24.11.13

Riding for a Fall

In cricket, as in life, times change. Teams, empires, rise and fall.

In early February 2009, England were bowled out for 51 by the West Indies at Sabina Park, Jamaica, to lose by an innings and 23 runs.

I wrote about it here.

Strauss was new as captain, Flower as coach. It was a time of flux and unease. Despite evisceration in Australia in 2006-7, the 2005 Ashes triumph was still relatively fresh in the memory. England followers had received a taste of the promised land, quickly followed by a dose of hard reality.

Then came retrenchment, rebuilding, discovery, hope and triumph.

For a time in 2011, it was possible to believe that here was a team for the ages. As an apogee, 7th January 2011, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, has it. A cathedral of Antipodean cricket is packed to the rafters with singing English fans and fellow travellers as Australia, a weak shadow of the team which had bestrode and defined an era, slides to their third innings defeat in four matches. Later in the year, India are humiliated at home.

There is a sense, though it is illusory and in some quarters self-congratulatory, that cricket has come home. England, for so long whipping boys, are now on top of the world. They have batsmen who can accumulate as few in the modern world can - Cook, Trott - they have technicians of style and brilliance - Bell - and they have an artist of unadulterated and unconventional genius in Kevin Pietersen. They also have a wicket-keeper batsman who can bend any attack in the world to his will, skilled, aggressive, penetrative seamers and an exceptional spinner. They have all bases covered. This is a team which can lose a Test match in the arid heart of India and come back to win the series. This is a team which can win an Ashes series 3-0 when playing far from its best. There is a feeling among some that this is a team that can do anything.

They are manifestly wrong. That way hubris lies.

On the eve of their next Test series, the airwaves in Britain are full of former players predicting an easy series victory for England. Despite the persuasive evidence of the danger he poses (his potent bowling in the one-day international series in England just two months ago has been instantly forgotten), fans who should know better (and now they do, boy they really do) are dismissing Mitchell Johnson as though he, a man with more than 200 Test wickets, cannot bowl. The team's support staff are issuing prescriptive and precious demands about how and when their players should be fed. In some senses this is a cricket culture, if not a team, that is riding for a fall.

On the first day in Brisbane it carries on. Michael Clarke, unquestionably a great batsman, pops one to short leg off Broad and people are questioning his future. It is implied that Broad can get him out as and when he wishes. Two days later, the same people are uncomfortably aware that he cannot.

Late on the game's third day, Jonathan Trott, for so long a byword for imperturbability and remorseless consistency, plays a short innings of such panicky impermanence that his dismissal to a truly dreadful stroke comes as an inevitable but merciful release.

At the same time, both on the pitch and in the Gabba's stands, there is ample evidence of Australia's renewed aggression and self-belief. They have taken it from England for too long and now it is payback time. This is a cricket country to its soul.

For Flower's England, painfully reacquainted with the feeling that accompanies crushing defeat, the next few weeks will be the hardest many of their players have ever had to face.

20.11.13

At the Crossroads

It's often said that a player's career is 'at the crossroads'.

It's one of those aphorisms, - clich├ęs in fact - which should only be used with extreme care. To use it more freely is to dissipate both its meaning and its significance.

It was never used very often about Ian Bell.

Ian Bell, from his Warwickshire childhood, was always a prodigy. At sixteen he was described by the New Zealand Under-19 coach, Dayle Hadlee, as the best player of his age he'd ever seen (this was well into the era of Tendulkar, but presumably Hadlee never saw the young Sachin live), and his ascent to the England team in which he made his debut with a cultured 70 against the West Indies at The Oval in August 2004, was completed with as much ease as one of his innings. It was difficult to shake the feeling that here was someone very special, but the way in which a few of his predecessor prodigies in the England side - John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash - had found the step to Test cricket a trial in both mental and physical terms, encouraged caution. Anyone who thought otherwise was riding for a fall.

In Bell's case the fall came the following year, during the greatest Test series of them all. Bell, 23 now, was tormented by Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. He wasn't the first, and he wouldn't be the last, but his experience raised questions which had never arisen before.

In the years that followed, as England's off-field management went through its own period of transition - from Fletcher to Moores and eventually on to Andy Flower - Bell established himself in the side to an extent, but often failed to convince. He couldn't make runs under real pressure, they said. He only made centuries when another player had done so in the same innings. He wasn't a three, nor a four, people said, even though he made his fair share of runs in both positions. Was he a six? Or a five? After a run of relative failures while batting at three in 2008 and early 2009, he was dropped during England's last, unsuccessful, West Indies tour, before returning during the Ashes summer.

Thus began the second coming of Ian Bell.

In 2011, when consistent, implacable, high quality runs at home against Sri Lanka and India quickly followed performances of equal skill and assurance in Australia, it finally looked as though Ian Bell was becoming the player he had always threatened to be. There has always been an innate diffidence about his body language which has sometimes given an illusory impression of his character but there was now a welcome touch of arrogance; a sense that he was starting to realize how good he was, and how good he could be.

After that, though, his performances began to slip again, to the point where, as Australia arrived in England last summer, people were again starting to question him. These queries were triumphantly dispelled by Bell's three Ashes hundreds at Trent Bridge, Lord's and Chester-Le-Street, heady combinations of fine defensive technique, grace under pressure and as wide a range of textbook strokes as has been seen from an English batsman since the post-war heyday of May and Cowdrey.

Now, on the eve of his sixth Ashes series, it can be argued that Bell's career once more stands at a crossroads. His performances in 2013 have firmly established him as one of the finest English batsmen of the modern era, even though he lacks the defining charisma and daring of Kevin Pietersen or the insatiable run-hunger of Alastair Cook.

This, though, is a batsman with the physical and technical resources to be truly great; in the era of power bats, diminished bowlers and slumbering pitches, he should be averaging in excess of 50. His current mark of 46, coloured by too many early dismissals, fails to do him justice.

Over the next seven weeks, from Brisbane to Sydney, Bell has a golden opportunity to take another series of steps towards being the player he always promised to be.

As always, if he gets through the early overs, he, along with the series, will be desperately worth watching.

16.11.13

Confronting the Future

What is there to say about Sachin Tendulkar that hasn't been said already?

Nothing.

So, what to do as his career slips into the past? Say something that everyone else has said in a million different ways on countless occasions - Tendulkar is the greatest batsman of all time (not for me), Tendulkar is God (well, not if you're really paying attention), Tendulkar has profoundly affected my life (Oh no. Cricket itself has, but Tendulkar is not the game.) - or try to say something different?

The latter is much the most attractive option, but it isn't easy to do.

It feels like a strange and slightly dirty thing to admit to at a time when expressions of unconditional admiration are the norm, but I've always had a slightly ambivalent relationship with Sachin Tendulkar. The first time I ever heard his name was in 1988 when Bill Frindall brought Test Match Special listeners the news of his unbroken partnership of 664 with Vinod Kambli in the Harris Shield. There was interest in this, even a fair bit of astonishment, but it didn't stick in the mind. The easy tendency was to ascribe it to the old Indian tradition of dead pitches and mountainous scores and move on. I didn't necessarily think I'd ever hear much about either of them again.

Then came the Test debut, news fragments filtering through from Pakistan in the days before Cricinfo, even before the Web itself, when following Test matches outside England in which England weren't playing was a difficult and random business. I can't remember whether I knew about Tendulkar's early tussles with Imran and the rest until my copy of Wisden Cricket Monthly arrived weeks later, but it's possible that I didn't. There was a lot happening - I was a London student, the Berlin Wall was coming down and England weren't going to the West Indies until the new year - and the fact that a sixteen year-old had made his debut for India didn't stand out. These things happened from time to time.

Then England, 1990. Tendulkar was here, this we knew, but how much significance his appearance held was yet to be established. Once more, fragments of memory paint the picture. In this case a breathless radio report of him lifting Ian Bishop over the row of trees east of the square at Derby as he strode to a match-winning hundred. I knew those trees, I knew Ian Bishop and I knew that what he was doing was extraordinary. He had to be seen.

Later in the month he was, up on tiptoe to lacerate Chris Lewis through the covers as India chased a forbidding England total down in a Trent Bridge one-dayer, then, for the first time live, looking like a little boy lost in the field as Gooch and Lamb stacked up the runs on the first day at Lord's. Runs didn't come then, and in Lord's Tests they never would, but the Old Trafford hundred did, on a day when I was travelling from London to Newcastle and back for a job interview. With Italia 90 a few short weeks in the past, the north-east zeitgeist was dominated by talk of Paul Gascoigne, and, once again, Tendulkar slipped into the background. In the short term there were more important things to do; in the long term, it was obvious, there would be many other opportunities to witness his virtuosity.

For years these came and went. Usually via television, but at others from the power of the printed word and the observations of those who had shared grounds with him. In 1996 I saw him bat live for the first time, on the day when Dravid and Ganguly began to redefine Indian batsmanship for the new millennium. Tendulkar went early. In 2002, in 2007 and in 2011 it was the same: Lord's would never bend to his will as so many other grounds did.

In 2002 I finally saw him make a century. 113 against Sri Lanka under lights at Bristol. It was magnificent, of course, but it was also somehow bloodless. Its ease was its weakness. As with so many things that rely on the distillation of feeling, definitions are hard to shape, but at the heart of the reason why, in the age of Tendulkar and Lara, I was always a Lara man, was that Lara's genius was more flamboyant, more visible, more immediately evident. With Tendulkar the difficult could look just too easy. It could look like perfection beyond emulation. With Lara you could feel as though you could at least try to do what he did, although you would obviously fail. It was genius with vulnerability.

However, Tendulkar had his moments.

Of all the thousands of recordings of Tendulkar's batting which can be found on YouTube, my favourite is the one which currently lies at the top of the list of results if you type 'Sachin Tendulkar Brett Lee' into the search box.

It is a film of the last five balls of an over bowled to Tendulkar by Brett Lee early in India's reply to an Australian total of 159 in a one-day international at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 10th February 2008. The target is comparatively modest but Sehwag has just been dismissed, and Lee is bowling like the wind.

The second ball of Lee's second over is full, a little too full, on off-stump. Tendulkar stands tall - or as tall as he, always a small man, is able to - and drives it through the off-side with more than a hint of excess force. His bat cuts slightly across the ball - as Slater says, it's 'a little bit slicey' - but it runs to the boundary for four and he is away. This, though, gives Lee hope, as there was a small hint of falseness about the stroke and its relative lack of timing. As he retreats to his mark, Lee smiles ruefully. There is nothing for it but to run in again and give it even more.

The next ball is even quicker and once again it pitches around off-stump, with a little too much length for the bowler's comfort. That said, if the batsman is anyone other than one of the very best, it is possible that the ball's naked pace will be enough to deny the attacking shot its timing and fluency. It is instructive that here Tendulkar doesn't worry too much about getting his feet in the right place - the speed of the ball makes that harder even for him - but he doesn't need to, as he sees the ball early, assesses that it can be hit for four and simply throws his hands through it. Of course - and in this context here is the real expression of his genius - the timing is utterly perfect. The ball connects briefly, oh so briefly, with the middle of Tendulkar's bat and rockets back past Lee faster than it arrived. By the time Lee has completed his follow-through the ball is twenty or thirty yards behind him, heading for the rope. Ponting and Hayden, impassive and hard to impress or intimidate, stand up straight in the slips as the ball slides away. They have seen everything the game has to offer, but it is obvious from their expressions that they are concerned. They have seen Tendulkar take games away from them before.

The third ball is quicker still, but shorter and straighter. By most standards it is a good comeback. Tendulkar, with an ease which again belies the pace with which the ball is arriving in his half, defends on the back foot. The message sent to Lee is one of unassuming defiance. It says to him that even his best, his fastest, is not enough to trouble Tendulkar when he is in this mood.

Lee relishes the challenge, though, and he comes again. His pace is down a little here but it is of no consequence. The fourth ball is much straighter, and for a brief instant Lee must hope that he will force Tendulkar into defence again. Unfortunately for him the ball is too full. In fact, this time, it is a half-volley on middle and leg. While, once more, the pace might be too much for a lesser player, it is nothing to Tendulkar. The bat face is presented full, the right hand comes in and the wrists stiffen on impact to send the ball back straight but slightly to the leg side of the bowler's stumps. As someone once said, it is four 'from the moment it left the bat'.

Lee looks chastened now. The final ball of the over is slightly shorter and keeps a little low off the pitch. Even Tendulkar cannot hit this for four, and he bends at the knees and defends it out short on the leg side. He nods his head in a brief, unfeigned gesture of resignation, but he knows, and Lee knows, who has the upper hand.

Tendulkar is eventually dismissed for 44, but India win with comfort.

This is a vignette from the life and times of Tendulkar. There are many, many others, some captured on film and able to preserve the illusion of his immortality for ever, others simply lodged in the memories of millions. It offers a brief glimpse of the way in which he could play when mood and moment took him; as his fellow Mumbaikar Sanjay Manjrekar has recently written, in his youth, away from the intense pressure and responsibility of the international game, Tendulkar could score as freely, as quickly and as potently as anyone ever has. No target was ever safe.

This has been a player for all seasons and all ages.

Leaving aside the versatility of his skills, Tendulkar has been vitally important as a physical and psychological standard bearer for a developing country. Born just a quarter-century after independence, Tendulkar's life in cricket has coincided with a period during which his nation has changed in myriad ways. Like Bradman in post-federation Australia, he has represented his country to the world as its people have wanted it to be seen: brilliantly talented and endlessly resourceful, while retaining an essential modesty and dignity given to few.

And then there is the sheer duration of his career. As Ed Smith wrote this week, a measure which goes beyond mere chronology is the fact that when he began playing international cricket, the West Indies, the insipid wreck of a team against which he finished his career, were indisputably the best side in the world. In the time he has been playing, Australia have gone from being an average side to one of the greatest in the game's history and back again.

The maintenance both of form and focus over such a long period - under the greatest scrutiny any cricketer has ever had to endure - requires a man of rare ability and character. It has become commonplace to say that he has gone on too long and this is true, but, when playing cricket is all you have known, all you have excelled at and all you can imagine, it must be fearsomely difficult to confront the future.

Over his time in the limelight, his country has changed, the game has changed, and so has his team. This, in the artistic hands of Dhoni and Kohli and Pujara and Rohit, is destined to continue.

We have changed too. A whole generation and more of the game's followers throughout the world barely knows what it is like to see an Indian Test team take the field without Sachin Tendulkar.

Cricket reveres its history like no other game, and we have been living through history. In these days of easily lost perspective it is possible to sleepwalk into the feeling that cricket ends here. Of course, it does not. Long before Tendulkar there was the game, and the game will survive him long into the future.

We are all about to find out what the future tastes like.

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