The Great Lost Bowler

The excellent short series in England between Pakistan and Australia was a contest of contrasts. Pakistan youthful, unavoidably inexperienced, slightly disorganised but hugely talented. Australia, inevitably diminished, ageing in important areas, but innately professional and as naturally competitive as ever. One side raging against the injustices and political complexities which compel them to play all their Test cricket away from home, the other against the passing of time and a cricket generation.

The lasting impressions include the manner in which Pakistan recovered from the Lord's defeat and its anarchic aftermath to stagger over the line at Headingley, and the fact that, with the coming winter ahead, Australia look to be vulnerable in a way they haven't been against England since Mitchell Johnson was in short trousers.

The abilities of Mohammad Aamer are so self-evidently extraordinary as to require no elaboration, but some of the spells and deliveries bowled, at Headingley in particular, by Mohammad Asif, set the mind rolling over Pakistan's lost years.

When he came to England for the first time in 2006 I was very impressed by Asif, and, for a time after that, he looked like taking his rightful place at the top table of world seam bowling. It never quite happened, mainly because he simply hasn't played enough, and his marginalisation carries echoes of the way in which Pakistan cricket as a whole has been confined to the shadows these past few years.

He looks slower now - presumably by choice, for he's yet to reach 28 and has, amazingly, only played in 19 Test matches - but his memory is good. He still knows how to probe a batsman's weaknesses around off-stump with a precision and control rarely seen from anyone since Glenn McGrath retired. It's a commonplace in most sports that in order to be regarded as truly great you have to play for a long time, but it's not an iron law. Mohammad Asif may be one of the exceptions.

In Pakistan cricket little is ever clear or transparent, but one thing currently is. Over the next few weeks Pakistan's attack will test the England batting to its very foundations.


Time and Circumstance

With Australia and Pakistan engaged in a virile exchange of punch and counter-punch at Headingley, in the quieter surroundings of Taunton the home side came up just short of a victory which would have enhanced their claims to a title they've never won.

Central to Somerset's attack was a 33 year-old Indian left-arm spin bowler called Murali Kartik, whose enchanting blend of persistence, aggression, variation and variety was as impressive and elegant as anything anyone will see on the playing fields of England this summer.

For someone who appears to embody all that is traditional and great about Indian slow bowling, Kartik has had an uneven, unfulfilled career. Eight long-forgotten Tests, with unspectacular, journeyman's results; thirty-odd ODIs for a high average in an era when they were ten a penny. Sporadically outstanding county cricket for Lancashire, Middlesex and Somerset.

As with many a cricketer, Kartik will forever lament that he was born at the wrong time, for the twin shadows of Harbhajan and Kumble, together with the more gaudy attributes of any number of mystery spinners, have hung heavy over his career. For all that, to watch him bowl from the River End at Taunton, unchanged for an afternoon, was to be educated, captivated and reminded of the skill and beauty of the spinner's art.

Orthodox in conception and practice, Kartik's spin comes from an action that appears as natural as breathing. While he can turn the ball prodigiously in the right conditions, the aspect which really stood out at Taunton was the way in which he consistently gave the ball air in a manner that is rarely seen these days outside the movies. In consequence the average young - and not-so-young - English batsman who faces Kartik is forced to play outside his comfort zone in a way he can barely understand, let alone execute. He gets out.

As I wrote earlier in the week, with Warne and Murali gone, Panesar faded from view and Mendis supplanted, the world of spin is now a less colourful place. Time and circumstance mean that Murali Kartik is highly unlikely to play any part in its regeneration at international level; that will be left to the likes of Swann and Vettori, and, in India, to his younger compatriots, Bhajji himself, Pragyan Ojha, Amit Mishra, Piyush Chawla.

In England, Monty will continue to have his days but the future looks uncertain, Adil Rashid continues to look good without taking the decisive step forward his talents deserve, and Hampshire's Danny Briggs looks to have many of Kartik's qualities.

Kartik, though, is special. Enjoy him while you can.


A Passing Era

In a saying that's been repeated so often that it's become a cliche, when Fred Trueman became the first man to take 300 Test wickets, in 1964, he remarked that anybody who beat his total would be 'bloody tired' (or something like that). It seems reasonable to suppose, therefore, that Muttiah Muralitharan, who retired today with a round total of 800 wickets under his belt, is feeling a bit sore just now.

Statistics and experience show that Muralitharan is - was - a great bowler. But there will always be an ambivalence about his qualities and achievements of a type which never accompanied the retirements of Warne, or Kumble, or McGrath. It's become less common to hear people talk openly about the deficiencies of his action as the years have passed, but there are many, many people who were never quite able to accept that he didn't throw the ball.

This suspicion, in its turn, seeped into the minds of those who weren't ever quite sure what to make of the wizard of Kandy (myself included, if truth be told), meaning that his achievements have often received less than their due, at least outside the Indian sub-continent.

But all this is to obscure the point. He was judged to be legal, therefore he was legal, and, in the golden years when the muse was with him, nobody on earth could take wickets like he could.

And, unlike his fellow modern greats, he played for a country with only ten years' Test experience when he made his debut, meaning both that he was under greater pressure and that his wickets carried deeper significance. He, more than anyone else - although the huge contribution of Chaminda Vaas should never be forgotten - showed that Sri Lankans could do more than just pile up runs.

With Murali's retirement a magnificent era has all but passed. The world of spin bowling is a more conventional place, with mystery and innovation increasingly the realm of batsmen, and it'll be down to the likes of Harbhajan and Graeme Swann - two of the most combative and optimistic cricketers you could ever come across - to try to re-establish the hegemony of spin.

It'll be fun watching them try.


Put to Bed

As ever, the modern cricket world moves rapidly on. With Australia and Pakistan locked in what looks like it has the makings of a decent match at Lord's, I'm going to hark back to the way in which England secured their short ODI series with Bangladesh on Monday, especially the contribution of the England captain.

Not very long ago many people were questioning whether Andrew Strauss continued to merit his place in the England one-day side - too one-paced, too conventional, not innovative enough outside his natural scoring areas - but his 154 at Edgbaston showed how hard he's been working to develop his game. Several magnificent lofted sixes were coupled with the usual drives and cuts and a leavening of reverse sweeps to comprise an outstanding innings, regardless of the relative weakness of the Bangladesh attack.

At 78 his ODI strike-rate is, without being outstanding, highly respectable, and it's obvious how highly his team-mates respect him.

Any doubts about his place in the side should have been put to bed for the time being.



Everyone else has lost to Bangladesh, so, in the end, it was bound to happen to England. A performance that hinted at complacency, coupled with a courageous display from the Tigers, ensured that Bristol, 10th July 2010, will always have a special place in Bangladeshi cricket lore.

For me, the most memorable aspect of the day was the appearance of the injured Ian Bell, batting at number eleven for England. As has often been said, Bell tends to cut a modest, slightly reticent figure, characteristics which haven't helped him to get the most from his undeniably exceptional ability, and English crowds haven't always warmed to him.

So it was nice to see him limp down the steps while being cheered onto the pitch like a conquering hero, with the expression on his face showing that he had picked up on the strangeness of it all.

In all probability, the next time he plays for England will be at Brisbane in November. The crowd there might not be so pleased to see him.


Less is More

Although he's best known as a football writer, I regard Martin Samuel as just about the best sportswriter currently working in Britain; intelligent, clear-thinking and unafraid to tell it as he sees it. I try not to make a habit of reading the Daily Mail, so I haven't seen much of his stuff recently, but this caught my eye yesterday.

I don't agree with all of it, but the central thrust - that the expansion of the English T20 competition this season has all but ruined it - seems to be me to be pretty accurate.

Because of work, the World Cup and other commitments, I haven't seen as much as in previous years, but the overall impression is of a competition which is just going on and on and on, without many people really knowing or caring where it's leading.

Twenty20 has many virtues - brilliant fielding, an inbuilt focus on innovation - but much of the excitement it generates is repetitive and, ultimately, can be monotonous.

Sports administrators, especially when they've got witless marketing people shouting in their ear, always have trouble understanding that less can sometimes be more.

It'll be interesting to see where they decide to go from here.


Words of Caution

The coverage of the England-Australia ODI series highlighted the short-termism of much of the mainstream media, although I'm happy to admit that they don't have my advantage of being able to wait until the end of the series before choosing to write something about it.

After three convincing victories England were suddenly the best limited over side in the known universe; after his blistering spell at Lord's Shaun Tait was going to go through England during the Ashes series (providing Punter could persuade him to play); and after a few cheap dismissals Ponting himself was suddenly fallible, with his advancing years catching up with him.

Words of caution are required. For all the coruscating excitement of his Lord's performance, bowling ten overs - in two or three over spells - in an ODI is a world away from bowling in a Test match, especially for someone with the fragile body, mind and technique of Tait. Australia's pace this winter is likely to have to be supplied by Johnson, Harris and Bollinger, the last two of whom showed during the series that they have plenty to offer both in terms of speed and craft.

And, while there may be signs that Ponting's mastery could be fading slightly, it would be as well not to underestimate his ability to recognize this, recast his technique, adjust his strokeplay and go again. A burning desire to regain the Ashes will do the rest.

The greats make their own rules. So be very, very careful before even suggesting that Ponting is ageing. And make doubly sure that he doesn't hear you doing it.


Faded Grandeur

If you were thinking about rating the most picturesque arenas in world cricket, Gloucestershire's County Ground, in the mundane suburbs of northern Bristol, would come well down anyone's list. No Cathedral spire to enhance the view, few trees to provide shade from the sun, and, on a warm Tuesday in late June, with the schools still in and the new age of austerity well under way, a scattering of spectators for the second day of a County Championship Division Two game between the home county and Middlesex. An atmosphere heavy with the pervasive air of long faded grandeur, aptly exemplified by the names - undeniably glorious but oh so old - used to distinguish different parts of the ground: Grace, Jessop, Hammond.

Twenty years ago, when a team containing Gatting, Haynes, Ramprakash, Emburey and Tufnell used to dominate the county game, I'd follow Middlesex around the country. The hot summer of 1990 saw me watch them at Derby, at The Oval, at Uxbridge on a killing day when the temperature was nudging thirty degrees by ten in the morning and Jimmy Cook batted long, and, finally, as autumn drew in, winning the title at Hove. A few months later I moved to Devon, and, after some transitional years when I held a torch for the Seaxes, settled for life in the outer at Taunton.

There are still times, though, when you feel like going back.

But the county game has changed for ever and the gap between the two divisions has long since started to bite. At Bristol the county's current side, an uneasy mixture of bitter experience and callow youth, struggled through the day with an insipid combination of bland bowling and often shoddy fielding as two exiled Kiwis, Hamish Marshall and James Franklin, and an under-rated Englishman, Alex Gidman, put them to the sword. In the mid-afternoon heat, with the game rapidly going away from his side, I found myself wondering about the thoughts of Owais Shah; less than a year ago a member of the England side, and now reduced to this.

When we left the game wasn't over, but the next afternoon saw it to a close, Gloucestershire - a moderate side themselves, in truth - winning by ten wickets and condemning Middlesex to the bottom of the table.

Despite some signs of promise in the limited over game, one of the heroes of 1990, Angus Fraser, now the county's Director of Cricket, has a job of work harder than many of his thankless Test spells on his hands if he is to restore the club to its former eminence.

It was that type of day. Throughout the escapist netherworld that is the English county game the resounding echoes of former glories are a commonplace.

Sometimes, though, they resonate just as loudly on the pitch as in the stands.

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