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.

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