Standing Out

In his classic football supporter's memoir Fever Pitch, published exactly twenty years ago, Nick Hornby wrote about a young player who first represented Arsenal in the mid-1980s named Gus Caesar. Gus Caesar had a promising start to his career at the club before finding that, at the highest level of the game below international football, he couldn't cut it.

The point Hornby was making was about the way in which football has a series of levels, of standards. Local park, county league, regional semi-professional league, Vauxhall Conference (as it was then), Football League (as it was then). Now, at the head of everything - and it has been so for exactly the same twenty years - is the FA Premier League. At each and every level there will be players who have been outstanding at the level below, but who, when they step up to the next, are found wanting. At the very top - in the modern football world this is where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo reside - are the players who have never really been found wanting. They are the best of the best of the best.

Cricket is the same. At the level of cricket which I've played for the last couple of decades - friendly matches between village sides in England's west country - a player capable of playing in the local premier league will stand out. Go and watch a match in that premier league and a player who represents the local minor county, or who once was among the best teenagers in the country, will stand out. Go and watch that minor county and a player who has played a lot in the County Championship will - if he is not a physical or psychological wreck (long cricket careers can do that to you) - stand out. Go and watch a County Championship match and someone who has played in 88 Test matches and scored 21 centuries, including some of the most brilliant innings played by an England batsman in the modern era, well, he will stand out.

So it was with Kevin Pietersen yesterday. So much has been written over the past few weeks, so many opinions offered, about Pietersen's undeniably complex psychology, that it has been possible to forget, or at least briefly overlook, the fact that he is, when all has been said, a batsman of the purest genius.

And, if the eleven players in Somerset's side, or his Surrey team-mates, or the thousand or so in the Taunton crowd, were in any danger of forgetting how good Pietersen was - and some would never before have seen evidence of his ability at first-hand - they will not do so for a very long time.

In many ways Pietersen's century seemed understated, largely on account of the ease and assurance with which it was made. Such was the superiority of Pietersen over a useful Somerset attack that the need for extreme violence or self-preservation was obviated. It was bloodless.

In the early stages of his innings Pietersen occasionally played and missed at seaming deliveries from the eternally fiery Steven Kirby and his erstwhile England colleague Sajid Mahmood, but, when he had settled, it was simply a question of how often he felt like hitting the ball for four or six. Far worse players than Peter Trego - a locally-raised all-rounder having his best season with the ball - have played for England. Pietersen, when he desired an acceleration in the tempo of his side's innings after lunch, danced down the pitch and flicked Trego to the leg-side boundary with the disdainful ease of a teenage elder brother humiliating a younger sibling. And then, when, as night follows day, Trego dropped the ball short, Pietersen pulled him for a flat six with the venom of a cornered snake.

The young Irish slow left-armer George Dockrell is a spin bowler of huge potential. Until yesterday he had found that his easy, grooved action and fine control of pace and spin were enough to see him through against some of the better batting sides in the first division of the Championship. Against Pietersen, receiving little help from the surface, he found that he could do nothing to prevent himself being milked for run after run, and then, when Pietersen felt it was necessary, he was hit out of the ground into the River Tone. Although he took three wickets, the lasting value of the day will be as a lesson in what players from another realm can do. One day - perhaps with a Test career behind him - he will look back on it with wryness and appreciation of its value.

Pietersen's celebrations were also understated. There was none of the leaping and fist-pumping which always accompany his international milestones. Here there was simply a raised bat, first to the Surrey dressing room and then to all the ground's corners. There were friendly conversations with Alfonso Thomas and, later in the day, with all the scoreboard damage done, with Mahmood. This, somewhat incongrously, was Pietersen attempting to play the part of the humble everyman. Something about his body language suggested contrition, and even, perhaps, a longing for forgiveness.

The saga of the last few weeks is far from over - it will probably take another twist within the hour - and the sense is that, for all Pietersen's gifts, things will always happen around him which people will not understand or like.

Many words have been expended on Kevin Pietersen and many more will be used before his career is done.

You can say what you like about Kevin Pietersen.

Just don't ever say he can't bat.



There are few greater contrasts in the cricket world than the back of the Warner Stand at Lord's, with its pervasive ambience of old school English privilege, thinly disguised wealth and liberally-consumed champagne, and the dusty acres of the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium at Hyderabad in India, where, over the past few days, an Indian side successfuly marrying new and old, youth and experience, put an anaemic and underprepared New Zealand side to the sword.

Sitting in the Warner shade on a steamy Saturday morning as England played South Africa in August 2012, an idle glance at Cricinfo revealed that VVS Laxman, a son of Hyderabad himself, had retired from Test cricket.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the news brought sadness, or even surprise. It had been coming for a while and merely marked the latest staging point in India's transition from a team pivoted around a group of ageing superstars to one with a fresher, more original hue.

All that can and needs to be said about Laxman has already been said by many people far better qualified than me to do so. In particular Murali Kartik, a player from the same Indian generation who, though chiefly a bowler, shared much of Laxman's elegance and ease of style. For this, certainly for those of us in England who were denied the specific memories of his greatest days in India and Australia, is what will pervade.

A bowler - any bowler, but perhaps Brett Lee - pitches the ball on a good length, off stump line, and Laxman leans forward, slightly off perfect balance but eyes level, and whips the ball through midwicket with an air that is businesslike and slightly apologetic. 'This hurts me a little', he seems to say, 'but this has to be done'.

Laxman's replacement, Cheteshwar Pujara, is cut from very different cloth. There is little flamboyance or elegance there, but there is high talent, ambition and patience. He left the field in Hyderabad plainly disappointed to have only made 159. He was expecting far more.

In time, you can be sure, he will get it.


Something Extraordinary

As one or two people may have noticed - and I hope I'm not flattering myself unduly in thinking that - I've been lying low recently. It hasn't necessarily been a deliberate decision but rather a consequence of a lot happening in the day job and a memorable - truly memorable - trip to London for the thirtieth Olympiad.

Ordering your thoughts after something like that isn't easy.

I used to really love watching major championship athletics. It was bigger then, in the era of Coe, of Ovett, of Cram, of Thompson, of Edwin Moses, and Roger Kingdom and Sergei Bubka. In the years that followed the disgrace of Johnson and the unravelling of the state-sponsored doping programmes in eastern Europe, I largely lost that love. I'd check back in every four years during the Olympics, but, even allowing for some heady moments with Gunnell in Barcelona and Kelly Holmes in Athens, it never endured.

The last week has reminded me what it was I saw in it with more clarity than ever.

All sports have their signature elements, but two aspects of track athletics are among the most dramatic moments to be found in any sporting arena. They are the silent pause that precedes the gun in a sprint, and the bell that marks the start of the final lap of a distance race.

One is about anticipation and the other is about the inevitability of climax. Hearts stop for less.

Athletics, though is only one part of the Olympic experience.

Anyone who was fortunate enough to attend the London Olympic Games in the British summer of 2012 knows that.

It is early August and it is late in east London. A sunlit early evening has given way first to dusk over the Olympic Stadium and then to darkness, broken by the lights that surround the arena and also by those which are attached to the other structures which punctuate the Olympic Park: the Orbit, the Aquatics Centre, the Velodrome. Further away, to the south, are the lights of Canary Wharf, and to the west those of central London.

It is cool but not cold and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people here. We are among the crowd and we are required to wait to enter Stratford Station. This is no hardship: in fact it has been a difficult thing to drag ourselves away from the Park. As we walk away people are constantly turning around, taking photographs. This has been their field of dreams.

While we wait, a young Irishman who carries echoes of Dylan Moran and is one of the army of ‘Games Makers’ sits in what appears to be a tennis umpire’s chair and attempts to keeps us entertained. His stories are rambling and imperfectly delivered, but no matter. Everyone is in a good mood. These Olympic Games do that to people.

As we walk forward into the station a lad of about twelve runs ahead, high fiving a series of policemen, troops and Games Makers. Everyone is smiling. The thought occurs that this is Great Britain. This sort of thing doesn’t happen here. Except that, in London in the summer of 2012, it does.

Earlier in the day we explore the Olympic Park. After passing through the gates we turn to the right in front of the stadium and look down what is known as London Way. The sight which confronts us reminds me of a Biblical Epic. For as far as the eye can see there is an unbroken sea of humanity. It is moving - in more ways than one - as people either walk away from the Stadium after the morning’s athletic events or return to the heart of the Park from its distant fringes. We have travelled to the park on the Docklands Light Railway from the southern end of east London but it is hard to avoid the sensation that we have arrived on a different planet. Something extraordinary has been created here.

The signature sights of the Park are the Olympic Stadium itself, the Aquatics Centre, the Velodrome, the Basketball Arena and the Copper Box, intertwined with flower beds planted with a range of species of British wild flowers which add a flavour of originality and colour to the scene. Once we are part of the crowd it is obvious that the atmosphere is the same blend of happiness, friendliness and tolerance that we have encountered at other Olympic venues. In stark contrast with most other major sporting events held in Britain, nobody is drunk.

There is nationalism, but it is not the aggressive, blinkered partisanship of football. It is the benign, sincere national pride of the Last Night of the Proms. It feels right.

At the far end of the Park the Great Britain men’s hockey team is playing against Pakistan, and, as they score two early goals, thunderous cheers ring out, letting those who are admiring the architecture, or smelling the flowers, or watching the swallows, or following the tennis on the big screen, know that there is live sport taking place. It is a welcome reminder that reality is out there somewhere.

It was never meant to be like this. From the time London was awarded the right to stage the thirtieth modern Olympic Games on 6th July 2005, the popular expectation, encouraged by the lazy, reflexive cynicism of the media, was that the event would be terminally damaged by what was perceived as typical British ineptitude. The venues wouldn’t be built on time, or, if they were, London’s transport system wouldn’t be capable of coping with the additional demands placed upon it.

None of this has happened. Although there is an early mix-up over the display of flags at a football match, and concerns over the number of empty seats in some of the venues, the organisation of the Games is exceptional.

In the Olympic Stadium we have seen Greg Rutherford qualify for the final of the Men’s Long Jump final. The following evening he will win Great Britain’s first gold medal in the event since 1964. We have also seen Jessica Ennis, whose elfin grace and winning smile re-define the girl next door cliché for the modern age, compete in two events on the way to her gold medal in the Women’s Heptathlon.

Yes, something extraordinary has been created here. Of course, it is necessary to consider how a lasting legacy of this can be established, but this is for others and it is for the future.

We are finally allowed to move forward towards the station. The movement of the crowd is synchronous, orderly, contemplative. Although the prevailing mood is one of joy, there is little exuberance. It is late, people are tired, and there is a sense that they are, whether consciously or unconsciously, reflecting on what they have been fortunate enough to experience.

This is a time none of us will ever forget.

Subscribe in a reader