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.


Anonymous said...

Brian, I share your admiration for Trott. I became an unalloyed Trottophile at Lord's on the day made infamous by Amir & Asif's no balls. Trott's habits and single-minded accumulation give a sense of inflexibility. But I think he merits recognition for adaptability. Against Amir he batted 4, 5, maybe 6 feet out of his crease to counter the swing - truly brave given Amir's speed and sharp bouncer. At times when England's batsmen have struggled against spin - rooted to the crease with occasional charges down the track - Trott has shown how movement along the crease, riding the spin, stops the innings stagnating. He does look set to be one of those players whose retirement - and the hole it creates - makes him fully appreciated.

Brian Carpenter said...

I completely agree, Chris. I was there that day too, and in the evening I wrote this:


For all the criticism of his style I maintain that if he was English born and produced (in a cricket sense) and had a more easy manner, people would be going absolutely mad about him.

While it's true that figures aren't everything, his are pretty remarkable (even in the age of Cook).

As you say, if he was unexpectedly taken out of the side (it can happen - see Marcus of course) it would leave a massive hole.

Anonymous said...

I like this very much; "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."

Lovely bit of writing.

Interesting that you made you made a link between Trott and Trescothick in the comment above. Proved to be very prescient in time. I was at the test in Brisbane when Johnson effectively brought the curtain down on his career. An absolutely electric, predatory atmosphere unlike anything I have ever experienced at cricket before or since.

Brian Carpenter said...

Thanks again, Keith. The best thing about you posting comments on pieces from years ago is that it encourages me to read them again. At times, as with this one, I'm quite proud of them.

I think Trott's destined to remain one of those players who's usually overlooked in discussions of great English batsmen. Well, he was never quite great, but for a period of time he was exceptionally good.

His innings at Lord's on the day of the no balls was an unalloyed masterpiece. One of the best five hundreds made for England in the past forty years, in my view.

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