6.11.16

When the Eye has Gone

The retired sportsman, missing the acclaim of his career, is a familiar trope in sporting literature. It is true of those who made it, and it is true of those who did not.

I could have been a contender.

In the case of Colin Milburn, there was no 'could have been'. He was very much a contender, and then some. Although my memory of cricket and cricketers increasingly, and somewhat worryingly, seems to me to resemble that of the Ancient Mariner, I am too young to remember his heyday, although I have a vague and uncertain recollection of his fruitless comeback attempt in 1973 and 1974. But there is abundant folk memory, and literature, and the recollections of those who do remember his best days. It is clear that he could play. Really play.

Certain days and times have worked their way into the wider cricketing consciousness. Hooking the fearsome Wes Hall for six on the way to an unbeaten second innings century at Lord's in his second Test match in 1966; 243 in a day for Western Australia against Queensland in late 1968, an innings which Sir Donald Bradman memorably described as one of the greatest played by an Englishman on Australian soil; the car crash which cost him an eye and a career in May 1969. His later fading from view and his death at the age of 48.

Anyone would miss playing sport for a living. How many jobs are there in which you are well paid to do something you would happily do for nothing, and people - sometimes tens of thousands of people - will applaud you for doing things which you might not find all that difficult, but which they cannot do (however much they long to)? A few years of that and the world as it is inhabited by the rest of us starts to fade into the recesses of memory. If, that is, you ever knew what the real world was like anyway. If all you have ever done for work is sport, the adjustment will come even harder, and its effects will be all the deeper.

If you have played for as long as you can, and you know your time has come, it is easier. If you find, with shocking finality, that your career as it was is over at 27, it is never going to be easy.

This was Colin Milburn's life.

Dougie Blaxland's play When the Eye has Gone, in which Milburn and a host of other characters are played with powerful versatility by Dan Gaisford, is currently touring many of the grounds on which Milburn made his mark fifty years and more before. It comprises a series of vignettes (if that is not too subtle a word, and it probably is) from his life and times, in which his progress from the then fallow first-class cricket territory of County Durham to the game's heights and back, is charted. Here is Milburn in the school playground, pretending to be a late-career Wally Hammond facing Ray Lindwall; there he is as a young pro, taking the great Les Jackson for a ton on a Buxton green top; here he is impersonating 'Jim' Swanton as he passes Olympian judgment on his clumsy fielding; there are the would-be voices of Arlott and Trevor Bailey and The Don; here is the boundary-edge sage at Burnopfield who tells him he'll never be as good as his father; there is his mother, dusting furiously as she advises him not to neglect his schoolwork. The medics; the eye surgeon, the nurses, the doctor repeatedly warning him about the blood pressure and cholesterol levels which would lead to his death. The hollow jokes and the forced bonhomie.

The pint glass of gin and coke.

Gaisford infuses the play with relentless energy, an impeccable Geordie accent and a bullish, confrontational style, which leads you to suspect that you are watching someone who has lost everything but cannot possibly bring himself to admit it. For Milburn, as for so many ex-sportsmen (and others) life looked better through the bottom of an empty glass.

For anyone who (as I do) spends long hours watching cricket and other games on modern satellite television, it is often possible to drift towards the impression that you are watching a series of adverts for rival online betting companies, with a little cricket or rugby mixed in. There comes a time when you start expecting to see Ray Winstone's head in your dreams. As a result of repetition I hate most of these adverts with a passion, but one phrase (inserted, one assumes, to please whatever regulators take an interest in such things) has a tendency to stick in the mind.

When the fun stops, stop.

But what if you are forced to stop while it is still the most fun you could ever have?

19.10.16

Living in the Age of Root

The Nevil Road ground, in the tired northern suburbs of Bristol, was never anyone's idea of one of the world's great cricket theatres. It's been smartened up a bit recently, but back in the late nineties when it began to host one-day internationals, it was a prisoner of its own featurelessness. Crammed between rows of terraced houses and a Victorian orphanage, when there wasn't much of a crowd in - which, frankly, was most of the time when Gloucestershire were playing - for all its antique associations with Grace and Hammond and Jessop it never made the pulse quicken.

There were other days, though. Between 1999 and 2003 I went to a series of ODIs there. I saw Shoaib Akhtar bowl one of the quickest spells I've ever seen, I had an early glimpse of Chris Gayle, and I saw Sachin Tendulkar make the only serious runs I ever saw him get (I usually watched him in Lord's Test matches). And I saw Ricky Ponting. Oh yes, I saw Ricky Ponting.

In the game between England and Australia at the ground on 10th June 2001, England won the toss and batted, making 268 in their 50 overs. Marcus Trescothick made runs, Nick Knight made runs, Ben Hollioake, in his final summer, made a few at the end in partnership with Owais Shah. By the standards of the day, it wasn't a bad score. Well, we'd all seen worse. This was England, this was one-day cricket, and it was a long time before 2015.

Australia lost an early wicket - Adam Gilchrist - which brought in Ponting. The memory is still there, vivid in its clarity: I've got no idea which of the bowlers it was, probably Gough or Mullally, but Ponting, from a guard on or over the crease line, took the biggest stride you could ever see and played a forward defensive stroke of such utter and complete impregnability that only one conclusion was possible. England weren't going to get him out that day.

They didn't, or at least they didn't while it really mattered. He made 102, setting up a last over victory that never seemed in much doubt. This was Steve Waugh's Australian side, after all.

That's something worth noting about great players. The attacking strokes are one thing, but often, aside from their frequency, they are little better than the shots which mere mortals play less often. But the reason lesser players play them less often is because they don't get the chance. They're out. Show me a great player without a solid defence and I'll show you someone who isn't a truly great player.

In those days England didn't have players like that. Within a short time we had hopes for Ian Bell, never ultimately fulfilled; then there was Kevin Pietersen. Great? Well, maybe. Near great, at least, but a genius who impressed in a different way. KP could defend, of course, but it was the strokes that had you, never the impression of invulnerability.

As an England fan in the nineties - even one who was easily old enough to recall the pomp of Botham and Gower - there was a tendency to see anyone who showed any promise at all through the prism of what they could be; even who they could be. I remember seeing Alex Tudor as a seventeen year-old, loping in and bowling with chilling speed and bounce from the Old Pavilion End at Taunton. I thought he was going to be our Curtly, our Courtney, our Ian Bishop. But, for many reasons, it never happened.

Even longer ago in place and time there was Mark Ramprakash, coolly steering the Middlesex chase in the NatWest Final as an eighteen year-old. I was up in the Tavern Stand that day, and yes, we all thought, this is a great player in the making. And in every way aside from the making of Test match runs and centuries, it was. But, when you're dealing with cricket at its most rarefied level, that is what matters. It is not the ice crystal purity of your technique, it is not your longevity against county bowling attacks - that means little to anyone brought up in another part of the world - or your hundred centuries; it is what you achieve in Test cricket, it is what you achieve in one-day international cricket, it is what you achieve in Twenty20 cricket.

Joe Root can do all those things. And how.

As with any outstanding player, watch him early in his innings. Quality, even against the very best bowling, shows through early. Indeed, against the very best bowling it needs to, or you will be gone. As anyone knows, Root has all the attacking strokes anyone could ever require, and the discretion to deploy them when they are most needed, but, when he first gets to the crease, especially if he is facing someone bowling well, his class is characterized by the way he keeps them out. The forward strides are there, but less impressively than with Ponting; with Root it is the backward defensive which defines him. A precise, easy movement of his right foot, back and across his stumps. Precise and easy, not clumsy and rushed, on account of his supreme reflexes. The head and eyes level, sniffing the bouncing ball. A straight, level blade, with the ball hitting the middle and dropping dead at his feet. It is a stroke which makes a statement. A statement of impregnability, of moral permanence, while also speaking of thousands of hours facing bowling machines and net bowlers, and seeing off real attacks in testing conditions. Firstly in his native south Yorkshire, then elsewhere in the north of England, then around his own country, then around the cricket world.

Of course, this is not all Root has. For all that his early stoicism impresses, it is only, as it must be for any batsman, a fall-back. If the ball is there to be hit, whether it is a half-volley or a half-tracker, it will be hit. Depending on circumstances, and the state of the game, and the quality of the pitch, and how Root is playing, it will be dispatched either over the ropes for four or into the crowd for six.

Occasionally Root gets these things wrong. Like anyone else alive, and anyone who has ever batted, he can fall prey to misjudgement born out of tiredness, or distraction, or over-confidence. At Lord's against Pakistan in the summer of 2016 he plays two really bad shots, leading to his dismissal in both innings, and contributing to an England defeat. As he walks off, he curses himself. This should not happen. It cannot be allowed to happen. Six days later, at Old Trafford, he makes 254 against the same opposition. Unlike many another player, he learns from his mistakes. At that level of the game it is the only way to stay alive. Someone who batted with him during those matches, James Vince, knows that only too well. He will spend many quiet times reflecting on it for much of the rest of his life.

In batting, in cricket, in life, it is one thing to have the capability to do well. It is another to do so, and another still to do so again and again and again. It is wonderful to be living in the age of Root, but thoughts of Root's predecessors in the England team, and why they did not do what Root has done, continually intrude, even if their times have now been left behind. I tend to subscribe to the orthodox view that Ramprakash simply wanted it too much, while Ian Bell never fully realized how good he was capable of being. Root has these things down pat. He desperately desires success, but he doesn't let it consume him. He has tasted it and he knows he will taste it again over the many years that he will spend in the England team. Brooding, assuredly, is not his thing. The most repeated image in the mind's eye when one thinks of Root, apart from his strokes, is that of him smiling, joking and laughing, and it is these unselfconscious displays of enjoyment that have made him so popular. He is still little more than the young boy who loved batting and who subsequently found that he was very good at it and that people were prepared to pay him to do it and admire him for it. It is the type of good fortune that all of us would love to have, and we feel that if we did we would enjoy it for all it is worth. Joe Root does.

All of this is unforced. Technique can be inculcated through coaching; temperament cannot. I have a vivid memory of getting ready for work on a December morning in 2012, with the fourth Test from Nagpur on television in the background. As ever on these hurried, dark mornings, the game was incidental, but I had some time to watch which coincided with the early stages of Root's first innings in Test cricket. With spinners on at both ends, this was a test (and a Test) in the traditional Indian idiom, but there was an immediate feeling of assurance and calm about Root as he stroked his third ball from Piyush Chawla through the covers for three, and rapidly followed it with his first boundary, off Ojha. As with Alastair Cook, on the same ground some seven years before, there was a feeling of instant permanence.

Nearly four years later this has not been lost. And it will not fade for a very long time to come.

25.9.16

Taunton, 22nd September 2016

It starts at the railway station.

This has seen many things since the trains came to the south-west in the nineteenth century, but in the era of four day County Championship cricket it has seen nothing like this. Play starts early in September, so people's natural rhythms are disrupted. Earlier trains have to be caught, bags have to be packed more hurriedly, food and drink have to be procured. Getting off the 9.33 from Exeter is to enter a shuffling, mildly hurried serpent of humanity with one thing on its mind.

As always in circumstances where there is excitement, and anticipation, and tension, humour is never far away. There is plenty of laughter here, as people are optimistic about the outcome of this day's play, but uncertainty and trepidation take hold when they think of what might happen elsewhere. The problem is that nobody knows what will happen. And what happens will determine how they approach the rest of their cricketing lives. Either Somerset will have been County Champions for the first time in 2016, or it will have been yet another glorious failure in a recent history of glorious - and less glorious - failures. Nobody wants that, but the possibility is on everyone's mind and it will have to be confronted in due time.

The short walk to the station is hurried and suffused with chatter. This is a natural reflection of the significance of the day and the importance of comradeship. Nobody wants to face the possibility of disappointment alone or enjoy what seems likely to come today without the feeling that others, many others, are doing the same. There is, however, little chance of that.,br />
It continues at the ground.

Walking to a seat in the Somerset Stand, the atmosphere is distinctive and intoxicating. As someone who was there, and who will never forget it, it reminds me of The Oval on another September day in 2005. The season is fading, but this is big, so big, that any sense of loss, whether literal or metaphorical, is postponed, at least until tomorrow afternoon.

As Rogers and Davies and Trego build the lead through the morning, and early alcohol is consumed, the level of noise among the crowd increases. 'We are all in this together' is what it says. And, as Rogers goes in at lunch with the latest, and what will transpire to be the last, of his seemingly eternal sequence of centuries, he is richly applauded. People know that he is a batsman of very high class, but more importantly that he is a good man whose presence at the helm of this side has been pungently influential in bringing them, and us, to where we are. For anyone who cares to notice, there is a valedictory air to the way in which he lifts his bat and salutes all the ground's corners. He has done this 76 times in all, but he knows that he will never do anything like it ever again.

For Rogers, and for us, though, nostalgic reflection is for the future. For now there is a match to win.

For the first hour or more after lunch, the attention of many switches to Lord's, where Yorkshire are inching towards 350 and a fourth batting point which will enable them to be champions if they win their game against Middlesex. With their score on 349-9, the players leave the field for bad light, then rain. The tension increases again, although Somerset hold the reassuring knowledge that they have more than four sessions to bowl out a Nottinghamshire side that will need to equal the highest score ever made to win a first-class match. For the away team's players, a sense of defeat has been in the air for days, if not weeks, and after tea, their slide is inexorable, their loss inevitable. No final day will be needed in this game.

For the next twenty-four hours the ultimate fate of Somerset's season rests in the hands of twenty-two of their fellow professionals - people they know, people they have played against and with, people they like, people they dislike - who are plying their trade elsewhere.

The Somerset players lap the ground. They are applauded by all and they thank those who have made this possible, even if it isn't yet clear what it is that has been made possible. It could be the most glorious of triumphs, or it may not. We, and they, will find out tomorrow.

Viewing this from the very back of the new Somerset pavilion, the sense of elation and pride is there to be relished, as is the view. It is the greatest thing that these seats now allow a panoramic view of northern Taunton and of the Quantock Hills, but something they also give is a broader view of the sky.

Big skies are more commonly associated with places like Nebraska or East Anglia. Here, so the legend goes, they can be unsettling in their way, but, while this is unlikely to ever be the case in undulating Somerset, they have different resonances. As the temperature drops slightly, and the altostratus clouds build in, the even, pale nature of the light emphasizes that autumn and winter are coming. Some of us will be back tomorrow, but most of us will be elsewhere until next season.

For many of us, this has been a day of days.

1.7.16

Thousands of Runs Unscored (17th April 2016)

I've been writing here for a full ten years now. I've seen and commented on a few things in that time, but nothing, nothing at all, has moved me as much as the story that has unfolded around James Taylor over the last few months. The humour, maturity, perspective and dignity with which he has dealt with something which would have shattered a lesser man, has been a remarkable thing to witness.

These were my thoughts in April of this year, just after the news had broken.

James Taylor is a batsman. That is what he does. Or, as of last Tuesday, that's what he did. Batting, something he has done since he was little - well, he's always been little, but you know what I mean - has gone, in the beat of a defective heart, from being both what he does best and the source of his income, to something he used to do but which he cannot, for circumstances beyond his control, do any more.

This is a profound source of sadness. To Taylor, of course, and to his family and friends, but also to many cricket followers, most of whom have never met him.

Cricket is like that.

In modern professional rugby union, players are forced to retire before their time with increasing frequency. It happens so often that it barely causes comment, still less any great outpouring of sentiment or regret. It happens in football too. Always has done. Time and the game move on with barely a backward glance.

Cricket is different. Players sometimes die young, but comparatively few have to retire early. The tragic deaths of Ben Hollioake and Philip Hughes, and the circumstances surrounding them, are etched on memories throughout the world; young lives abruptly ended, careers curtailed with thousands of runs unscored, wickets not taken, hours in the field denied.

Although losing the ability to do the thing that you are best at is awful, it is not as bad as dying. Hopefully Taylor has a long and fulfilling, if sadly compromised, life ahead of him. But he will always be susceptible to thoughts - early on spring and summer mornings, and as the evening shadows lengthen on cricket grounds - of what was and what could have been. Memories of Shrewsbury School, of early games at Grace Road, of taking that double hundred off Surrey that everyone talks about, of digging in amid the chaos caused by Pietersen's genius at Headingley, and of batting long for the Lions in the cloying heat of Dambulla. Thoughts of the innings at Manchester and Sharjah and Durban, and the magical short leg catches at the Wanderers, and what they might have led to in the era of Bayliss and Farbrace.

Amid the doubts and quandaries which never seem to go away - over spin bowlers and opening batsmen and levels of public engagement - these are times of renewal and optimism for the England team. They are finally, after longer than many people have been alive, getting to grips with one-day cricket, and, in Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, they have three cricketers under the age of 26, all of whom who, in their own ways, are world-class.

Taylor may never have quite made it into that category, but there was enough about him, from the way in which he instantly adapted to county cricket, to the way he took the knocks and the rejections and the redundant jibes about his stature, and came back stronger, to suggest that he could have had a long and successful career in international cricket. The summer of 2016 may have decided which way his career would go. Instead, it has ended before the summer has even begun.

There are few things better than being young and being good enough at a sport to make a lucrative career out of it. Most of us would settle simply for being able to play a single off-drive or pull like James Taylor, let alone hit the ball clean out of Headingley as he once did, or manage a run chase as he could. We wouldn't need to be paid to do so. Just doing those things would be enough to take our lives to a higher plane. But, in an instant, Taylor has been forced to leave that world behind and retreat to the foothills of life which the rest of us occupy. Nothing will ever quite feel as good again.

There is a salient lesson in life's unpredictability there, but, while most of us can only dream of having been a contender, James Taylor will always know that he was.

30.6.16

Coming Home (2nd February 2014)

This piece was the product of thinking about what Alastair Cook must have felt like, both during England's doomed 2013-14 tour of Australia, and after returning home. You can never really know, of course, but you can make a judgement based on what you've seen and how you think you would feel.

You would feel grim, and it would take you a long time to recover from the experience. It was that kind of tour.

It is still early in the year in southern England. For those of us who have been here all winter it does not seem cold. But still the rain lashes down. Everything looks dirty. The entire country feels as though it is drowning.

Alastair Cook notices this. He feels the chill and does his England blazer up. Alice, his wife, has brought him a heavy overcoat from home; he puts it on and turns the collar up. As the beads of water drip down the car window, the realisation sets in that he is home. For months, those killing, unforgettable months he has spent on the other side of the world at the focus of what is perhaps the most savage and pitiful defeat English cricket has ever known, the weather has made little impression on his consciousness. It has been hot, of course it has been so hot, but he has been there before and he is famous for never breaking sweat. The only thing disorientating or unusual has been the intensity and clarity of the sunshine, and the burning dryness of the air. All this is gone, now.

As the car leaves Heathrow Airport behind, images of defeat cluster his mind. It is a chilling montage of lost tosses, dropped catches, poorly executed strokes and the harsh, unforgiving glare of the camera eye. Unwanted post-defeat interviews in soiled kit, with thousands of Australians leering and jeering and laughing. Mark Nicholas, a preening martinet in a tailored suit, firing the questions with a forced mixture of levity and accusation. Why? Why? Why? Airless press conferences with all the Aussies there, Conn and his mates, with their crude and tedious jibes, laughing behind their notepads as they mock the fact that England's only truly successful player was born in New Zealand.

Nothing has prepared him for this. Not the gilded childhood, singing in the St.Paul's choir, nor those adolescent summers piling up runs on the school ground at Bedford as public schoolboys in museum piece caps bend to his will. Not the previous winter's glory in India, defying tiredness, searing heat and the weight of the past. There have been times these past few years when it has seemed as though Cook may be superhuman. We now know that he is not.

He was almost dropped by England once. But then came the Oval century against Pakistan, and the rest is history. 100 consecutive Tests and counting. Today, with jet lag setting in and defeat on his mind, he feels every one of those games in his legs and in his mind. The comforts of home cannot come soon enough.

The key turns in the lock. The house is warm. The bags are left in the hallway. Now, at last, a time to shed the layers of formal clothing crumpled by hours of international travel. A time to reflect on what has happened to him, and to the team which he has captained.

As the days turn into nights and back to days again, with Cook barely recognizing their passing, the recollections have an unwelcome tendency to come thick and fast, a bit like the Australian attack on one of its many good days. Cook relishes the opportunity to get away from everything - from holding a bat, from thinking constantly about bowling changes and field placings, from people, with microphones, or with beers in their hands, asking him 'why? - and he enjoys the serenity and security of being in his own space. He watches television, he reads a little, he talks to Alice, he sorts through the mountain of tedious paperwork which has arrived while he has been away. He spends some time outside, with the farm animals which have failed to register his departure, his absence or his return. This is how he likes it. He has been noticed far too much over recent months, usually for the wrong reasons.

But, as the activity lulls, the memories and anxieties return. In an instant he is back at the Adelaide Oval, late in the day, his mind and body scrambled by the relentless heat and noise, by the batting of Clarke and Haddin and Harris, and by his team's threadbare bowling. He is facing Mitchell Johnson, who is bowling to him as quickly as anyone has ever done. He sees the ball, but in an instant it is through him as his reactions, slowed by tiredness and stress, fail to cope. He hears his wicket break, and then, a heartbeat later, he hears the roar of the Australian crowd. In a sense this is flattering, as it signifies how highly his wicket is prized, but he knows that. He has no need for flattery. He needs runs.

Another time he is back in Perth. The heat has not receded and his team, theoretically, are chasing 504 to win. This time it is the hulking frame of Ryan Harris which confronts him. He sees the ball better this time as it doesn't quite have the pace of Johnson's delivery, but it swings in slightly through the air before cutting away off the pitch and hitting the top of his off stump. He knows he couldn't have done anything more to counter it - few left-handed batsmen alive could have done - but it cuts to the quick even more as it is the first ball of the innings and he knows that in all probability the Ashes are about to be surrendered.

These are extracts; he also recalls dropped catches, poor strokes, captaincy decisions. While his confidence - the sort of confidence which derives from a life of almost unbroken success - has been affected, when it comes to his batting failures he knows very well that he can bat. He always could, and the numbers are in the book. Form is temporary, class is permanent, all that. But captaincy is different. He hasn't done very much of it, and it shows, both on the field and off. He knows that what he has said about wanting to continue in the job, at least in Test cricket, is genuine and heartfelt. He wants the chance to show that he is capable of improvement. He wants the chance to help bring his England side back from its darkest hour. He feels, with Andy Flower, a man he likes and admires, still in charge, that better times lie ahead. Come the early summer in England, the pitches will be green, Jimmy and Broady will be fresh, perhaps Finny will be back, Stokes will be there. He knows how Sri Lankan and Indian batsmen play the seaming and swinging ball in English conditions. In his mind, for all its concerns, there is hope for the future.

A few days in, Cook is lazing around the house when the doorbell rings. Alice is nearer so she goes to the door. There is a brief, and, to Cook, inaudible, exchange of pleasantries. Then she calls to her husband:

“Alastair, Andy Flower is here to see you”.

A Day at the Cricket (12th September 2013)

As I mention in the original intro below, this, a distillation of personal memories from the last day of the 2005 Ashes, was written on the eighth anniversary of the day. I can't pretend that some of the style doesn't owe a nod or several to Christian Ryan, but I feel it adds up to a pretty accurate representation of the way I experienced the day, and what I felt. They're memories which will last a lifetime.

The final day of the Oval Test match between England and Australia in 2005 has, in the years since, achieved semi-mythical status as the most memorable day of the most memorable Test series most of us have ever had the pleasure of watching. I was at The Oval on that day, having paid just £10 for the privilege. On the eighth anniversary of that day someone reminded me that those eight years had gone by, and it prompted me to pour out some of the random memories which have occupied a small corner of my mind's eye ever since. As a day at the cricket, it had its moments.

A short, fitful, uneasy sleep. Up before 1.

Wash, shave, dress. Get the bag together. Don’t forget the ticket. The £10 ticket. Bought in the spring and now as prized as gold dust. You could sell it for a hundred times as much but you never would. Taxi into town. On the coach to London by 2. More semi-sleep. M5, M4, along the Embankment and into Victoria. London is dry, cloudy, humid.

There is tension in the air. In London, even at 6.15 in the morning, there always is. The tension of the incipient working week, of course, but something else. The tension of expectation. Of anticipation. The Ashes will end today.

Side street café breakfast. Over Vauxhall Bridge. Down to The Oval. People are everywhere. Touts and their would-be clients. How much?

God, this is different. Perhaps this is what 1953 was like.

Into the ground and take your seat. Block 18, Row 24, Seat 568. Right at the back in front of the gasholders.

The players net, do their fielding drills. The noise rises as the ground fills. After the players have left, some broadcasters walk across the pitch from the old pavilion to the new OCS Stand, where their commentary boxes are located. They are cheered.

In a sense this is surprising but then again not. This is the mood of the day. And they are Tony Greig, Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham. Richie Benaud, of course, is less conspicuous. But this is his day. He will be cheered by the whole ground later.

10.25. Bowden and Koertzen. Australian fielders, led by Ponting. Chewing gum, meaning business. Then Trescothick and Vaughan. Hopes of a nation and all that.

Warne on straight away. This is chaos. Second ball, full-toss, Vaughan, always elegant and alive to the chance, hits it straight for four. The ground erupts.

McGrath at the other end. A maiden to open. Soon Lee is on too. Erratic, but high pace. Boundaries come at both ends.

Two overs only to Lee then Warne is back. He will bowl long today.

McGrath gets Vaughan and then Bell, first ball. This will be mighty tough. Now Pietersen is there. No hat-trick, just.

Trescothick holds out against Warne but it is hard, so hard. Later Haigh describes him as being ‘like a London bobby trying to quell a riot’. The description fits like a glove.

Pietersen settles in. We know that he is good but how good? Today will tell. He is dropped. Warne off McGrath. Next over Warne is hit for six. Salt in the wound.

Then Trescothick goes. To Warne, of course, lbw.

Now Flintoff is there. The summer’s hero of heroes. But this is not his time. You feel he cannot last and he doesn’t. Warne gets him and England are on the brink.

Time for consolidation. Collingwood gets his head down. Sniffs the ball as he was taught to do on the capricious tracks of the north-east, far from here in place and time.

Lee bowls a bouncer. 93.7 mph. Pietersen, desperately hurried, arches his back and jumps to evade it. Shit. The mind scrolls back to the West Indies, years before. Hearts beat faster.

Lunch. It is needed.

Early afternoon. Sun. KP opens out. Really opens out. Lee is hit for six, then six, four, four. The boundary boards in front of us take a battering, as does Tait. He tries to save the runs but is left on his knees, head down, gazing into the dirt like a boxer taking a count.

Collingwood is still there. Virtually scoreless but no matter. Pietersen will provide the runs.

Then Collingwood goes to Warne and Jones to Tait. Trouble.

England must bat the day to secure the urn, but the doubts are strong now. Someone has to stay with Pietersen. Giles?

The afternoon wears on. Warm for September and racked with anxiety. Giles and Pietersen bat. And bat. The overs tick down. Safety draws closer. Pietersen’s ton is passed and the possibility of relaxation starts to present itself. But not now. They must bat some more, and they do.

It goes on. Giles ungainly but full of guts and common sense, Pietersen turning the screw with flamboyance. The overs tick down and things start to look good. Then very good. Giles is hitting fours now. The Ashes are coming back.

With the pressure released, it feels like time to go to the bar. But it has been drunk dry. Three bottles of Red Stripe is all they have. Take them, drink them.

Back to the stand. Now people are happy. Langer fields on the rope, further down. He smiles through gritted teeth as the songs and jeers crank up and the Spanish flags are waved. This feels special. Like a time you will remember well enough to write about, years later.

Pietersen goes, but his job is done now. As is Benaud’s. It is announced and the ground rises.

Giles and Hoggard stick around for a bit. After Giles finally goes for a quietly epic 59, England subside, but no matter. It is done.

Australia bat, but time and light are against them. They cannot win. The Ashes are England’s again.

Presentation. Fireworks. Lap of honour.

Darkness falls.

Back to Victoria in a muck sweat. On to the coach. Exeter in the early hours. Taxi home. The driver forgets to engage the meter, but you pay up anyway.

Bed for a few hours then up for the open-top bus and Trafalgar Square.

Cricket in England has never been like this. You wonder if it ever will be again.

Eight years on, you’re still wondering.

29.6.16

Stranger to Failure (24th July 2013)

This was written after Joe Root made 180, opening, for England against Australia at Lord's in 2013. It was obvious, even then (in fact it was obvious from about ten minutes into his debut Test innings) that he was an outstanding player. He was so impressive in all the usual ways - in the skill of his batting, but also the lightness and charm of his demeanour - that I may even have thought his future lay in opening the batting.

It was also a bit of an attempt to capture some of the enjoyment of watching cricket from the Lord's Long Room.

I think some of it works.

For a fully paid-up cricket tragic, the Long Room at Lord's is a dreamlike place. It is also multi-faceted: part art gallery, part social centre, part grandstand, part green room to one of the greatest sporting theatres on earth. The right to enter it during a Test match - conferred after many years waiting for people to die and the procurement of a substantial sum of money - gives you the opportunity to study players with a proximity granted to few. At Twickenham, at Wembley or at Wimbledon it isn't possible to hang around the dressing rooms or follow the players' progress to the arena without being arrested. At Lord's, it is.

I once saw Darren Gough leave the field at the end of the last spell he would ever bowl in Test cricket. England's opponents South Africa had scored 682 for 6 declared, and Gough had bowled 28 wicketless overs for 127. His face was scarlet and he walked with an uneasy gait that spoke of mental and physical exhaustion. He appeared disillusioned, on the verge of tears. He wouldn't be walking that way again.

I've also seen many batsmen walk from the dressing rooms to the pitch's edge. Convention and the demands of their profession dictate that they wear a serious expression. The message they are conditioned to give off is that this, what they are doing, what they have wanted to do since they began to play the game, is work. They are not there to enjoy themselves. They are there to make runs. After they have done so, from the safety of the middle, where people they don't know cannot see the whites of their eyes or guess at their deepest emotions, they will allow themselves to show that they are enjoying what they are doing.

Last Saturday, with Joe Root, things were different. With Root they usually are.

As Root, who is 63 not out, returns to the field after lunch, he strides ahead of his older partner and fellow Yorkshireman, Tim Bresnan, and his soft manchild's eyes betray a brief hint of levity and recognition. Then, before he puts his helmet on, he breaks into a smile. It seems to me, standing right in his eyeline, that he may have realised that he is going out to bat for England against Australia at Lord's and that he is in a position to fulfil the childhood ambition both of himself and of virtually everyone who is watching him. He can make a century for England at Lord's and he is not daunted by the possibility of failure. Instead he is relishing the prospect of success. There is also the feeling that he is a little flattered and amused by the fact that a roomful of people he does not know, and who are far removed from him in age, background and experience, are applauding him, a lad from Sheffield who simply knows how to bat very, very well.

From the time he came into the England side at Nagpur at the end of last year, Root's performances in all three formats of the game - with their combination of poise, judgement, technical acuity and nerveless flair - have been those of a phenomenon. But he is, in some ways, an unlikely phenomenon.

To watch Root at the wicket is not to be awed by genius. His stance is a little ungainly, perhaps as a result of his relatively recent transformation from a slight lad to a tall young man, although he retains a freshness of face which can make him appear 17 instead of his chronological age, which is 22. He has no signature shot, although he is perhaps happiest working (and sometimes stroking) the ball through the off side off the back foot. When anyone overpitches he is quick to recognize the length and drive the ball, with an exaggerated crouch through the off side, or with fine timing straight or through the leg side. When the ball is dropped short he will pull, when the nature and circumstances of the game demand it he will improvize. He is a workmanlike, predominantly orthodox batsman in the classical Yorkshire idiom, where runs, not empty style, are all.

His batting carries echoes of Atherton, although, where Atherton was hunched, Root is upright, and where Atherton was careworn by the demands of captaincy and the stresses of playing in a consistently overmatched side, Root is carefree. His Long Room smile is far from unique.

For now Root is a stranger to failure. Watching him bat, or bowl his sharply ripped off-breaks, or skip around in the field, or simply take his place with unforced self-assurance among his seniors on the dressing room balcony, it is possible to see the years sliding away into the future. Where now he is 22, one day he will be 34. He will have known failure, and the smiles will be less common, but the powerful sense is that he will still be there and he will still love what he is doing.

Joe Root will be walking through the Long Room for many years to come.

27.6.16

Standing Out (29th August 2012)

It's difficult to convey just how good the century which Kevin Pietersen made for Surrey against Somerset at Taunton, at the end of August 2012, was. He'd been dropped from the England side after the controversy over him sending text messages to South African players, and the result was just about the greatest example of easy dominance (with the possible exceptions of Lara at Trent Bridge in 1995 or a fifty at Taunton by Darren Lehmann in 2000) that I've ever witnessed. As on both other occasions you knew full well that you were witnessing genius at work.

In his classic football supporter's memoir Fever Pitch, published exactly twenty years ago, Nick Hornby wrote about a young player who first represented Arsenal in the mid-1980s named Gus Caesar. Gus Caesar had a promising start to his career at the club before finding that, at the highest level of the game below international football, he couldn't cut it.

The point Hornby was making was about the way in which football has a series of levels, of standards. Local park, county league, regional semi-professional league, Vauxhall Conference (as it was then), Football League (as it was then). Now, at the head of everything - and it has been so for exactly the same twenty years - is the FA Premier League. At each and every level there will be players who have been outstanding at the level below, but who, when they step up to the next, are found wanting. At the very top - in the modern football world this is where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo reside - are the players who have never really been found wanting. They are the best of the best of the best.

Cricket is the same. At the level of cricket which I've played for the last couple of decades - friendly matches between village sides in England's west country - a player capable of playing in the local premier league will stand out. Go and watch a match in that premier league and a player who represents the local minor county, or who once was among the best teenagers in the country, will stand out. Go and watch that minor county and a player who has played a lot in the County Championship will - if he is not a physical or psychological wreck (long cricket careers can do that to you) - stand out. Go and watch a County Championship match and someone who has played in 88 Test matches and scored 21 centuries, including some of the most brilliant innings played by an England batsman in the modern era, well, he will stand out.

So it was with Kevin Pietersen yesterday. So much has been written over the past few weeks, so many opinions offered, about Pietersen's undeniably complex psychology, that it has been possible to forget, or at least briefly overlook, the fact that he is, when all has been said, a batsman of the purest genius.

And, if the eleven players in Somerset's side, or his Surrey team-mates, or the thousand or so in the Taunton crowd, were in any danger of forgetting how good Pietersen was - and some would never before have seen evidence of his ability at first-hand - they will not do so for a very long time.

In many ways Pietersen's century seemed understated, largely on account of the ease and assurance with which it was made. Such was the superiority of Pietersen over a useful Somerset attack that the need for extreme violence or self-preservation was obviated. It was bloodless.

In the early stages of his innings Pietersen occasionally played and missed at seaming deliveries from the eternally fiery Steven Kirby and his erstwhile England colleague Sajid Mahmood, but, when he had settled, it was simply a question of how often he felt like hitting the ball for four or six. Far worse players than Peter Trego - a locally-raised all-rounder having his best season with the ball - have played for England. Pietersen, when he desired an acceleration in the tempo of his side's innings after lunch, danced down the pitch and flicked Trego to the leg-side boundary with the disdainful ease of a teenage elder brother humiliating a younger sibling. And then, when, as night follows day, Trego dropped the ball short, Pietersen pulled him for a flat six with the venom of a cornered snake.

The young Irish slow left-armer George Dockrell is a spin bowler of huge potential. Until yesterday he had found that his easy, grooved action and fine control of pace and spin were enough to see him through against some of the better batting sides in the first division of the Championship. Against Pietersen, receiving little help from the surface, he found that he could do nothing to prevent himself being milked for run after run, and then, when Pietersen felt it was necessary, he was hit out of the ground into the River Tone. Although he took three wickets, the lasting value of the day will be as a lesson in what players from another realm can do. One day - perhaps with a Test career behind him - he will look back on it with wryness and appreciation of its value.

Pietersen's celebrations were also understated. There was none of the leaping and fist-pumping which always accompany his international milestones. Here there was simply a raised bat, first to the Surrey dressing room and then to all the ground's corners. There were friendly conversations with Alfonso Thomas and, later in the day, with all the scoreboard damage done, with Mahmood. This, somewhat incongrously, was Pietersen attempting to play the part of the humble everyman. Something about his body language suggested contrition, and even, perhaps, a longing for forgiveness.

The saga of the last few weeks is far from over - it will probably take another twist within the hour - and the sense is that, for all Pietersen's gifts, things will always happen around him which people will not understand or like.

Many words have been expended on Kevin Pietersen and many more will be used before his career is done.

You can say what you like about Kevin Pietersen.

Just don't ever say he can't bat.

25.6.16

Runs and Trust (8th January 2012)

A piece about Michael Clarke, from early 2012. There was a time when everyone had an opinion about Clarke, many of which didn't seem to make much sense to me. My opinion was that he was a bloody classic batsman.

Michael Clarke could always bat.

He could bat when he came to England with the Australian Under-19 side in 1999. He could bat when he made his Test debut in India in 2004. He could bat when he took over the captaincy of his country a year ago and he can bat now. If you wanted, you could even take his Sydney epic as evidence that he can bat. But why would you need to do that when he has proved his worth, his mettle, and his skill many times before?

Australia remains a country with a deep, knowing, vital relationship with cricket. Not as visible, or as showy, or as brash as India’s, but important nonetheless. In Australia, as in India, one of the leitmotifs of the game’s growth was the way in which it enabled a young country to show its nascent capabilities to its former colonial masters. Because of this, and because it’s just a great game, cricket remains a central part of Australia’s cultural DNA.

And Australia produces great cricketers. Among batsmen there is Trumper, there is Ponsford, and, of course, there is Bradman. There is Archie Jackson. There is Greg Chappell and Border and Ponting. There are the Waugh twins. Well, Steve, certainly. Perhaps there is Hayden. At a stretch you could possibly even consider Mike Hussey. And if you can consider Mike Hussey you can certainly consider Michael Clarke.

With the exception of Greg Chappell - a man who some of us feel doesn’t quite receive his due either - all Australia’s post-war greats have been simple, unembellished players and men, their personalities as reflective of the characteristic Australian capacity for bluntness and distaste for pretension as the way they go about building an innings.

Clarke is perceived to be different. He has tattoos, has dated models. As Mike Selvey put it so well this past week, he is ‘a smooth-skinned, bright-eyed, baby-faced fellow from the metrosexual generation’. Someone, perhaps, a little out of step with most Australians’ perceptions of themselves and how an Australian man - and especially its most senior sportsman - is supposed to be.

All this is true, but it doesn’t stop you being surprised by the way in which he has often appeared to be held in such lukewarm regard by his compatriots. For Clarke is as good, and mature, and passionate a batsman as it is possible to find on the contemporary world stage.

In traditional Australian style his batting is without artifice. Early in an innings he will be watchful, maintaining his shape, leaving when necessary, working the ball around. Once set he will look to attack, especially against spin, his decisive footwork and range of shot keeping him one step ahead of the bowler. There is little that stands out or makes him unusual, apart from the smooth edges of his technique and his calling, which is as loud and definitive and easily identifiable as you will ever hear, repeatedly reminding the watcher of his assertive commitment to the task at hand. In front of a microphone he is balanced and jauntily articulate. His love for the game, the way it lives inside him, is obvious and unaffected.

All the truly great players who made Australian cricket what it was in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first were born well before Clarke: the Waughs in ‘65, Warne in ‘69, McGrath in ‘70, Gilchrist in ‘71, Ponting in ‘74. With the exception of Ponting all have left the stage. Now is a time of adaptation and adjustment such as Australia hasn’t known for a quarter-century

Clarke, born in 1981, is comfortably the best Australian batsman of his generation, and he, as captain, will be his country’s standard-bearer as the coming years unfold and a different, younger side seeks to regain its place at the top of the world game.

All the signs are that Clarke, orthodox but adaptable, and a more instinctively perceptive captain than his predecessor, is the right man to do this. What is more, it increasingly appears as though the Australian public know this to be so. It may, strangely, have taken 329 undefeated runs at the cradle of the Australian game to convince them, when 151 at Newlands, or 136 at Lord’s, or many other past innings, should have done just as well.

This time last year, with Ponting deposed and Australia humiliated by their oldest foe, things were very different. Clarke was captain, but he neither had runs nor trust. Now he has both.

As someone once said, form is temporary but class is permanent.

Michael Clarke could always, always, bat.

24.6.16

Pausing to Remember (5th October 2011)

This, written just after the death of Graham Dilley, is a piece I'm very proud of.

For all his fine if injury-ravaged career, for people of a certain age - and I was a boy in front of a TV set on that day - Graham Dilley will always be steadying himself under a catch on the Headingley boundary on 21st July 1981.

Cricket is a game of pauses. Although there is always activity, there is the sense of a pause between each and every delivery. The bowler walks back to his mark, the batsman regroups and prepares for the next ball. Fielders pause too, their thoughts momentarily elsewhere.

The most noticeable, most pregnant pause of all, is the pause between a skied catch leaving the bat and it falling into the hands of a fielder who may or may not hang on to it. For those moments, everything is uncertain. Sessions, innings, games, entire series have been turned by dropped catches. The batsman knows it, the bowler knows it, the crowd know it and the fielder sure as hell knows it.

And when old cricketers die, people who saw them play - and especially so if they did so in childhood or adolescence, or they were part of a team who did something truly special - pause to remember them.

Graham Dilley was never famed as a fielder. Like many a quick bowler from the days before diving, and sliding, and all-round fitness became compulsory, and before the magnificent Jimmy Anderson showed what was possible, he just did his bit.

What he did best, and really well when everything clicked, was bowl. With his mood right and his fragile confidence bolstered, often by some powerful runs, he could be distinctly quick, with swing and sharp bounce as additional and potent extras. Like many an England player from the bad old days he never came close to fulfilling his potential, but he was admired at Canterbury, and at Worcester, and remembered with affection by all who lived through and witnessed the 1981 Headingley Test. Botham and Willis took the glory but neither of them could have done what they did without the help of Graham Roy Dilley.

A thirty year-old memory has the young Dilley, with a visorless helmet perched unsteadily on top of his blond mane, creaming Lillee and Alderman and Lawson through the covers on a grey Leeds afternoon and sharing a joke with Botham as Australia wilted and the course of history changed.

For me, though, the strongest image of all sees him the following day, steadying himself on the long-leg boundary as Rod Marsh's uncontrolled hook shot to a Willis bouncer directs the ball his way. A brief glance to check his distance from the rope, hands cupped upward, body braced to absorb the ball's impact.

Everything pauses.

Then he catches it.

He staggers back, but manages to steady himself. Marsh is out, Australia are 74 for 7 and defeat is on the cards.

He leans back and throws the ball high, high into the Yorkshire air.

23.6.16

A Moment in (Indian) Time (31st July 2011)

This was a slightly experimental piece about a captivating passage of post-lunch cricket at Lord's in the summer of 2011. In many ways it seems recent, but, in terms of personnel, this is illusory. We were then still firmly in the age of Tendulkar (although the writing was on the wall), of Dravid and of Chris Tremlett.

The idea was to try to capture the atmosphere of a passage of Test cricket - in some ways a typical passage of Test cricket - during which, although little of major importance appeared to be happening, everything that was happening was suffused with history and expectation. It also shows how, with its duration, its measured rhythm and its evolution of dramatic tension, no game lends itself better to the observation and deconstruction of details (Tendulkar and Dravid touching gloves or Tremlett grunting) than long-form cricket.


Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, Saturday 23rd July 2011, 1.36 p.m. (British Summer Time).

As the lunch interval draws to a close the atmosphere in the Long Room bubbles with conversation, heavy footsteps and lightly suppressed excitement. The rear of the room, where the players walk from either end on their way from the dressing rooms to the field, is segregated with a rope to prevent anyone getting too close to the combatants. Here people are required to know their place.

From the far end of the room the England team emerges, following the umpires, Asad Rauf and Billy Bowden, onto the field. Clapping, closely followed by cheers, echoes around the room, but it remains unacknowledged, if not unappreciated. The England players, most of whom are wearing dark glasses, stare straight ahead. It is a grey afternoon and a little cool for July, but, as is customary during Lord’s Tests, the crowd has eaten and drunk well. Bonhomie hangs in the air like the clouds above the ground, but the players of both sides are serious. They are at work.

At the opposite end of the room the applause from the stairs filters in. The two Indian batsmen are on their way down. They enter the room with a similar air of preoccupation, although there are discernible differences in their demeanour.

First there is Rahul Dravid. A native of the city of Bangalore in southern India, he has played in 154 Test matches and has scored more than twelve thousand runs. In this innings he has just fifteen to his name. Before lunch he was settling in at the crease, but now he needs to do so again. He is a slim, serious man with distant eyes which carry the memories of thousands of hours at the crease. On the dusty, unforgiving grounds of his homeland, on the palm-fringed greens of the West Indian islands and of Sri Lanka, on the fast tracks of Australia, where players’ reflexes are tested to their very limits. This, batting, is what he does.

Following a few steps behind is Sachin Tendulkar. He has spent the majority of his life playing cricket for a living and has played in more Test matches, with more runs and centuries, than anyone else in the history of cricket. He is a small, stocky man, carrying a little surplus weight. An infant prodigy on the edge of middle age. His body language is more private, less optimistic, than Dravid’s. It is possible that he is already feeling the effects of the virus which will keep him away from the ground on the following day, but it is more likely that his hunched shoulders and downward gaze simply reflect the fact that he is his country’s most famous man and he has spent much of his life away from the cricket field trying to make himself anonymous. As usual the ground should bring him a sense of sanctuary and freedom, although he will need runs to feel fully at ease. At the moment he has made just ten, and he is playing at a ground where, unusually, he has never known success.

James Anderson, with the Lord’s pavilion behind him, takes the ball. Tendulkar is facing, and he guides the first ball between the slips and gully for four. The stroke is controlled but there is still a slight air of uneasiness about him. He is searching for the warm embrace of form and it is elusive. Off the fourth ball of the over Tendulkar strokes the ball through the leg side for another four. It is an easy shot for a player of his ability, but it is played with a style and timing which causes the crowd’s collective pulse rate to briefly quicken. While the majority of the crowd are supporting England, many of them would love to see Tendulkar make his one hundredth century in international cricket, and their hopes, seduced by weeks of media coverage, are hostage to the progress of his innings. In the next over, bowled from the Nursery End by Chris Tremlett, Tendulkar hits the ball on the up through the covers for four. The feeling of impermanence begins to fade a little.

At the other end Dravid is the epitome of polished control. His stance is compact, his eyes level, his strokeplay measured and decisive. He picks up a boundary off Tremlett and then three in an over off Anderson.

The players meet in the middle of the pitch at the end of each over. Dravid is expressive and relatively animated, his raised arm describing the path of the swinging ball. Tendulkar is still restrained, absorbing what his partner has to say. These men have batted together through many of the world’s summers, and, as in any relationship which has lasted for years, there are times when no words are necessary. In the modern vogue they touch gloves as they part. When they began batting together some fifteen years ago, batsmen didn’t do this, but Dravid and Tendulkar have not gained their immense reputations by being unable to embrace the game’s changing conventions.

Graeme Swann replaces Anderson at the Pavilion End. His first over is steady, tight, conceding just a single to Dravid. At the other end Tremlett is starting to develop an aggressive rhythm, pounding his feet into the dry turf and grunting as he delivers the ball. Tendulkar remains a little circumspect and tentative, and Dravid paints an emphatic contrast with his partner when he elegantly strokes Swann through the covers for four in his second over to raise his score to 42.

Strauss rings the changes once more, bringing Stuart Broad on to replace Tremlett. Tendulkar, now on 34, is able to leave two of the over’s first three deliveries, but the fourth is straighter and slightly full, drawing him into a firm-footed drive. The ball barely swings, but it holds its own and takes the edge of Tendulkar’s bat. Graeme Swann drops to one knee and takes a low catch at second slip with some ease.

As the England players celebrate, Tendulkar returns slowly to the pavilion. His head is held high, but this is partly because he spends the early stages of his walk looking to the heavens, regretting his shot. It is uncommon for Tendulkar to be defeated by a bowler but it has happened here and his highest score at Lord’s remains a meagre 37. As he returns to the pavilion he receives his second standing ovation of the day. The crowd know that there is a possibility that he will never again bat at Lord’s in a Test match, although it seems more probable that he will have a second opportunity in this game.

The forty-eight minutes between the end of the lunch interval and Tendulkar’s dismissal has been an interlude, a departure from reality. The conjunction at the wicket of two great players whose careers are nearer to their conclusion than their commencement, but who are still very far from batting from memory.

After Tendulkar has gone, and the applause has died down, India bat for most of the rest of the day without notable fluency or permanence. Dravid, though, is an exception to this. Before the day’s end he reaches his thirty-third Test century, and, when the Indian innings closes on 286 with him undefeated on 103, he receives his own standing ovation.

It is something that he will remember for the rest of his life.

20.6.16

Playing Long (6th April 2010)

Players I never saw play die regularly - Tom Graveney last year was the most recent - and when they do, my mind always turns to the mythology that surrounds them and their roles in the game's history. Strangely, Bedser wasn't somebody I thought about that much before or since, but there was just something which got into my head at the time and prompted me to write this. It's a short piece that I always liked a lot and still do.

I never saw Sir Alec Bedser bowl. He retired from first-class cricket more than five years before I was born, and, by then, his outstanding Test career was a distant memory. I only remember him as a somewhat curmudgeonly chairman of the England selectors, making it known after Ian Botham resigned the England captaincy in the early summer of 1981 that he would have been sacked anyway, and unwittingly laying the ground for some of the most inspirational individual performances in Test history.

But his passing matters to me because of what it says about what English cricket was and what it has lost. Bedser was a product of an era before limited-over cricket - even of the 65, 60 or 55 over variety, let alone 20 - had been introduced to the professional game. The only way to play was to play long, three or five days, engaging the physique and the brain against the best the opposition had to offer. And the mature Bedser was a key player both in the greatest domestic team English cricket has known and in the England side which came closest to dominating the cricket world in the way we have since seen other teams - from the Caribbean and from Australia - do.

Bedser embodied, as few alive still can, an era when the game was far more central to the English way of life than it is now, or ever will be again. A time when England produced truly great cricketers, and truly great teams.

Of course, much of the change which cricket has gone through, and is still undergoing, has, for all its artifice and embellishment, been vital in widening the game's appeal. A modern sport cannot exist forever in the sepia-tinged glow of elderly men's memories.

But they'll do for now.

19.6.16

Lara at the Last (22nd April 2007)

Early this year it dawned on me that at the start of July I will have been blogging for ten years. Over the next couple of weeks, running up to the anniversary on Friday 1st July, I'm going to repost ten of my favourite pieces from two half decades of writing about cricket on the Web. I also hope to post some reflections on how the 'blogosphere' has changed since 2006, which will probably, inevitably, end with me wondering if it still exists, or is simply diminished by the passage of time and the inexorable evolution of the digital world.

But that's for the future. The piece below was written the day after Brian Lara's career ended during the 2007 World Cup. As with all retirements it felt like the end of an era, probably because it was. Everyone has their favourites, and, when it came to batting, he was mine. Thanks chiefly to the priceless memory of being up in the old Radcliffe Road End stand at Trent Bridge when he made his 145 against England in 1995, I always regarded him as the greatest genius I ever saw hold a bat.

Another feature of this piece is that I end it by quoting from Green Fading into Blue, a collection of the writings of my favourite cricket writer of the old school, Alan Ross, which came out in 1999. I can't remember precisely what was going through my head at the time, but I know that the title of the book somehow gave rise to the name of this blog. I think it was a kind of tribute, and I thought it sounded good.

Anyway, Brian Lara.


Long day, yesterday.

For one thing England and the West Indies fought each other to a standstill in the World Cup's best game. The fact that it was a contest between two of the competition's most uneasy and mediocre teams didn't matter as we at last had a match which encapsulated everything which people hoped for from the West Indies' first World Cup but which it has almost completely failed to deliver - noise, atmosphere, colour, vibrancy, brilliant strokeplay from Gayle, Samuels, Vaughan and Pietersen, passionate athleticism in the field from Collingwod and Bravo, further obvious signs of promise from Ravi Bopara.

And then there was Brian Lara. Run out for a staccato 18 in a mix-up with Samuels, unable in the end to stem the tide of England's run-chase, and finally gone for good from cricket in a welter of flash bulbs, autographs and snatched handshakes.

When I woke up on Friday morning and heard that Lara was going to retire I was surprised but also saddened. At the very first it was selfish personal disappointment as I was looking forward to seeing him bat in person for the last time at Lord's in May, but later it evolved into a wider awareness that cricket currently stands at one of those tipping points in its history when a range of pivotal figures slip from the international stage and we're left to wonder who will take their places. In the past few months Warne, Lara, Langer and Woolmer have gone, McGrath has one or two games left and even Sachin's once unimpeachable seat at the head of the game's top table looks vulnerable.

I've written before about how I was always a Lara man. It started with the 375, which I followed on the radio as I didn't have Sky then, went on through the 501, his destruction of Australia in an ODI at the Queen's Park Oval in March 1995, then to Trent Bridge that August and just about the greatest work of genius I ever saw in person. And on to the peerless 1999 series: 213 at Sabina and his finest hour of many, the undefeated 153 in Bridgetown that saw his side to the narrowest of victories. And on to Antigua again, to the world records, to a walk-on part in his team's 418 in the final innings against Australia in 2003, and the 400 not out against England in 2004. And on into retirement.

The essence of Lara can be hard to capture in words, but the inimitable Alan Ross, in Green Fading Into Blue, did better than most:

'He keeps very still at the wicket and is stillness personified. Alert as a gundog, scenting something, giving nothing away. Leaning on his bat between overs he may be dreaming, perhaps doing mental arithmetic.

The bowler approaches and now everything works together in harmony, the bat an extension of the arms, the legs and feet as in the first steps of a dance, abruptly halted.

In defence he is classically correct, body and head aligned, something of the martial arts in his position, pose held just long enough to be admired.

Runs appear to flow from him rather than he make them. He is anticipatory, a sixth sense making him ready, even before the bowler lets go. He strokes not hurts, times, caresses, even in moments of aggression melodious.'

And Rahul Bhattacharya does pretty well here.

I'm not going to say that things will never be the same again as it's the oldest cliche in the book and they probably will be, one day.

But who will take his place?

17.4.16

Thousands of Runs Unscored

James Taylor is a batsman. That is what he does. Or, as of last Tuesday, that's what he did. Batting, something he has done since he was little - well, he's always been little, but you know what I mean - has gone, in the beat of a defective heart, from being both what he does best and the source of his income, to something he used to do but which he cannot, for circumstances beyond his control, do any more.

This is a profound source of sadness. To Taylor, of course, and to his family and friends, but also to many cricket followers, most of whom have never met him.

Cricket is like that.

In modern professional rugby union, players are forced to retire before their time with increasing frequency. It happens so often that it barely causes comment, still less any great outpouring of sentiment or regret. It happens in football too. Always has done. Time and the game move on with barely a backward glance.

Cricket is different. Players sometimes die young, but comparatively few have to retire early. The tragic deaths of Ben Hollioake and Philip Hughes, and the circumstances surrounding them, are etched on memories throughout the world; young lives abruptly ended, careers curtailed with thousands of runs unscored, wickets not taken, hours in the field denied.

Although losing the ability to do the thing that you are best at is awful, it is not as bad as dying. Hopefully Taylor has a long and fulfilling, if sadly compromised, life ahead of him. But he will always be susceptible to thoughts - early on spring and summer mornings, and as the evening shadows lengthen on cricket grounds - of what was and what could have been. Memories of Shrewsbury School, of early games at Grace Road, of taking that double hundred off Surrey that everyone talks about, of digging in amid the chaos caused by Pietersen's genius at Headingley, and of batting long for the Lions in the cloying heat of Dambulla. Thoughts of the innings at Manchester and Sharjah and Durban, and the magical short leg catches at the Wanderers, and what they might have led to in the era of Bayliss and Farbrace.

Amid the doubts and quandaries which never seem to go away - over spin bowlers and opening batsmen and levels of public engagement - these are times of renewal and optimism for the England team. They are finally, after longer than many people have been alive, getting to grips with one-day cricket, and, in Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, they have three cricketers under the age of 26, all of whom who, in their own ways, are world-class.

Taylor may never have quite made it into that category, but there was enough about him, from the way in which he instantly adapted to county cricket, to the way he took the knocks and the rejections and the redundant jibes about his stature, and came back stronger, to suggest that he could have had a long and successful career in international cricket. The summer of 2016 may have decided which way his career would go. Instead, it has ended before the summer has even begun.

There are few things better than being young and being good enough at a sport to make a lucrative career out of it. Most of us would settle simply for being able to play a single off-drive or pull like James Taylor, let alone hit the ball clean out of Headingley as he once did, or manage a run chase as he could. We wouldn't need to be paid to do so. Just doing those things would be enough to take our lives to a higher plane. But, in an instant, Taylor has been forced to leave that world behind and retreat to the foothills of life which the rest of us occupy. Nothing will ever quite feel as good again.

There is a salient lesson in life's unpredictability there, but, while most of us can only dream of having been a contender, James Taylor will always know that he was.

13.3.16

Art or Science?: Martin Crowe (1962-2016)

Cricket, and the world, and the cricket world, move on so quickly that it already feels a little late to be posting something about Martin Crowe. I wrote this piece last weekend and offered it to ESPN Cricinfo. They haven't replied, so it feels like it's time to post it here.

Martin Crowe was one of my very favourite batsmen of all, and I don't think he quite received the recognition he deserved during his career. It's a well-observed phenomenon in all kinds of areas of human activity that when people die - especially if they die young - they receive all the dues that they didn't when they were at their peak.

So it goes. I was just happy that he was widely described as New Zealand's greatest batsman. I believe that's what he was, and while there's little doubt that the magnificent Kane Williamson will beat most of his records, I don't think he'll reach Crowe's level of technical perfection. As I say below, the only player I've seen who's got anywhere near doing so is Rahul Dravid.

When I first heard the news, on News Briefing on BBC Radio Four, very early on the morning of Thursday 3rd March, he was described as 'the former Somerset and New Zealand cricketer'. This was unusual, but it was gratifying, and it felt completely right, because his years at Somerset were some of his most important and influential. Influential on him and influential on the club. In the last fifty years, Somerset County Cricket Club has employed some of the greatest players the world has ever seen. There's no need to list them; everyone knows who they are. Martin Crowe is fit to rank with any of those.


Is batting an art, or is it a science?

It may be one, it may be the other, it may be both, or it may be neither, but batsmen, nevertheless, are often categorized as artists or artisans. Geoff Boycott was unquestionably an artisan; David Gower an artist. Brian Lara was an artist; Graeme Smith an artisan.

Martin Crowe was both. Rahul Dravid was too, but Martin Crowe was Dravid before Dravid. Patient, rigorous, endlessly disciplined, but with the great player's essential ability to instantly take advantage of the bad ball, and to bend bowlers to their will.

If someone's defence is so sound, their ability to leave the ball so finely honed, their capacity to counter your skills and variations so good, it is easy to slip into the feeling that you will struggle to ever dismiss them. Shoulders drop, and, as night succeeds day, bad deliveries follow.

Of course, while there are similarities between Crowe and Dravid, there are also contrasts. Like every other batsman who came into the Indian side between 1990 and 2013, Dravid batted in the reassuring shadow of Tendulkar. While Martin Crowe was far from a lone standard bearer in New Zealand's greatest team – Richard Hadlee, of course, was always there – as a batsman he was largely surrounded by artisans. Fine players, yes, like John Wright, like Bruce Edgar, like his own elder brother Jeff, but artisans nonetheless. Crowe was always the artist, and was distinctive in other ways. He was young, he was cool, he was stylish.

Another contrast with the experience of Dravid is that in New Zealand cricket is a small game in a small country where Rugby Union is king. In India it is precisely the opposite. While Dravid and his compatriots were continually exposed to the demands of countless millions, Crowe was subject to differing pressures, expectations and vulnerabilities. The pressure of being the best batsman in the team, and, in later years, the need to maintain your customary level of performance in the face of debilitating injury problems. The feeling of being at the fulcrum of a small country battling against the world, or, as it was in Crowe's time, the might of the West Indian machine.

The premature death of Martin Crowe has been mourned around the world, the sorrow undiminished by the widespread knowledge of his protracted illness. Many people – Mike Selvey, Mark Nicholas, Gideon Haigh, Jarrod Kimber – have written about their personal interactions and friendships with him. I can do no such thing, but I can still think, and write, and talk, of the many occasions I saw him bat.

When he came to England with his national side for the first time in 1983, Crowe's purity of technique was instantly apparent, and I followed his career, with New Zealand and with Somerset, unusually closely, although, in those distant days before worldwide television coverage of anything resembling an international cricket match, this could be a hard thing to do.

There were many peaks: Brisbane, November 1985, where he supplied most of the runs and Hadlee most of the wickets; the two Lord's centuries against England, the second made while in intense pain; the twin centuries, at Wellington and Auckland in early 1987, which helped his team to draw a series with the West Indies. His unbeaten hundred against Somerset at Taunton on his last tour in 1994, when the crowd rose in memory of what had been and in recognition of what was coming to an end.

In those days I used to get sent the New Zealand Cricket Almanack every year. The 1987 issue sticks in the mind, and now is a good time to get it out and dust it down. There is the beautiful moment in time colour photograph on the cover of the two musketeers, Hadlee and Chatfield, who have just bowled the greatest side in the world out for 100 at Lancaster Park. But there are also two pictures which frame the mastery of Crowe in his halcyon days. On the back cover he is hooking Malcolm Marshall to the Wellington fence in a way that few could ever do; inside there is a monochrome shot of a straight drive which could easily have been posed for the camera, such is the purity of Crowe's style.

For some players, moving images are needed to capture their essence. For batsmen like Crowe (and there haven't been many players like Crowe), for whom poise and timing is all, still photography can serve just as well.

As many have said, as well as being a great batsman, Crowe was a deep and innovative thinker about the game, its problems and its consequences. While, like many of his ideas, this could seem counter-intuitive, with the originality of his thinking contrasting with the orthodoxy of his batting, it is both logical and understandable. A mind which can produce and refine a batting technique like that is a fertile and varied one.

No game has the same depth of emotional resonance as cricket. Losses are always keenly felt and deeply mourned. The past year alone has seen the deaths of one of the greatest cricket figures of all, Richie Benaud, one of the greatest opening batsmen, Arthur Morris, and a man who was a special kind of hero for a certain generation of Englishmen, Tom Graveney.

But it is the early deaths which hit hardest. Since 1999 world cricket has lost Malcolm Marshall himself, Ben Hollioake, Manjural Islam, Philip Hughes and now Crowe. Two cancers, two road accidents and one death at the crease.

In his first season as a Somerset player, in 1984, Martin Crowe flourished with the bat after an uncertain start. However, in many ways, his most important role was played off the pitch, where he used his experience to coalesce the efforts of a group of young players whom he felt to be drifting. Ultimately, many of these players – players like Richard Ollis, Hugh Wilson and Mark Davis – had short careers in the game, but, wherever they are now, it would be surprising if they had failed to spare a thought these past few days for Crowe and those he has left behind.

Cricket is like this. When players die, the whole game bleeds.

9.3.16

Hamid Hassan and the Power of Junoon

When you run a blog like this, which has been around a while and has gained the odd bit of praise and notoriety here and there, people contact you from time to time about contributing guest posts. Invariably you rapidly develop the impression that what they're likely to contribute isn't going to add very much to the sum of human knowledge. My favourites are the ones (not as rare as you might think) who don't seem to have noticed that the blog is about cricket and offer to write about something completely different. On those occasions, I tend to say no.

However, when Nihar Suthar contacted me about writing something for the site, I decided to say yes. Nihar is the author of The Corridor of Uncertainty, a new book about the rise of Afghan cricket. As everyone knows, the way in which Afghanistan has risen to relative prominence in a historically and culturally alien world is one of the most remarkable cricket stories of the new millennium.

With the World T20 getting under way, Nihar has contributed a profile of Hamid Hassan, one of the stalwarts of the side, who has just been recalled to national duty.

By now, the fairytale story of Afghan cricket has spread around the world. In the 2015 Cricket World Cup, the Afghans proved that they could compete against the best, giving the Sri Lankans all they could handle. Cricket has become contagious in Afghanistan. It is an integral fuel of life.

What is different about this team, though? We see nations full of cricket promise climbing through the ranks of the ICC all the time, yet, none of them have made the full ascent from Division 5 to Division 1 as quickly as Afghanistan has. Put simply, it’s because of cricketers like Hamid Hassan. Hamid is without a doubt the best fast bowler in the Afghan team, and arguably one of the most powerful bowlers in world cricket. Yet his talent is not what sets him and his team apart.

He constantly reinforces the importance of junoon with his teammates. Junoon is an Urdu expression for passion. Hamid is just one of the many players on the Afghan side who eats, sleeps, and breathes constant junoon for cricket. He can never stop thinking about it. His mind is always immersed in cricket.

Hamid grew up in the refugee camps of Kacha Garhi, Pakistan, and it was there that he fell in love with cricket. At the age of just sixteen he had to make a major decision for the game he held so dear. Taj Malik, one of the people who is credited with getting the Afghan national cricket team off the ground, came to Kacha Garhi in 2003 to recruit future stars for Afghanistan. He was drawn to Hamid and tried to convince him to come back to Afghanistan. At that time, Afghanistan's cricket infrastructure was non-existent.

Taj went straight to Hamid’s father and said, “Salaam. My name is Taj Malik, and I am the coach of the Afghan national cricket team. I want to request you to leave Hamid with me. He wants to go to Afghanistan to play some cricket in Kabul.”

Hamid’s father was far from happy. He started cursing at Taj, and angrily responded, “Get lost. Hamid is my son. I don’t want to let him go. He has school exams coming in ten days.”

Taj kept pushing. “Hamid has great talent to be a professional cricketer.”

Hamid’s father scoffed. “No he does not. Look at his weight!” Hamid weighed 268 pounds.

“Have you asked Hamid what he wishes to do?” asked Taj.

Hamid’s father exploded. “It doesn’t matter. Just take Hamid and go away from here. If anything happens to him, you will be responsible.”

Taj was alarmed, but Hamid quickly interjected before the episode could escalate. “Stop arguing! Taj, go and wait for me on the road. I am coming.”

Hamid had no idea what to do. He was torn. He was just a boy. Confused, he went to his mother and broke down. “Mother, I wish to go to Afghanistan to play cricket with Taj, but father does not want me to go. What should I do?”

Hamid’s mother simply advised, “Son, this is your love, this is your choice. If you see a future for yourself in cricket, just go for it. If there is no future, why do you wish to waste your time and life like this?”

Hamid sobbed. He fully believed that he had a future in cricket. After receiving blessings from his mother, Hamid left with just $35 to his name and trekked over 200 miles to Kabul. It was the beginning of his professional cricket career. He called his father from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “Dad, I’m sorry I left without saying anything. I’m going to Kabul. Please don’t mind. One day, I promise I’m going to make you very proud.”

Since that point in time, Hamid has devoted his body and soul to the junoon for cricket. He is driven to make his parents and his country proud. Furthermore, he has infused that same junoon into all the cricketers around him. Hamid is truly an example of how far the idea of junoon can take a cricketer and an entire nation. Ultimately, raw passion and drive for the game is even more important than natural talent or honed skill.

Nihar Suthar (www.niharsuthar.com) is a narrative non-fiction writer, and has written The Corridor of Uncertainty, about the miraculous and inspiring rise of the Afghan cricket team. It features never-before heard stories and narratives from the players. Purchase your copy at www.thecorridorofuncertainty.com.

25.2.16

Eulogies

Retirement. Over the near ten years that this blog has been running, many great players have slipped, always voluntarily, from the limelight: Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Lara, Ponting, Tendulkar.

There is usually a pattern, certainly for those who, even marginally, outstay their welcome. The form starts to slip, the player's age is repeatedly mentioned, possible retirement dates are proposed and debated. Then, when it has happened, eulogies are written.

I should know. I've written many of them myself.

When Shivnarine Chanderpaul recently announced his 'retirement' (He bats on for Guyana, which is hardly surprising. Will there ever be a time when, even in his head, Shiv isn't batting?) many tributes were paid. The best of these, by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan and Liam Cromar, emphasized Chanderpaul's status as almost the last of a kind. The batsman who is best known for being very, very difficult to dismiss. In the art, or the science, or perhaps just the bloody-minded discipline, of outlasting bowlers, Chanderpaul was the nonpareil.

He was, of course, far more than a mere accumulator; the thing I always liked most about him was the counter-intuitive contrast between the ugliness of his stance and the transparent class of many of his strokes. With Chanderpaul gone we have Alastair Cook, who does a very similar job, but without quite the accumulative powers or the class. This, perhaps, is the greatest mark of Chanderpaul's status as an outlier; he batted longer, and harder, and in poorer teams, and in greater denial of the traditions of his country's batting (the country, lest we forget, of Kanhai, of Fredericks, of Lloyd, of Hooper), than anyone else in the last twenty years, even Alastair Cook. With the way the game is changing, nobody will ever do that again.

When anyone retires, personal memories come to the fore. After the Test match between the West Indies and England at Lord's in July 2004 - a match in which Chanderpaul made undefeated scores of 128 and 97 in the face of heavy defeat - I stood at the door of the Long Room as he prepared to run the gauntlet of the supporters massed outside the pavilion's rear door. His face is a mask of characteristic seriousness and intensity; he has felt the pain of defeat once again, despite his best efforts. He wants away, but you sense that he would rather be able to leave in private, without having to deal with the adulation which he will receive. But the thing that leaves the strongest impression is his physical stature. He is one of the slightest people I have ever seen in an adult sporting context. Seemingly he is a boy in a man's world. Except, of course, in the matter of batting.

Now we have had the international retirement of Brendon McCullum. This is different in many senses; for one he is still at the peak of his powers, and, much to his credit, he is finishing while people are still asking, as the old aphorism goes, 'why?' instead of 'why not?'. For another he was never anyone's idea of an accumulator. While Chanderpaul would keep a contest alive to the end of his days, McCullum's way was to grab a match by the scruff of the neck and throw it out of the window.

As Rick Walton's superb, thought-provoking piece on the 'Wondrous Carnage' created by McCullum at Christchurch shows, he can provoke varying and contradictory emotions, but what McCullum deserves most respect for is the way in which he has been at the fulcrum of everything that has changed the world's perception of New Zealand cricket. New Zealand play uncomplicated, attacking cricket, but they do it with a lightness of touch and a lack of sourness which is refreshing and distinctive. Apart from the short period in the eighties when they had the advantage of one of the greatest bowlers of all time, New Zealand have never been anyone's idea of world-beaters, least of all their own.

Now, though, if you watch cricket in New Zealand you can watch it at the Hagley Oval, the sanctuary of post-earthquake Christchurch, and you can watch the batting of Kane Williamson, which is as good as anything of its kind that can presently be seen anywhere on earth.

In population terms, New Zealand is a small country at the end of the earth. It has its vivid natural beauty, it has its rugby, parodically it has its sheep.

Now, thanks in large part to Brendon McCullum, it has cricket.

31.1.16

Learning to Fly

The District Six Museum is a short walk from Cape Town's centre. Across the Grand Parade, where the hustlers, the hawkers and the traders ply their wares under the scalding, shadeless sun and the unflinching and incongruous gaze of Edward VII. Past City Hall, where Nelson Mandela gave his famous speeches. Past the Castle of Good Hope and into a network of mean streets. Not necessarily in the sense in which that phrase is usually used – although you wouldn't linger here after dark – but because, here, evil was committed.

The District Six Museum commemorates the old and new life of a part of its city which apartheid tried to destroy. Those days are gone now, but the bleak legacy of memories endures and the road to restitution is long and far from run. This was the nature of the ancien regime writ large – in place of cosmopolitanism there must be uniformity, in place of spontaneity there must be predictability, in place of racial interaction there must only be white people – and, when you go there, the thought of what went on makes you reflect very deeply. For people of a certain age, the District Six Museum, with its monochrome photos and its banners and its people's maps, more even than Robben Island (although that has its moments, of course), takes you back to a time when unrest in South Africa was headline news every night, and nobody knew when, if ever, it would end.

These, of course, were the days of the sporting boycott, when it would have been impossible to imagine a side comprising the South African game's many lost white players taking the field in an official context, let alone a team captained by a representative of the Durban Indian community, or a tiny man from a Cape township, or a twenty year-old fast bowler from the Highveld.

Returning to South Africa after a twenty year absence – it is a salient thought that Kagiso Rabada was yet to walk, much less bowl, when I was last here – there was a palpable although indefinable sense of a more mature country, one that was embracing the future (even if it is still not sure if it likes it), rather than looking towards it with trepidation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began its hearings after I was last here, is long passed, and the system which gave rise to the need for it has faded even further into history. The flag of the old South Africa, which, in a strange moment of elemental and retrogressive madness, I saw paraded at St.George's Park in Port Elizabeth in December 1995, is gone for good too. Everywhere there is red, blue, green, black, yellow and white.

Newlands, in the city's affluent suburbs, is representative of a very different South Africa. Head out on the M3 past the university, and you enter a world of electronic gates, high walls and security notices. Here, paranoia is all.

Inside the ground, in its wondrous natural setting, the atmosphere is friendlier and more congenial. All sorts of South African are here, as well as many thousands from the British Isles, enticed by the January sunshine and a currency which is declining faster than the South African batting.

Day One. The sun beats down from a bottomless azure sky, while the pitch is the colour of bleached concrete. A batting day if ever there was. For once, Cook wins at the toss. He then goes early to a blinding catch, but Hales leaves with unusual care, building to 60. But he gets out when set, and others – Compton, Root – follow, while Taylor goes immediately to a poor shot. At 223 for 5 in the 68th, the day is in the balance. But it ends with Stokes and Bairstow powerfully settling in against the new ball, while never quite hinting at the carnage which is to follow.

It is trite now to say that Ben Stokes is a gifted batsman. Everyone has seen what he can do. But the loose limbed sixes, the balls which, on small grounds like Taunton, appear to be destined for orbit, are only part of it. To fully appreciate what he is capable of, watch him early, settling in, when in form. He must be in form because if he isn't he will more than likely be out before you have had a chance to form an opinion. He plays very straight and the ball leaves the bat with a rhythmical ease of timing which you only see from the very, very best. Later, when he's really in – and this can happen quicker than you realize – the timing is cast aside in favour of raw brutality, and this, in the first three hours of the second day, is what we get. Bairstow, who is still at this point trying hard to establish himself, provides dutiful support, before opening out when he's past his first Test hundred. Simply put, nobody in the ground has seen anything like it before. Self-awareness can be hard to find at times like this, but at a point quite early on, as I sit in the shade and watch cricket from the Gods in a temperature and crystalline light which carries an air of unreality when you have departed the gloom of the British winter just a few days before, I take a few moments between balls to focus on the fact that, seriously, life cannot get much better.

With a range of records cast to the winds that drift in off the mountains during a typical Newlands afternoon, South Africa have no choice but to bat long. After early losses, on a pitch without demons, this is what they do. Amla sniffs the ball with exaggerated care as he tries to piece together his muscle memory and recover his lost form, while always having the time to dismiss the bad ball from his presence with an elegance given to few. For the next day or so, the game seems to have entered a kind of stasis.

More than a day later, Amla is out. From the raised area at the back of the Railway Terrace, within earshot of the trains and the brewery, the dismissal is largely unseen. In this environment it is easy for minds to wander. Another wicket quickly follows, and then, with a hint of trouble in the air, Temba Bavuma is at the wicket. A Cape Town boy, born in the year of Mandela's release, he carries the air of a child among men, at least until he starts piercing the field. De Kock soon goes but, between his fall and tea, Bavuma, with a succession of compact drives and pulls, sets down a marker, while, in partnership with the debutant Chris Morris, bringing the balance of the game back within South Africa's reach. At the time a few people compare the neatness and self-possession of Bavuma to what the early stages of a Sachin Tendulkar innings were like. This seems a little fanciful. It is probably his tiny stature which prompts this as much as anything he does with the bat, but it is a sign. Here is a black African who can obviously bat, but this is not enough. People want, people need, him to succeed. To cement his place in the side in a way that no other man of his race, apart from Makhaya Ntini (and batting was never his strong suit), has ever done.

Later on the fourth day, as the torpid heat settles on the ground like a blanket, everything slows again as Bavuma gains on his century. Then, with five o'clock behind us and the shadows beginning to lengthen, he edges a drive at Finn wide of the only slip left to complete the first Test century for South Africa by a black batsman. It is coincidental and appropriate that by this stage Rabada has joined him, and in the lower tier of the President's Pavilion, the crowd – or at least those who are truly aware that they are witnessing history – rise to acclaim it.

Amla, in what will turn out to be one of his last decisive acts as South Africa's captain, declares almost immediately, with his side two runs behind.

The final day dawns cooler but more humid. The increased cloud cover encourages the South African bowlers, and England rapidly lose three wickets. After lunch they are falteringly drawn into an unexpected battle for survival. A match that, while it has contained moments of huge excitement and deep significance, has lacked any sustained dramatic tension, comes to life before sliding to a damp grave as the light closes in and rain briefly falls.

On trips like this life moves on quickly. There are buses to catch, cruises round a windswept harbour to negotiate, farewell dinners to enjoy. And, when you return to the English winter, which has become colder and harsher in your brief absence, the reality that such experiences are outliers in your life hits home. But this is no bad thing. The mundanity of normality provides the contrast against which times like these can be fully enjoyed for what they are.

From the Cape the teams travel to the country's higher northern latitudes. England secure the series in Johannesburg, before being cast aside at Centurion by a combination of their own fading focus and the bowling of Rabada, who starts to look like a prospect for the ages.

In Cape Town, although the mighty Stokes punishes him hard, he has periodically impressed with his lithe action and deceptive pace, but he has been overshadowed by his compatriot Bavuma. At Johannesburg and Centurion it becomes apparent that South Africa have a bowler around whom, as the era of the great Steyn draws to a close, they can build their recovery to the world game's heights.

It is too obvious, and it is also unrealistic and dangerous, to try to draw parallels and significances between what is happening to a country's cricket team and what is happening in the country itself. The rise of Bavuma and Rabada tells a small but possibly illusory truth about the evolution of South African society as it is reflected by cricket. Although Bavuma began life in Langa, the low-slung township you see as you drive from the airport towards central Cape Town, both he and Rabada had the benefit of being educated at church schools in Johannesburg where cricket played a central role in the sporting curriculum.

For most of South Africa's population, the world is not like this. But even from a short visit, impressions and memories beyond the priceless feeling of warm sun on the face in early January, can be taken away. While the District Six Museum portrays the worst which South Africa's bleak past threw up, its displays are far more about the multi-faceted nature of a society. Banners and photographs feature cricketers and their teams. Messages are sent, one of which is that, although in the years of division they were not allowed to compete on equal terms, cricket was always a vital and important part of black and coloured society. Whatever their adolescent privileges, Bavuma and Rabada are the heirs to a noble and resilient tradition.

Like so many other traditions, though, apartheid tried to crush it. For years players had to move abroad to get anywhere. However, these were not always players from the majority communities. On the third afternoon of the Newlands Test there is a ceremony on the outfield. Commemorative 'heritage blazers' are presented by Cricket South Africa to players from the old days who never had the chance to represent a united country. Among the unfamiliar local names there are players who, to someone of a certain age and mindset, are instantly recognizable from county cricket – Steve Jefferies of Hampshire, Ken McEwan of Essex, others. Sporting isolation affected everyone. It is little wonder – and it is entirely right – that England and South Africa compete in Test matches for the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy.

For all the feeling that it has advanced and stabilized, South African society remains unequal, turbulent and confusing, But then so, increasingly, is the whole world. A sensation of hesitant advancement is perhaps the best that can be hoped for, both on the cricket field and away from it.

From this place and time I will always retain the memories of Robben Island, of Table Mountain, of District Six; of Stokes batting like there was going to be no tomorrow; of Bavuma passing his century and leaving the field, shortly after, with Rabada. A walk that was interrupted at frequent intervals by England players, aware of the moment, running to shake Bavuma's hand.

As I have already said, it is necessary to be careful not to draw too many conclusions from moments such as this. The older ills and wounds of the country will take longer to cure, but, from the way in which Bavuma signed autographs for a kaleidoscopic crowd of admirers outside the South African dressing room at Newlands after the game had been laid to rest, to Rabada's penetrative and mature bowling at Centurion, which hinted strongly at potential greatness, there are good signs for South African cricket.

For one reason or another, these boys are special. Watch them fly.

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