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.

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