Recovering Composure

Watching England build with composure and patience against a one-man attack yesterday was a reasonable way to spend the time. Especially if you're just starting to emerge from a hideous bout of flu which has rendered your Christmas a complete non-event.

But then, with Cook and Bell having made good runs you're left to ponder (those elsewhere who know me as a defender of Bell may be amused by this) whether you've been giving them too hard a time.

Cook yes, Bell no. Cook merely reminded one of his main quality, and that which sets him apart from almost every other young English batsman you can think of. Patience. With that, a shedload of runs under his belt in Test cricket already (and he's only just 25) and some necessary technical work under way he'll be around for a while yet. No wonder Boycott likes him.

Ian Bell was poised, stylish and engaging late in the day, all the things he tends not to be when the fur is really flying. But, while his unbeaten fifty will have reminded a few people that technique isn't really the problem, his temperament, which is, is highly unlikely to be tested again in this game.

Elsewhere the obvious was reaffirmed. Ntini is finished, but Morne Morkel has the capacity to do some serious damage worldwide over the next few years if he can continue to bowl with the persistence, pace and aggression which he showed yesterday.

Can he back it up, though? It's a problem Bell and Cook know all about.


Closing Over

For me the most resonant news of the week has been the retirement from Test cricket of Shane Bond. A late developer with an injury-prone body to be sure, but one of those players with the priceless ability to lift his team beyond the ordinary by his mere presence.

New Zealand teams (and especially New Zealand bowling attacks) often appear samey and colourless. Not when Bond was around.

A Merry Christmas to all. See you for more of the same in 2010.


The Cult of Personality

From an England viewpoint the main thing which stood out from the game was again Graeme Swann. Finely crafted orthodox off-spin of the type thought to be on the way to extinction a year or two back and some typically effervescent batting, the product of his seemingly boundless confidence. As someone said, he's perhaps the best number nine currently operating in Test cricket and a player it's hard to believe has been playing at the highest level for barely a year.

By contrast Ian Bell and to a lesser extent Alastair Cook cut painful figures, with Bell in particular fast heading into Mark Ramprakash territory: an English batsman of substantial gifts but without the mental wherewithal to make anything of them.

Both may be put out of their misery soon, although it's hard to see how Cook can be adequately replaced from the existing squad, but a point worth pondering is the extent to which Swann's success is as much a product of his mentality as his ability.

Even when he's been doing well there's seemed to be a diffidence about Bell which will never stand anyone in good stead at Test level, and to watch an Alastair Cook interview is to be both confused and irritated by his bouncy inarticulacy and predictability.

Coming from someone who's never met either, these are value judgements, but consistent success in Test cricket owes a huge amount to personality. And if there's one thing Swann has in spades...

Generosity of Spirit

I didn't see much of the first Test live. Work, pre-Christmas socializing and a trip to Plymouth for a local rugby argument took care of that. But then sheltering from the snow on Plymouth Hoe as de Villiers and Amla built South Africa's lead in slightly warmer conditions thousands of miles away had a certain attraction to it, and it'll certainly stick in the memory.

I was around for the denouement yesterday, though, and the main thing which stuck in my memory from that was Graeme Smith's decision to give Ntini the last over. While admiring Smith's generosity towards a fine man whose status as a cricketing icon for modern South Africa has been rightly pronounced all over the world's media these past few weeks, surely keeping the impressive Friedel de Wet on would have given South Africa a better chance of taking the one wicket they needed to complete an improbable win.

As it is, Ntini couldn't get past the middle of Graham Onions's bat, and, unless the South African selectors are as generous as Smith, that over may well be the last he ever bowls in Test cricket.

Steyn at one end and de Wet at the other in Durban? You wouldn't exactly be queing up to bat, even if you were in better form than Ian Bell and Alastair Cook.


Footwork is for Mortals

One of the best things (and there are many to choose from) about Virender Sehwag is that watching him can make you re-consider all that you ever knew about batting. For example, every coaching manual you'll ever read will emphasize the importance of footwork in batting, but is it really that important? Not for Viru.

Sehwag has often shown (and yesterday was surely his apogee) that all he needs is a bowler and a bat. Some of the greatest hand-eye co-ordination and bat speed ever known will do the rest, coupled with under-rated shot selection and defence, insatiable run-hunger and a sprinkling of luck.

In a marginally less astonishing way it's worked for others too. Some very similar qualities have always stood Marcus Trescothick in good stead, and there are others. Sadly I never saw him in the flesh but all the footage of Graeme Pollock I've ever seen gives the impression of someone who'd just stand there and hit the cover off the ball until the bowlers couldn't take any more.

As with all kinds of aspects of all kinds of games, the Greats make their own rules.

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