Radio Days

Test Match Special is one of those British institutions which is always destined to be not quite what it was.

You get the impression that for many people over the age of fifty (a demographic I haven't quite joined yet), the programme's 'Golden Age' belongs back in the era when John Arlott was still going strong. Johnston, and Gibson, and a younger Frindall and Martin-Jenkins would have been there too. Now all of those are gone - for me it would be a wonderful thing to hear CMJ again but it seems I never will - but, for those of us who care about such things, the programme is still a central part of winter mornings and summer days. With the right sort of technology you can even hear it without interruptions from the shipping forecast or Yesterday in Parliament.

TMS endures.

As Michael Henderson and a few others will tell you, aspects of it may not be what they were, but, as this fluctuating, unpredicted, enjoyable series has unfolded, TMS has sounded as essential as ever. Like Cook or Pujara on one of their many good days it has displayed an innate sense of control and authority.

For me, the most enjoyable and refreshing element of recent weeks has been the experience of listening to Rahul Dravid. This is a man who has been one of the best and most famous cricketers in the world, yet has retained an alluring air of humility and gentle humour, and his reminiscences and judgements are lent weight by their grounding in recent experience. He could perhaps do to play a few more shots, but he'll learn.

A penny for Simon Mann's thoughts when Dravid thanks him (implicitly for giving him the privilege of sharing the airwaves).

I'd retire there and then.


Ponting in the Age of Certainty

I once met a Yorkshireman on an England supporters' tour of Australia who'd been at the Antigua Recreation Ground when Brian Lara made his 375. He told me that after Lara had been in for about three overs he knew he was going to break the world record. His brother, who was with him, confirmed that he'd stated as much at the time. It sounded ridiculous, but it was simply that he'd seen the pitch, he'd seen the bowling and he'd seen what Lara could do, and decided that nobody was going to get him out. For a couple of days they didn't.

I once had a similar feeling about Ricky Ponting.

In an ODI at Bristol in 2001, England won the toss and batted, making what those of us in the shadow of the Jessop Tavern thought was a competitive 268, the innings rounded up by an unbeaten partnership of 70 between Ben Holliaoke and Owais Shah, who was making his debut. At the start of the Australian reply Darren Gough dismissd Gilchrist cheaply, and we thought England were in with a shout. Ponting, batting at three, knew different.

I can see him now, low-slung and determined, businesslike but with just a hint of swagger, in his gold and green uniform and helmet. Very early on he plays a forward defensive that is so solid and the product of such an all-encompassing stride down the track that I know that no bowler will get him out today. They don't. 104 runs later, with the game almost secure, he is run out. Steve Waugh and Ian Harvey finish the chase off.

When we arrived in Australia in December 1994, everyone was talking about Ponting. It took him another year to get into the Test side, but, by 2001, he was approaching his greatest years. All bowlers came alike. The concept of retirement would never have entered his head. It was his Age of Certainty.

As Russell Degnan points out in this masterly piece, Ponting represents the last link with one of the greatest teams the world has ever seen, and he was that team's greatest batsman.

Within the next two days his career as a Test cricketer will end. The thoughts of the cricket world go with him.



In sport, timing is everything.

Timing the shot. Timing the pass. Timing the punch. Timing the jump. Timing the attack (do you go before or after the bell?)

Timing the retirement.

Like any great batsman, Ricky Ponting could time the ball. Not, perhaps with quite the lustrous subtlety of David Gower, or Larry Gomes, or Mohammad Azharuddin; the last word in footwork and the psychological domination of the legendary batsman were more his thing. But if someone, anyone, dared to drop the ball short, he would swivel and pull them through midwicket with the finality, and the sound, of a gunshot. If the ball was slightly overpitched - or, with Ponting's stride, not even that - it would be driven straight.

For some reason, in my mind's eye it is Headingley, it is a Friday in July 1997 and Ricky Ponting is making his first century in Test cricket. The straight-driven ball accelerates smoothly up the hill and hurdles the rope. It is timing that has got it there.

Yes, Ponting can time the ball.

But for the greats, knowing when to go is always far more difficult than knowing how to time the ball. Growing up you were always the best. As an adult you were always the best (apart from the odd guy from another country and then it just came down to people's opinions). Even as you got a bit older, and your hair started to thin and you lost too many games to your country's oldest enemy when you were captain, you were still the best. As you dropped a place in the batting order, you were still, at least in your own mind, the best. You know what it is to fail once too often and to be forced to leave the stage - you've seen it happen to countless other players - but, somehow, until the last year or two, you've never quite understood that it would happen to you. And your confusion and uncertainty is exacerbated by the knowledge that you still have the privilege of being able to decide when to go. Lesser players don't get the chance.

Eventually, though, you decide to go in the knowledge that people's lasting memories will be of what you were rather than what you became.

And, before the adulation and the tears flow (as, in Australia, they surely will) you leave yourself one last shot to get it right the way you used to when it seemed like tomorrow would never come.


Played in the Head

For all that Pujara - with his mature, seemingly innate, understanding of the mechanics of batting long on the dead tracks of western India - took India away from England at Ahmedabad, it was Virender Sehwag who set up India's first innings in the manner which was once customary but has become rarer over recent years.

This wasn’t the 293 at the Brabourne, or the triples in Multan or Chennai, or even the 195 at Melbourne, with attacks scattered to the winds like confetti for session after session. For a start, England, Swann aside, bowled poorly, and Viru these days is just slightly more moderate in achievement, if not execution or intent. Two years of fifties - at high strike rates, but fifties nonetheless - have seen to that. Also, as he himself said at the press conference at the end of the first day, batting wasn’t easy as the ball wasn’t coming on. It didn’t show.

But as a Test batsman - and even more so as an opener - Sehwag has always been an outlier. A player who instinctively ignores the textbook and plays simply as he feels. Where the textbook advocates that a batsman facing the new ball should be watchful and circumspect, Viru has always been ambitious, expansive and destructive, as much in the early moments of an innings as at its glorious conclusion or in its death throes. This is the essence of his greatness.

But this greatness - for that, conclusively, is what it is - can be disorientating. According to the conservative logic of the batting manual, Sehwag should have begun failing years ago. In fact, his career at the highest level should have ended almost as soon as it started. You can’t play international bowlers with such a disregard for your wicket, or such rigid footwork, or such a penchant for hitting the ball in the air, even if, when you do, it usually goes for six. These things can’t be done. Except, when Sehwag is batting, they can.

His ability to whip the ball through the leg-side off the back foot and to clear the ropes at will is well-known, but a facet of his approach which has perhaps become more noticeable as he’s aged is the glorious inventiveness of his off-side play. This is emphasized by the reductive nature of his footwork; to anything pitched on or around a good length with an off-stump line (by most conventional standards this is good bowling, but Viru re-writes the bowling textbook too), he simply plants his leading leg slightly inside the line of the ball and uses his bat to guide it into whichever off-side gap he fancies. If it is over-pitched it is driven with withering power and timing, if it is sliding away through the air or off the pitch, it is driven square of the wicket or guided between the slips and gully by opening the bat face at precisely the instant of impact. It is typically Asian in a sense - many another Indian or Pakistani or Lankan player has played in a similar manner - but there is somehow less fragility and more certainty to Sehwag’s off-side play than that of most of his compatriots.

There are two factors in this. One is his natural eye; that is an accident of birth. The other is his head. In this aspect of batting, if few others, Sehwag conforms to the textbook. In fact, he exceeds it. The next time you watch Sehwag bat - in all probability this will be tomorrow - watch how still and level his head is. Like much else about his batting, this is exceptional, but it is also natural and uncontrived. He has not had to think about it.

Like Jimmy White in his greatest years at the snooker table, Sehwag illustrates the way in which genius can both subvert and reinforce orthodoxy, but, apart from the odd embellishment, neither man has ever spent too much time thinking about what they do.

Sehwag may be reaching the autumn of his career. But he is a genius. It is for us to enjoy him while we can.



A few years ago there seemed to be a lot of unjustified doubt and malice directed towards Michael Clarke, as much within Australia as elsewhere. I could never understand why this was, as he'd always looked to me like a batsman of the very highest possible quality.

The type of player, himself apart, that his country just doesn't seem to produce any more.

There's no time now to produce anything original, but I stand by every word of this which I wrote back at the start of the year.



English cricket - perhaps all cricket, but I haven't spent enough time among the cricketing cultures of other countries to know - is infected with nostalgia. Often, as when someone whose cricket-watching experience pre-dates one-day cricket can't stop telling you that the modern game is rubbish, contemporary players are lazy and the sport is going to hell in a handcart, this is a bad thing. At other times, such as when a reminder is required of why this is the most complex and vivid and culturally rich of games, it is most definitely a good one.

For English men - and often women - of a certain age, one of the players who has been the focus of more dewy-eyed reminiscence than most is Denis Compton. Denis Compton played in 78 Test matches between 1937 and 1957, and scored nearly 6000 runs at 50. He could really play. But what stands out from people's recollections of him is the way in which he played the game with an insouciant joy and an improvisational abandon which acted as a blissful counterpoint to the eras of austerity and consuming war during which he played.

My father is nearly 87. He loves cricket and has watched it since before the Second World War. He isn't the nostalgic type and it can be difficult to persuade him to talk about the past, even though he has led a more interesting and cosmopolitan life than most. Something he once told me about, though, was what it was like to watch Compton and his favourite partner Bill Edrich at Lord's during their peerless summer of 1947. This, with war gone but rationing still biting, seemed like the greatest sporting experience known to man, while my mother, who went to the Headingley Test of 1948 at the age of eighteen, wasn't sure which player she fancied the most, Compton, or his Australian opponent and friend, Keith Miller.

Now, more than seventy-five years after Compton came to Test cricket, his grandson Nick is about to make his debut. Like his grandfather he is a good-looking man but in a way which betrays his upbringing on the eastern coast of South Africa. It is a look which speaks of long days in the sun and the carefree pleasures of existence, but, as a batsman, he is about as dissimilar to his father's father as it is possible to be. After an inconsistent start to his professional career in England, Compton has settled for being a player of self-denial and discipline. While he has the straight bat and classical nuances of a player brought up on true wickets at good schools, he leaves the ball more than most, and, when he hits it he often gives the impression of forcing it away with more effort than timing. It is possible to mistake him for a player with a lower ration of natural ability than he has.

In Ahmedabad this week, with the Indian spinners probing his mettle and the sweat welling up inside his shirt, the younger Compton's talent and discipline will be tested more than ever before. Early-season Taunton, with the chill wind cutting through the sound of the St.James's bells, it will assuredly not be.

With the iron-hard Cook at the other end and his impeccable lineage, Compton won't lack for support, on the field or off it.

As ever, he will carry many people's hopes.

As ever, time will tell if he can fulfil them.


End of an Era

This, from Alan White's often superb blog The Crap Cricketer, is a find which, for me, turned the clock back nineteen years in an instant.

For anyone who doesn't remember it, the game took place in September 1993, at the conclusion of what was briefly called the 'AXA Equity and Law League'. It was the old John Player League by yet another of its many names, but for the first time matches were played over fifty overs per side rather than forty, and, for the first time in English cricket, players wore coloured clothing.

Memories of the way things used to be were strong, and the changes were largely unpopular, but the competition did throw up a winner-take-all final match between the league's top two sides, Kent and Glamorgan, at Canterbury, which also happened to be the last game of major professional cricket that Viv Richards would ever play.

Glamorgan ended up winning comfortably, but what really stuck in the mind was the bowling of a young Australian called Duncan Spencer, of whom nobody had previously heard but who bowled like the wind. As Alan says, the sight of the ageing Richards fending off Spencer's thunderbolts carries a sense of the passing of an era, with the old master trying desperately hard to show that he wasn't intimidated, or even surprised (as everyone else was), by what was coming down at him. He largely succeeded, and went on to finish on 46 not out, never to be seen again in a match that really mattered.

At the time the game created waves. For one thing Glamorgan had won a trophy, for another Richards had retired, and for another Kent seemed to have found one of the fastest bowlers in the world from nowhere.

And if you're wondering what the players thought, have a look both at some of Steve Marsh's takes and the expression on Carl Hooper's face after an early one whistles past Adrian Dale's bat. These were people who'd seen a bit, and they knew they were watching something remarkable.

Aspects of the film are massively evocative. The standing ovation given to the helmetless Richards for one, and also the sheer size of the St.Lawrence Ground crowd (12,000, some of whom had started queuing at 4 a.m. according to Wisden). Forget Twenty20, which can still pack them in like that in places such as Taunton and Chelmsford, this, in a small, fading way, was what domestic limited-over cricket in England was like in its greatest era. But an era which, in truth, had ended years before.

Earlier that season I saw Richards make a double-hundred in defeat at Cardiff against Middlesex. One lunch interval, in the old Sophia Gardens clubhouse, I glimpsed him sitting opposite Mark Ramprakash. They chatted as Richards finished his ice cream and it was easy to suppose that Richards was passing on the advice of a cricketing lifetime. That's how things were with Richards then. His career was ending and everyone was taking what they could from him in the certain knowledge that his like would never be seen again.

In many ways that day at Canterbury was also the end of an era for both players. Duncan Spencer's career faded away amid injuries and a failed drug test. In late 2006 I saw him bowling for Buckinghamshire against Devon. His hair had gone, and so had most of his pace.

When I saw his name on the scorecard I instantly thought of Canterbury.

In his quiet moments I suspect he still does too.


Periods of Transition

I don't know whether anyone has noticed but I haven't been around for a while.

If I wanted to sound a little pretentious, I'd say I'd been suffering from 'writer's block'. I've had ideas for pieces, and on one occasion I even started to write something. But it didn't flow. The familiar ritual of transmitting my thoughts to the page felt forced and clumsy in a way that it never used to. In the manner of a batsman (something I've never really been, but I've watched a few good ones and I have a vivid imagination) going through a bad trot, my timing was off. My drives were slicing off the inside edge and my pulls were top-edged. My feet weren't moving and the runs weren't coming.

If I wanted to sound a bit less pretentious and a bit more realistic, I've just been bloody busy. Sadly, my day job doesn't involve writing about cricket. About a year ago I moved to a different role in the same office I've worked in since David Gower was still playing. My new job, while much more satisfying than my old one, is also much more demanding. At times recently I've wondered what the inside of my house looked like, and, when I finally found out, I certainly wasn't in the mood to sit in front of a computer trying to say something original and perhaps just a little bit poetic or resonant.

And if I wanted to be completely honest, well, there hasn't been a lot around that's really held my attention. The World T20 came and went, mostly while I wasn't in front of a television, and, as for the Champions League, I know it's been going on but I've found it impossible to muster any interest in it at all. I might have checked one of the scores the other day but I can't really remember.

This encapsulates the difference between those who are fortunate enough to be able earn a living from writing about cricket, and those of us who, in the (hopefully far from immortal) words of the unlamented Kenwyn Williams, remain 'unlicensed'. If we don't want to write about something, we don't have to, but, if we do, nobody's going to give us a cent for doing so.

Some people, though, are kind enough to read and comment, and I look forward to making their acquaintance again over the coming months, because things around the world are about to become a lot more interesting.

As Chris over at Declaration Game has pointed out, the forthcoming series between India and England could be a minor classic. To use an age-old cliché beloved of 'licensed' journalists and bloggers alike, both sides are, to some extent, 'in transition', but, while India will enter the series with the confidence which home advantage and English opposition will bring, there is a dark cloud on the horizon.

If Sachin goes on failing, they may be about to enter the period of transition to end them all.


Wicket-Keeping as Art

Even though I only managed to see the game's second half - on account of following a large group of elite cyclists around Dartmoor - yesterday's final of the CB40 competition between Hampshire and Warwickshire had an inevitable sense of wistfulness about it.

For one thing it was the final game of the English professional season - a season which has been far from outstanding (the sublime, unforgettable batting of Hashim Amla aside) and which has been plagued by truly terrible weather - but the final game of the season nonetheless. And it also caused me to reflect on the days when the September final of what was then a knock-out competition really was the climax of the season.

Teams were at full-strength and players played in the knowledge that a good performance could - for good or ill, and it was often the latter - gain them a place in a winter tour party. Teams weren't weakened because their players had already departed to play twenty over cricket for their country on a distant island.

Every seat was taken and the air bristled with partisanship.

Those days are gone for ever, and the CB40 is a clumsily scheduled, unloved competition, but yesterday's game had something.

Not just a thriling finish, but the truly superb wicket-keeping of Michael Bates.

Hampshire have a rare collection of young players, even if the majority of them have only shown their best form so far in one-day cricket: Liam Dawson, James Vince, Chris Wood, Danny Briggs, and Bates. After their win in the Twenty20 competition a few weeks ago, Briggs and Wood received the plaudits, but I felt at the time that Bates's keeping had been unfairly overlooked.

Yesterday the 21 year-old was at his best again, standing up to spin and seam and producing a series of unfussy yet brilliant takes which, in their agility and precision, carried echoes of the ghost of English wicket-keeping's glorious past. Of Knott, of Taylor, of Keith Andrew, of late period Jack Russell, standing up to the stumps to the likes of Mike Smith and Ian Harvey as Gloucestershire strangled the life out of side after side.

Bates will have to improve his batting a lot to get anywhere near to international cricket, and, indeed, to maintain a place in his county side in the longer term, but, whatever happens, his career is going to be worth following.

For this was wicket-keeping as art.



In cricket - and the higher you go in the game the more important it is - timing is everything. For a batsman it involves moving the feet into the right position to play the chosen shot, then introducing bat to ball at precisely the right moment. For a bowler it is the co-ordination of the range of unnatural movements which go to make up a bowling action, with the synchronisation to ensure that the ball goes in the intended direction with optimum pace, or swing, or spin. To some it comes naturally. Others have to work.

But there are other kinds of timing too.

The many eulogies to Andrew Strauss that have been published since his retirement have concentrated, rightly, on the balance, modesty and understated toughness of his temperament, together with the cool rhythm of his best batting. And in this, while never a great player, he had the timing - especially with a straight bat through the leg side - of the best. As The Crap Cricketer wrote, in one of the most thoughtful and original pieces about Strauss I've read, he was in some senses a limited player but the sum of his parts - his batting, his captaincy and his personality - made him a figure fit for the English post-war pantheon.

Strauss's impeccable sense of timing extended to his retirement itself. The form of his side - partly but far from exclusively due to his own decline - has crumbled over the past year and things are not about to get any easier. In November and December India, although they have crucial vulnerabilities in the form of Sehwag, Gambhir, Tendulkar and Raina, will be gunning for England. Before the year is out Strauss may be reflecting on the fact that batting against Ashwin or Ojha, or deploying his bowling resources to counter the varied qualities of the purposeful Pujara or the lyrically brilliant Kohli, is easier from the comfort of his armchair.

If, as they very well could, things go badly for England in India, he would not be human if he failed to breathe a sigh of relief and feel that he got out at the right time.

Sachin Tendulkar has never had to think about timing. For the last twenty years and more it has just been. Now though - as a result of a succession of dismissals to full deliveries, the three most recent of which have seen his stumps shattered - there are renewed signs that his omnipotence may be fading a little. One of the most familiar sights in international cricket over the last two decades has been the hunched figure of Tendulkar working the ball through the leg side for runs. Across the line, sure, but, in the old days it never seemed to matter. Now, increasingly it does.

For years now Tendulkar's demise has been anticipated, even perhaps welcomed by some who relish the warm reassurance of predictability. The idea of an Indian Test team voluntarily taking the field without Tendulkar remains - just about - unthinkable. So, when the Ahmedabad Test begins, Sachin Tendulkar will be far from his armchair. He will be where he is happiest, among the sweat and the dust. He will be looking to recapture his timing, while knowing that, if he cannot, he may have to think about another sort of timing.

The post-cricket road is a long one for anyone who has spent the best years of their life playing the game, let alone a 39 year-old who has been playing international cricket for more than half his life, but, as Strauss would happily acknowledge, its inevitability cannot be avoided for ever.

For Tendulkar the four Test matches which will be played between India and England before the end of this year could make him or they could break him.

During his retirement press conference Andrew Strauss said something about watching what happened from here on with interest.

He will not be alone.


Standing Out

In his classic football supporter's memoir Fever Pitch, published exactly twenty years ago, Nick Hornby wrote about a young player who first represented Arsenal in the mid-1980s named Gus Caesar. Gus Caesar had a promising start to his career at the club before finding that, at the highest level of the game below international football, he couldn't cut it.

The point Hornby was making was about the way in which football has a series of levels, of standards. Local park, county league, regional semi-professional league, Vauxhall Conference (as it was then), Football League (as it was then). Now, at the head of everything - and it has been so for exactly the same twenty years - is the FA Premier League. At each and every level there will be players who have been outstanding at the level below, but who, when they step up to the next, are found wanting. At the very top - in the modern football world this is where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo reside - are the players who have never really been found wanting. They are the best of the best of the best.

Cricket is the same. At the level of cricket which I've played for the last couple of decades - friendly matches between village sides in England's west country - a player capable of playing in the local premier league will stand out. Go and watch a match in that premier league and a player who represents the local minor county, or who once was among the best teenagers in the country, will stand out. Go and watch that minor county and a player who has played a lot in the County Championship will - if he is not a physical or psychological wreck (long cricket careers can do that to you) - stand out. Go and watch a County Championship match and someone who has played in 88 Test matches and scored 21 centuries, including some of the most brilliant innings played by an England batsman in the modern era, well, he will stand out.

So it was with Kevin Pietersen yesterday. So much has been written over the past few weeks, so many opinions offered, about Pietersen's undeniably complex psychology, that it has been possible to forget, or at least briefly overlook, the fact that he is, when all has been said, a batsman of the purest genius.

And, if the eleven players in Somerset's side, or his Surrey team-mates, or the thousand or so in the Taunton crowd, were in any danger of forgetting how good Pietersen was - and some would never before have seen evidence of his ability at first-hand - they will not do so for a very long time.

In many ways Pietersen's century seemed understated, largely on account of the ease and assurance with which it was made. Such was the superiority of Pietersen over a useful Somerset attack that the need for extreme violence or self-preservation was obviated. It was bloodless.

In the early stages of his innings Pietersen occasionally played and missed at seaming deliveries from the eternally fiery Steven Kirby and his erstwhile England colleague Sajid Mahmood, but, when he had settled, it was simply a question of how often he felt like hitting the ball for four or six. Far worse players than Peter Trego - a locally-raised all-rounder having his best season with the ball - have played for England. Pietersen, when he desired an acceleration in the tempo of his side's innings after lunch, danced down the pitch and flicked Trego to the leg-side boundary with the disdainful ease of a teenage elder brother humiliating a younger sibling. And then, when, as night follows day, Trego dropped the ball short, Pietersen pulled him for a flat six with the venom of a cornered snake.

The young Irish slow left-armer George Dockrell is a spin bowler of huge potential. Until yesterday he had found that his easy, grooved action and fine control of pace and spin were enough to see him through against some of the better batting sides in the first division of the Championship. Against Pietersen, receiving little help from the surface, he found that he could do nothing to prevent himself being milked for run after run, and then, when Pietersen felt it was necessary, he was hit out of the ground into the River Tone. Although he took three wickets, the lasting value of the day will be as a lesson in what players from another realm can do. One day - perhaps with a Test career behind him - he will look back on it with wryness and appreciation of its value.

Pietersen's celebrations were also understated. There was none of the leaping and fist-pumping which always accompany his international milestones. Here there was simply a raised bat, first to the Surrey dressing room and then to all the ground's corners. There were friendly conversations with Alfonso Thomas and, later in the day, with all the scoreboard damage done, with Mahmood. This, somewhat incongrously, was Pietersen attempting to play the part of the humble everyman. Something about his body language suggested contrition, and even, perhaps, a longing for forgiveness.

The saga of the last few weeks is far from over - it will probably take another twist within the hour - and the sense is that, for all Pietersen's gifts, things will always happen around him which people will not understand or like.

Many words have been expended on Kevin Pietersen and many more will be used before his career is done.

You can say what you like about Kevin Pietersen.

Just don't ever say he can't bat.



There are few greater contrasts in the cricket world than the back of the Warner Stand at Lord's, with its pervasive ambience of old school English privilege, thinly disguised wealth and liberally-consumed champagne, and the dusty acres of the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium at Hyderabad in India, where, over the past few days, an Indian side successfuly marrying new and old, youth and experience, put an anaemic and underprepared New Zealand side to the sword.

Sitting in the Warner shade on a steamy Saturday morning as England played South Africa in August 2012, an idle glance at Cricinfo revealed that VVS Laxman, a son of Hyderabad himself, had retired from Test cricket.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the news brought sadness, or even surprise. It had been coming for a while and merely marked the latest staging point in India's transition from a team pivoted around a group of ageing superstars to one with a fresher, more original hue.

All that can and needs to be said about Laxman has already been said by many people far better qualified than me to do so. In particular Murali Kartik, a player from the same Indian generation who, though chiefly a bowler, shared much of Laxman's elegance and ease of style. For this, certainly for those of us in England who were denied the specific memories of his greatest days in India and Australia, is what will pervade.

A bowler - any bowler, but perhaps Brett Lee - pitches the ball on a good length, off stump line, and Laxman leans forward, slightly off perfect balance but eyes level, and whips the ball through midwicket with an air that is businesslike and slightly apologetic. 'This hurts me a little', he seems to say, 'but this has to be done'.

Laxman's replacement, Cheteshwar Pujara, is cut from very different cloth. There is little flamboyance or elegance there, but there is high talent, ambition and patience. He left the field in Hyderabad plainly disappointed to have only made 159. He was expecting far more.

In time, you can be sure, he will get it.


Something Extraordinary

As one or two people may have noticed - and I hope I'm not flattering myself unduly in thinking that - I've been lying low recently. It hasn't necessarily been a deliberate decision but rather a consequence of a lot happening in the day job and a memorable - truly memorable - trip to London for the thirtieth Olympiad.

Ordering your thoughts after something like that isn't easy.

I used to really love watching major championship athletics. It was bigger then, in the era of Coe, of Ovett, of Cram, of Thompson, of Edwin Moses, and Roger Kingdom and Sergei Bubka. In the years that followed the disgrace of Johnson and the unravelling of the state-sponsored doping programmes in eastern Europe, I largely lost that love. I'd check back in every four years during the Olympics, but, even allowing for some heady moments with Gunnell in Barcelona and Kelly Holmes in Athens, it never endured.

The last week has reminded me what it was I saw in it with more clarity than ever.

All sports have their signature elements, but two aspects of track athletics are among the most dramatic moments to be found in any sporting arena. They are the silent pause that precedes the gun in a sprint, and the bell that marks the start of the final lap of a distance race.

One is about anticipation and the other is about the inevitability of climax. Hearts stop for less.

Athletics, though is only one part of the Olympic experience.

Anyone who was fortunate enough to attend the London Olympic Games in the British summer of 2012 knows that.

It is early August and it is late in east London. A sunlit early evening has given way first to dusk over the Olympic Stadium and then to darkness, broken by the lights that surround the arena and also by those which are attached to the other structures which punctuate the Olympic Park: the Orbit, the Aquatics Centre, the Velodrome. Further away, to the south, are the lights of Canary Wharf, and to the west those of central London.

It is cool but not cold and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people here. We are among the crowd and we are required to wait to enter Stratford Station. This is no hardship: in fact it has been a difficult thing to drag ourselves away from the Park. As we walk away people are constantly turning around, taking photographs. This has been their field of dreams.

While we wait, a young Irishman who carries echoes of Dylan Moran and is one of the army of ‘Games Makers’ sits in what appears to be a tennis umpire’s chair and attempts to keeps us entertained. His stories are rambling and imperfectly delivered, but no matter. Everyone is in a good mood. These Olympic Games do that to people.

As we walk forward into the station a lad of about twelve runs ahead, high fiving a series of policemen, troops and Games Makers. Everyone is smiling. The thought occurs that this is Great Britain. This sort of thing doesn’t happen here. Except that, in London in the summer of 2012, it does.

Earlier in the day we explore the Olympic Park. After passing through the gates we turn to the right in front of the stadium and look down what is known as London Way. The sight which confronts us reminds me of a Biblical Epic. For as far as the eye can see there is an unbroken sea of humanity. It is moving - in more ways than one - as people either walk away from the Stadium after the morning’s athletic events or return to the heart of the Park from its distant fringes. We have travelled to the park on the Docklands Light Railway from the southern end of east London but it is hard to avoid the sensation that we have arrived on a different planet. Something extraordinary has been created here.

The signature sights of the Park are the Olympic Stadium itself, the Aquatics Centre, the Velodrome, the Basketball Arena and the Copper Box, intertwined with flower beds planted with a range of species of British wild flowers which add a flavour of originality and colour to the scene. Once we are part of the crowd it is obvious that the atmosphere is the same blend of happiness, friendliness and tolerance that we have encountered at other Olympic venues. In stark contrast with most other major sporting events held in Britain, nobody is drunk.

There is nationalism, but it is not the aggressive, blinkered partisanship of football. It is the benign, sincere national pride of the Last Night of the Proms. It feels right.

At the far end of the Park the Great Britain men’s hockey team is playing against Pakistan, and, as they score two early goals, thunderous cheers ring out, letting those who are admiring the architecture, or smelling the flowers, or watching the swallows, or following the tennis on the big screen, know that there is live sport taking place. It is a welcome reminder that reality is out there somewhere.

It was never meant to be like this. From the time London was awarded the right to stage the thirtieth modern Olympic Games on 6th July 2005, the popular expectation, encouraged by the lazy, reflexive cynicism of the media, was that the event would be terminally damaged by what was perceived as typical British ineptitude. The venues wouldn’t be built on time, or, if they were, London’s transport system wouldn’t be capable of coping with the additional demands placed upon it.

None of this has happened. Although there is an early mix-up over the display of flags at a football match, and concerns over the number of empty seats in some of the venues, the organisation of the Games is exceptional.

In the Olympic Stadium we have seen Greg Rutherford qualify for the final of the Men’s Long Jump final. The following evening he will win Great Britain’s first gold medal in the event since 1964. We have also seen Jessica Ennis, whose elfin grace and winning smile re-define the girl next door cliché for the modern age, compete in two events on the way to her gold medal in the Women’s Heptathlon.

Yes, something extraordinary has been created here. Of course, it is necessary to consider how a lasting legacy of this can be established, but this is for others and it is for the future.

We are finally allowed to move forward towards the station. The movement of the crowd is synchronous, orderly, contemplative. Although the prevailing mood is one of joy, there is little exuberance. It is late, people are tired, and there is a sense that they are, whether consciously or unconsciously, reflecting on what they have been fortunate enough to experience.

This is a time none of us will ever forget.



For year upon cricket year, Mark Boucher's scowling presence was synonymous with the South African side. The importance of his contributions varied but he was simply always there, and his team will, in the short term, be physically and psychologically diminished by his absence.

With his great friend Jacques Kallis, Boucher was one of the last two survivors of the Hansie Cronje era and an integral figure in the re-establishment of South African cricket in the years which followed his captain's fall. His qualities weren't showy, or elaborate, or refined, but they were genuine and vital: grit and bristling determination, allied to the valuable ability to take catches or make runs when the pressure was at its most intense.

The Lord's farewell will not be his; nor will 150 Tests or 1000 international dismissals. But these are personal and statistical milestones. For those who were around, the memories of his contribution to a fluctuating team in a changing era will take a very long time to fade.

Like Tatenda Taibu, his African keeping compatriot, who left the game in happier circumstances this week, he was a cricketer of resilience and some brilliance, even if, because he was lucky enough to have been born in 1976 rather than 1956, his career wasn't blighted by politics in the way that Taibu's was.

Limping out of an ODI in Durham probably wasn't how Brett Lee saw his international career ending either. With him, though, the memories are more vivid: the first time I can remember seeing him he was bowling to Mervyn Dillon on a Perth flier, his visceral speed awakening distant memories of Jeff Thomson. Scroll on a few years and he is bowling from the Pavilion End at Lord's in July 2005. At the start of his narrow-hipped run he leans forward like a sprinter before hurling himself at the crease with the smoothness of a thoroughbred. If anyone with fewer athletic gifts tried to do the same they would look clumsy and unbalanced, but Lee never does. Through the crease the sense of grace and incipient ball speed is so pronounced that people in the crowd find themselves catching their breath in with an involuntary sharpness that shocks them. Raw athleticism can do that to people.

A few weeks later he is bowling to Andrew Flintoff as England chase a modest target to win the Trent Bridge Test. Lee brings one back in at high pace to beat Flintoff's clumsy, defeated stroke, and the ball hits the top of the stumps. Lee spreads his arms to acclaim his triumph as England's hero of heroes shuffles off.

A few weeks later still in the greatest summer he is fielding on the boundary as England steadily bat his side out of game and series on the last day at The Oval. In the morning he has given everything, almost poleaxing Pietersen with one of the most fearsome deliveries anyone present has seen in years and also having him dropped at slip by Shane Warne. After lunch he has seen Pietersen repeatedly hit him over and through the leg side, leaving his fellow fast bowler, Shaun Tait, scrambling in the dirt at deep square leg.

From my vantage point high up in front of the gasholders, I can see that Lee is smiling and laughing with the crowd, even though the Ashes are slipping away. He has done the same for much of the summer, earning the respect of everyone for his warmth and humanity. It will be something he will never lose, even as his team declines.

He is everyone's favourite Australian.


Prophet without Honour

When a batsman retires after twenty-five years in professional cricket and you can clearly remember where you were when he played his first match, well, you're getting old. In fact, both of you are.

So it is with me and Mark Ramprakash.

These days Toby Radford coaches the West Indies. But when I first saw him he was batting with Mark Ramprakash.

Radford was young then, about seventeen, younger even than Ramprakash, and he was resolutely and quietly orthodox in the slightly uneasy way which young players who've been brought up by cricket coach fathers are. I remember him only as a counterpoint to the main act, which involved Ramprakash repeatedly advancing down the wicket to Hampshire Seconds' Paul-Jan Bakker and attempting to hit him into the next parish. For the most part he failed and was soon cleaned up by a man, Alan Mullally, with whom he later played for England.

Everyone knew he'd be good, though, and when, a couple of months later, he took his side to the NatWest Trophy with a display of mature coolness and skill, the world seemed to be at his feet. It was just a matter of time.

But his time never came.

Maybe it's just me, but the images which scroll into my mind when I think of Ramprakash tend to be of struggle and failure: the teeth-gritted battles against the West Indies in 1991 which promised so much, the Lord's pair against the same opponents in 1995 and the fish-out-of-water failures when opening in 2000. However, if you think a little harder you can see him, arms aloft on a sunny day at the Kensington Oval, with his maiden Test hundred in the bag. As usual, everyone thought he'd cracked Test cricket then, but he never did.

The obvious, brutal, truth about cricket is that statistics, when compiled over an extended period, don't lie. And if you end up with an average of 27 from 52 Tests it means, for whatever range of reasons, that, at the highest level of the game, you weren't really very good.

For most people who fail in Test cricket there's little anxiety or discussion outside their own heads. They didn't quite have it; they came, they went. Rarely do they get more than fifty matches to show themselves. Ramprakash was different, though, which was why he got all those games and why so many people - especially those who follow the two counties he graced, really graced, for a quarter-century - have always found what happened to him at the highest level so confusing and difficult to understand.

I've discussed Ramprakash and his legacy here before, and I don't have any definitive answers. But as someone who first heard about his potential in 1983, followed his first-class career from its very first day to its last, and first wrote about him in 1992, my instinct is that he was someone whose consuming desire to succeed outweighed his ability to deal with the prospect of the sense of inadequacy which was bound to follow a failure to do so, especially once, early in his Test career, the big scores failed to come. He simply wanted it too much.

And, God knows, some of the attacks he faced in his early days - the West Indians in 1991, Wasim and Waqar in 1992 - had their merits too.

The suspicion lingers that under his edgy, passionate exterior, Ramprakash was always much more vulnerable than he seemed. And the landscape surrounding the England side which he came into at the turn of the nineties could not have been more different to the air of security, mutual support, belief and trust which surrounds it today.

When they're reassured, and encouraged, and given time to develop, fragile yet gifted players can thrive and be recognized for what they are. Just look at Ian Bell.

For the years which followed his leaving of Test cricket in 2002, Ramprakash was destined for life as the greatest prophet without honour the modern game has seen. His batting for Surrey during his real glory years between 2002 and 2010 was, regardless of bowling or conditions, among the very finest seen from an English batsman since the Second World War. It was his way of absolving the memory of the other, less glorious, chapters which had gone before.

People will tell you things about Mark Ramprakash.

But don't ever let anyone tell you that Mark Ramprakash wasn't very good.


Force of Nature

There is an orthodoxy of thought about modern cricket which often seems stultifying. Academies, bio-mechanical analysis and legions of support staff with rigid views on how the game should be played, right down to when and how much nutrition should be taken, have robbed the game of much of its eccentricity and individualism and tempo.

My earliest memory of cricket is watching John Price running in to bowl for England against Australia at Lord's in 1972. For those who don't remember him (and in truth, I barely do), John Price was a Middlesex fast bowler whose run had such a curve in it that he approached the wicket as though he was running round a sharp corner. While batting eccentricities are still tolerated (you only have to watch Shiv Chanderpaul assume his stance to know that), you'd never see an international bowler run in like that now. Such tendencies are coached out of bowlers long before they reach the first-class game.

Another bowler who did his own thing back in those days was Mike Procter. When his vulnerable knees allowed him to slip himself, he was a force of nature. After charging to the wicket with his buttoned shirt practically bursting off his chest, he used, in the vernacular of the time, to 'bowl off the wrong foot'. Back then, Procter wasn't alone. Max Walker and Lance Cairns hit the crease in similar fashion but nobody does that now. If anyone tried it, the average professional bowling coach would have a seizure.

Procter, like many of his compatriots denied the ultimate stage by politics, was a colossus of the seventies game. Most of his best work was done in the colours of Gloucestershire, and thirty-five years ago today, he did the best of his best work: 6 for 13, a hat-trick and four wickets in five balls on the old Northlands Road ground as Gloucestershire laid waste to the Hampshire of Richards, Greenidge and Roberts in the semi-finals of the Benson and Hedges Cup.

Anyone who saw it remembers it. I walked home from school on a sunny afternoon and turned on the TV. I can't remember whether I knew there was cricket on or not, but I probably did. I was that kind of kid.

When the set 'warmed up' (pictures didn't appear instantaneously in those days and there was always a period of pregnant, impatient anticipation) I realised that something remarkable was happening. The packed ground was in ferment, Hampshire were 18 for 3, and John Rice, a man whom I knew as a county stalwart of reliability but little distinction, was walking to the wicket like a man on his way to the gallows.

I was young. I really liked cricket but I didn't know it or love it in the way I later came to. But I instantly knew that Rice was in trouble. Procter was going to have him.

And he did.

Richie Benaud was never as excited again.

It's on YouTube here.


Tom Maynard and the Common Humanity of Cricket

It's a horribly over-used word these days but Tom Maynard's father Matthew was, without doubt, a Glamorgan icon. If you have anything to do with anyone who supported the Welsh county between 1985 and the early years of this century, it's a fair bet that their favourite player, and in many cases a real idol, will have been Matthew Maynard.

A bloke I once worked with who'd served in the St.Helens bar in the days when the big summer crowds still used to pack the ground would talk in reverential terms about Matthew Maynard coming down the fabled Swansea steps and punishing county bowlers till they dropped. The Manic Street Preachers even wrote a song (the dreadful 'Mr.Carbohydrate') which featured him.

He was, of course, Nicky Wire's 'favourite cricketer'.

For all the competing qualities of Hugh Morris, and Steve Watkin, and Steve James, and 'Basil' Barwick, and of course Robert Croft, Matthew Maynard was, in Glamorgan terms, the man.

Which is one of the reasons why so many of those he worked and played with over those years spoke and wrote so feelingly yesterday when his son died at the age of just twenty-three. In most cases they'd seen him grow up and were waiting with anticipation for him to really blossom. He was part of the Glamorgan family.

I can offer no personal recollections of Tom Maynard. I never saw him play in the flesh; only bits and pieces on TV where he stood out as a young, muscular, virile strokeplayer in the modern idiom who, in the world of T20, would probably have gone far. The recollections and memories are left to those who knew him and watched him; as has been said, through his childhood and adolescence and early adulthood at Glamorgan, and, more recently, at Surrey, a club which has had more than its fair share of crosses to bear.

This is the common humanity of cricket. It is trite, but true, to say that cricket reveals character in ways that other games can't approach, with the result that it is possible to feel that you know people more deeply than you really do. And you care.

As George Dobell wrote in his finely balanced obituary of Maynard on Cricinfo yesterday, 'the cricket community is not large'. The point might seem oblique when the game is followed by millions, but in modern Britain, with the more garish charms of football always apparently in the ascendant, you know exactly what he means. Those of us who are part of that community - players, officials, journalists, bloggers - instinctively stick together.

When one of us dies tragically young, we bleed.


This is the West Indies

For a West Indian fast bowler Kemar Roach is quite a small man, and, with his gentle features and unassuming body language, he gives off a slight air of reticence. When it comes to height, aggression and the iron confidence that accompanies great skill, he's no Ambrose, or Croft or Marshall.

The West Indies have been getting beaten for so long that many of their players carry an air of pessimism and fractured confidence without even being aware of it. This, along with the technical issues which are seemingly always there - Roach's no-balls, poor shot selection by the upper order, confused running between the wickets and vulnerable fielding - is what Gibson and Sammy are striving to overcome. Small strides have been made in England over the past week or two, although placid pitches have helped and a relatively small number of players - Shiv (of course), Samuels, Sammy and Roach himself - have really excelled.

More, much more, is needed from others and some may not be capable of it.

This is the West Indies. They never are.

It's easy to feel sorry for modern West Indian players. Even for those of us who lived through it, the era when their predecessors exuded invincibility has long since faded into the past. Documentaries are made about it, YouTube is full of it, but, when all is said, it's just so last century. For more years than is decent, the West Indian Test team has been a pitiful thing.

For me, the most exciting moment of the match which concluded today at Trent Bridge was the second ball which Roach bowled to Jonny Bairstow yesterday. It was a perfectly directed short ball of high pace, heading for the throat, impossible for anyone, let alone an inexperienced Test batsman like Bairstow, to play with composure, or ease, or lack of fear. For a second or two you could have been back watching Close against Holding at Old Trafford, or Peter Willey facing Patterson at Kingston, or Robin Smith battling away, seemingly for his very life, against Bishop and the rest in Bridgetown.

Then there is something as apparently inconsequential as the West Indies cap. A deep and meaningful shade of maroon, bearing the badge which all of the combined territories' very best players - and they have been among the greatest the game itself has ever produced - have worn. With the sole exception of Chanderpaul, none of the players who wore it today will ever be talked of as great, but the cap links them to the past and brings you up short if you ever find yourself thinking of them as just another team.

This is the West Indies. Don't ever forget it.

These evocations of the past must be relished and clung to as tangible representations of the hope of a better future.

For without those there is nothing.


Unforced Power

In modern sport, as in life, time waits for no man. If your career loses momentum to injuries or fading form, people move past you. You can be forgotten as quickly as you arrived.

This time last year people were talking about Ben Stokes. Late in the season, without much fanfare or success, he even played for England. But his form was in decline and a persistent finger injury was causing serious concern. In the early winter, with little publicity, he was ruled out of England's winter programme.

Last Tuesday saw Stokes in Taunton, struggling to re-establish himself as part of a Durham side which is also far from what it was. On the game's first afternoon, he came to the wicket with his side 232 for 2, high at four perhaps, but with the sun on his back and the wind grazing his muscular forearms.

Though he is still only twenty, the left-handed Stokes is an imposing figure. At the wicket he still has the air of an overgrown schoolboy humiliating his puny peers in the under-thirteens and at times the bat resembles a toy in his hands in the way it always did with Andrew Flintoff, but, although he has the customary lumbering footwork of the really big man, his basic technique is good. His head is still, allowing his gifted natural timing to work its spell. He likes to deal in boundaries and at Taunton he hits eight fours and a six in his innings, which lasts just under an hour and a half. Most of these are drives and pulls, and one wristy on-drive off Arul Suppiah which beats long-on with ease, even though the fielder has only a few yards to move, stays in the memory for its casual, unforced power.

On sixty, Stokes strays from his crease after nudging the ball back to the bowler and is brilliantly run out by a reflex shy at the stumps. He leaves, head bowed, frustrated, not for the first time you sense, by his inability to convert a virile start into a big innings. The two aren't necessarily connected, but, after Stokes is out, his side's innings rapidly declines. Two days later Durham are defeated, and Stokes fails to score in the second innings.

There are still many rough edges to smooth. But we will be hearing much more of Ben Stokes.


Far from Crap

There's a frightening amount of stuff out there in the 'Blogosphere'. Some of it is even worth reading. I have no memory of what I was searching for at the time but I recently came across a link to this.

The stuff about the writer's own games can be taken or left. In many cases you have to have some personal knowledge of the people and circumstances involved to really appreciate it, but some of the pieces about cricket and cricketers (and the News of the World) - especially from last year - are absolutely superb. It was no surprise to discover that it's the work of a professional writer.

Highly recommended.


Not the IPL

When 'people' - usually lazy journalists of the type who become disorientated if they're ever forced to set foot outside the M25 - say that county cricket (by which they mainly mean County Championship cricket) is dying and isn't watched by anyone, I tend to get a bit annoyed. This is because I like County Championship cricket, and, where I usually watch it, the number of people who turn up can easily be mistaken for a crowd.

It's not always like that, though.

On a Saturday afternoon in early May which looked and felt more like a Tuesday morning in late November, it briefly seemed like a good idea to try to see some cricket. It may not have felt like it, but it was, after all, supposed to be the cricket season.

After a tour round the suburban cricket grounds of Derby, most of which appear to be under water, there is only one thing for it. We head for the County Ground, where a Second Division match between Derbyshire and Gloucestershire is quietly dying.

We drive into the ground and fortunately no-one tries to charge us for doing so. It is mid-afternoon and any stewards who may once have been on duty have long since gone home. It is a comparatively easy task to count the crowd, which, remarkably, numbers as many as seventy people. In the middle the two Gloucestershire batsmen, Ian Cockbain and Will Gidman, are stroking the ball around with ease against a Derbyshire 'attack' which comprises almost everyone who is still standing. The pitch has preceded the match into a watery grave. The players are cold, the umpires are cold and the crowd is cold. The prevailing atmosphere carries more than a hint of desolation and utter pointlessness. The IPL it ain't.

Tea is taken at 3.40, but, having carelessly neglected to bring either the Laws of Cricket or the playing conditions of the County Championship with us, we are unsure exactly when the game will finish. We assume that it will finally be certified extinct at about five o'clock, so we are somewhat surprised when, at half past four, Peter Willey calls a drinks interval. Conditions being what they are, this is no ordinary drinks interval. The twelfth men bear large metallic flasks which contain we know not what. Tea? Coffee? Soup? Clinical stimulants? For God's sake, we know that everyone is struggling to stay awake but the match will, it turns out, be ending in twenty minutes.

After the drinks interval things start to get even more bizarre. This being a County Championship match, loud music isn't scheduled to play any part in proceedings. However, in a marquee at deep fine leg, a local DJ is warming up for that evening's wedding reception. As the bowler bowls, the increasingly empty ground suddenly reverberates to the sound of Mr.Brightside by The Killers. This annoys Peter Willey (and an angry Peter Willey is a worrying sight). In blunt Geordie tones he instructs a fielder to enter the marquee and tell the person responsible to leave his sound check until the end of the game. He will not have long to wait.

At ten to five, with only eighteen spectators still present, Gloucestershire declare their innings and the match is laid to rest. Few will mourn its passing.

We all go home.


Just Doing What He Does

It is early Spring in England. As I write, the rain is lashing against the window. The West Indies are due back in England soon. This, and the fact that he has just completed ten thousand runs in Test cricket, means that people are writing about Shivnarine Chanderpaul again.

They do this every few years. The rest of the time he just goes on doing what he does.

I can only recommend the outstanding pieces by Alex Bowden and Rob Steen which Cricinfo has carried in the last few days, but I can also add a few thoughts of my own.

The essence of great West Indian batsmanship is as hard to define as most other things in the game. But, if you were going to try, you’d probably come up with something which comprised the trailblazing style and run-hunger of Headley, the savage power of Weekes, Lloyd and Richards, the technical rigour of Greenidge and the elegance and skill of Lara.

Would you even think about Shivnarine Chanderpaul? Well, unless you were Guyanese, or drunk, or possibly both, you wouldn’t. And you’d be right, because, unless you really look, there’s little that Chanderpaul does that is different, or unusual, or exceptional, apart, of course from the crabbiest stance seen in international cricket since the retirement of Peter Willey, and what sometimes appears to be an inability to get out. As with so many players, though, the sum of the parts is greater than the parts themselves, and, in the case of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, that sum is really superb.

But, as I say, you have to look.

I started looking back in the nineties. The first time I came across Chanderpaul was when England toured the West Indies in early 1994. When Brian Lara pulled Chris Lewis for four to break the world individual Test batting record at the Antigua Recreation Ground, a slight young left-hander was at the other end, 70-odd not out.

Other people were looking too. I didn’t have Sky at the time so I had to rely on TMS. Trevor Bailey, always a shrewd judge of a player, liked him. During the latter stages of their partnership he posed the question ‘was Lara any better when he was nineteen?’. Of course, nobody knew, but it was pretty obvious that, as players went, Chanderpaul wasn’t bad.

I first saw him in the flesh at Taunton, early in the West Indies tour of England in 1995. Apart from the way he stood at the wicket, the thing that first struck me was the contrast between the way he looked and the way he batted. Seeing him line up, all spiky limbs, furrowed brow and jumpy, unorthodox stance, you fancied him as a journeyman blocker. Then you saw him hit the ball.

In spite of the way he appeared, there was a co-ordinated ease of timing and speed of reaction about Chanderpaul which immediately marked him out as a class player. Anything full was defended with a straightness of bat which belied his whippy, angular backlift, while anything over-pitched and drifting towards his pads would be turned through the leg side with perfect timing, left hand firmly in control. Anything short would be cuffed through midwicket, the same left hand keeping the ball on the ground. The scoreboard always seemed to be ticking over.

Throughout the seventeen years that have since passed, Chanderpaul has remained the impregnable, impassive, rock upon which the fragile West Indies batting has been anchored. Even before Lara retired he was one of the three go-to men for crease occupation and run-hunger in the world, with only the more widely-lauded Rahul Dravid and Jacques Kallis anywhere close. But then Chanderpaul always had a counter-intuitive ability to take attacks apart which those two simply didn't have, and, while as he has grown older and more careworn because of his team's decline he has become more defensively obstinate, the strokes remain there, and, on a good day, when the situation demands, they can still be seen. An overall Twenty20 strike rate of 107, and the memory of innings such as this tell you all you need to know about that aspect of his game. If you need to know more you can just think about the fact that he has batted for more than 1000 Test match minutes without being dismissed on four occasions.

After he had defied England in defeat with unbeaten innings of 128 and 97 at Lord's in 2004, I was hanging around in the pavilion at the game's end when Chanderpaul came down the stairs from the West Indian dressing room. He was later than most of his team-mates, and you fancied that he had taken the defeat a bit harder than the rest. He cut a slight, childlike, pre-occupied figure, and there was more than a hint of distance and unease in his eyes as he prepared to face the crowd of fans outside the pavilion door. What this suggested, and the years since have done nothing to diminish the impression, was that Chanderpaul doesn't really like recognition, or adulation, or confrontation; he simply loves to bat. In fact, he exists to do so.

Watching him against Australia recently, especially in the field, you couldn't help thinking, as with Ponting, about the things he'd seen. This is a man who played with Desmond Haynes, and Richie Richardson, and Courtney, and Curtly, and Brian, who began his career at a time when the West Indies still had a hint of invincibility about them. A man who has done more than anyone else to stem the tide of decline but who has been forced to give best to it time and again while still coming back for more, mainly, you suspect, because he knows no other way.

Next week he will be back in England for his sixth tour. Despite the presence in the side of a young batsman of obvious quality in Darren Bravo, it will be down to him to hold his side together. And in an English early season, with Anderson or Broad or Finn or Bresnan or Onions coming at them, they'll need some holding.

With Chanderpaul, though, you know that there will be no self-pity or reflection or world-weariness. He will not lament his fate.

He will, simply, bat. It is what he does.


A Vague Feeling of Concern

My name is Brian. I like cricket.

Although I still like to think of myself as relatively young, I have been watching cricket for forty years. In many ways my life, especially during the English summer months, is dominated by cricket. I have to wash, and dress, and eat, and work for a living, but cricket is always somewhere near to the forefront of my mind. I've been going to Test and county matches regularly since 1975, and to say that I've watched a lot of cricket on television would be a ridiculous understatement. It would be a bit like saying that Sachin Tendulkar could just about hold a bat, or that Don Bradman made the odd run at a decent average.

I've read many cricket books and I've also been known to write about the game.

For all this, though, I have never seen a match in the Indian Premier League.

I've seen bits of it, of course, but never a complete game. In its formative years it was broadcast on Setanta and I didn't have a subscription. Therefore, I never got into the habit of watching it, and, now that I can see it, I find that I don't really want to bother. Besides which, I am always at work when the matches are taking place and I haven't yet managed to find a job in which I am allowed to watch cricket.

So, largely, it goes on without me.

I have heard about it, though. And I'm not sure I like it.

S.A.Rennie's recent piece Gamechangers, put some of the obvious concerns in typically punchy and elegant fashion:

'The death of Test cricket has been predicted before, and fair enough, it is still with us, but one could also say it’s these continually raised concerns that have reminded us of how much in the way of tradition and history we stand to lose. The erosion, though, has now reached a point of insidious acceleration. Pietersen was bought during the transfer window for this year’s IPL by Delhi in a deal reportedly worth US$2.3 million. For becoming the number one Test team, England received a cheque for US$175,000. Add to that the increasing frequency of two-Test series and the cancellation – sorry, “postponement” until 2017 – of the ICC Test Championship, and while it’s not quite barbarians-at-the-gates stuff, Test cricket’s fortifications could definitely do with some strengthening.

I do enjoy the IPL, albeit in moderation – like the coke-snorting yuppie who gatecrashes your party and drinks all your champagne, it does tend to go on a bit. I’m all for embracing change and accept that the game must adapt in this current economic climate. But some things are so valuable, you cannot measure them in money, and you cannot tear down a load-bearing beam in your house because the woodworm have taken a chomp at it and it doesn’t quite fit in with your snazzy new decor. It’s all about balance. Sure, you could probably make a home in the rubble if you needed to, but would you really want to live there?'

I concur with this. As I said earlier, I like to think of myself as being as young and trendy as the average forty-six year-old who remembers Stuart Binny's father bowling England out (which isn't very young or trendy, of course), and I don't have a problem with T20 per se. In fact, when you get home from work on a gloomy June evening and you just want to slump on the sofa and watch some six-hitting, good old English Twenty20 (the original, if not the best) fits the bill very nicely.

It's just that it's the long-form game that I see most of and which I prefer. And, in England, Test matches are still important. Lots of people, some of whom are sober, go to them and they are an indelible part of the nation's sporting fabric. Round my way, County Championship cricket even draws groups of people large enough to be termed crowds. It matters.

Is this still the case in India?

The IPL chimes with contemporary India's perception of itself as a vibrant, thriving, commercially articulate democracy. Increasingly, you have to wonder whether Test cricket, with its recent overtones of decay and repeated humiliation, can ever be made to feel important there again. The IPL is India, modern and highly educated, the world at its feet and at its cricket grounds. Test cricket carries echoes and reminders of a less glorious past. For every cover-driven six (Or 'DLF maximum'. See, I've absorbed the language by osmosis.) by Sachin Tendulkar that hints at the game's (and, by extension, India's) glamorous future there are Praveen Kumar's stumps being shattered by Stuart Broad, which hints at the past, a past where India are 0 for 4 at Headingley or they are bowled out for 42 at Lord's, or it is Sabina Park and half the team is injured as they slide to defeat.

In England the future of the longer game appears assured by a respect for tradition that can be hard to define and explain. In India, it seems (and, writing from distance, I may be wrong), this is a feeling that is not so pervasive or strong. The IPL is modern, it is brash, it is glamorous and it is commercially successful in the free market. For that it is king. Test cricket, in its turn, is left to wither on the vine.

And, increasingly in cricket, where India leads, others follow.

And I'm not sure I like it.


Taunton, Early Season

It is early in April. A long way away, on an island off the south-eastern coast of India, England are playing a Test match against Sri Lanka.

There it is fiercely hot and sappingly humid. At least once in every hour the players take drinks in an attempt to guard against dangerous dehydration.

This is contemporary Test cricket. Except when England are playing, few people watch, but the match is urgently covered by the multi-faceted beast that is the modern media. People, some of whom have even played the game to a high standard, observe what is happening, analyse it and write about it for newspapers, for magazines, for websites. They talk about it on television and on radio. They blog and they tweet. Sometimes, for them, the temperature becomes hard to bear and they complain about the air conditioning in the press box. In a sense they are lucky, but in another they are not to be envied. They are missing the start of the county cricket season.

I am not there. I might wish to be, but I cannot afford to take the time away from work or pay the air fare. No, I am in a small town in the provincial south-west of England, waiting in vain for Somerset’s first match of the 2012 County Championship to start.

The sky over Taunton is a deep cast of grey. Indeed, at times, it barely appears to be properly light. It is also raining. Not very hard - for every English cricket follower knows proper rain all too well - but with too much momentum and persistence to allow a prompt start. It is also jarringly, numbingly, sickeningly, cold. Unlike at the P.Saravanamuttu Stadium, nobody is removing any items of clothing. Instead they are wearing gloves, scarves and coats in an attempt to protect themselves from the north-easterly wind. For many, as a futile final line of defence, a blanket is draped across their knees. The last two weeks of March, when the sun shone incessantly from an azure sky, is a now a distant and unreliable memory.

We are among the faithful. Most of these people will have waited all winter for this, anticipating the time when they can fill their trusty old bags - and many, like their owners, have seen much better days - with their flasks, their sandwiches and their printed works of statistical reference. Indeed, interest in events in Sri Lanka is only lukewarm, but, when an announcement over the public address system informs the ‘crowd’ that the 2012 edition of the Playfair Cricket Annual has just been delivered and is available to be bought from the shop, a murmur of anticipation ripples around the ground. These are people who know what they like and what gives them pleasure.

After the rain stops, the players tentatively make their way on to the field to warm up. For the game’s native Englishmen the conditions are familiar, if far from pleasant, but for a man such as Vernon Philander, born and bred on the Western Cape of South Africa, they are alien and strange. He moves slowly and tentatively, as if fearing that to break into even a brief trot is to invite his taut bowler’s muscles to rebel. But within a while, he, and his new team-mates, are ready to play.

Somerset win the toss and invite Middlesex to bat. On the first afternoon of the game the London county lose four wickets, three of them to Philander, who exhibits the virtues which have enabled him to make an exceptional start to his Test career. But these virtues are, in fact, unexceptional and old-fashioned. He bowls at a brisk fast-medium and hits an off-stump line with painstaking, repetitive accuracy. Occasionally he will move the ball away just enough to pass or catch the edge of the bat and he gains plenty of bounce from the responsive pitch.

Only thirty-six overs are possible before the umpires decide that it is too dark to play on. However, to most people in the ground, the light is no worse than it was when play started and there is a suspicion that the men in white coats simply want to put everyone, themselves included, out of their misery.

The following day, Good Friday, dawns bright, but it is still cold. I recklessly decide to spend the first session of the day sitting in the Old Pavilion, where the re-upholstered cinema seats afford a peerless view of the cricket, but I am compelled to leave when my fingers and toes start to go numb. Whatever the difficulties experienced by the England bowlers as they try to work their way through the determined Sri Lankan batting in far away Colombo, frostbite is not among them.

Somerset make relatively short work of the Middlesex batting and begin their own first innings fluently. They are pegged back when Arul Suppiah and the seemingly invulnerable Marcus Trescothick are dismissed, but Nick Compton and Craig Kieswetter bring the innings round, first slowly and then with increasing fluency, as the day fades to the gloom and cold of early evening.

Compton, playing against his former county, bats with a self-conscious diligence which his illustrious grandfather can rarely have emulated, although any bad balls are dismissed with power and timing to spare.

Kieswetter is different. His crouched stance is slightly ungainly, but, as he begins to feel more secure at the crease, he plays a series of cuts and drives which are distinctive for their clean, unfettered, timing and power. Like his partner he learned to bat on the hard, true pitches of South Africa, but, in his case, it is instantly noticeable. Natural batting class can be hard to define, but you always know when you’ve seen it.

On the following day play is again shortened by the weather but Somerset manoeuvre themselves into a dominant position, with Kieswetter making 83 and Compton finally falling for 99. On Easter Sunday the game is won.

It has been said before, but watching English county cricket is still, for those who love and respect it, one of the finest sporting experiences available in Britain. Crowds are never large - though they are usually larger than the sceptics would claim - and standards are never what they were, but a day or two at a ground such as Taunton gives you a sense that you are inhabiting an oasis, away from all the world’s madnesses.

The game has a lineage that goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century, and, while they may not realize it - modern professional sporting culture allows little time for contemplation or sentimentality - the players, in their sponsored whites and their sunglasses, are the heirs to the tradition of Grace, Hobbs, Mead, Woolley, the Langridges and so many more. We, the spectators, are the ones who have the time to consider such things, but it is the players themselves who inherit the tradition and maintain it.

And it’s worth something. Even when it’s really, really cold.



If this long and miserable winter for England's Test team has a recurring theme beyond the obvious one of being skewered by spin, it is the fact that, if you believe what you hear on TMS or on Sky, they've contrived to be repeatedly dismissed by a series of people who, by our, English, oh-so-elevated standards, can't really bowl.

During the Galle demise we had both Geoff Boycott (who at least has some experience of batting against quality bowling to fall back on) and Charles Colvile (who hasn't) dismissing the Sri Lankan attack as a scattergun collection of pedestrian journeymen. While there may be an element of truth in this - Sri Lanka obviously no longer have anyone of the calibre of Murali or Vaas and have suffered for it - they were still too good for a hot and bothered England team that swept too much, too soon and to the wrong balls, weren't (with the magnificent exception of Jonathan Trott) prepared to tough it out and finished the game with their 'World Number One' status beginning to fade into the seaside dust almost as quickly as Andrew Strauss's reputation as an opening batsman.

Boycott, of course, has previous. Shortly before he started to go through England in the UAE in January he had described Abdur Rehman as little better than a club bowler (and, in the insulated and often condescending world of the professional cricketer turned pundit, there are few greater insults).

Herath and Rehman may not be up to much, but, if they are, where on earth does that leave England's batsmen?

The reality, of course, is more nuanced. Sure, in the world of Lock or Wardle or Underwood, neither Herath nor Rehman would be bowlers who should scare anybody, but it's hardly as if the majority of England's batsmen inhabit such a bygone world either. Years of batting on uncovered roads against spinners of limited guile and variation in circumstances in which fast scoring is all, have seen to that.

Herath and Rehman can bowl. That either of them has played Test cricket with any success at all is testament to that, and they have done so for countries with rich spin bowling heritages.

Their efforts deserve a little more respect than they've been given. No wonder, in virtually any sport you can name, everyone who doesn't come from England thinks we're superior and arrogant.

Very often we are.


The Abrupt Death of Hope

Ten years ago this evening, during the morning session of the third day of a Test match between New Zealand and England in Wellington, I was standing in my kitchen listening to Test Match Special when Christopher Martin-Jenkins announced that Ben Hollioake had been killed in a car crash.

English cricket seemed a quiet, stunned place for a long time afterwards.

As the superb Barney Ronay has recently written, in the mind's eye Ben Hollioake will always be the charmingly insouciant kid who effortlessly took the attack to Steve Waugh's Australians in 1997. However, he then struggled to define a place for himself in an England team which still laboured in the shadow of years of failure, and his memory captures a time, now easily forgotten, when Australia seemed omnipotent and any brief shaft of light amid the gloom was seized upon and grasped for more than it was perhaps worth.

In the last summer of his life I saw Ben Hollioake play in a one-day international against Australia at Bristol. It was Owais Shah's debut and he partnered Hollioake to a coruscatingly promising unbroken stand of 70 at the end of the England innings, before, as usual, Australia took the game away from them through a century of crushing, inviolable certainty by Ricky Ponting.

But there were fragile shafts of hope. It was easy, too easy, to find yourself wondering what Hollioake might achieve if he could ever find consistency.

If he had lived, Ben Hollioake would now be thirty-four. His career would probably be winding down, if it hadn't long been lost to the winds of the off-field world and its temptations. It's impossible to know what he might have achieved, but, had he lived to reach the latter years of the Fletcher era and experience the captaincy of Michael Vaughan, he might just have been among the England players who celebrated in Trafalgar Square on 13th September 2005.

And if he hadn't, there's a stronger likelihood that he would have formed part of the England one-day side for many a year. A good few of the thousands of excellent runs made by a man who also made his debut for England in the summer of 2001, Paul Collingwood, might instead have been scored by Ben Hollioake.

But if all else had failed, there does seem to be one near-certainty. Unless something very strange and unforeseen had happened, Ben Hollioake would have become one of the very best Twenty20 players in the world. The game might have been invented for him, with his easy yet powerful strokeplay, effortlessly fast bowling and athletic fielding. Success with Surrey, and for England, and the riches of the IPL would surely have been his.

Of course, given the fragile, if massive, nature of his talent, all the promise may simply have faded. But, for an England fan of a certain vintage, Ben Hollioake, and the icy suddenness of his passing, represented the abrupt death of a little bit of hope.

As The Guardian headlined its report of his funeral:

'So long, Benny boy, you were special'.


A Serious Player

In July 2011, after watching Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in the Long Room at Lord's prior to their post-lunch duel with the England attack, I wrote this about Dravid:

'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.'

Seriousness - not in the sense of humourlessness but of mental and emotional rigour and precision - often seems to have little place in the modern game. In the age of Twenty20, different virtues are celebrated, and the ability simply to repel bowlers without hitting them for four or six every other ball isn't usually one of them.

For Rahul Dravid, batting was a serious business. Of the great modern Indian trinity he never had the flair or the aura of Tendulkar, nor the elegance or relative unpredictability of Laxman. But, when all is said, he was every bit as good - in the case of Laxman you'd have to say he was better - and as important for the game in his country, and the world, as either of them.

My own relationship with Dravid goes back to his first tour of England in 1996. In my mind's eye I can still see him working the ball around against the Gloucestershire attack while on the way to 86 not out at Bristol. The bowling is largely weak but the impression is of a neat, controlled - yes, serious - young player, if not one who is going to become one of the world's best batsmen.

A few weeks later I am in the Tavern Stand at Lord's when Dravid is dismissed for 95 in his first innings in Test cricket. He immediately becomes a name to watch.

A few years later I am at Bath watching Somerset play Kent. Dravid holds the Kent batting together and the clean lines of his strokeplay, even his many forward defensives, match the exquisite architecture of the city which surrounds the ground.

Then I am at Lord's last summer and he is going out with Tendulkar and returning a few hours later with a century to his name. It feels like a swansong, but we aren't to know that he will do the same, and better, at Trent Bridge and the Oval in the coming weeks.

At first on the 2011 tour he is overshadowed by the attention given to Tendulkar, who has ninety-nine international centuries to his name and is expected to make it a hundred soon. But this passes as people are reminded - or shown for the first time - what a great batsman Dravid is.

I am well aware of how good he is, but one stroke confirms this. When he has about sixty, during the Trent Bridge hundred, he plays out a prolonged defensive duel with Graeme Swann, who is bowling a penetrating line. Dravid does what he has done to many bowlers over many years; he sees out all the good balls, but, as soon as Swann drops errantly short, he rocks on to his back foot and eases the ball through the covers for four with a completely straight bat and an alchemic combination of timing and power. It is a stroke of such class and timing - both in the sense of the way he strikes the ball and the way it fits into the structure of his innings - that it's obvious that this is a batsman as good as any to have played international cricket in a very, very long time.

Tendulkar's words on Thursday, when he said 'I will miss Rahul in the dressing room and out in the middle. All I can say is there was and is only one Rahul Dravid and there can be no other', were touching and true. In the context of the Indian team, one of Dravid's many significances was that he became, along with Laxman and Sehwag, one of the players who mitigated the weight of expectation on Tendulkar's shoulders as the team moved from the era of Azharuddin into the era of Ganguly, and a time when they could challenge the best, both at home and away. And the legend that is Sachin Tendulkar's career would not now appear quite so legendary without the reassuring presence of Rahul Dravid.

It is a cliché, but, when people like this retire, or even die, people say things like 'we shall not see his like again'.

This time it is true. With the way cricket is going, we probably won't.


Defining an Era

Vivian Richards was, is, a proud and unusually gifted man, defiant and mentally impregnable. Like the team with which he dominated the world between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, he was the best of the best of the best.

And the late Runako Morton, another Leeward Islander, with all his wasteful indiscipline and squandered talent, could equally be seen to represent all that has gone wrong with the Caribbean game.

I never bowled to Richards (thank God) and I've never met him, so it's impossible for me to match the sublimely recalled memories of Mike Selvey and The Old Batsman, but, throughout my cricketing childhood and adolescence and young manhood, he was always there.

When he made 291 at an implausibly brown and parched Oval in August 1976, I was ten years old. When, on the same ground, greener this time, he chipped a catch to Hugh Morris to bring his Test career to a close in 1991, I was twenty-five. I wasn't present on either occasion but I can remember exactly where I was and how I felt.

In between those times I was there for some of his greatest innings. The 138 not out in the 1979 World Cup final, concluded by flicking Mike Hendrick into the old Mound Stand with all the ease of a man on an Antiguan beach lifting a small child's best ball into the sea, or the unbeaten century against Surrey in the Benson and Hedges Final in 1981 when Sylvester Clarke became the first bowler we'd ever seen to truly, even slightly, hurry him. Later there was the decimation of England at Old Trafford and the time he took Warwickshire for 322 in the day at Taunton.

Even though I could always see how extraordinary Richards was, I was always just a little ambivalent about him. My elder brother idolised him but I had a preference for players who were just a little smoother and more technically measured. Greg Chappell, Old Trafford, 1977, Gavaskar, The Oval, 1979. They were my batsmen, but Richards was always there.

For people who were around then, Richards defines a world cricket era. You hardly need to think about the shots or the runs, just the rhythmic swagger of his walk to the wicket, and, as Selvey says, the signature, unnecessary tapping of the pitch which was usually the prelude to carnage.

Of course Runako Morton was no Richards, but, to have your five minutes of fame as part of the dying West Indies team of the 2000s, you didn't need to be. In 2007 he came to England and showed something of what he could do. He could have done more, but, like many a West Indies player of his era he came and went like a thief in the night, with few people noticing he had gone, their only memories his frequent brushes with authority.

This week Morton lost his life at the age of thirty-three and Richards celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Test players die young from time to time - since the turn of this century Trevor Madondo, Ben Hollioake, Manjural Islam and Morton - and old cricketers reach sixty all the time.

This conjunction, though, has deeper resonances with the past.

Richards will never really be old, and the West Indies will never really be great again.


The Man on the Train

In thinking about great English batsmen the other day, my thoughts turned to Peter May. Not because I remember seeing him play - his first-class career ended more than two years before I was born - but because he tends to be the player most readily named when people talk about England's last truly great batsman.

This may or may not be right. It's a matter of opinion after all, and I favour David Gower, a player I certainly did see and whose style is simply unmatched by anyone in the world these days. But, if you examine the figures and read and listen to the testimonies of those who watched him, it's obvious that May was a very, very good player.

And whenever I think of Peter May, because I don't have any memories of games or innings to sustain me, I think of a time in the late eighties and early nineties when, for a couple of years, I commuted into London from the suburbs to go to work and to college.

Apart from the day of the Clapham Junction disaster, I have few lasting memories of the journeys which I took then. However, on a number of occasions, I saw Peter May.

He worked in the City and lived somewhere in Surrey or Hampshire. He wasn't a regular on my line but one day something went wrong with the trains and I noticed that he was sitting in my carriage.

When we arrived at Waterloo Station and the train emptied, May remained seated in the corner, seemingly happy to wait for it to be completely empty before he made his departure. Although I considered making an approach I realized that there would be little I could say beyond the banal. All I knew was that he was Peter May, and some of the broad details of his career. I didn't remember anything of his playing days and so had no personal context (apart from some of his later eccentricities while an England selector) in which to place the encounter.

But at least I knew who he was. To everyone else he was just another nondescript commuter, and I was seized with a strange desire to tell everyone that this was a man who had once made 285 not out in a Test match.

But I didn't. They wouldn't have been impressed, and May, who gave off an almost tangible air of reticence - a sort of reverse charisma - would just have been embarassed.

I left the train.

On another occasion I was in an upstairs bar at Waterloo when May walked in, ordered a drink and stood at the bar in complete solitude and silence while he drained his small glass before thanking the barman and turning on his heel. This was obviously a man who felt that he had received enough applause and attention in his life. The lowest of low profiles suited him.

Some years later I was in Australia watching England when May's death was announced. He was remembered with affection there and the flags at the MCG, where, precisely forty years before, he had made 91 to set up Australia for Tyson's demolition, flew at half mast.

I don't think he would have enjoyed the attention.

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