8.7.21

Returning to Cheltenham

There were times during the long sporting hiatus which followed the fracturing of the world, when it was easy to believe that one’s return to watching county cricket would be emotional. This was because, at the start of the pandemic, it was reassuring to invest in the belief that there would be a time when it would all be over, when everything would return to ‘normal’. That may still come, although nobody who has lived through the blighted era of early Covid will ever be the same as they were in 2019. Physically, if you are fortunate, yes. Psychologically, no. We know too much.

When I last went to the old, venerated Cheltenham College ground to watch cricket, on 15th July 2019, we bathed in the afterglow of England winning the World Cup, the sun shone out of an azure sky, and nobody had any idea of what lay ahead. You never do, of course, but no-one apart from scientists and those supposed to be planning for them ever thought about pandemics, and those supposed to be planning for them in this country didn’t think hard enough. Nobody had ever heard or spoken the word ‘Covid’, or talked about ‘social distancing’ or worn a mask to go the shops. Many people – possibly including some who were at Cheltenham that day – were alive who are now dead as a result of the unspoken word. Life was simple then.

Returning to Cheltenham two years on there was no sense of euphoria or palpable emotion. Simply a collective feeling that maybe, just maybe, the beginning of some sort of end had been reached, although, for some, there may have been an underlying sense of illusory fragility which they cannot escape.

For most, this messy collage of responses fades into the background as play begins to the hum of conversation born of the end of enforced separation. Friends are reunited, as much in thought as in physical proximity, the thought being how much they love cricket and how much they love watching it played in these surroundings. This is what kept them going in the dark days of a locked down January.

As play settles there is a lovely example of the simple humanity of county cricket. When James Bracey, Gloucestershire’s number three, comes to the crease, there is a hint of extra resonance to the applause. The home supporters recognise his proud Bristolian’s role in Gloucestershire’s renaissance, and sympathise with him over his recent Test appearances, during which he struggled with two largely alien roles. For Bracey’s part he repays this loyalty by batting in both innings with an authoritative neatness and judgement which has an element of timelessness about it to match his surroundings. For his surroundings are those of a Victorian English public school; an institution suffused in the cliché of ‘muscular Christianity’ perhaps embodied by Middlesex’s Daryl Mitchell or Matt Taylor of Gloucestershire, although I have no idea how either of them likes to spend their Sunday mornings.

It is also appropriate that Bracey’s main partner in both innings is Miles Hammond. He is a student of architecture and he designs a couple of important knocks, punctuated by powerful cuts and drives which provide a counterpoint to Bracey’s more restrained accumulation. Elsewhere, although gravely let down by their batsmen, Tim Murtagh, 39, and Ethan Bamber, 22, both bowl with energetic purpose and skill, accruing figures which at one point are almost identical. Murtagh is a man who may be able to glimpse the dying of the light but gives no impression of being bothered by it; Bamber resonates fresh-faced enthusiasm and promise. In the Covid world hunches feel dangerous, but there is a feeling that Bamber could go far. He is the sort of cricketer Middlesex need. On the second afternoon, as Gloucestershire build a lead after Middlesex subside, thoughts turn to the way in which empires can crumble; anyone who has been around English cricket since the pre-T20 era will recall the days when Middlesex bestrode English domestic cricket like a colossus. Here, at late Covid Cheltenham the gallows humour of their supporters (“Do Lundy Island have a team?” “We can be the first side to win the Third Division”) indicates the depths to which they have fallen.

But then, if there’s anything that the last sixteen months have taught us it is that nothing is permanent and anything can crumble. The old certainties of the world have been torn asunder by disease, and much of the pleasure of coming to somewhere like Cheltenham lies in a desire to reclaim some small elements of our former lives which can be enjoyed for what they are but also for what they signify.

On the game’s second morning more old certainties come crashing down. News spreads that the England team has been hit by an outbreak of positive Covid tests and one player from either side has been called into the team. David Payne and John Simpson are two players who have never previously engaged the attention of the England selectors, so for them this is far from a return to normality; it is a welcome and unexpected journey into the unknown. Something of the same feeling must permeate the thoughts of Michael Atherton’s son Joshua De Caires, whose first innings in first-class cricket ends early with a raised finger greeting an lbw appeal. His body language as he departs the crease speaks of guilt and unease, but unease is the way of the world these days. He will come again.

For most other people at the ground, a gradual resumption of former lives and their mundanities is all that they want. Overheard conversations speak of altered living arrangements and cancelled holidays, but the tone is one of rumination, not bitterness. Most people know that they are the fortunate ones. Fortunate to have escaped death or Long Covid, fortunate to have been vaccinated, fortunate to be here. They have done things over the past year that they never thought they would have to do, or possibly even believed that they could. They now want to do things that they always did and never thought they would have to stop doing. It can, as one sweatshirt proclaims, be cycling from Cork to Kerry, or it can be watching a cricket match among friends.

We have lived under metaphorical clouds for months on end, but, as we head south-west out of town at the end of the second day, the watery sun dips and real clouds intrude. Rain will soon follow, but we have a sense that something in the world is slowly changing.

That, for now, is enough.

21.1.21

Not Cool

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. For India these past few weeks they have come thick and fast: Rahane for assuming the reins with such assurance and clarity of purpose, Gill for the sort of strokeplay – those half cuts, half drives through cover, sure, but also the odd defensive shot – which leaves you with little doubt you will be watching him for years on end. Mohammed Siraj, bowling lines, nipping it around, testing the batsmen in the consistent way you rarely used to see from Indian seamers but which now, with the bar raised by Bumrah, you expect. Pant, of course Pant, his instinctive power and desire to attack supplemented by his blithe, hitherto unshaken confidence. These are just some of the people who helped secure a series win for the ages, and then some.

Then there is Pujara. Modern cricket’s great outlier; a man you could term an anti-hero if such a description didn’t have overtones of cool. Because cool is something Pujara has never been and will never be, but this is of no matter because being cool is something which will never cross his mind. One of the signature effects of the evolving hegemony of short form cricket is the way in which, in most circumstances, the raison d’etre of batting has become the need to score as many runs as possible as quickly as possible. Technical merit is optional, as is fear of dismissal. If you can’t score quickly you’re better off getting out. When this attitude trickles into the mindset of a team in long-form cricket, they can quickly start to resemble lemmings plunging off a cliff. The comical Sri Lankan first innings at Galle exemplified this.

Pujara has never subscribed to this approach, and, as he gets older, he gives the impression of someone who increasingly wants, almost self-consciously, to reject it. And it is easily forgotten that where the nature of a game is not rigidly circumscribed by a finite number of overs it is always helpful not to lose your wicket. It is more important that you are still out there, even if your ponderousness and lack of style can start to frustrate your own supporters. If it is doing that to them you can be sure that it is having a far worse effect on the opposing side.

Pujara can easily be defined by what he is not. He is not cool, he does not score quickly, he does not have the charisma of Kohli or the hair of Siraj. What he does have is a pile of runs and an ocean of bravery. For all that many of his responses to the barrage of short balls he faced in the second innings in Brisbane were inadequate and revealed a chink in his armour which other bowlers will seek to exploit, his ability to withstand danger and pain to preserve his place at the crease had echoes of another batsman who wore the white rose of Yorkshire in a very different place and time.

In his reflexive stubbornness, his rejection of the batting zeitgeist, and the way in which the staccato nature of his technique often masks his class, there is a tendency for Pujara to remind me of Shivnarine Chanderpaul. There were times in his more extreme moods when Chanderpaul seemed to have forgotten that the fundamental purpose of batting is to score runs, and, in his latter days in the West Indies side there was the question of who, if not him, was going to do so. This is less of an issue for Pujara, not because he doesn’t start to look like that at times – he very much does – but that these days he always has someone, Kohli, or Gill, or Rahane, or Pant, who will score rapidly at the other end.

Soon, against England, he will check his grip and resume his stance. If he does it once he will probably do so hundreds and hundreds of times. He will not be cool, but for as long as he is batting, it will not matter.

6.9.20

What Cricket Does

In the past few days one old cricketer has died and another has announced his retirement. In terms of seriousness or finality they cannot be compared, but, in its own way, cricket mourns them both.

The death of David Capel hit me hard. Unexpectedly so. He was someone I’d seen play a little for Northants back in what now seems like a distant and opaque era: of single division county cricket, of plentiful outgrounds, even of matches that only lasted three days. But, as with so many players, memories are distilled through the medium of television, of radio, of the written media. For me, Capel will forever be associated in the memory with his one and only innings of real substance for England, 98, made in Karachi in the third Test match of England’s notorious tour of Pakistan in late 1987. Tormented by a combination of great spin bowling, chiefly from Abdul Qadir, and some of the worst umpiring ever seen in Test cricket, Capel’s long innings was a quiet epic. The type of knock where you left the radio (no live TV coverage then) to go shopping, came back to your car two hours later and found to your astonishment that England’s innings hadn’t finished and he was still batting.

There were other times, though: getting Viv out twice in Bridgetown in early 1990, as England began the long pushback against years of West Indian superiority, or gesticulating through the gloom as the Port of Spain Test came to a shuddering halt. But, in truth, David Capel was a man of the English county circuit. He grew to maturity there, he left his mark there – as much in terms of his humanity as his runs and wickets – and he finished his career there. The heartfelt responses of many of his former team-mates and players whom he coached and befriended testified to his popularity and exemplified the unshakeable bond that exists between those who have spent the best years of their cricketing lives treading the boards in the English provinces. Unlike many, Capel had tasted life at the top table, but the source of his reputation lay closer to home.

It is a truism that cricket, and all that goes with it, reveals character like no other sport. An element of this, at first-class level, where games take days to play and time away from home is part and parcel, is the amount of time that players spend together both at and away from the arenas where they ply their trade. This leads to a depth of knowledge, respect and emotion that feels unique. Rob Bailey was just a little younger than David Capel, played hundreds of matches with him and shared many moments of collaboration, triumph and intense disappointment, including several on that tour of the Caribbean. No wonder he was in tears as he went out to umpire at Edgbaston on the day following Capel’s death.

This is what cricket, especially county cricket, does.

Ian Bell was different. Ian Bell was a prodigy. Ian Bell found a high level of fulfilment at Test level, although I would argue that he never quite achieved what he was capable of. But then which of us does? It is always a judgment call and it is never an exact science. In common with many another English player – many another player from anywhere and everywhere – there is a feeling that he didn’t realise just how good he was capable of being.

Ultimately, though, this doesn’t matter at all. What matters are the shimmering memories of Ian Bell easing the ball through extra cover with an easy elegance and a tiny, slightly self-conscious, flourish. What matters is Ian Bell’s part in a short but golden era (which for many went unrecognised since it lay behind a television paywall) when England were the best cricket team in the world. What may matter in the future is keeping the memory of outstanding batsmen and men such as Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott and Paul Collingwood alive when people’s recollections are focused on those – Vaughan, KP, Strauss, Swann – who, through personality, or seniority, or choice of future career, are more easily recalled.

This will happen, though, as it always has. People will be talking about players. They will be complimenting and comparing them, and someone, probably me, will say ‘Ah, but you should have seen Ian Bell bat’.

This is what cricket does.

8.12.19

Bob Willis and Me

People die all the time. Some of them are cricketers.

In many cases their deaths are expected, but sometimes they are not. For every famous cricketer who passes on, a range of reactions is possible, sometimes separately, sometimes in conjunction with one another. Awareness, acceptance, reflection, and, in the case of certain players, thoughts of what was and what might have been.

The death of Bob Willis - unexpected because I had no idea he had been ill - resonated more with me than the passing of any England cricketer since Ben Hollioake in 2002. In Hollioake’s case it was the loss of a young life, the denial of promise and future achievement; with Willis it was the awareness of the loss of a major part of one’s own life and the certainty of mortality. It is always about the certainty of mortality.

When Ian Botham retired from first-class cricket in 1993, the Nottinghamshire wicket-keeper Chris Scott - who later became much more famous for dropping Brian Lara early in his 501 - said ‘That’s a piece of my childhood gone’. That made an impression on me. I was still fairly young then myself and I’d never really thought in that way about a retiring cricketer, let alone a dying one. Back then, hardly anyone who I’d actually seen play had died.

In the hours after Willis’s death was announced, many people of a certain age talked about the way in which they used to impersonate Bob Willis’s bowling action in the park. I was one of those. I could also do a mean Tony Greig, and a handy Derek Underwood, although, for my purposes, he was required to mutate into a right-arm bowler.

We all did that sort of thing. It was a time when the sight of children playing cricket in the park was still commonplace, and not the curiosity of today. Even before July 1981, Willis was a favourite. Botham and Gower were the typecast heroes; younger, easier to relate and aspire to, their profound gifts more obvious, but Willis, certainly after Headingley, was, for me anyway, the third member of the trinity. He was a bloody good bowler, and he was a little different. The post-match interview with Peter West embodied that, and he was still showing the same independence of mind it in the Sky studios nearly forty years later.

I watched every ball of Headingley on television. The school term hadn’t quite finished, but I was confined to home after an operation. All kinds of aspects of that weren’t pleasant, but in retrospect it worked out alright. I was already mad on cricket; after Headingley I became increasingly obsessed with it.

For a few years now I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to the dinner held at Lord’s each Spring to launch Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, and, for me, there is always a pervasive air of unreality about it. For a few hours of an April evening each year I am a boy again, surrounded by heroes. The ageless Mike Brearley is always there; David Gower can usually be found in the Long Room Bar until late, genially chatting with people; other players of many generations come and go.

I never saw Bob Willis there. Perhaps he wasn’t invited, perhaps it wasn’t his sort of thing, and I never met him or had the opportunity to observe him at close quarters. The only personal anecdotes I can offer are two memories from times abroad watching England in the mid-nineties. Once, in Sydney, I saw Willis striding with grim purpose across the Domain, looking for all the world like he was marching up the hill at Headingley towards his mark. It was very early in the morning, so I wondered what he was doing. Some sort of fitness kick, I concluded, or perhaps he was just late for breakfast down at Circular Quay. Of course, I thought of Headingley.

The following winter I was one of the many England fans who, in an act of organisational madness which to my knowledge has never been repeated, were billeted with the England team in a beachfront hotel in Port Elizabeth. Bizarre things inevitably happened, such as the time, mid-Test match, that Robin Smith was found hammering on a room door at 12.30 in the morning because a deaf England fan had fallen asleep with their television on maximum volume. On another occasion somebody opened their door to find Bob Willis bowling a tennis ball down the corridor at Mark Ramprakash. Bob couldn’t get his full run in, and there wasn’t a speed gun handy. but as an attempt to find the mythical Holy Grail that is cross-generational Test cricket, it had its moments. I think Ramps played and missed.

Bob Willis was a very good bowler. The figures show as much, but it is always about so much more than numbers. The extracts from Headingley that were shown and re-shown on Wednesday evening acted as reminders of his virtues. Little subtlety, but a tight off-stump line bowled at high pace, with the constant threat of steep bounce. He couldn’t swing the ball like Malcom Marshall, or seam it like Richard Hadlee, but try batting against him, especially at Headingley.

Which brings me to the fact that for me, the most memorable spell he ever bowled at Headingley wasn’t the 8 for 43, but one two years later against New Zealand as they chased down a low total to secure their first Test victory in England. When the game was won Willis had all five wickets to fall. God, he was quick that day.

Despite a near-lifetime of watching cricket anywhere and everywhere, I have never been to Headingley. I can make myself feel even older than I am by recalling that nine years before 1981 I was on holiday with my family in Yorkshire, the county of my mother’s birth, and there was a plan to attend the fourth day of the Test match between England and Australia. Unfortunately the game ended in three days, with Underwood bowling Australia out on a fungus-affected pitch. To this day I have never been back to Leeds.

When I do, and I go to watch cricket at Headingley, even before I think of Ian Botham or Ben Stokes, I will think of Bob Willis.

6.10.19

Marcus

Get up. Leave your chair, or your bed. Go outside. If you are in England, even in the balmy south-west, you will see signs of autumn. It may be mild, but the leaves are turning; it may be quiet, but, if you are very lucky now, you may just hear the last of the northern summer's swallows, swifts and housemartins as they ready themselves to fly south. Come Newlands in January, when England are playing, this is where they will be.

There may be a slight chill in the air; a chill that may be real, or metaphorical. For cricket followers at this time of year there is always a chill. For this is where cricketers' dreams die and where players' careers end.

Marcus Trescothick's career ended here.

1991. Trescothick, 15 years old, beaming rosy-cheeked from the pages of The Cricketer. A new Slazenger bat is his, a reward for scoring 4000 runs in the season. He is flanked by Angus Fraser and Carl Hooper and Micky Stewart. The runs are extraordinary, but nobody knows if they will ever hear of him again. Young cricketers do exceptional things all the time, and frequently they fade into obscurity. Sometimes they come back, often they don't.

1994. Bath, June; a hot summer Saturday at the old festival ground, now sadly lost to the county game. Ringed in deckchairs and marquees, teeming with people, Bath Abbey gazing down like a sentinel. England are playing New Zealand at Lord's and they are struggling. The sound of TMS drifts across the ground from one of the beer tents, but it is only of marginal interest. For the many devout supporters of Somerset who are there, the fact that the Wyvern county is in the ascendant against Surrey is of much greater significance. What is more, young players are thriving. A slight and shy boy from north Devon called Mark Lathwell has already made a double hundred with timing that is a thing of beauty and art. It is art that is coincidental, in that he doesn't seem to realize how he is doing it, and nor do you, or anyone else. He has already played for England, and, despite a hesitant start to his Test career, he looks certain to go far in the professional game. Ultimately, though, his Test career has already finished, and he only goes far away from the professional game. This is what can happen.

Then there is Marcus. He may also be shy, but he is far from slight. In essence he is still a bulky boy on the edge of manhood at 18, and he is just starting to find his feet as an adult cricketer. On that day you see him make his maiden century in first-class cricket with the same ripe combination of drives, cuts and pulls as you will see so many times in the future. Of course, you have no idea of the bumps that there will be in the road, and nor does he. Nobody ever knows what the future holds, especially where cricket, and the harsh pressure that it can exert on all kinds of personalities, is concerned.

After that, for seasons, things stall. Time after time Marcus's innings consist of some early boundaries followed by dismissal to a catch behind the wicket. There are glimpses of the latent potential: there is a time when you go to Taunton and people are talking about the fact that he has made 322 in a second team game, but there is another time when you are sitting in the old Ridley Stand and Marcus is behind you with his Dad, discussing his future, which still seems uncertain. When you do see him play he is often batting down the order and bowling a little. It seems wrong. But this is the thing with cricket; over an extended period, scores don't lie. You are where you are, until you find yourself somewhere else.

For Marcus, the somewhere else was the England team, and you can still recall watching his first international innings on TV, willing him to succeed. He does, but you also recall telling someone that you feel that Test cricket, with all those fielders behind the wicket, might be a step too far.

Then you are at Taunton on the day when he bats in Test cricket for the first time. Yorkshire's Darren Lehmann is making one of the best half-centuries you have ever seen, or will ever see, but you are, of course, listening to what is happening in Manchester. What is happening in Manchester is that Marcus is batting against the West Indies - the West Indies of Ambrose and Walsh - and he is taking 45 minutes to make his first run. But he goes on to reach 50, and everyone is talking about how cool his temperament is and how well-suited he is to Test cricket.

This is true, and it remains true for years, until Marcus has to return home from India in early 2006, for reasons which everyone knows about now. He plays on for England until the end of the following summer, and you are lucky enough to be at Lord's to see what turns out to be his final Test century, even though you don't know it at the time and nobody else does either.

After this, the second half of his career begins.

The County Championship hasn't yet been condemned to dwell like a neglected orphan in the season's colder and darker months, and Marcus can be found where he is happiest, doing what he does best; close to home and batting at the top of the order for Somerset.

Here is where your impressions of Marcus crystallize into lasting memories, and now, with his time at an end, they flow like the runs used to in the times before his form started to fall away.

The first thought is of a stroke. From around 1999 to 2009 I nearly always sat in the Ian Botham Stand at Taunton, and I saw this stroke many times. Usually at the start of an innings, played against the hard new ball, often in fading light, late in the day, when thoughts turn to home. It is a stroke which usually indicated that Marcus was in form, and that big runs would follow.

The bowler would overpitch around middle and off and Marcus would drive just to the off side of straight. Without much foot movement, of course, but with the straightest of bats and that distinctive little flourish at the top of the stroke which was the nearest he ever got to a trademark. And, when he was really in nick, it would always go inside mid-off, too fast and true for anyone to touch.

There are other vignettes too. There was a time when a decent county seamer, who we'll call James Tomlinson, got a few people out at Taunton and started to fancy himself a little. He dropped one short at Marcus, and the ball was last seen bouncing across the car park and heading in the direction of Priory Bridge Road. Marcus was never the arrogant type, but you don't get to be good enough to play for England if you don't believe in yourself. He didn't need to tell James Tomlinson that he'd faced Brett Lee at Perth in 2002 and so knew what really fast bowling was like. All he had to do was hit the ball out of the ground.

In the years after he left international cricket nobody in Somerset forgot what Marcus could do. We knew it all along and we were reminded of it time and time again. Perhaps others forgot, though. So there were times when he reminded them. The time when he took Surrey for 124 at the Oval in a forty over game, or the time he was applauded off Castle Park in Colchester by Essex supporters who knew that they had seen an innings of majesty.

These years, late in the century's first decade, may have been the apogee of Trescothick's career. If his health had allowed it, he would still have been young enough and good enough to play for England, but he was forced by circumstances to tread the county game's boards instead. To many this would have seemed a much more prosaic existence, but you suspect that to Marcus it never did. He was a child of the county game in ways that players from counties where cricket means less, or who leave it behind for international cricket earlier, never were.

When he and Sir Alastair Cook briefly embraced at the end of their counties' final game of the season, it marked not just the passing of a player's career but the gradual ebbing away of an element of English cricket culture. These were two players, born on the same day nine years apart, whose international careers briefly intersected, and both of them know that their personal histories might have been very different if certain things beyond anyone's control hadn't happened. They also know and understand what it is like to exchange fame and fortune for a more moderate sort of heroism at Chelmsford or Taunton, instead of the Gabba or the Oval, whether you have any choice over the timing of your departure or not.

How many players in the future will get so much professional satisfaction, so much pleasure, from simply playing four day county cricket, long after, for them, the bright lights of the international game have been extinguished? The never-ending world of bastardised cricket will claim most of them before they even have the chance to see what they might become, let alone sink back into the life they used to know before they hit the big time.

And now, as county cricket as we know and love it enters another phase of threat and uncertainty - not that it ever left the last one, or the one before that, behind - memories of Marcus and times like these are what we are left with. And, whatever exists when the pieces thrown into the air and scattered to the winds by The Hundred land, these are what we will always have.

Cherish them for as long as you can.

26.8.19

The Inevitability of Genius

Everyone who saw what happened at Headingley yesterday - and many who didn't - will have their take on it. This is mine.

With one thing and another - the demands of a job which doesn't allow me to watch cricket, mainly - unless I'm at a game these days, opportunities to sit down and watch Test cricket, in all its compelling glory, for hour upon hour, are relatively rare. On Saturday afternoon, and again yesterday, I was able to do so. I was reminded of my childhood - days of Soul Limbo, and Peter West, and Jim Laker and Richie, curtains drawn against the occasional sun, my Mum trying to drag me away from the television. 'Just one more over' was what I would always say; ten overs later I was still there. And, because my parents had paid for their television licence, I could do so without having to mute the adverts. Sky was just what I saw when I went outside with a bat and a tennis ball during the lunch interval.

In modern parlance this sounds slightly sad. I did go out (usually, in the summer, anyway, it was to play cricket); I had friends (mostly they also liked cricket); I had other interests (though never anything as intense as cricket, really) and days such as those prepared me for days such as this. You name it, I saw it - Richards and Gavaskar at The Oval, early Gower, beautiful and unique, Botham when he could swing the ball (which always leads me to kick back when people get too effusive about Jimmy A), the West Indies attack in all its terrifying potency, even innings - like Javed Miandad's 260 at The Oval in 1987 - which, for all their shimmering greatness, have been lost in the mists of time.

In July 1981 I was recovering at home from a major operation (we won't go into the details here; they are unpleasant). This meant that although school hadn't quite broken up, I was in front of the TV when England found themselves 135 for 6 at the old, open, grey Headingley, a very different ground to the modern sun-drenched stadium which was the stage for yesterday's heroics. Yes, I saw Botham, and Willis, and the catches by Gatting and Graham Dilley, and all that. Start to finish. I even scored it, although, in all the excitement. my scoring skills let me down and the sheet didn't add up right.

38 years after, on a hot Devon afternoon, I find people are asking how what Botham did then compares with what Ben Stokes has just done. As I reply I start to feel like some ageing eminence grise of cricket-watching, but I am nothing of the sort. I am 53 years old and I have spent a very large part of my life watching cricket. That is all.

As always with cross-era comparions, little is gained; they were different innings, played at different times, in different circumstances. One began and continued as a rage against the dying light of a seemingly hopeless situation; the other was a cultivated response to the possibility of victory that was at least plausible, if highly improbable. And there are other, more worthy comparisons with Stokes; Lara at Bridgetown, 1999, stands out as an example of genius bending a game to its will with the same result as we have just seen.

Two things: the first is the straightness of Stokes's bat, and the dead weight position of his head as he defends again and again against Lyon on Saturday evening, and again on Sunday morning. Even though it is hot, as the Yorkshire autumn approaches the Saturday shadows are beginning to lengthen, but, even watching on television, you can feel the strength of his determination not to do anything rash. Unlike many another contemporary English batsman he has faith in his defensive technique and his strength of will. You sense that he feels that in time, with the right support, the opportunity to cash in will come, though he cannot know how spectacularly it will happen. The second thing to say is that I felt a really strange sense of inevitability from around forty runs out. Unless Jack Leach was dismissed, England were going to win.

In retrospect, that feels ridiculous. But there was - and increasingly is - a sense of the ridiculous about the way in which Stokes bats, of the impossible being not just possible, but certain. And here, the comparison with Botham has its time again, because this is the product of ferocious competitive will and iron self-belief, the like of which English cricket hasn't seen since Botham.

Stokes doesn't feel like a genius in the way that Lara did, but then genius is more readily ascribed to elegance than to the kind of raw power and ingenuity in which Stokes specializes. But what is genius if it is not the ability to do things which are way beyond the capacity of people who, by most people's standards, are incredibly good at what they do? Could Joe Root have done that? No. Could Jos Buttler have done that? Well, perhaps, and he now has something to aim for, even if such a conjunction of circumstances is hardly likely to ever come his way.

For all his innate ability to spin the ball away from the right-hander, Jack Leach is nobody's idea of a genius. But when I spoke to him in Taunton a few years ago after he'd taken some important, game-sealing wickets under the sort of pressure which makes lesser players wilt, I was impressed by the coolness and certainty of his responses. His self-possession yesterday came as no surprise, and, in a way as understated as his character, he has also written his name in English cricket's lengthy, dusty, somewhat dog-eared, but voluminous history books.

I have seen a lot of cricket, but I haven't seen everything, so it is best not to get carried away at times like this. However, I can say with absolute certainty that this was the most skilful, multi-dimensional and outrageously courageous innings I have ever seen played by an England batsman. After what happened at Lord's in July it was never a genuine danger, but it is now certain that Ben Stokes will never be remembered for being hit for four consecutive sixes in his first World final, or for punching someone on the streets of Bristol. He will be remembered for this, and for many unknown deeds that are yet to come.

Like most professional sportsmen, Stokes and Leach are culturally conditioned always to look forward, and never, at least until they retire, to look back. But they, and those of us who were fortunate enough to see what they did yesterday, especially those who were there, will never forget it.

16.6.19

Great Days

Driving to Sussex from Devon in the rain and gloom. It is 6.10 in the morning and it feels mad.

The rain clears around Portsmouth; soon after 10 we park and walk through Arundel. It is a small town which embodies a certain type of storied Englishness. Beautifully kept houses from many eras, antique shops, a War Memorial decorated with wreaths. A castle; a cathedral; vintage pubs which look welcoming and well-stocked.

You would not need to be told that this is the home of a cricket festival. Not one in the loose sense of the ICC Cricket World Cup, with all its noise, its forced crowd participation and its saturated and breathless media coverage. This is a festival of County Cricket as it still can be at certain times and in certain places: white clothing, red ball, Jack Russell selling paintings, others selling books. Modesty, tolerance, subtlety and elegance are built into the fabric of the day. A man playing an electric guitar made out of a cricket bat would look as incongruous here as a herd of pigs taking off from the castle ramparts.

If seen through a white ball prism, the day’s play is also full of incongruity. Will Beer, a man of thirty looking to leave his bit-part leg spinner’s career behind, bats through all the day’s 96 overs for just 76 runs. This is, by any standards, slow batting, but nobody tries to start a Mexican wave. People know what he is trying to do and they see no need to disturb him. In most cases they are simply happy that days such as these still exist. The sun becomes warm and the conversations grow slightly more animated; late in the day a few people drift away early for the alternative comforts of home, but most stay to the end. It is a time nobody wants to leave behind.

The next day, in Taunton, everything, on field and off, is faster, noisier, brasher. It is also more ephemeral, but this is not a condemnation. The game is completed in one day, it ebbs and it flows, the enthusiasm, knowledge and good humour of the immense Pakistan following is infectious and the play is of a standard far beyond anything which most of the players at Arundel have known. Many of them would like to, of course, but deep down they know they never will, and they might perhaps be happy with that.

It is one of the many strengths of the contemporary game that it can captivate and entrance in such contrasting ways. But amid the differences there are similarities; as at Arundel, an opening batsman is working to establish himself, although in this case he has travelled the road before. This is about resuming an interrupted career.

All David Warner’s trademarks are there; his century is studded with powerful drives and pulls, and he even casts off the cloak of inhibition which hampered Australia’s chase at The Oval. He lays the foundations for Australia’s victory; later the job is completed by Cummins and Starc.

Both of these, in their very different ways, have been great days, but this is not the time to consider which is best. Both are part of the pageant of modern cricket, and they can easily co-exist, with each reminding us of the virtues of the other.

Just as long as the will for them to do so is there.

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