The Man on the Train

In thinking about great English batsmen the other day, my thoughts turned to Peter May. Not because I remember seeing him play - his first-class career ended more than two years before I was born - but because he tends to be the player most readily named when people talk about England's last truly great batsman.

This may or may not be right. It's a matter of opinion after all, and I favour David Gower, a player I certainly did see and whose style is simply unmatched by anyone in the world these days. But, if you examine the figures and read and listen to the testimonies of those who watched him, it's obvious that May was a very, very good player.

And whenever I think of Peter May, because I don't have any memories of games or innings to sustain me, I think of a time in the late eighties and early nineties when, for a couple of years, I commuted into London from the suburbs to go to work and to college.

Apart from the day of the Clapham Junction disaster, I have few lasting memories of the journeys which I took then. However, on a number of occasions, I saw Peter May.

He worked in the City and lived somewhere in Surrey or Hampshire. He wasn't a regular on my line but one day something went wrong with the trains and I noticed that he was sitting in my carriage.

When we arrived at Waterloo Station and the train emptied, May remained seated in the corner, seemingly happy to wait for it to be completely empty before he made his departure. Although I considered making an approach I realized that there would be little I could say beyond the banal. All I knew was that he was Peter May, and some of the broad details of his career. I didn't remember anything of his playing days and so had no personal context (apart from some of his later eccentricities while an England selector) in which to place the encounter.

But at least I knew who he was. To everyone else he was just another nondescript commuter, and I was seized with a strange desire to tell everyone that this was a man who had once made 285 not out in a Test match.

But I didn't. They wouldn't have been impressed, and May, who gave off an almost tangible air of reticence - a sort of reverse charisma - would just have been embarassed.

I left the train.

On another occasion I was in an upstairs bar at Waterloo when May walked in, ordered a drink and stood at the bar in complete solitude and silence while he drained his small glass before thanking the barman and turning on his heel. This was obviously a man who felt that he had received enough applause and attention in his life. The lowest of low profiles suited him.

Some years later I was in Australia watching England when May's death was announced. He was remembered with affection there and the flags at the MCG, where, precisely forty years before, he had made 91 to set up Australia for Tyson's demolition, flew at half mast.

I don't think he would have enjoyed the attention.


Short Memory Syndrome

When I described Alastair Cook as a great batsman last week I was getting carried away. Carried away on a cocktail of admiration for his batting, especially since he became England's one-day captain, and the type of mellow 'everything's right with the world' feeling that a walk in the Devon countryside in the late winter sunshine can bring on.

For all Cook's precocity, and runs, and undeniable rightness for what he's doing, it's hard to see him ever quite being great. He'll break a few run accumulaton records, sure, but you can do that without being great (just ask Geoffrey Boycott. Well, no, actually, don't ask Geoffrey Boycott.). He'll do for the future, though.

Kevin Pietersen, though, is different. As his century in the final ODI between England and Pakistan last Tuesday showed, he is capable of breaking bowlers in a way that no other English batsman from the foreseeable past has.

I always thought Pietersen had it in him to be great, but the type of long silence which he has endured in the one-day game over the past three years can lead even those of us who don't earn our living from writing to be sucked in by the short memory syndrome which habitually affects full-time journalists.

Apart from the reminder of just how good Pietersen can be, the lasting fascination of the innings was the way in which it illustrated how a prolonged period of under-performance can diminish the confidence of even the best.

The Pietersen who went to the wicket in the final match of the series wasn't very different in a technical or physical sense from the one who began the previous game.

He, like the rest of us 153 balls later, had just remembered what he could do.


Look in the Book

After a period of well-deserved success in the one-day arena - and it's not as if that's never been known before, only for it crumble to dust at the next time of asking - England will currently be feeling a bit better about themselves. While Ian Bell has had no opportunity to redeem himself, Kevin Pietersen went some way yesterday towards bolstering his faltering reputation and Eoin Morgan has done what is customary for him while wearing a blue shirt (not that anyone ever doubted that he would).

Alastair Cook, of course, didn't really need to rejuvenate his reputation. As becomes more and more evident as he plays, Cook doesn't really do self-doubt, or failure, or long periods of scorelessness. He just - and this is especially true if his merits are questioned - scores runs.

England have had plenty enough players over the years who have flattered to deceive, or that everyone thought would dominate the world, without ever producing the scores to justify the hype. Cook, too, had the scores from a young age, and this precocity of achievement was sustained throughout his early years in the Test arena, but nobody ever seemed convinced that he wasn't riding for a fall. In Test cricket this came with his prolonged slump in form in 2009 and 2010, in the limited-overs arena with a persistent inability to score runs quickly and consistently enough.

Of course, all players fail, but the real test of a player's quality is how he deals with that failure. Not for Cook the retreat into obscurity or the meek acceptance that anything was beyond him. No, just do the work and come back to score 766 runs in an Ashes series before starting to churn out one-day hundreds at a strike-rate beyond reproach while shouldering the additional burdens of captaincy.

Cook always appears a man without artifice or self-regard. He is happy to let his runs do the talking, secure in the knowledge that his record - in terms of runs and centuries scored in Test cricket at a young age - stands comparison with the greats. And, as has been said here before, he always looks as though he is one of those fortunate people who has found something that he can do really, really well, and is determined to make the most of his luck and timing. This is a man who was put on earth to bat. And bat he does.

But this gift, and the ability to make the most of it, is not coincidental. Cook rarely shows much emotion but look at him in the moments after he is dismissed. This is someone who, no matter how many runs he has made, really hates getting out.

Regardless of his runs, most of us have probably been guilty of underestimating Cook. I, for one, always felt that the next truly great English batsman would be Ian Bell, or by adoption, Kevin Pietersen.

I was wrong. The next truly great English batsman is Alastair Cook.


The Fragility of Acclaim

If ever there was a cricket tour which symbolized the fragility of widespread acclaim in the modern media world where shades of gray only exist to be shunned, it has been England's tour of the United Arab Emirates.

One minute England are 'World Number One', and supposedly the best cricket team on the planet, the next they're spinning to repeated defeats at the hands of their age-old nemesis, Asian bowlers who can really turn the ball. Maybe they weren't so good after all, as Barney Ronay discusses in this work of genius.

One minute Ian Bell is a player who is finally fulfilling all his time-honoured promise, gorging himself on the Indian bowling in the secure surroundings of Trent Bridge and The Oval, the next he's back to looking like a little boy lost, a weak swimmer in the shark-infested waters of Planet Doosra. Maybe he wasn't so good after all.

One minute Kevin Pietersen is cementing his reputation as a minor genius, even if he can't make runs in one-day cricket, the next he's an arrogant Saffer brought to ground by his hubristic reluctance to admit he has a problem playing left-arm spinners. Maybe he wasn't so good after all.

And then there's Stuart Broad. One minute a juvenile hot-head who spends too much time appealing without reference to the umpire and calling for reviews even when he's as out as they come. Not to mention banging the ball in half way down the pitch in a doomed attempt to be some sort of 'enforcer'. The next, well, a terrific bowler, and one who, with his fundamentally orthodox and powerful batting and innate competitive instinct, could go on to bestride the world game in a way few English players have.

Whisper it, really whisper it, but some of Broad's bowling on the dusty tracks of the Arab winter carried echoes of McGrath at his best.

For him, the acclaim may last a little longer.

Subscribe in a reader