No Show Pony

Leaving aside the white noise of hype and counter-hype which now accompanies every series during which the Ashes are at stake, the oldest international contest in Test cricket draws much of its enduring strength from its rich seam of events and memories.

If you can name it it has happened during an Ashes series: crushing wins and humiliating defeats, teams devising innovative strategies to hinder and humiliate their opponents, spectators assaulting players, teams losing after enforcing the follow-on, governments expressing their disapproval. In Ashes series, things happen.

In this, though, the 2013 series was an outlier. Contested by one side which was better than its opponents but which often failed to function as it knew it could, and another which tried valiantly - and occasionally succeeded - to overcome its inadequacies, it had its moments but, after a magnificent opening contest, it didn’t captivate in the way of most of its recent predecessors.

As always, though, players stood out. Apart from the muscular, highly skilled Ryan Harris, Australia’s successes are harder to define, but one of them was unquestionably Christopher John Llewellyn Rogers, a veteran left-hander from Perth who, for most of his recent adult life, must have felt that his chance to shine at the very highest level had gone for good, swept away in the blizzard of rare talent which kept his nation at the very summit of the world game for more than a decade. He was far from alone in this: batsmen of true quality, such as Matthew Elliott, Brad Hodge, Stuart Law and Martin Love only received brief tastes of life in the Baggy Green. Some were called back, but unlike Rogers, none stayed. In the short term at least, Rogers will.

For years and years, in his native Australia and in England, Chris Rogers has been around, making runs. Unobtrusive, often aesthetically jarring, but remorselessly reliable, he holds the attention for the way he doesn’t quite fit with the stereotypical mind’s-eye images of modern Australian batting. This is no Matthew Hayden, all bulging chest and biceps, repelling the opposition with raw power and naked self-belief, or David Warner, flamboyantly precise in his aggression, or Shane Watson, stubbornly reckless with both strokes and reviews. This is a man who puts the highest of high prices on his wicket and recognizes the value of the controlled push through the on-side, elbows kept close to the body, or the nudge behind square on the off-side. If the bowler fails to find the right line and length he will drive or cut with precision timing, his balance steady and his head still. He is a small, slight man, but his strokes lack nothing in power.

Rogers was never a prodigy and his thirty-sixth birthday looms. Although in recent English seasons he’s usually been found in the home dressing room at Lord’s wearing the Middlesex seaxes, he’s more familiar with the sparsely populated surroundings of Derby or Wantage Road than the world’s Test grounds. A show pony he is not.

In Australia's age of decline, the Ashes series of 2013 has given Rogers the chance, in his own understated way, to show the world what he can do.

Age and circumstances dictate that it will not last long, but it is no more than he deserves.


Little Boy Lost

The opportunity to play professional sport is granted to few.

This is the deal: You can carry on doing into adulthood something you've loved since you were old enough to walk and you will get paid for it. Unlike your friends you will not need to concern yourself with which university to go to, or how much money you will end up owing a student loan company, or how you will find a job with your meagre handful of qualifications.

That can wait.

If you can play cricket really well, while your friends are shuffling to their offices, shops and factories through the greasy English winter streets, barely awake in the half-light, you will be abroad. You will be travelling and playing your sport among the shimmering sunlit cities of Australia or the majestic beauty of New Zealand, or amid the palm fronds and azure seas of Sri Lanka or the West Indian islands.

And you will receive adulation for doing it. People will love and admire and applaud you for what you can do, even if, to you, it is nothing exceptional or unusual. It is simply what you do best.

Playing professional sport at the top is as good as life can get.

Nothing in life is perfect, though. Even this wonderful existence has its downsides. The fact that millions of people watch you doing your job can be one of these. If you have a bad day everyone knows about it. People you don't know, have never met, with whom you have little in common, will tell you what they think of you. At the worst, people's perceptions of you can be coloured for as long as you live.

Matthew Syed's thought-provoking book Bounce contains, among many other things, a chapter which examines some of the worst examples of choking under pressure that sport has seen, and explores the reasons why they happened: they include Greg Norman at Augusta, 1996, and Jana Novotna at Wimbledon, 1993. There are others. Until a couple of days ago, one example from the recent history of English cricket stood out: Scott Boswell's over soon after the start of the 2001 Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy final.

Then came Simon Kerrigan.

It's hard to imagine that Kerrigan had any idea until shortly before the match started that he would be playing in the most important match of his life, in front of the largest crowd of his career, with a group of people who, with just a few exceptions, he knew only from television. In this he was an innocent throwback to the age when underprepared, uneasy, inadequate, debutants were ten-a-penny in England teams.

His early overs were shocking, partly because of their sheer technical incompetence but also because everything you'd read and heard from those who'd seen him, and, more importantly, played with him, was that he was a confident, tough, aware, bowler.

But apparent confidence can be skin deep. Sudden fame and the eyes of millions can do strange things to people. From the time he began to turn his arm over Simon Kerrigan will always have been able to bowl well, and his first two overs in Test cricket were probably the worst he will ever have bowled. He will have wondered, silently, what was happening to him. He will have wanted to be elsewhere. Back playing with his mates, back playing for Lancashire, at Old Trafford or Aigburth, with the sun on his back and the ball coming out right without thought or effort.

Kerrigan had the demeanour of a little boy lost, and, until he gets the chance to redeem himself, this is the memory which too many people will retain. In England's age of tolerant, enlightened, consistent selection, there must be the hope that he will be persisted with, or at least, if he goes back to Lancashire and continues to take wickets, returned to. But such was the level of his stagefright, the concern is that even among the England management, his card will have been firmly marked.

If he gets another chance to bowl at Australia's batsmen in the next few days, the pressure will be even greater. He will know that a good many people, even if they are hoping otherwise, will be expecting him to fail. It will be up to him to confound their expectations, and, possibly, his own.

If he fails to do so - or if he doesn't get the chance - Simon Kerrigan could easily join the ranks of those England players - John Stephenson, and Joey Benjamin, and Allan Wells, among others, can tell the tale - who played their only game at The Oval and were never seen again.

Which would be very, very sad.

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