It Makes You Think

Last Tuesday it was exactly forty years since I went to my first game of professional cricket.

Makes you think, that.

The match was a John Player League game between Surrey and Warwickshire, and it took place at my local cricket club, Sunbury, in the far south-western corner of what used to be known as Middlesex. I was seven years old.

I can remember little about it, apart from the fielding side (Warwickshire, led by Alan Smith, his career as a TCCB bureaucrat still ahead of him) coming out of the low-slung pavilion (where, as a fourteen and fifteen year-old, I was later to change) with an old-fashioned static television camera pointing at them over the picket fence. I don't know why the camera has stuck in my mind, but it may have something to do with the fact that in those days the John Player League was a competition which owed much of its identity to television.

Although I have some hazy memories of the 1972 Ashes series, most of my cricket-watching up to that time had consisted of Sunday afternoons in the company of Peter Walker (the former Glamorgan player, not the man who at the time was a minister in Ted Heath's government), Jim Laker and John Arlott. For anyone who doesn't remember it, the John Player League's reputation was built on a combination of artificially shortened bowlers' runs, packed venues (which were very often club grounds) and pulsating matches. There was a whole match on BBC2 every Sunday afternoon. Until its lustre started to fade in the early eighties (which can be traced to the fact that more top-class sport was being played on Sundays and hence its television hegemony was lost) the John Player League was an absolutely central, wonderful, part of English sporting culture. The thought occurs, not for the first time, that it was Twenty20 before Twenty20 had been dreamt of.

I can recall precisely nothing of the action, but little reinforces the feeling of a bygone era more than the fact that the senior player on either side was a man generally known as MJK Smith, who was a former captain of England and who had made his first-class debut in 1951. Not only that, but, with his specs and his air of distracted academic diffidence, he now seems in the memory to exemplify the way the game was. Despite the billboards essentially advertising cigarettes (hard enough in itself to believe now), the ground, the stumps and the players' clothes were white and unsponsored. I doubt if anyone, least of all the likes of David Brown, Norman McVicker or Bob Willis, did much diving or sliding in the field.

In the era of the IPL, of saturation international cricket, of Cricinfo and of Twitter, it seems like a different world. The distant past invariably does. Perhaps the best way to capture this is to reflect on the fact that if someone was then the age I am now and was reflecting on having seen his first match forty years earlier, he would have been talking about a match that took place in 1933, the summer after Bodyline.

Now that really makes you think.


England's Bass Player

These days, it seems, whenever England play, whatever the weather, or the competition, or the format of the match, there is an unemotional man in his early thirties with a perpetual scowl on his face at the wicket. And he is making runs.

Jonathan Trott is a man who averages more than fifty in both senior formats of the international game. A man who has made thirteen international centuries, two of them doubles, and two other scores over 150. A man who has made Test centuries in England, in Australia, in New Zealand, in India and in Sri Lanka, mostly from number three. A man, in other words, who can really bat.

If you weren’t paying attention it could seem difficult to believe that his value is still doubted by so many. But if you know a little more about how the British choose their sporting heroes, it’s not quite so surprising.

The most obvious - but, in context, utterly relevant - thing to say about Jonathan Trott is that he is South African. Born on the Western Cape, schooled in the intensely competitive cricket culture of the Rainbow Nation with an English father for a coach, he was a relative latecomer to the county game. In this Trott is far from unique - Tony Greig, Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Kevin Pietersen, to name just four - trod a similar path in the years before him, but it remains central to the feeling that he isn’t embraced in the way that the natural born Englishmen with whom he shares a dressing room - Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Jimmy Anderson, Graeme Swann - are.

The players that came before him had other qualities. Greig an impulsive charisma and distrust of authority; Lamb a punchy, uncomplicated flamboyance; Smith a disarming, counter-intuitive reticence, coupled with an ability to roll with some of the hardest punches anyone ever had to take on a cricket field; Pietersen a complicated, unalloyed genius.

Trott, with his unfeigned seriousness and his fussy, uncompromising preparations, doesn’t feel the need to reassure people other than with the reliability of his batting. Because of this, his personality will never really chime with people in this country. We prefer a hint of vulnerability, of light and shade, of humour, to mechanical, rigorous excellence, even if it’s tempered by the best drive wide of mid-on that you’ll ever see.

There was a time, not so long ago, when any type of consistent excellence from an England batsman was a rare and wonderful thing. Now England have three batsmen who, in their differing ways, are as good as almost anyone else around. Pietersen, when fit and psychologically settled, is England’s flamboyant lead guitarist, Cook is the rhythm guitarist, setting and maintaining the tone, impossible to shake or dislodge, and Trott is England’s bass player. Always there, and all too often taken for granted.

Pietersen is an outlier, but there are obvious similarities in the ways in which Cook and Trott bat. Early on, judgement of line and sound defence are everything, but later, as the bowlers tire and fade, their errors are mercilessly exploited. However, there are also differences, and, aside from the fact that Trott bats right-handed and Cook left, these have their origins in the players’ varying characters and backgrounds. Trott, as the outsider desperate to underline his worth, plays with an aggression and combativeness which Cook, with his soft features, dark eyes and choirboy’s background, feels no need to emulate. Of course, Cook’s outward appearance belies his immense toughness of mind, but with him it is always the iron fist in the velvet glove. Trott doesn’t wear gloves.

These differences also have their bearing on the players’ popularity. Cook is a classically well-mannered young Englishman, Public School background worn lightly, eager to please. Trott doesn’t concern himself with pleasing anyone.

Then there are the statistics. At the time of writing, Trott averages a shade over fifty in Test cricket, with a strike-rate of 47, and more than 53 in ODIs, with a strike-rate of 77. It can reasonably be argued that there are times when he scores too slowly in the limited-over game, especially when batting at three, but this can be countered by pointing out that he simply scores runs across all formats with a consistency that is beyond almost all his team-mates. Occasionally, as late on the second day of the Leeds Test against New Zealand in May, Trott’s self-absorption clouds his judgement, but, most of the time, his instincts, his feel for the pace and rhythm of an innings, are sound.

What is better: to be at the wicket and scoring runs even if at a slightly slow rate, or to be sitting on the dressing room balcony? The answer will vary according to the circumstances of the match about which it is asked, but, most of the time, I’ll take the former.

Like Cook, and like Pietersen, Jonathan Trott is one of the best batsmen in the world today. Unlike the others he has neither the personal qualities to be truly popular, nor the character flaws to be truly interesting. Trott was a relatively late starter in international cricket and he is already thirty-two years old. Within the next two or three years it is possible - likely, perhaps - that his star will begin to fade. It is, in all probability, already too late. He will never be truly loved.

All he has are his runs. And, for now, they will do.

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