19.5.18

The Language of Batting

On a May Saturday morning on which Dublin Bay, looking across from Blackrock to Howth in the shimmering sun, was just a little reminiscent of the bays of the western Cape, cricket was on people’s minds. Well, some people, anyway.

To the lad in the newsagents who asked if the game was ‘up at Trinity’ it didn’t mean a lot, but to the Irishman in the White Rose cap at the station, whose self-proclaimed hero was Geoffrey Boycott, this, with Friday’s rain behind us, was the day of days. The culmination of years spent waiting, but never quite believing.

Cricket in Ireland has had its ups and downs. From proscription by the GAA to bowling the West Indies out for 25; from beating England at the World Cup to being denied the opportunity to compete in it again without having to qualify. It has never been a popular sport in the wider sense, but it has held its own. This, both literally and metaphorically, was Irish cricket’s day in the sun.

The DART train grows steadily fuller as the stations, with their familiar names from the worlds of sport and revolutionary politics - Lansdowne Road, Pearse, Connolly - pass. The English county hardcore are there, with their dog-eared hats, their trusty bags and their leftfield conversational gambits. As the crowds pour through the barriers at Malahide Station, a Lancashire fan seems more concerned with solar eclipses of the future than with the first Test match on Irish soil. The world’s cricketers are there too; a French international, born in India, but living in Dublin, talks of his overwhelming desire to see Mohammad Amir bowl. This day he will be disappointed. But, above all, the Irish cricket family is there. This is a day they have waited for for longer than most can remember and their characteristic bonhomie barely veils the air of suppressed excitement.

At the lovely tree-ringed arena in the grounds of a castle, it is the same; a feeling of togertheness, pride and faith. In the programme there is a summary of the laws of cricket for the uninitiated, but the impression is that this isn’t really needed. Possibly on account of its smaller size, this crowd appears more knowledgeable than the average Test crowd in England; these are players, administrators, members of the cricket family. Unlike a typical Test match in England, nobody seems to be there just to get drunk and draw attention to themselves. The cheerleader in the huge green top hat - ‘Larry Leprechaun’ - draws attention to himself, but he doesn’t need to be drunk to do so. A walk behind the stands reveals members of the family from both sides of the border who have done the hard yards - the ODIs at home, maybe some trips to Europe, or Scotland, or Lord’s, perhaps even a World Cup or two - greeting each other and swapping reminiscences as they absorb where they are and what they’re watching.

Play begins with a collision. It could easily be described as a clash of cricketing cultures, but this is really more mundane; it is simply a meeting of bodies of the type which, though not commonplace or required by the structure of the game, happens from time to time. There is plenty of laughter; ice is broken, and the game moves on.

Anyone who cares enough about what happened at Malahide to be reading this will know what happened at Malahide, so a blow-by-blow account is unnecessary. Vignettes come thick and fast, though.

Saturday afternoon. Tim Murtagh has played in more than 200 first-class matches and taken over 700 wickets. With his grooved, economical action and undemonstrative demeanour, he embodies the skill and nobility of the English county seamer. He has bowled sides out, he has won the County Championship, but he has never before played Test cricket, or even been close to doing so. So, as the hazy sun warms the ground and he walks towards the hospitality tents and reticently acknowledges the crowd’s applause, his thoughts can only be imagined. For him, late in his career, this must be the time of times.

Just after lunch on Sunday, Niall O’Brien is lbw to Mohammad Abbas and Ireland are 7 for 4 in their first innings. As he leaves the field there is that sudden hush you get, even in crowded places, when bad things are happening and people, through fear and embarrassment, can’t find the words to express what they’re feeling. What they’re feeling is the sudden realisation that things are as bad - and probably worse - than they could have imagined. New Zealand’s 26 all out in 1955, still the lowest Test total, is mentioned. They can surely only improve from here.

They can, but it takes time.

When Pakistan enforce the follow-on with Ireland 180 behind, the two Irish openers, William Porterfield, the captain, and Ed Joyce, stride to the wicket for the second time in the day. This, to a professional batsman, is as bad as it can get. You should never have to bat twice in a single day.

Joyce and Porterfield. Porterfield and Joyce. They sound like a firm of Dublin accountants, and they go on to bat like that as they take Ireland to 64 without loss by stumps. Ed Joyce is 39 now, a little slower on his feet and more careworn around the eyes, but the distinctive, crouching stance is still there, as is the muscle memory of years of elegant run scoring. All over the county circuit, in the world’s cricketing outposts, for England at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He knows what the situation demands.

Porterfield is younger, but his better days are also behind him and he is a less naturally fluent player than his partner. But he has also experienced situations like this before when the county circuit was his place of work. They both understand the language of batting, and the session leading to the close on Sunday evening is resonant and moving. Both Porterfield and Joyce are simultaneously fighting the dying of the light and lighting the way forward for their country’s cricket. It is tough as hell, but by the day’s end there is renewed hope.

This is confirmed on Monday, as Kevin O’Brien - ‘Big Kev’, known in many places just as a white ball hitter - builds on the poise and common sense he showed in the first innings to become his country’s first Test centurion and take his team to a position of relative strength. In the end it isn’t enough, but the feeling that this has been a triumph can’t be shaken.

We won’t talk about it as Irish cricket’s ‘coming of age’. It’s a hoary old cliche, and, in any case, it probably ‘came of age’ in the West Indies in 2007, or even at Sion Mills in 1969. Whatever.

And we won’t say that it’ll save Test cricket, because it won’t. Test cricket isn’t beyond saving, but Ireland’s performance in this match won’t affect its future one way or the other.

No, this was just about how it felt to be there. And it felt really good.

There are, of course, clouds on the horizon. It has taken a very long time for this team to achieve the right to play Test cricket and many of the players have grown old together. Before long, new blood will need to be found.

But that can wait for another day. For now, the sun still shines on Dublin Bay.

18.3.18

Retirement

On a sleepy March Sunday when the world has turned a shade of brilliant white for the second time in three weeks, it seems incongruous to be musing on the retirement of a cricketer.

But actually it is appropriate, as this feels like no ordinary day and Kevin Pietersen was no ordinary cricketer.

Screeds of statistics, and partisan analysis of who said and did what to whom in the years, months and days leading up to January 2014 can wait for another time. In point of fact I was never quite sure where I stood on the fall of KP, but I always knew where I was with his batting. Anyone did, because if you couldn’t appreciate his batting you couldn’t appreciate the game.

There could be more, but here are some vignettes of memory (which seems right, as, for all that he could bat long and score big, Pietersen’s genius is best appreciated by reference to moments, to shots, and to times).

In the back row of seats on the eastern side of the Oval, in front of the ageless gasholders as the distinctive afternoon warmth of September, muggy but with a hint of changing temperature and light, mingled with the anxious hopes of a crowd which hadn’t seen the Ashes come home for years, was one such time. The decision, with lunch over and a long afternoon to see through, to take the attack to Brett Lee. The crystal memory of Shaun Tait on his hands and knees, his grovelling in the Kennington dust weightily symbolic of changing times, hours before the choruses of Viva Espana (Ashley Giles, Pietersen’s stolid sidekick for much of the day was then briefly known as the ‘King of Spain’. Remember?) rained down and the bar was drunk dry. An afternoon which was the start of something special and the end of something equally precious. The start of the era of Pietersen and the last day of Test cricket ever shown on terrestrial television in the UK.

Taunton in late August 2012, with Pietersen banished to the Westcountry with the brownhats in a trail of inflammatory texts, was a very different time. Most of the history and the runs had been made by then, and, although Mumbai was still to come, the downslope had been reached. A Somerset attack based around Peter Trego, George Dockrell and Saj Mahmood held few terrors, and so Pietersen made a century of obscene ease, occasionally rousing himself, when he felt the need, to hit Dockrell into the River Tone. Those of us who were there will wait a very long time to see a first-class hundred made with such casual mastery. Brian Lara used to do things like that, but the idea that there was an England player who could do so still felt like an alien and unusual discovery.

This, of course, was the thing about Pietersen. With his accent, and his gifts, and his swagger, and his self-certainty (occasionally illusory, but real enough much of the time), he could never really be mistaken for an English player. We don’t produce players who can bat like that, and if we did they’d be prisoners of an ingrained modesty which would prevent them from achieving their potential. Pietersen, cut from very different cloth, was never encumbered by such conventions, with the result that he became what he was: One of the greatest batsmen on God’s earth, and one who knew just how good he was. This, in a British culture which values self-effacement above all else, was a recipe for trouble.

Cliches are ten a penny at times like this.

‘We shall not see his like again’, people will say. Mostly, when people say that, they turn out to be wrong.

In the strange and unique case of Kevin Pietersen, though, they would be very, very right.

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