like big runs from number four.

Australia's decline, while inevitable, has required both collective and individual psychological adjustment. For players like Pattinson and Cummins, who grew up in a time when their national side was the best on the planet, it has been necessary for them to come to terms with the way the world has changed, relish the pressure placed on their young shoulders and respond to it. They have.

For Ponting it is a little different. For all the contrary evidence provided this year by Dravid, almost two years his senior, it is probable that the great years won't return. But he will not want to reprise the ignominy of his departure from the Bellerive arena he knows so well.

He may have to be happy with a big score somewhere, and a dignified exit on his own terms.

He'll need the score, though.

Doing the Impossible

As with most things that go on in the mad, hectic world that is twenty-first century international cricket, I simply didn't have the time to comment on Virender Sehwag's 219 at Indore last Thursday. A pre-Christmas ramble round the pubs of St.Albans and some of London's most scenic open spaces saw to that.

I didn't, of course, fail to notice.

I can't do a better job of paying tribute to Viru than The Old Batsman did here, but, as usual with Sehwag, a few things - a few simple things - stood out.

When interviewed afterwards, his words were unassuming, trite even. As with his strokes, little energy is wasted on thought or analysis, and, like any genius, Viru can no more explain what he does than teach someone else to do it. To him, the things he does aren't extraordinary because he can do them.

Sometimes they may even seem as simple to him as they appear. Us mortals will never know, but we do know that many of the things he does are, for most people, impossible. They can never truly be easy.

If they were, everyone would be doing them.


Old and New

For all the carnage of Cape Town, perhaps the most significant of the many vignettes thrown up by the worryingly truncated series between South Africa and Australia was the partnership between Khawaja and Ponting which did most to secure Australia's victory in Johannesburg. The old and new of Australian batting, coming together in a dicey situation and playing as if their careers depended on it.

In at least one case, it probably did.

The evidence, statistical and physical, is that Ponting has been slipping for a while now, even if he claims not to realize it himself, and much about his innings of 62 carried the air of a man sliding towards a precipice and trying hard to dig his heels in.

He watched the ball like a hawk, took big strides, forward or back, to everything, while forcing his hands through the line of the ball with exaggerated care and leaving anything he didn't have to play with an emphasis which was just a little overstated for effect.

'Look at me. I could always bat and I still can. You won't see the back of me for a while yet', was what Ponting appeared to be saying.

When the dust had settled and his side's victory had been secured, he may even have found himself reflecting on the fact that batting never used to be quite such hard work. Time does that.

The left-handed Khawaja, a man at the opposite end of his career, impressed in a different way. After the outlandish praise heaped upon him in the wake of his debut innings of 37 at Sydney last January, he'd failed to build on it, and one or two people may have been wondering if he was all he was cracked up to be. At the Wanderers he was largely cool, stylish and precise in his judgement and appeared to have the valuable gift of time. He will be seen again, many times, in his baggy green.

Starting from a low base, Australia have had a good start to the English winter. The team is still wracked with apparent weaknesses: both openers look vulnerable, Harris excels both as a bowler and a collector of injuries, Johnson, with the ball anyway, may be finished. There is no decent spin to speak of. But they have Clarke, they have Khawaja and, for the time being they have Ponting.

And they fight. They always do.


Plain to See

Another weekend, and another old cricketer leaves the crease.

However, while many of the tributes to Peter Roebuck - including, perhaps, my own - were a little equivocal as a result of the man's enigmatic nature, there has been no such doubt where Basil D'Oliveira is concerned. What D'Oliveira did, with the assistance of John Arlott and others, helped to change the face of world sport, and, perhaps, in a small way, the world itself.

For one thing, apartheid is confined to history and South Africa is an accepted member of the international sporting and political community. For another, the current England team is what it is to a large extent because of the influence of players born and brought up in South Africa.

While, as someone who remembers cricket in the seventies well, it's all too easy to feel old these days, my memory doesn't quite stretch back as far as D'Oliveira's international career. However, I was at Lord's on a gloomy midsummer evening in 1976 when D'Oliveira, at least forty-four years old and badly injured, did his level best to pull round a hopeless cause in the Benson and Hedges Cup final against Kent. Despite what my father told me, I was too young to appreciate D'Oliveira's political significance - and the man himself would have played it down anyway - but I could see that he could bat. That much was plain to see.

Cricket, like any game, has its heroes and its sacred theatres. For anyone who knows it, the county ground at Worcester is up with the greatest of them. Many exceptional players - Graveney, Hick, D'Oliveira himself - have played out their greatest days there.

This has been a long time coming, but the shadow of the cathedral will hang a little heavier when next season starts.


A Lot on His Mind (Peter Roebuck, 1956-2011)

Unlike many of the people, such as Peter English, who have been writing so well about their memories of Peter Roebuck, I didn't know him.

But then the impression you're left with after reading the tributes that have followed his tragic death last night is that nobody really did.

I saw him around a lot, though.

My earliest memories of Roebuck come from his days as one of the younger members of the great Somerset sides of the late seventies and early eighties. A man of intellectual gifts, if not great cricketing ones, he could never have been expected to exert a major influence in a team that contained Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Joel Garner. But he was always there, striding rapidly, purposefully, across the field with the air of someone with a lot on his mind, and making his fair share of runs in a style that was functional and effective, if rarely visually pleasing.

This went on for years. As captain he survived the fallout which followed the club's decision to release Richards and Garner in 1986, and then did his best to shore up a team that wasn't what it was. In those days he really did have a lot on his mind.

After he left Somerset and began captaining Devon, he made runs, took wickets and drove his players with a hardness and focus which was foreign to the minor county game. The result was a number of years of unprecedented success, the legacy of which persists to this day.

My chief memories of long days spent watching Roebuck's Devon by the sea at Sidmouth, Exmouth and Instow are of a transparently and unashamedly driven man, often fielding in unusual positions as he sought the tactical key to unlock victory, while occasionally breaking out of his carapace to lambast his players for any percieved lack of intensity or to bowl a few overs of strangely penetrative slow-medium, regularly taking wickets through sheer desire.

In an environment in which it was fashionable to drift along, he really, really cared, and he took others along for the ride. A lot of those players, waking up today around here in Devon, in south-east Wales, and in Sheffield, will be grateful that they had the chance.

In those days I also often saw him striding around the Taunton boundary on sunny midweek days. Rarely still for long, usually leaving behind an oblique comment, he gave the overwhelming impression of someone who inhabited a slightly different, more remote, place than the rest of us. This is probably why I never quite summoned the courage to speak to him.

Probably the fullest expression of Roebuck's love of cricket came on the page. Slices of Cricket, It Never Rains... and Tangled Up in White are among the finest written evocations of late twentieth century cricket from the standpoint of someone who had been both a participant and a shrewd, knowing observer.

All people ever said about Roebuck was that he was hard to fathom and that he could be difficult to get on with.

I don't know, but, when it came to cricket, he really cared.


A Sense of Unreality

I didn't see the fall of the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001 as it happened, but people who did reported that doing so induced a sense of unreality. Many of them genuinely couldn't believe what they were seeing.

Today was a bit lke that. As I watched the Australian second innings wickets tumble in the kind of surreal freefall rarely seen away from the game's lower echelons, I briefly felt as though what I was seeing couldn't reallly be happening.

This was Australia.

Australia. The side, if not the players, who used to bestride the world, trampling all challengers underfoot.

And they were 21 for 9.

Precise reasons were hard to come by. There was some fine bowling, of course, and the pitch did its bit, but, as the cliche goes, 'it wasn't a 47 all out wicket'.

There were poor shots, from Hussey and Haddin in particular, but, more importantly, Australia, despite their fine showing in Sri Lanka, remain in an uneasy place. Watson now looks several places too high, Hughes, jumpy and staccato, still fails to convince, and Ponting may be facing the final curtain. Johnson just struggles on.

For all Clarke's class, the many qualities of Steyn, Morkel and the excellent newcomer Vernon Philander were always going to test their mettle to its limits.

They did, and they were found wanting. The game could go either way tomorrow but South Africa are favourites.


Corrupted Idealism

For me, match fixing seemed an abstract concept until the Lord's Test between England and Pakistan in August 2010. I knew it had gone on, of course. I'd seen the fall of Cronje, and Azhar, and Salim Malik and the rest. Years ago I'd read the Qayyum Report from cover to cover and briefly wondered about the future of the game.

But, whatever the doubts, it was soon time to get back to the game. The battle between bat and ball was all that mattered, even if Pakistan were playing. Some things - such as cricket itself - just seemed too great to be corrupted, especially if you were prone to romantic idealism.

All that changed at Lord's. I saw virtually every ball (and no-ball) of that game, bought the News of the World for the one and only time in my life and then thought about what it all meant and what was likely to happen next.

Now we know.

Two and a half years for Butt, one year for Asif and six months for Amir.

Nobody should mourn Butt and Asif for a moment. Butt was a decent opening batsman and a promising captain, though, in truth, nothing above the ordinary at Test level. Asif was a really outstanding bowler, but there had been enough troubles in his career even before Lord's to show that he was never likely to fulfil his huge potential.

Amir is different. His statement of contrition and regret, though overdue, is very sad, and I hope that, one day, he can return to the game he was so very good at.

My enduring memory of those days at Lord's still has Stuart Broad and Jonathan Trott walking off on Friday evening with an unbroken stand of 244 to their names, but there is another.

Before the game started I was walking through the door which leads from the Lord's Long Room to the stairs up to the away team's dressing room when I nearly bumped into Mohammad Asif. He was tall and stick thin, with a faraway look on his face. Neither of us quite felt the need to apologize, but then I got the impression he'd barely noticed my presence.

As this shows, I really admired him, and so I readily forgave him, assuming he was thinking about the day's play and what he had to do.

That's the trouble. He was.


Other Writings

Some of my time away from this blog recently has been taken up with getting things together for another website, which contains a lot of my writing which hasn't appeared on the Web before.

Among other bits and pieces are some long articles whch I wrote in the nineties and later, mostly for Richard Hill's superb Cricket Lore, together with my personal favourites from among the many thoughts I've recorded here over the past five years.

More will follow.

If anyone wants to take a look, the site can be found here.


There Was a Time

There was a time, years ago, when Mark Ramprakash wasn't the cause célèbre he later became. The man who embodies both all that is good and pure and true in batting technique, but at the same time the player who, more than any other modern Englishman, represents a certain type of failure. The man who simply couldn't cope with the pressure of performing at the highest level of the game, of living up to everybody's expectations, including his own.

There was a time - such as when I first glimpsed him, scything away at Paul-Jan Bakker on a London club ground in the late eighties - when Ramprakash just used to go out and bat. His technique wasn't the thing of beauty it subsequently became, but it didn't need to be. All he needed was his eye, his footwork, his bravery and his bat. He was relatively unsophisticated, but he was also endlessly aggressive and very good.

I say this because Virat Kohli reminds me strongly of the Ramprakash that once was. Like the young Ramprakash he has a brilliant eye, an orthodox yet uncomplicated technique which works, and he approaches bowlers as though they exist only to serve up balls for him to hit to the boundary. While the statistics which accompany his embryonic Test career are anaemic, his one-day career is taking vivid shape as part of an Indian team which is attempting to create an identity which distinguishes it both from the old guard who are going or gone, and from an England tour which should have shocked it to its foundations. At the moment it is succeeding and there is little chance of mistaking England for a team which knows how to stem the flow.

Just a few short weeks ago England were humiliating India. Now, with home advantage reversed, everything is very different. At a steaming Wankhede Stadium tomorrow, a transformed Indian side will be confident of extending their series lead to 4-0.

Kohli will be more confident than most, because this, you feel, is how he is. It remains to be seen whether he can succeed where Ramprakash failed in the long game, but he will surely have further opportunities.

Rahane is deeply impressive, and the hunch is that more will be seen of Pujara before too long. Kohli, though, with equally outstanding centuries against England at venues as diverse as Cardiff and Delhi over the last five weeks, is India's real diamond.

There was a time when Ramprakash seemed to have the world at his feet. He never quite did.

Kohli really does.


Pausing to Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything pauses.

Then he catches it.

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

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


Time for Lunch

I've been writing this blog since July 2006. It's often been hard work but it's usually been enjoyable, and, for what it's worth, it's taken my writing and views to places and people I'd never been able to reach before. Thanks to anyone who's read anything I've written or expressed an opinion. I really appreciate your interest.

This year, though, I've found it progressively harder to be original or even to find the time to come up with anything at all. The number of comments has been down, too, and, unlike the early days, when I was content to write reams of stuff in the knowledge that it could be read around the world (even if hardly anyone was going to do so), when you get a bit longer in the tooth you require the reassurance and stimulation that regular feedback gives you.

My day job has become increasingly busy and stressful this year and this will reach a crescendo over the next few weeks, so I've decided to retreat to the metaphorical pavilion, have a bite to eat, change my shirt, have a rub down and contemplate my tactics for the rest of the day. The new ball is due in mid-afternoon and I want to be ready to take it from the umpire (I'm thinking Billy Bowden here for some reason) and fire a few out.

England will go on playing India, Sri Lanka will go on playing Australia and Zimbabwe will go on playing Pakistan. The English season will conclude. And then it will all begin again.

As someone in a film once said (and possibly Geoff Boycott too after he'd been caught behind off Eknath Solkar at Old Trafford on 8th June 1974):

I'll be back.


Time in the Sun

The modern cricket world moves on quickly, and England - even if it wasn't quite the same team - were in Dublin yesterday. For them, of necessity, the recent dismantling of India lies in the past. The future is what matters.

For me, coming late to it, it's impossible to be original about the Pataudi Trophy. My take, though, is that for all England's excellence, the series lacked something.


After the first session of the second day at Trent Bridge all we had was a slow, inexorable, tediously smooth ride towards a 4-0 scoreline. Individual and collective achievement, yes, but no suspense. If it stayed dry, England - better, stronger, faster, more skilful and more purposeful in every area - were always going to win by a mile. For large parts of the series India were a pitiful shambles.

In some ways, the performances of two players can be viewed as a microcosm of their team's collective efforts, and of their cultures.

The rigour, precision, elegance and consistency of Ian Bell's strokeplay summed up England. A team developing some of the machine-like quality which Australia once had, while Sachin Tendulkar, deified by repeated standing ovations which eventually descended into cliche, was, for much of the series, a shadow of his usual self: uneasy, scratchily uncertain and ultimately left without answers by a superior foe.

For all the visceral thrill provided by Tim Bresnan belting the ball into the Edgbaston crowd to bring up England's first total over 700 since 1930, or the spirited combativeness of Praveen Kumar, the lasting memory of the series will be the batting of Rahul Dravid. A reminder that batting based on defence and judgement, with strokeplay of style and grace when applicable, can be as enjoyable to watch as anything else the game can produce.

Dravid has been a great player for a very long time. This, with Tendulkar struggling, was his time in the sun.


Related Pasts, Different Futures

Ravi Bopara and Alastair Cook are both still young men, but they have played together for a very long time. For a string of Essex junior sides, for England Under-19s, for Essex, and for England.

Bopara's career remains in an uncertain place: inconsistent but occasionally dominant at county level, unfulfilled and flatteringly deceptive at international level. Cook is one of the most prolific batsmen in the world.

So you have to wonder what was going through each of their minds when Bopara came to the wicket yesterday afternoon, on the hiding to nothing to end them all, and with Cook already 247 not out.

Bopara doesn't appear the type of person to lack confidence or retreat in the face of others' achievements, but, this time, he could be forgiven the odd stray thought about where, in their 27th years, each of their careers is heading.

Bopara, out cheaply, will, as night follows day, return to Essex and a doubly uncertain future. Such is the stature, stability and brilliance of this England team that opportunities are not going to come along very often these next few years. And by the time one does, it is likely that someone else - Taylor, or Stokes, or Bairstow - will be chosen. There is a strong possibility that Ravi Bopara will never again bat in a Test match for England.

The way in which both men returned to the new Edgbaston dressing rooms said much for their fates. Bopara was ushered from the field by an uncertain smattering of applause, people displacing their embarassment by rummaging in bags or chatting to their neighbours. Cook, in his turn, received an unconditional standing ovation, but there was also a certain poignancy to it.

Bopara looked unemotional, but was, you suspect, quietly shattered. Cook, his iron concentration having for once slipped at the last, was more visibly disappointed, his failure to reach 300 for a brief moment all he could think about. For all his peerless appetite for batting and hatred of dismissal, Cook knows that few players get more than one chance to make a triple-hundred in Test cricket. He is certain to make many more centuries for England, but, in all probability, he won't quite pass this way again.

But at least he will be there. And soon, as England's next captain, the team will be his. For Bopara, life on the county circuit (perhaps embellished by an IPL contract and some one-day international appearances) may be all there is.

Bopara and Cook have played together for a very long time. But for the next few years they may not be seeing very much of each other.


523 and Counting

There is something elemental and magnificent about huge partnerships.

I've been a personal witness to a few big ones - Adrian Dale and King Viv at Sophia Gardens, 1993, Robin Martin-Jenkins and Mark Davis at Taunton, 2002, Trott and Broad at Lord's last year - and it always seems just a little bit amazing that players can bat for so long against professional bowling and not be parted. Many components go into stands like this: skill, timing and patience of course, but also, to be sure, plenty of luck.

During the early days of this blog, in late July 2006, I wrote about the experience of following the Cricinfo commentary as Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara advanced on the world record in Colombo.

Yesterday was different. It was a busy day at work, and while I sneaked the odd glimpse at the scores from Northampton and Scarborough, events at the Rose Bowl passed me by until the day's end.

When I discovered that Michael Carberry and Neil McKenzie had put on 523 for Hampshire's third wicket, batting together through 135 overs, I reflected on the fact that it was a far cry from the days when the newly-minted pitches at the Bowl used to favour the bowlers, but I also considered the fates of the players involved.

Neil McKenzie, from the Highveld of South Africa and with his 36th birthday in clear sight, always was a good player. Reliable, unfussy, with plenty of strokes and also the broadest of dead bats when necessary (as I discovered to my cost during two of the longest days' cricket-watching of my life at Lord's in 2008). In the autumn of his career, he would have formed an ideal partner for the star of the show, Michael Carberry, a fine player from the south London suburbs whose struggles with serious illness over the last year have come close to ending his career.

Both have played Test cricket - McKenzie has 58 caps for South Africa, Carberry one for England - but both are unlikely to wear their country's colours again.

They will always, though, have Southampton.


A Moment in (Indian) Time

Although a lot's happened since - time moves quickly in modern Test cricket - I couldn't shake the feeling that the immediate post-lunch session at Lord's last Saturday was worthy of some extended reflection. Here, therefore, are some words.

Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, Saturday 23rd July 2011, 1.36 p.m. (British Summer Time).

As the lunch interval draws to a close the atmosphere in the Long Room bubbles with conversation, heavy footsteps and lightly suppressed excitement. The rear of the room, where the players walk from either end on their way from the dressing rooms to the field, is segregated with a rope to prevent anyone getting too close to the combatants. Here people are required to know their place.

From the far end of the room the England team emerges, following the umpires, Asad Rauf and Billy Bowden, onto the field. Clapping, closely followed by cheers, echoes around the room, but it remains unacknowledged, if not unappreciated. The England players, most of whom are wearing dark glasses, stare straight ahead. It is a grey afternoon and a little cool for July, but, as is customary during Lord’s Tests, the crowd has eaten and drunk well. Bonhomie hangs in the air like the clouds above the ground, but the players of both sides are serious. They are at work.

At the opposite end of the room the applause from the stairs filters in. The two Indian batsmen are on their way down. They enter the room with a similar air of preoccupation, although there are discernible differences in their demeanour.

First there is Rahul Dravid. A native of the city of Bangalore in southern India, he has played in 154 Test matches and has scored more than twelve thousand runs. In this innings he has just fifteen to his name. Before lunch he was settling in at the crease, but now he needs to do so again. He is a slim, serious man with distant eyes which carry the memories of thousands of hours at the crease. On the dusty, unforgiving grounds of his homeland, on the palm-fringed greens of the West Indian islands and of Sri Lanka, on the fast tracks of Australia, where players’ reflexes are tested to their very limits. This, batting, is what he does.

Following a few steps behind is Sachin Tendulkar. He has spent the majority of his life playing cricket for a living and has played in more Test matches, with more runs and centuries, than anyone else in the history of cricket. He is a small, stocky man, carrying a little surplus weight. An infant prodigy on the edge of middle age. His body language is more private, less optimistic, than Dravid’s. It is possible that he is already feeling the effects of the virus which will keep him away from the ground on the following day, but it is more likely that his hunched shoulders and downward gaze simply reflect the fact that he is his country’s most famous man and he has spent much of his life away from the cricket field trying to make himself anonymous. As usual the ground should bring him a sense of sanctuary and freedom, although he will need runs to feel fully at ease. At the moment he has made just ten, and he is playing at a ground where, unusually, he has never known success.

James Anderson, with the Lord’s pavilion behind him, takes the ball. Tendulkar is facing, and he guides the first ball between the slips and gully for four. The stroke is controlled but there is still a slight air of uneasiness about him. He is searching for the warm embrace of form and it is elusive. Off the fourth ball of the over Tendulkar strokes the ball through the leg side for another four. It is an easy shot for a player of his ability, but it is played with a style and timing which causes the crowd’s collective pulse rate to briefly quicken. While the majority of the crowd are supporting England, many of them would love to see Tendulkar make his one hundredth century in international cricket, and their hopes, seduced by weeks of media coverage, are hostage to the progress of his innings. In the next over, bowled from the Nursery End by Chris Tremlett, Tendulkar hits the ball on the up through the covers for four. The feeling of impermanence begins to fade a little.

At the other end Dravid is the epitome of polished control. His stance is compact, his eyes level, his strokeplay measured and decisive. He picks up a boundary off Tremlett and then three in an over off Anderson.

The players meet in the middle of the pitch at the end of each over. Dravid is expressive and relatively animated, his raised arm describing the path of the swinging ball. Tendulkar is still restrained, absorbing what his partner has to say. These men have batted together through many of the world’s summers, and, as in any relationship which has lasted for years, there are times when no words are necessary. In the modern vogue they touch gloves as they part. When they began batting together some fifteen years ago, batsmen didn’t do this, but Dravid and Tendulkar have not gained their immense reputations by being unable to embrace the game’s changing conventions.

Graeme Swann replaces Anderson at the Pavilion End. His first over is steady, tight, conceding just a single to Dravid. At the other end Tremlett is starting to develop an aggressive rhythm, pounding his feet into the dry turf and grunting as he delivers the ball. Tendulkar remains a little circumspect and tentative, and Dravid paints an emphatic contrast with his partner when he elegantly strokes Swann through the covers for four in his second over to raise his score to 42.

Strauss rings the changes once more, bringing Stuart Broad on to replace Tremlett. Tendulkar, now on 34, is able to leave two of the over’s first three deliveries, but the fourth is straighter and slightly full, drawing him into a firm-footed drive. The ball barely swings, but it holds its own and takes the edge of Tendulkar’s bat. Graeme Swann drops to one knee and takes a low catch at second slip with some ease.

As the England players celebrate, Tendulkar returns slowly to the pavilion. His head is held high, but this is partly because he spends the early stages of his walk looking to the heavens, regretting his shot. It is uncommon for Tendulkar to be defeated by a bowler but it has happened here and his highest score at Lord’s remains a meagre 37. As he returns to the pavilion he receives his second standing ovation of the day. The crowd know that there is a possibility that he will never again bat at Lord’s in a Test match, although it seems more probable that he will have a second opportunity in this game.

The forty-eight minutes between the end of the lunch interval and Tendulkar’s dismissal has been an interlude, a departure from reality. The conjunction at the wicket of two great players whose careers are nearer to their conclusion than their commencement, but who are still very far from batting from memory.

After Tendulkar has gone, and the applause has died down, India bat for most of the rest of the day without notable fluency or permanence. Dravid, though, is an exception to this. Before the day’s end he reaches his thirty-third Test century, and, when the Indian innings closes on 286 with him undefeated on 103, he receives his own standing ovation.

It is something that he will remember for the rest of his life.


Lessons from a Master

The phrase 'Master Batsman' is an old one. But it is one which you rarely hear these days, possibly because there are few players in the modern game to whom it can be accurately and satisfactorily applied.

It conjures a vision of completeness, of finely-honed technique - both in the matter of defensive and attacking strokes - allied to patience and the priceless ability to see and grasp an opportunity in an instant. To repel good bowling for over after over, and then, when the bowler drops short or full, drill the ball to the boundary without missing a beat.

And then re-mark your guard with the type of nonchalance that can break strong bowlers' hearts.

Rahul Dravid is a master batsman.


Prior Refinements

Five compelling days at Lord's are hard to distill down to an individual, coherent memory, because there was so much to enjoy. Pietersen's unusual but ultimately commanding double century, Dravid and Tendulkar batting together after lunch on Saturday and briefly threatening to produce something to match the breathless hype, the resurgence of Stuart Broad, the skilled swing bowling of Praveen Kumar and Jimmy Anderson.

But, in my dotage, I suspect I'll settle for Sunday. Sunshine which sharpened to brilliant evening light, a packed, enthralled, crowd, and the sublime batting of Matthew Prior, surely now the finest wicket-keeper batsman in the world.

In many ways there's little that is sophisticated or unusual about what Prior does, but he does it with such style and composure, and, yes, intelligence, that you long to watch him again and again.

And, as you do, you notice refinements which aren't immediately apparent, such as the way in which, confronted with a deep off side field designed to neutralize his greatest area of strength, he is able to manipulate the ball into gaps by subtly twisting his shoulders and hands as he plays his shot. Singles become twos, the fielders tire, and, when the ball is really struck, boundaries come like candy from kids. If the bowler becomes fed up with being punished on the off and straightens his line, runs are seamlessly collected through and over the leg side.

At times like these the greatest cricketer in the world can only stand and watch, impotent.


Strange Days Indeed

It'll be a while before we know whether Kevin Pietersen's strange double century was the landmark innings which it might just prove to be.

Why strange?

Well, because, for the first 130 or so runs Pietersen was unusually patient, but also scratchy and, at times, hesitant. He gave the impression of a man whose determination to eschew risks and headstrong strokes was taking him away from form rather than towards it. Things only really changed after he passed 150 and he chased down his double with the assurance and haste of a man realising he is allowed to go back to doing what he is best at.

Schizophrenic the innings may have been, but it will be a surprise if it doesn't spell danger for the bowling attacks of the world. After a long period of under-achievement, KP is back in what players sometimes call 'the zone'.

Tomorrow we will see a player who entered 'the zone' in November 1989, aged sixteen, and has never left.


England to Win

My most vivid memories of the last fifteen years of England-India Tests at Lord's (much of which I've been lucky enough to see live) begin with Tendulkar's early dismissal by Chris Lewis in 1996 and the way in which the debutants, Dravid and Ganguly, dominated the rest of the day, laying potent markers down for the future.

Then there was Sehwag in 2002, unfamiliar, flashy, apparently impermanent, but also giving notice of his potential with a rapid 84 before Ashley Giles snared him.

And then 2007. Rain a constant threat, but a gradually evolving match which was drawn with India nine down in enveloping gloom. On the Sunday afternoon I took a photograph of Tendulkar returning to the pavilion after he was dismissed by Monty Panesar (above). I felt the moment was worth recording because I never thought he'd be back. I'm glad I was wrong, and I look forward to savouring a similar moment or two this week, when the air of finality will be all the greater.

As to the result of the match and the series, much will depend on the weather over the next month and how England bowl. If conditions remain helpful and England - especially Anderson and Tremlett - perform as they can, India will struggle. If the sun begins shining and the wickets flatten out, things will be closer. But the Indian attack can't be discounted. Zaheer is short of practice but will surely come good at some stage, Ishant looks back to his best and Praveen Kumar looks as though he could swing it anywhere.

For me, though, it is England to win.

My train for London leaves in the morning.


'Whatever knowledge and experience I have gained...'

The recent Test series between the West Indies and India passed without comment here. I saw bits and pieces of each of the games but rarely enough to hold the attention. The largely deserted stands at Sabina Park and the Kensington Oval were unbelievably depressing, although the third game in Dominica showed the value of taking Test cricket to grounds, and countries, where it hasn't been before.

Both sides had their issues. India weakened by injuries and the need for players to rest but struggling through; West Indies in the same position they've been for years. A general dearth of quality but the constant hope that better lies around the corner. For the moment hope lies with the gradual progress of Ravi Rampaul and the arrival of Kirk Edwards and Devendra Bishoo.

The same spectre - that of the inevitable retirement of senior players - hangs over both teams. In the case of the West Indies, as his thirty-seventh birthday looms, Shivnarine Chanderpaul is bound to be the focus of their concerns. In the final years of a career that has been as testing and stressful, but still as brilliant, as they come, it is easy to wonder how long he can, or will want, to go on. A part of their side since 1994, and now their most capped player, it seems hard to imagine the West Indies without Shiv.

Welcome reassurance was provided by what he said in an interview conducted in the glowing aftermath of his second innings century in Dominica, an innings which he felt was among his best:

'High point? I'm still looking for it. There is still more to come. Whatever knowledge and experience I have gained I would like to pass it on and help the other members of the team with their game.'

We look forward to seeing him try.


Different Questions

Sometime in the early years of this century - 2002, I think - I was driving with a friend to a rugby match in the Midlands. We spent much of our time talking about cricket, and I wondered aloud who the next 'truly great' English batsman would be.

At the time, with the England of Fletcher and Hussain just starting to emerge from years of disorganisation and inconsistency, the obvious choice, in retrospect, would have been Michael Vaughan. However, although I hadn't seen him play, I had already absorbed the hype which surrounded Ian Bell and suggested that he was the one.

Alastair Cook's name never entered my head. I knew of him but his first-class debut was still for the future and he was just too young to be a contender.

Scroll forward a few years, and, with Bell still flattering to deceive, Cook is an England player, and one or two images from his early Test career remain in the mind. The first comes from the initial stages of his first Test innings at Nagpur. Irfan Pathan drops short and Cook creams him through midwicket in a languid, dismissive manner which signifies a rare combination of talent and temperamental impregnability. He goes on to reach 60 and then passes a hundred in the second innings.

A few months later I'm at Lord's watching him play his first Test innings in England, batting at three after Strauss and Trescothick. With Cook past fifty, one of the Sri Lankan seamers, Maharoof or Kulasekara, drops short. With a field athlete's sureness of foot, Cook rocks back and caresses the ball through mid-on for four. It is a stroke which speaks of heady ability and resonates a sense of belonging. It appears obvious to me that he will be at the heart of the England team for years and years to come.

He has, of course. But, as for everybody, the game has become harder, more testing. By late in the English summer of 2010 his foothold in the side is loosening. He has problems around off-stump and he is regarded solely as a Test player. It is assumed that he cannot play one-day cricket.

He battles his way to a century in defeat at The Oval, then goes to Australia and makes 766 runs in the series as England humiliate Australia. When Andrew Strauss decides to retire from one-day cricket, Cook is appointed captain. Still, though, the runs come, and with a previously undiscerned fluency. Different questions begin to be asked. Instead of whether he is worth his place in the team, people wonder how just how good he is.

Cook is no genius in the manner of a Lara, or a Tendulkar, or a Ponting. And, among his England contemporaries, both Bell and Pietersen are blessed with greater gifts. He can be stylish and pleasing to the eye, but he relies more for his runs on patience which is unusual by modern standards and a mind which overcomes perceived obstacles as if they don't exist.

As I've written before, there is a quality that is at once both utilitarian and natural about Cook. While there are players who make the game look easier, there are few who give a stronger impression that it is what they were put on earth to do.

In the widest sense of the term he isn't a truly great player, but, as we enter the taut second half of England's summer, he currently looks as good, perhaps better, as anyone they have had in a very long time.

Cook is still only 26 years old. He, and his England side, will have many more days in the sun.


All You Need to Know

As the Twenty20 games come thick and fast in England it's hard to keep up with who's doing what to whom. In fact, you soon give up trying.

But certain things catch the eye. Hampshire's James Vince is just 20, and the main thing everyone knows about him is that his batting style is reminiscent of Michael Vaughan.

This is true, but there's a bit more to him than that. While James Taylor, slightly older, and Ben Stokes, a little younger, have taken the majority of the attention this season, Vince has been jogging along quietly in the background.

There are no guarantees, but Vince's back foot offside play during his innings of 52 against Essex at Chelmsford last week told you all you needed to know.

He will go far.

Old Certainties

In case anyone had failed to notice, many of the old certainties of cricket have gone for good these past few years. At one time, at this stage of the year, English cricket was all there was. And that meant a timelessly unchanging calendar in which there were five or six Tests a summer and the one at Lord's was always second. Tests abroad were only played in the winter months.

Now, though, things are different. Tests and ODIs are played all over the globe all the time. Twenty20 tournaments come thick and fast. The impression you're often left with is of a game that's trying to eat itself.

But one of the good things about this is that if you've got time on your hands on a June evening you can watch an innings like the one Rahul Dravid played in Kingston a few days ago. As usual, Siddhartha Vaidyanathan's masterly piece captures the essence of an innings which was dripping with resonances.

As Siddhartha says, the innings carried echoes of some of Dravid's greatest days, the most resounding being the twin top-scores of 81 and 68 which took India to a victory of similar proportions on their previous visit to Sabina Park in 2006. Last week's innings was classic Dravid: watchful, technically assured, patient to the point of cliché, but never pedantic in the manner of a Boycott or Kallis. A chance to score - as when one of the seamers drifted towards leg stump - was rarely missed and the runs were collected with the type of counter-intuitive flourish familiar to all who have been watching Dravid for years.

For a long time now there's been a feeling - expressed here more than once - that the age-related decline of India's greatest contemporary batsmen was inevitable, and, of course, one day it will happen. But there is no sign that it is happening yet.

Dravid and Tendulkar, both 38, and Laxman, 36, await England next month. As in all of life, there are few certainties, but one thing here is certain: England's bowlers, so inconsistent and profligate against Sri Lanka, will need to up their game.


Natural Selection

Simon Katich isn't the first player to find his career slipping away in the aftermath of an injury, or at the age of thirty-five, and he won't be the last. But what made the formal acknowledgement that his time in the Australian team was up so much more interesting was the manner in which he gave vent to his feelings in a way which so many players never give themselves the satisfaction of doing.

Katich laid things on the line in a measured, cutting way. Full of barbs, but never emotional, the feeling was that he was only saying what many another player was thinking. Stuart Clark, for one, and surely Nathan Hauritz too.

Selecting cricket teams at international level is a difficult and thankless job. Everyone thinks that they can do it better than you and you will rarely be congratulated when you get things right, only castigated when you get them wrong.

England's slightly uneasy performance at Lord's - frequently erratic bowling and a conservative declaration - showed that they're far from the finished article, but, as the current jargon goes, they're in a much 'better place' than Australia. One of the main reasons for that is consistent, loyal selection.

Whatever the merits of the dropping of Katich, Australia's selectors have been struggling for a while now. As I wrote in late December, just after the Melbourne Test:

'There are deluded people who think that Steve Smith is a Test match number six batsman, or that Ryan Harris is a number eight, or that Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer are better cricketers than Nathan Hauritz. This was a team which used to set the standards for the whole world. At times these past few weeks they have been a shambles'.

Katich has gone, but Hussey and Ponting, both older, fight on. With little in the way of really outstanding talent coming through, Australia have much to do to get anywhere near their previous pre-eminence.

We, and Simon Katich, will be watching them closely over the next year.


Throwing the Bat

As someone who started throwing bats long before Matthew Prior was born* and who has also been known to utter the occasional audible oath after being dismissed, I can claim, to some small extent, to know how he felt yesterday.

However, since, depending on which of the equally ludicrous ECB press releases you might choose to believe, he either threw his gloves across the dressing room or 'placed' his bat on a bench, following which it mysteriously smashed the window, I'd advise him just to give his bat a good chuck next time, while making sure no team-mates or windows are within harm's way.

Of course, I don't believe the press releases and know full well that's probably what he did anyway, only without thinking about the possible consequences. Which is really not very sensible, both because someone could have got hurt and because it detracts from his batting in the first innings, which was, once again, pugilistic, stylish and deeply effective.

We want, and need, to see more.

* Any members of my school under-12 team who happen to be reading might remember having to duck as my gloves and bat flew in their direction after my debut golden duck, batting at three, on the playing fields of Beverley School, New Malden, Surrey, in 1978.

I know now that I shouldn't have done it, but it sure felt good at the time...


No Surplus Aggression

There were many great things about England's win over Sri Lanka yesterday afternoon, but comfortably the best, in my view, was the sight of Chris Tremlett leading the attack with confidence and potency.

Typecast earlier in his career as an injury-prone, under-committed enigma, it took more than three years and a change of counties for him to find his way back into a side for which he'd performed with plenty of credit in 2007. And, over the last six months, he's really made the most of his second coming.

There's an indefinable reserve and diffidence about Tremlett - the type of characteristics which can lead the sceptical to wonder about the intensity of his desire - but these are hard to discern when he's letting the ball go. Then you just see a natural, uncomplicated, orthodox action, plenty of pace and guaranteed, natural bounce. No surplus aggression is required.

This England team is going to take some stopping. Sri Lanka are powerless to resist and India will have their work cut out too. One thing looks increasingly certain: they'll have Chris Tremlett to contend with.


Fantasy World

With England engaged in an insipid, rain-ruined first Test of the summer, one of the more eye-catching stories of the last week was that of Adrian Shankar, the former Cambridge University captain, who was recently signed by Worcestershire only to be released after barely more than a fortnight amid allegations that he had exaggerated his experience and falsified his age in order to gain a contract.

Leaving aside what this says about Worcestershire's competence and gullibility off the field (and they're not too crash hot on it at the moment either), the strange demise of Shankar led me to recall the case of the late Barbadian Donald Weekes, whom Wisden, never a publication too wedded to hyperbole, described in his obituary as 'a yarn-spinner of international calibre'. Among other things, Weekes claimed to have scored 700 not out in a single innings, and was lavishly profiled in The Cricketer in 1975, an article which made quite an impression on me as a kid and continued to do so until Philip Bailey (now Wisden's Chief Statistician) informed me about twelve years later that it was a load of rubbish.

I noticed Shankar's name when Worcestershire signed him; partly because they'd unwisely made great play of signing someone who had never been much good, but also because I once met a member of his family.

During a rain break at Lord's a few years ago I got chatting to a couple of blokes from Bedford in the Warner Stand. One of them claimed to be Adrian Shankar's father, and I don't see any reason why he would have been lying. Looking back, he seemed more proud of the fact that his son had been to Cambridge than that, as has repeatedly been mentioned over the last few days, he'd played in the same school side as Alastair Cook, even though (before he started knocking years off his age) he was several years older. He probably knew his son's main claim to fame in the future would revolve around someone he'd played with.

Sporting success carries great currency among men. People look up to you. It might, perhaps indirectly, get you girls. Anyone can make anything up, but, in the end, you always get found out, and you end up where you deserve. Where your talent, and all the other ingredients that go to make a player, take you.

Adrian Shankar will never play county cricket again. Alastair Cook has made seventeen Test centuries.


In the Wings

It's been re-stated many a time, here and elsewhere, but strength of temperament is vital to success in all top-level sport.

Perhaps the key virtue of Eoin Morgan - and he has many - is his strength of character, embodied in his priceless ability to deliver when success is vital and definitive.

After an uneven winter in Australia and India, during which his previously burgeoning reputation lost some of its lustre, the fact that Morgan, at short order, was able to make an ultimately imperious 193 while the presumed favourite for the spare England place, Ravi Bopara, was scratching his way to a mere 17, underlined this once again.

This season will see important changes to the make-up of England's side, and it's consistent and simply right that Morgan gets first go. Further opportunities for Bopara may come if others can be as convinced as him of his abilities, while Hildreth, James Taylor (of whom more soon) and perhaps even Samit Patel also wait in the wings.

In the meantime, England Lions have a game to win today.


They Never Come Back. Or Do They?

His career pre-dates this blog by years but I always rated Martin Crowe. A technically adroit and run-hungry presence in the New Zealand team which started to take on the world on level terms in the eighties before falling back towards earth in the nineties.

Now, as Cricinfo reports, he's planning a comeback to club, and, potentially, first-class cricket, at the age of 48.

In many ways this chimes with Crowe's character. He always was a questing, restless soul, never shy of a theory or opinion, and the way his quotes read in the piece his 'comeback' appears to be as much a quasi-scientific experiment to see what level of cricket a man of his age can reach as a way for him to keep fit and fill his waking hours.

At one time, not so very long ago, it wasn't uncommon for players to play well into their forties, but, with the advances in fitness which have swept the game in recent years, those days have gone.

This is not to say that Crowe can't succeed. He could really bat, and who's to say that first-class cricket will be beyond him if he can make runs at club level? The fielding and running, given his long history of knee trouble, will prove very difficult, though, and I won't be surprised if I never hear of this again.

Those of us whose fortieth birthdays lie well in the past are bound to follow his progress closely. We could find ourselves thinking it could be us.

There's one problem. You need to have been able to do it in the first place.


Seve (1957-2011)

This blog rarely strays far from cricket. Not because I don't have other sporting interests - as anyone who knows me will tell you, I really do - but there simply isn't time to pass a considered opinion on everything that's going on out there. At times, though, you have to break with tradition.

I've never played golf seriously. Just a few chips, slashes and puts here and there, and my career never really recovered from the time I shanked a ball through my Dad's greenhouse in 1982. I was a teenager then and I had friends who played the game. One of them became very good and later captained Cambridge University (using his spare time to become a brain surgeon). Short of things to do in the school holidays (perhaps the cricket wasn't on TV that day) I used to walk the fairways with them. This rapidly developed into an armchair golf habit which became quite serious for a year or two and took me to professional tournaments. The European Open at Sunningdale here, the Bob Hope British Classic at Moor Park there, the Ryder Cup at Walton Heath in the far-off days when the USA only had to turn up to win. I even made the last two days of the Open at Troon, crouching in the middle of the fairway with hundreds of others as Tom Watson received the Claret Jug.

Each year between 1981 and 1984 I went to at least one day of the World Matchplay Championship at Wentworth. In those days, on that course, there was one player who stood head and shoulders above all the rest, and that was Severiano Ballesteros. The great thing about going to golf was how close you could get to the players. Within whispering distance at the side of the green you could feel the full force of his charismatic personality and try to read every nuance of his usually volcanic expression. The message you got, loud and clear, was that playing golf for money was a serious business. There rarely seemed much lightness of spirit around when Seve was playing but that didn't matter at all. What mattered, what you took away and held for nearly thirty years, were his shots.

One year, somewhere around the middle of the West Course, on a long hole (the 12th, I think) with a row of trees across the fairway, Ballesteros played a drive that still sticks in my mind's eye. It left the club like an exocet missile, climbing to a fixed height and maintaining its trajectory as though guided by a laser. But it was swerving and turning in the air at the same time like a great bowler's inswinger. It passed through the top of the trees (in truth this was probably a mistake but to our impressionable eyes it just looked spectacular) before curving back the other way - outswing - and coming to rest in the middle of the fairway. It looked and felt like a trick shot. But that was how good Ballesteros was. His mastery was so complete that he looked as though he was showing off when all he was doing was playing the game as he could. At the time there was literally no better player in the whole world.

As a player Ballesteros faded early as back injuries took their toll. The seniors' circuit wasn't for him. But everyone who was there in his greatest days needed no reminding of how good he was.

Yesterday, at the Spanish Open, the course fell silent. José Mariá Olazábal, Ballesteros's protégé and no stranger to serious health or form problems himself, was in tears.

Many of us with no intimate connection with him felt the same, for the times you saw a sportsman of real genius - George Best, or Roger Federer, or, in my case, Brian Lara or Seve - at their very best, stay with you for ever.


Class Act

On a slate grey Taunton day when April's summer seemed to have given way to a chilly early autumn, batting was often hard work. An attack comprising Damien Wright, Alan Richardson, Jack Shantry and Gareth Andrew will never scare anybody, but they all obtained movement from a track which gave them just enough assistance.

Despite his double century at the Rose Bowl, Trescothick looked cautious, scratchy and impermanent, and only two Somerset batsmen made a lasting impression prior to some late hitting from Peter Trego.

Nick Compton battled hard for 57, occasionally freeing himself to hit some powerful pulls in an effort to erase the memory of his guilt for the mix-up which saw James Hildreth run out without facing a ball in the morning.

The class act of the day, though, was Craig Kieswetter. There was poise, control and easy, assured power in everything he did, with forward defensives carrying to the boundary on at least two occasions and three huge, dismissive sixes.

His keeping is a work in progress and there will be plenty of faster and more potent bowling for him to deal with when he returns to international cricket, but the evidence of this innings was thrillingly persuasive.

This is a very substantial cricketer indeed.


In Confidence

In the week when Yorkshire's Barney Gibson became the youngest player ever to play first-class cricket in England, thanks to Andy Bull, who wrote this thought-provoking piece and The Old Batsman, who got here first, my thoughts turned to a player who was once a prodigy.

On county grounds in the early season - even when the weather makes it seem like high summer - people talk about players. Who's showing early season form? Who'll make the step up? What happened to...?

Walking round the boundary at Derby last weekend I heard people talking about how Nottinghamshire were doing at Headingley. Comments came and went, but my ears pricked up when someone mentioned Bilal Shafayat. Nobody seemed to know what he was doing. All that was certain was that his county career, which once seemed the epitome of promise, had come to a premature halt. Whether it was the end of everything, well, no-one knew.

Many people's only memory of Shafayat will be of him coming on to the field in the final stages of the first Ashes Test at Cardiff in 2009, but I remember him from way back, pummelling some helpless fifteen year-old bowlers in the company of Andrew Gale in 1999. Gale looked the steadier of the two, but Shafayat's talent was obvious and apparently unstoppable. He had the basics down pat and he guided and punched the ball with power and flexibility, like a young Mohammad Yousuf. As Andy Bull mentions, he was playing for Notts within two years and later excelled in an England Under-19 side which wasn't short of potential. The breakthrough never really happened, though, and perhaps, now, it never will.

Shafayat's comments to Bull betray an admirable self-awareness and honesty. The observation that cricket is 'a mental game' might appear commonplace and trite, but God it's true. Pure talent will lead you so far, but, as the variables of capricious pitches and opposition bowlers take hold, if the runs don't come, the pressure increases and the confidence goes. It takes a strong person to overcome that, especially if you've never really known what failure is. When the effortless average of seventy or eighty you had as a kid when it didn't really matter becomes a careworn twenty-seven and the game is your job, the spiral of self-doubt and failure can be hard to escape, especially if you haven't experienced true success at that level.

Confidence plays a vital role in sporting achievement. And under-performance in cricket, where the numbers, ultimately, don't lie, saps the confidence more than anything. In less precise games you can kid yourself. In cricket you can't.

Things can change. Until a couple of weeks ago Warwickshire's Varun Chopra was another under-achiever with a promising junior career behind him. Now he has two first-class double-centuries. When the failures return - as, for him, they have already - he has runs in the memory to fall back on. He knows what he is capable of.

Things will be harder for Shafayat. The security of the county contract and its embellishments have gone for now, but, as Bull says, and Shafayat's words emphasize, he has faith and optimism.

'God willing, everything will work out...I am sure there is a lot more to come.'

Let's hope so.


Two to Follow

With the county season under way - in the type of weather which probably won't be seen again for months - players are immediately stepping forward to show their hands.

It's well-known that the England selectors are partial to the odd player born outside the UK, and, while they've tended to come from South Africa rather than New Zealand in recent years, it's been obvious for a while that Ben Stokes has something, and his six cheap wickets and a brutal century for Durham at the Rose Bowl over the weekend underlined his potential. I think it's probably too early to regard him as a serious contender for the England side, but he's on the radar, and he won't be going away anytime soon.

Adil Rashid is better known. His eleven wickets for Yorkshire in their crushing away win over Worcestershire may have indicated that he's taken a few steps forward since last season - and his experiences playing for South Australia won't have done him any harm - but he'll need a lot more of the same to convince the selectors that he's worth a punt. Especially as Graeme Swann is one of the first names on the England team-sheet and they're not exactly lacking in seam-bowling strength either.

Isn't it great to have a decent English leggie to keep an eye on, though?


The Soft Warm Radiance of Money

It's been a busy, though hardly stressful, time. Shuffling paper in a cool, dark room before emerging into the glorious April sunshine during the working week. Tramping the beautiful streets of Bath in similar weather yesterday, with a rugby match mixed in.

Such pleasures have prevented me from commenting until now on the issue of the moment in cricket. Not the IPL, or even the County Championship, but the ICC's crass and morally dubious decision to remove the incentive of qualification for the 2015 World Cup from its associate members.

All decisions like this show is that, as in so many areas of life, bureaucrats, administrators and climbers of the greasy pole in the world of cricket have a consistent ability to suck the life out of anything that is working well or is being appreciated and enjoyed by millions, just because money and vested interests decree that change is necessary.

The old aphorism which states that people who wish to be elected to political office should be automatically barred from standing for election never seemed more appropriate. This decision shows that those in charge of the world game simply don't understand that unpredictability and the triumph of the underdog are what gives sport of all kinds its lasting appeal.

It might not fit with your profit forecasts but that's tough. If you don't like it, get out. When sport sacrifices romance and uncertainty and instinctive brilliance in favour of the balance sheet (and tries to fix the market in which that balance sheet exists), it ceases to have meaning. The Pakistan Three know all about that, and the ICC wasn't slow to sort them out.

Persuading people who have played the game at the highest level to follow Anil Kumble and move into the corridors of power rather than the less accountable and better paid environments of the world's commentary boxes might just help, but it will never be easy to do. Here again, money talks.

This can be fought. Sign the petition here.


Fulfilled Expectations

It's not easy to be original or profound about what happened yesterday.

I'll settle for saying that India's win was the culmination of a lot of work, by Gary Kirsten and his players, to change them from being a side that tended to crumble under duress to one that was able to withstand the crushing pressure of the expectations of a billion breathless people and ease their way to victory from a difficult position.

Central to this were the coolness, bravado and power of Dhoni - who receives his due praise at greater length elsewhere - and Gambhir, who showed again, despite his ill-judged dismissal, that he will be one of the players to carry the baton on after Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman have gone.

Another will be Virat Kohli, who's rightly winning plaudits for the modesty and timing of his words, but bats with a hard-edged fluency and style which should take him a long way.

I go back a long way with Indian cricket. To the 1979 England tour, in fact, and I remember the 1983 final well. But I haven't lived the years of expectation and frustration like many an Indian has.

This, by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, sums up what yesterday meant from a young Indian's perspective.

And it's a bloody great piece of writing.


Photo Opportunity

Indian cricket's greatest day since 1983 seems like an opportune moment to return the photograph which used to appear at the top of this page until the autumn of 2009 to its rightful place.

It was taken at the old Wankhede Stadium by my friend Mark Ray in February 2001. Ten years on Warne has gone, but Sachin, a World Cup winner's medal now safely in his possession, seems destined to go on and on.

Here's looking forward to seeing him on English soil again in a few months' time.


The End of the Road for England

In a low-key press conference at Lord's this morning, attended only by a few ECB employees with little else to do, some bloggers trying to make up for the absence of the regular press pack in the Indian sub-continent and a man who'd only come to service the air conditioning, Hugh Morris, the Managing Director of England Cricket, made the momentous announcement that the England team is going to retire from all one-day international cricket.

'There has been general agreement that this winter's tough schedule has put a huge amount of strain on our players, and this was reflected in our poor showing at the World Cup. As there's no chance of the amount of international cricket ever being reduced, we have decided that the team should retire from one-day cricket so that it can concentrate on the five-day game.'

'In making this announcement now we are showing what a caring and sympathetic employer we are. We have protected our over-worked players from another major source of stress. It won't be necessary for Paul Collingwood or Andrew Strauss to agonize about whether or not they should play on as we've helpfully taken the decision for them. The same goes for the younger lads, although some of them - sorry, Luke - would never have been seen again in blue pyjamas anyway'.

'We've had a forty year career in the one-day game and it's high time we cut down on our commitments so that we can prolong our Test career a bit. Without this we would probably have given up on Test cricket sooner rather than later, but this should enable us to retain the Ashes on another couple of occasions before retiring from the game completely and taking up a position in the Sky Sports commentary box'.


Borrowed Time, Glorious Memories

These days one-day internationals are played anywhere and everywhere, throughout the globe, on an almost daily basis. Few mean much. But when two teams with the historic baggage of Australia and India clash, as they did before a cacophonous Motera crowd on Thursday, things happen which you can't help getting excited about and reflecting upon later.

For all India's ultimate success - and any innings in which the sainted Yuvraj plays a pivotal role is music to this Englishman's ears - it was again Ricky Ponting who held the attention in the way he so often has during the period in which his team's decline has moved from the marginal to the terminal.

For too long now Ponting has been living on borrowed time and glorious memories. As his team were crushed by England he came across as a man who hadn't quite grasped the fact that his powers were waning, but now things seem crucially different. For all that he could never say it you get the distinct feeling that he knows that the final curtain may be about to fall. In press conferences the familiar furrowed brow has often been replaced by a relaxed grin, and in the middle extra care is taken in the knowledge that it's all just a little harder than it used to be and there will not be many more opportunities to do what he does best.

When you're only 36 - still, as someone living in a developed country in the twenty-first century, a young man - this realisation must be hard to take. Especially when Sachin, more than eighteen months older, still appears to embody the iron invulnerability of the great player.

Ponting has always shown the maker's name early on but on Thursday this seemed clearer than ever. Play straight, accumulate, try to take sting out of the opposition and their myriad support, and cash in later.

Ultimately the Australian total wasn't good enough to prevent another brick falling from what once seemed an impregnable wall. For them a new era of austerity has long been under way, and it remains to be seen what part Ponting will play in it.

Once again, though, Ponting, at Ahmedabad on 24th March 2011, proved that the greats make their own rules


Grace and Pace

Thirty years ago today, on 14th March 1981, at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados, the over of all fast bowling overs was bowled by Michael Holding to Geoff Boycott.

England, one down in the series after a heavy defeat in Trinidad and a cancelled game in Guyana, had bowled West Indies out for 265. There seemed to be hope. Within a few overs, though, their first innings was in ruins and another heavy defeat lay ahead.

I remember it well. A cool, grey Saturday afternoon in London, the customary crackly TMS transmission and Tony Cozier going noisily mad as first Boycott and then Mike Gatting were swiftly dismissed to leave England rocking.

With the passage of time and Holding safely ensconced behind a Sky microphone you don't hear so much about it these days, but in the years afterwards that over attained the status of legend. There were no highlights on TV apart from a minute or two on the news each evening, and I hadn't managed to convince my parents to buy a video recorder. I was out that night and so didn't actually see it until years later.

In an age in which raw speed of the type Holding purveyed is increasingly rare, watching the man who combined grace and pace in the most complete way possible is like a window on another world. What really stands out is the smoothness and rhythm of Holding's approach to the wicket. As I said about David Gower a while ago, there's simply nobody like him around now.

Boycott, whose stumps were shattered by the final ball of the over, was, for once, almost lost for words. But less is sometimes more, and, as he said in In The Fast Lane:

'It was a bit rapid, to say the least'.


Fading Motivation

With time fading for England in the World Cup in a familiar manner, it's impossible to be certain about what's behind their rank inconsistency. However, as it can't be attributed to lack of technical ability, or, these days, to one-day international inexperience, I fall firmly within the camp which - as Simon Hughes exemplified in the Telegraph last week - puts the variable nature of their form down to the brutal and unforgiving nature of their recent itinerary.

You will never get any of them to admit it in public, but, for those players involved, the summit of their winter's achievements - in some cases of their entire careers - came in Sydney on 7th January. Perhaps uniquely now, Test cricket, especially against Australia, means more to the average English player (and follower), than a one-day international competition ever will, even if it's the World Cup. And if you've only spent a handful of days at home since the autumn, the type of iron motivation you need when the likes of Ireland and Bangladesh come gunning for you is going to be even harder to summon.

However, as both the Indian and South African games showed, even a weary and reduced team can produce the goods when it's really threatened, so, with one qualifying game to go, salvation and a passage to the quarters is well within their grasp.

Unlike Ireland, though, they might want to think about how they bowl to Kieron Pollard...

An Englishman in Nagpur

The shocking form of Jimmy Anderson and the more prolonged decline of Kevin Pietersen may be symptomatic of their reduced levels of desire, although it seems certain, at least in Pietersen's case, that there's something more complex going on. This is something to be examined at greater length another day.

One Englishman at the World Cup who certainly won't be struggling for motivation is Ian Gould. After a long career in the English county game, Gould failed to make an impression as a coach and said a while back that becoming a first-class umpire was the best thing he'd ever done. He's a sharp, proficient official with a businesslike but avuncular manner that seems to create a good rapport with all the players he comes into contact with.

Yesterday he was standing at square leg as Sachin Tendulkar sent one of the most sublime straight drives that even he has surely ever hit back past Morne Morkel to move from 14 to 18.

Even from the viewpoint of a gorgeous Spring morning in England, it would have been a privilege just to be at Nagpur. To be on the field and play a part, when your playing days are far behind you, must be just about as good as it gets.


Happy Birthday

Andrew Strauss was 34 years old yesterday. I hope he lives to celebrate many more birthdays. One drawback: For the rest of his days, once a year on March 2nd, he'll think of Bangalore and a big Irish bloke with funny hair hitting his team all over the place.

Happy birthday, mate.


Keep Calm and Carry On

One of the chief qualities of limited-over cricket is the way in which it compresses and intensifies the pressures which the participants are under, while one of Andrew Strauss's impeccable strengths is the ability to look calm in the field when all logic would suggest that his head should be about to explode. Take yesterday: The greatest batsman the world's seen in many a generation going well on a Bangalore shirtfront with a potent range of supporting actors at the other end, and the job of trying to stem the flow of runs is down to you and your bowlers. That, in a cricket context, is real pressure, but with Strauss it rarely - if ever - shows.

Then, just when you might fancy sitting with a towel on your head for a couple of hours, no such luck. A twenty minute break and it's down to you to mastermind the chase: All but seven an over under lights, with a partisan crowd willing you to fail. So you make a superb 158, the only fault being the fact that you don't quite stick around long enough to assure the victory which should really have been your ultimate reward.

It's difficult to be sure who will take most from yesterday's epic. England should have won and still have form and selection concerns, India's bowling and fielding doesn't look what it needs to be. But, with weeks and weeks to go, there's plenty of time for teams to find form, lose it and find it again. And it still might not be enough.

We rarely use the word 'great' around here, but what we can definitely take away from yesterday is that Andrew Strauss is a very, very, good cricketer indeed, and not just in the game's longer forms.

It's a pretty safe bet that he'll need to show how just how good again if England are still going to be in with a shout when April comes around.


A General Air of Predictability

From a distance the World Cup so far has seemed like a succession of fairly predictable non-contests, although, as far as the 'debate' about Associate Members' participation in future tournaments is concerned, I'm happy to come down on the side of what their players think. And the majority seem to prefer the experience of being there and getting beaten to not being there and hence not having the opportunity to win. The ICC, in their wisdom (of course, I use the word satirically), have clearly forgetten all about the past successes of Kenya and Ireland. For all that it may seem like the future, increased Associate participation in future World Twenty20s is a poor substitute, always assuming ODIs in their current format remain a central part of the game.

An exception to the general air of predictability was England's relatively shaky win over the Netherlands. While all the Dutch players deserve huge credit, it applies especially to Ryan ten Doeschate, because to be your side's best player and the focus of everyone's expectations and then deliver the goods in such coruscating fashion takes real strength of temperament. Jonathan Agnew, with a lack of awareness of the county game that is typical if understandable, described ten Doeschate as a 'journeyman'. As more than a few Essex fans will tell you, he's a good bit more than that.

As for England, well, they were shambolic at times, but, at the tail-end of a winter itinerary like they've had, where's the surprise in that? Most of them are probably either knackered or sick of cricket or both. Add some ring-rustiness, poor form, experimentation and subsconscious complacency, and you have a recipe for problems.

They'll need to be a bit better on Sunday.


(Not) Being There

A nice piece from Siddhartha Vaidyanathan's excellent, varied blog.

This must strike a chord with anyone who's ever struggled to follow cricket as they go about the rest of their crowded lives. It certainly did with me.

With all the major cricket events of my lifetime I can instinctively remember where I was. And, while there are many exceptions - The Oval, 12th September 2005, Shane Warne's hat-trick in Melbourne, the Broad-Trott stand, Michael Vaughan's 197 at Trent Bridge - more often than not I wasn't there.

I was often in front of a TV set, which is the next best thing, but I've frequently been in all kinds of other places - exam rooms, weddings (not my own), hospitals, trains, planes and automobiles. For the last twenty years, during which period I've had a full-time job which only occasionally allows me to listen to the radio, I've mostly been at work, at least in body.

Apologies to anyone with whom I've had a work-related discussion while my mind was elsewhere. And equal apologies to my colleagues for the odd disappearing act down the years. As Brian Lara was gaining on 365 at St.John's in April 1994, I retreated to the toilet with a radio and nobody knew where I was for about half an hour.

As you get older it gets harder and harder both to follow the cricket exclusively and to convince people who don't know or care about the game that you have as much interest as they do in what's going outside the Test match bubble.

But I like it that way.


Giving it the Big Build Up

Tweets and blogposts from people employed in the heart of the cricket media are usually good reading. It's what they're there for after all. This week I've had the pleasure of knowing that Jonathan Agnew, Michael Vaughan and Patrick Kidd (of the Times and The Questing Vole) have all been on their way to the World Cup and have now successfully arrived.

I've been watching my letter box intently for the last few weeks in the hope that some kind soul would be prepared to pay for me to go to the competition and send me some tickets to the sub-continent. Sadly, it hasn't happened. Instead I'm going to be spending the duration of the tournament in England, relying on Sky to keep me in touch with events in the east.

There are compensations, though. For me this is still very much the rugby season, and there are plenty of big games coming up, both for the club I follow (the major success story of the English season) and in the Six Nations. I'm happy to be at home for these. Also, I experienced a deep frisson of world-weariness when Ricky Ponting said something the other day about having to play well 'over the next six weeks'.

Six weeks?! Well, I knew that the mistakes of the last World Cup were going to be repeated this time, but with so much interesting Test cricket going on over recent months I hadn't been thinking about it too much and it's hardly as if the world hasn't already got enough ODIs going on to last an epoch.

I'm sorry to sound so negative, and I'm happy to admit that my views would probably be different if I was fortunate enough to be there.

I gather it all starts in half an hour, so I'd better go and turn on the TV...


Trevor Bailey (1923-2011)

I was surprised by how sad the death of Trevor Bailey on Thursday made me feel. He was just a couple of years older than my own father, and the circumstances in which he died were tragic. But I think the strength of my feelings had as much to do with the fact that another key element of a central part of my childhood, adolescence and cricket-infected maturity had gone for good.

Despite his illustrious playing career, as The Old Batsman says, those of us in our forties and below knew Bailey only as a radio summariser. If you grew up in Britain in the 1970s, the 1980s or the 1990s and were interested in cricket, you will have listened to Test Match Special. In fact there's every chance that you will have listened to it for hours and hours and hours.

And this will mean that you will have become very familiar with Bailey's particular brand of acerbic perspicacity, individualistic, clipped delivery and precise, orthodox vocabulary. At times he could appear pompous and slightly deficient in the humour department, but, having had the pleasure of meeting him during an England supporters' tour to South Africa in the mid-nineties (when, for a range of reasons, a good sense of humour was required), I know that this impression was illusory. He was a genial and tolerant man, who, in a cricket sense, had really been around the block but wore his vast experience and knowledge lightly.

Like everything, TMS has changed and evolved. In some senses for the better, in others for the worse. But the loss of Bailey, following Arlott, Johnston, Trueman and Frindall, means that one more link with what many regard as the programme's golden age has been lost.


No Backward Glances

With the dust still settling, this probably isn't the time or place for a homily on the verdicts handed down to the Pakistan Three.

However, a couple of things require comment. Firstly, the strong implication in Osman Samiuddin's Cricinfo report that the tribunal would have preferred to hand down more lenient sentences, and then the sense of injured pride embodied by Amir's statements - such as 'two no-balls should not be five years' punishment' - both of which tend to indicate that both the accused and those judging them still don't quite appreciate the seriousness of what went on at Lord's last August.

The fact that it was 'only' two no-balls (if that's all it was) is irrelevant. Players deliberately under-performed as a result of outside influence. They cheated their fellow players, they cheated the spectators and they cheated the integrity of the game. They weren't the first, sadly they probably won't be the last, but they deserve everything they've got.

As this shows, I thought Mohammad Asif was a genuinely outstanding bowler who could have been great. In all probability, though, his career at the highest level is now over, and nobody who cares for the game should shed a single tear or cast him a backward glance. The same - apart, of course, from the possibility of greatness - goes for Salman Butt.

Mohammad Amir, who will only be 23 when his ban finishes, may yet have the opportunity to fulfil his huge potential.

Let's leave it there for now.


As Mad as O'Keefe, as Good as Trott

One of the only entertaining aspects of the deathless one-day series between England and Australia (for anyone who's fallen asleep, it's still going on but mercifully ends tomorrow) has been the commentary of the one and only Kerry O'Keefe. I've heard snatches of him before, but the fact that TMS has taken the ABC coverage wholesale has brought his genius to a wider audience.

With O'Keefe you get some of the most bizarre comments you'll ever hear, delivered with the wit and timing of a superb natural comedian, but mixed in with the stuff that makes you laugh are shafts of observation which make you sit up and think, even if he's not saying anything that's unusual or extraordinary. An example of this came the other day, when O'Keefe described Jonathan Trott as 'the best leg-side player to come to Australia in the last twenty years'.

This was noteworthy, not because it isn't true but because it still seems a little strange that people who have really seen some cricket are saying such things about Jonathan Trott. Yes, that's Jonathan Trott. Plays for Warwickshire, rising 30, losing his hair, with a perpetual scowl on his face and a batting style which even his best friend wouldn't write home about. But currently the owner of some of the best damn batting stats on the planet and a man who looks as sure of his place as anyone in an England side which is as stable as they come (in Test cricket, anyway).

Before Trott came into the England team in the late summer of 2009 I'd seen bits and pieces of him on TV. At times he looked quite classy, but he never seemed to have that many runs to show for it, and it's hard to assess people's temperaments on the basis of a truncated innings in a county hit-and-giggle game. He made runs here and there for the Lions, but if anyone had told you that two years on he'd be up there with the world's greatest run-machines, you'd have thought they were as mad as Kerry O'Keefe.

Trott, though, is tough. His unemotional demeanour reflects both his upbringing in a country where cricket is taken a bit more seriously than in England, and the fact that he has had to fight every step of the way to establish himself in an England side to which many people felt he didn't belong. Like Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan before him, this is a man who breathes more easily in the rarefied air of Test cricket than the safer surroundings of the county game. In a country which has had more than its fair share of players who have done things the other way round - at least one of whom also began life in Africa - such players are like gold dust.

Late in a long winter, two English batsman stand out. Alastair Cook, who had the good sense to get out of Australia before a constant diet of limited-over cricket started to sap his will to live, and Jonathan Trott. Both could be flashier and more elegant, but both hate, really hate, getting out.

To use the oldest phrase in the book of timeless cricket cliches, it's not how, but how many.

And Jonathan Trott is currently making as many runs as anyone, anywhere.

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