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.

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