The old shibboleth which has it that there are only two certainties in life - death and taxes - missed one out. Or at least one that presents itself at the end of most working lives.


In cricket, as in most professional sports, retirement comes early. A cricketer departs the stage just as his peers are getting into their stride; he is required to pick up the pieces of his life - often an abruptly terminated adolescence - at just the time his school and university mates will be sorting theirs out.

Professional sport gives you the chance to do many things which most people will rarely, if ever, experience: you can earn your living - and by most people's standards it is a very good living - by doing something you love and would happily do for nothing; you will have regular opportunities to perform in front of crowds of people who will hang on your every action and applaud, even idolise, you if you do what you do well; you can travel the world (or at least the United Kingdom) and stay in the best hotels, with someone else picking up the tab. And in most cases you will do all this before you are thirty-five years old.

The payback is that you then have to start living your life all over again in the knowledge that nothing you do again will ever be so much fun.

In cricket, like life, retirements come and go. Some, such as that of Jacques Kallis, attract world-wide attention. Others, such as that of David John Grimwood Sales, who also announced his retirement this week, resonate a little less. Unless you've followed county cricket closely these past twenty years or so you may not have heard of David Sales. I have, though, and these are some fragments of his story.

David Sales grew up in Surrey. In his very early, and so talented, years, it seemed obvious that he would become a Brown Cap, but something I once knew about but which is now lost in the mists of time, went wrong, and he fetched up at Northampton. At Wantage Road. A venue never prominent in an England selector's diary, then or now. But it fitted Sales, and things started to happen.

70 not out in a Sunday League game at Chelmsford, aged 16, 1994. 210 not out in a championship match at Kidderminster, aged 18, 1996. 303 not out on his home ground, aged 21, 1999. 276, again at Northampton, in the first home championship match of 2000.

Sales could bat. This much was obvious, but, for all the scores, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that in these years England were a poor, turbulent, often rudderless side, he never seemed to be talked about too much as a potential international. Consistency was a problem, but what really set him back was the knee injury he suffered while playing beach volleyball on the England A tour of the West Indies in early 2001. It cost him a tour, and the whole of the following season, at a time in his career, anyone's career, when lost momentum can do terrible damage. He returned in 2002 but a season's average of 25 saw him fall back into the pack. Despite 7000 runs at 50 over the next six English seasons, double centuries scattered around like confetti on a windy day, he never left it.

In these lost years Wantage Road was a long way from my regular beat too and Northants never seemed to be on TV very much, so, in my mind's eye Sales remained an uncomplicated seventeen year-old in an England under-19 shirt on a clear blue day at Taunton in the summer of 1995, holding his own as he vied for attention with the likes of Trescothick, Flintoff and Alex Tudor, who charged in from the Old Pavilion End like our very own Walsh or Ambrose. In the seasons afterwards he often felt like a mirage: that player who once promised so much but who seemed destined to play his days out under leaden skies in soulless midlands towns. No matter how many runs he made, the vacancies weren't there, or, if they were, the selectors weren't looking in his direction.

Sales returned to my consciousness when he made a fine 70 against Middlesex at Southgate in a 40 over play-off game, late in the 2007 season. This was the Sales of legend: uncomplicated, technically sound, powerful and indefinably classy. But it wasn't enough. It never would be.

As with most players who were never given the opportunity to sample even the briefest taste of the international game, it's impossible to define or classify the reasons why with any certainty. A lack of form here, a lack of opportunity there. Injuries. Where they played. Everyone knows that historically it's been harder to get noticed by the selectors if you play for one of a number of counties. Broadly speaking these are those on the western fringes of the English first-class game - Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Somerset - and the unfashionable counties of the East Midlands - Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire.

Ask Don Shepherd, ask Alan Jones, ask Peter Trego, ask David Sales.
Other counties have players like this too. Once upon a time Hampshire had Peter Sainsbury; in Sales' own era Lancashire have had Glen Chapple.

If Sales, as he once seemed destined to, had spent his career at The Oval, he would probably have played for England.

Success at the highest level, or even having the chance to show what you can do, isn't everything, though. The county game, with its cultural richness, its history and its folklore, is a pretty good arena in which to spend the short years between apprenticeship and retirement.

There was a time when everything about David Sales - the prodigy's upbringing, the irresistible strokeplay and the massive scores - suggested that he would grace Test cricket. That he never did does not diminish Test cricket and it does not diminish him.

As he said this week: 'I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career...and whilst disappointed that I didn’t play at the very highest level, I will look back with pride at my achievements.'


Antidote to Madness

When people make definitive statements about places, or about books, or about people, there is always room for doubt, for contrary opinion.

Some you take, others you leave. Some you agree with, others you dismiss.

When people, as people often do, say that Lord's is 'the greatest cricket ground in the world', I tend to agree (Although that other familiar cliché 'the Home of Cricket' I'm less sure about. The Home of Cricket these days surely lies, literally or metaphorically, somewhere in India.).

I've been going to Lord's since the summer when Sunny Gavaskar batted through sixty overs for 36 not out. Today the ground, and the game, and the Indian cricket psyche, are very different. But they still fascinate and compel.

Friday 18th July 2014 is the hottest day of the British year. The mercury is in the low thirties - Lord's is a Fahrenheit sort of place, you feel, but these twenty-first century days Celsius is king - and, in the early afternoon, with the sky a deep and bottomless shade of blue, the fading vapour trails left by soaring aircraft traverse the sky. They, and the outside world they represent, seem abstract and separate, as they always do when cricket, even slow Test cricket, captures the attention.

The game is an antidote to the madness of the world.

Late the previous afternoon the news comes via Twitter that a civil airliner has been blown out of the sky over the Ukraine, probably by a ground-to-air missile. Then there is Gaza, where defenceless people are killed on a daily basis. Syria, where much the same thing has been happening for more than three years, has been temporarily relegated from the front pages, but it will, as surely as night follows day, return. These are examples of the lunatic chaos of a world in which millions of people have more important things on their mind - simple survival will do - than the outcome of a bat and ball game.

At Lord's, though, things are different, especially in the old Victorian pavilion and the adjacent Warner Stand. The talk is of the lives of sons, of daughters, of former pupils, of the price of London property, which, it seems, is rising faster than the shade temperature. In certain conversations there are deaths and serious, painful injuries, but these are the result of leisure time accidents, suffered while hiking, or skiing, or playing rugby; not of unavoidable exposure to terrorism or war.

During the hour before lunch in the Warner Stand the incessant chatter is punctuated by the sound of corks being forcibly expelled from champagne bottles. Such is their velocity, many of these end up on the beautifully manicured turf, which can often look more like a carpet than something composed of living, growing, grass. And, on a Sunday, when the pavilion fills with a younger class of member, with their pristine yellow passes and their sharp dress sense, the prevailing sensation for the older member is that of a friendless outsider at a public school reunion.

Lord's, with its hotchpotch of ancient and modern buildings, is a very different place from virtually any other cricket ground in the world. And, despite the heat, for the Indian players, brought up on the parched dustbowls of Uttar Pradesh or the cramped suburban fields of Greater Mumbai, that difference must seem especially pronounced.

But it is also welcome and inspirational. At different points in a match which remains even and compellingly contested until lunch on the last day, we are treated to the beautiful yet combative neatness of the Mumbaikar Ajinkya Rahane, and the versatility of Uttar Pradesh's Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a man who knows he can bowl but is finding out at international level that he also has an unsuspected gift for batting. Ishant Sharma, a man who has always looked to have the potential to take on the world but has rarely hinted at consistency, supplies the coup de grâce.

On the English side there are only poignancies and uncertainties and regrets. As the match hurtles to its conclusion on Monday afternoon, Matt Prior and Joe Root are both dismissed pulling the ball to deep fielders placed specifically for such errant shots. It is a kind of collective madness, based on the confidence deficit which repeated failure to win brings, and the uncertainty of the confused mind, brought low by injury and defeat.

As he leaves the field and walks slowly through the Long Room, Prior holds his head high. Although he surely knows, as we do, that not only has he played a poor shot but that it may be the last thing he ever does in an England shirt, he shows little remorse. He is the old warrior leaving the stage. Root, by contrast, can barely drag himself off the field, such is his obvious regret. For all his runs, Root is still a young pro who has yet to learn to guard his emotions. He wears his heart on his sleeve.

A short while later, with the game over and Alastair Cook, a drowning man clinging desperately to a sinking ship, answering Michael Atherton's questions with the same bland assurances we have heard so often before, the eye turns to Paul Downton, standing on his own, close to the pavilion gate. He looks around him with unfeigned seriousness, but you sense that he isn't seeing or hearing much.

He is wondering what on earth he has got himself into.


Local Boy Made Good

I wrote this last week for the Somerset supporters' site The Incider, where it appeared under the title 'Jos Comes Home'.

It is Sunday morning on the County Ground in Taunton, in England's lush south-west. The sky is an anaemic shade of grey, and, although the weather forecast is good, light rain begins to fall. As it does, the players of Somerset and Lancashire go through the elaborate warm-up routines which distinguish the modern professional cricketer from his predecessors. Some run after a football as a means of shedding Saturday night's sleep from their eyes, while others work on specific skills. They bat, they bowl, they catch, they field.

As the rain begins to get heavier, the players drift without purpose towards the Andy Caddick Pavilion. It is starting to look as though play will not start on time, and there seems little need to go through the motions. It is time for rest and contemplation. The toss, and play, will come later.

A young man with light brown hair, sharp, expressive eyes and the lithe, muscular build of the natural athlete moves among the Somerset players. His white T-shirt, bearing a time-honoured red rose, distinguishes him from his former colleagues. A glance here, a chat there, a hug, followed by a roar of laughter, somewhere else. This, if ever there was, is a local boy made good.

When Jos Buttler left Somerset to play for Lancashire at the end of the 2013 season, there was no animosity. Everyone, from the players who shared his hopes, fears and triumphs at the closest of quarters, to the rootless drinkers who occupy the Old Pavilion bar from start to stumps every day, knew that it was just business. In time, he would be back, and he would be welcomed. This is that time.

Eventually the rain clears and the toss is made. Buttler's county captain, Glen Chapple, chooses to bat. Chapple has pounded the county beat with unrecognized distinction since Buttler was a young child, and he grew into the professional game at a time when Taunton pitches were synonymous with runs.

He chooses to bat.

Times have changed, though, and modern Taunton pitches offer help to bowlers who know what to do. The Somerset attack is aware of this, and all of them, from the ageing but eternally competitive Alfonso Thomas, through the coolly flamboyant Peter Trego, to the young Devonian confrères Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton, make the ball bounce and move. Batting is difficult.

Mid-afternoon, 47 overs gone, Steven Croft plays a poorly-judged slash at a ball from the young Irish spinner George Dockrell and is caught behind It is time for Buttler, batting at six, to come to the crease.

The Taunton crowd is knowledgeable and loyal. It is customary for Somerset players to be greeted with warm applause but this courtesy does not always extend to the opposition.

When Buttler emerges on to the playing surface, things are different. The applause builds in rhythm and volume to the point where the announcement of his name is hard to hear. But it is, of course, unnecessary. Everyone here knows who Jos Buttler is, and what he has done.

For a brief moment there is the feeling that Buttler might, like Bradman in 1948, be applauded all the way to the middle, but, as he reaches the edge of the square and confers with Paul Horton, who has been batting since the start of the innings, the applause begins to die away. Normality reintrudes, but the thought occurs that Buttler, although he is simply a young man doing his job, would need to have a heart of stone not to have been moved by his reception.

Buttler's innings is an uneasy affair. As ever, he wants to dominate, but he is forced on to the defensive by the sluggishness of the pitch and the accuracy of his former team-mates. There are hints of his characteristic fluency of timing, but he finds the fielder too often, and even his two sixes are not quite struck with his usual robust clarity. At one point Thomas makes as if to Mankad Buttler, before embracing him to show that he wasn't serious. The crowd laughs along, but Buttler doesn't crack a smile. He was unhappy about what happened to him at Edgbaston and he is well aware that he needs to concentrate harder, both when backing up and when facing. This is especially true today, but, when he has made 18, Gregory gets one through his defence and shatters his stumps. The cheers of the crowd are even louder than the applause he received on the way to the wicket.

Jos Buttler knows what it is to walk through the Long Room at Lord's with the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears, and, before he is done with the game, he will know what it is to be applauded from the field at many another of the world's great arenas. For all his quietly-spoken modesty he is still at an age where action and achievement are everything and nostalgic reflection is for the future. Sport as a job demands that.

However, we that have been around for longer and have never had to depend on the bounce of a ball for our living can reflect on the significance of what we have seen. It has been a demonstration of the common humanity which, particularly at the heart of the county game, still suffuses cricket.

One day Jos Buttler will do the same.

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