Playing Hard Ball

I don't really play cricket anymore. The last time I did, in 2011, I batted for quite a long time and then couldn't move properly for several weeks. Not for the first time, my back had gone.

I never say I've retired though. Once I could have been a contender, and I could be again, in my mind anyway.

My brother, though he is nearly ten years older than me, still plays village cricket in Derbyshire. Earlier this year, in the summer, I visited him and spotted a ball - a brand new cherry red ball - lying around in his house. Prompted by me, we went outside on to a large grass area near his house and threw it to each other. We weren't far apart and we didn't throw it very hard.

I grew up with cricket balls. Back when I was young they hadn't invented the sort of soft balls I see kids playing with on the Taunton outfield. There were tennis balls, which we tended to play with in the garden to avoid breakages, and there were what were then called composition balls, which, in truth, weren't much softer than the real thing. They were just cheaper and less responsive.

When I was younger, cricket balls and their hardness never really concerned me. Many's the time, as a dour front-foot prodder of an opening bat, I returned home with garish bruises on my thighs, and my stomach, and one time a pain in my hip bone that took half a year to subside. This time, though, I was struck (both literally and metaphorically) by just how hard a cricket ball is. In comparison with the ball used in virtually any other game, cricket balls are stupidly hard. Dangerously hard. Get hit by one in the wrong place and you could get badly hurt.

I made the comment, only partly in jest, that if someone invented cricket today and made the ball as hard as that, the game would be banned for Health and Safety reasons.

I grew up with other things too. I am old enough to remember Thomson and Lillee terrorising England's batsmen, and I am old enough to remember Michael Holding bowling to the helmetless Brian Close and John Edrich at Old Trafford. I am old enough to remember Peter Lever hitting Ewan Chatfield on the head. I also remember reading that one of Jeff Thomson's mates - Martin Bedkober he was called - had died after being hit in the chest by a cricket ball.

I knew then that cricket balls could kill you, but somehow it didn't really enter my thinking again until this morning, 39 years on, when I heard that Phillip Hughes had died.

Other people had things like this, but they always recovered. Chatfield was nearly killed - his heart stopped - but years later he was still tirelessly running in for the best side that New Zealand ever had. Phil Simmons almost went the same way at Bristol but still had a Test career ahead of him. Michael Schumacher, Jules Bianchi. Nobody knows what state they are in, but they are still alive. It was only boxers who died.

Until today.

Cricket has had days like this before. On hearing the news my mind instantly went back to the time I woke up on a similarly dark November morning and heard that Malcolm Marshall had died. And, later, I thought of the time that I was listening to TMS and heard Christopher Martin-Jenkins say that Ben Hollioake had been killed in a car crash.

This morning seemed a little different, though. Marshall had cancer; car crashes happen all the time, to all kinds of people. An international cricketer had never been killed by a ball before.

Now cricket has Twitter. People from all over the world post messages, montages, pictures, say profound things, say stupid things, say insensitive things. But the feeling is of a community coming together. The world is full of people who know nothing of cricket, and people who think they know enough of cricket to say that they dislike it. But for those of us who are left, no game engenders such loyalty and love, both for the sport itself and for the people who play it.

I hardly saw Phil Hughes bat live. Just his two Lord's Tests, in 2009 and 2013, when he failed as his homespun New South Wales country boy's technique was badly exposed. But I had seen him enough on TV and I had seen enough of his statistics to know that he would probably have come good in time. People always say things like this, but it is true to say that his best years were ahead of him. He was a contender.

Sadly, another thing being middle-aged teaches you is that 25 is no kind of age to die.


The Age of Pietersen

As Kevin Pietersen himself has said in the past few days: 'How did it come to this?'

When Kevin Pietersen made his debut for England in a one-day international against Zimbabwe in Harare in November 2004, Twitter was something birds did.

How did we end up with England's most-capped cricketer arguing via the radio with a bloke from the East Midlands who just happens to know a few England players, about who had access to a Twitter account that was, when all has been said, a parody?

It is squalid, and it is pointless, but it is more than that. As others better qualified to comment than me have said, it is sad. Sad that an era in which the England cricket team were really successful - as we have seen and been told they were far from popular, but they did win matches, and series, and played some great cricket in their way - will, at least for a time, be recalled as an era which ended in dispute and recrimination, claim and counter-claim.

The truth according to Pietersen, or the truth according to Graeme Swann.

What actually happened, or 'the greatest work of fiction since Jules Verne'.

Unless you were there, you will never know.

We are only days into this but it already seems as though all that can be said has been said. Of course, this is never true. There is always more. In this sort of stupid, childish situation, someone will always want to have the last word.

Something which I haven't seen said yet is that 'it was always going to end in tears'. But you can be sure that someone, somewhere, will be thinking that, and saying it. And, as with many people you met around the grounds of England during the age of Pietersen and who would tell you for nothing why they didn't like him, or didn't trust him, they will be spectacularly wrong. Because, for a long time, for all Pietersen's unorthodoxy and flamboyance and apparent immodesty, it did work.

Christ, it worked. 8,000 Test runs at 47, with 23 centuries, say that it worked.

For a long time there were no tears, except, perhaps, the tears of joy which may have been shed by people who saw an England batsman doing things which they never thought they'd see.

These days few people remember the Norwich Union League, but a fair few Somerset fans will recall the time in 2002 when Pietersen took their county for two centuries in two days, one at Trent Bridge and one at Taunton. 269 runs off 201 balls, with 25 fours and 10 sixes. This, it seemed, was a player.

Then there were the ODI tons in South Africa; a time which gave new meaning to the phrase 'batting under pressure'. Then the Test debut at Lord's, head hung low on a gloomy last afternoon as the England lower-order disintegrated around him. Then, seven epoch-making weeks later, the last day at The Oval. Opening out against Lee after lunch, Tait scrambling in the dirt at fine leg, ticking off the overs to safety with Giles, the crowd going wild as they embraced a future most didn't expect and rejected a past many couldn't remember.

Then more great times at Lord's. For some reason I have a particular memory of being in the Long Room when Pietersen returned after scoring a second innings 134 against India in 2007. The members applaud him to the rafters and Pietersen, who walks with his customary upright stride and air of detachment, smiles slightly, his mask of coolness temporarily lost. You sense that it has occurred to him that he has been accepted. Things ran like this for a long time - through the captaincy, through the first Moores era and into that of Flower - there were detractors, of course, in many cases people who couldn't see past the accent and the tattoos, but there were just as many of us who saw him for what he was: a player of genius, playing for a country which doesn't really do players of genius.

For many, 2012 was a watershed, but still we had Headingley and Mumbai, two of the greatest innings ever played by an England batsman.

Many people have written about what it was like to grow up following England in the barren nineties. Those of us who are a little older can remember the Brearley era, and 1981, and 1985, and Botham and Gower, so the success enjoyed by England in recent years hasn't seemed quite so unusual. But, for all the relative joylessness, and the surplus aggression, the years between the regaining of the Ashes in 2009 and the end of it all in Australia in the winter of 2013-14 have been sweet ones. Of course, it has been just as much the age of Cook, or of Swann, or of Prior, or of Flower, but such is the nature of the English cultural psyche, whereby genius - and especially genius combined with outspokenness - is innately mistrusted, the greatest thing about them was the fact that we, England, had a batsman who, on his day, could frighten any team in the world.

Now this is gone for good. Whatever Pietersen may say - and, as an intelligent man, you have to doubt whether he really believes it - it is over. He will never play for England again in any form of the game.

So it is best to recall the Age of Pietersen for what it was. Because, for all kinds of complicated reasons, it will be a very long time before anything like it ever comes again.


Starting Out

In early 2013, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the annual Wisden dinner, held at Lord's each April to celebrate the publication of the most famous annual publication in the sporting world.

I wrote about it here.

The people around my table in the Long Room that evening included Mike Selvey (who was frustratingly out of easy conversational reach) and the ageless Wisden Middlesex correspondent and sometime radio commentator Norman de Mesquita, who is now, sadly, no longer with us.

At the far end of the table was a young man from Taunton, sitting with his father. Tom Abell, who was there to receive the Schools' Cricketer of the Year award, was polite and quietly impressive company. After he'd received his leather-bound Wisden from David Gower the talk was of his degree at Exeter University, his ambitions for the future and anecdotes from his father's playing days, which coincided with various teams and players of my own acquaintance. At the end of the evening I advised him to savour the moment, as it was something which, in years to come, he would look back on with affection, even if it didn't seem such a big deal at the time.

Sixteen months later I am at the County Ground at Taunton as Tom Abell makes his debut in first-class cricket for Somerset against Warwickshire. This time there is more distance between us: I am in the Ian Botham Stand and he is on the pitch.

After winning the toss his Somerset team bowls and he fields. He takes two catches, one to remove the centurion Ian Westwood late on the first day, and another to end the Warwickshire first innings, early on the second morning. He performs these duties competently, but it is no more than we should expect from a professional cricketer. A sterner test seems certain to come when he is required to bat, and so it proves. Abell, in at 4, comes to the wicket after Johann Myburgh is dismissed, and Somerset are 55 for 2. As Myburgh is out to the last ball of an over from Richard Jones, Abell has the temporary sanctuary of the non-striker's end to collect his thoughts, but any reverie he experiences is abruptly shattered as Nick Compton edges the second ball of the next over, bowled by Oliver Hannon-Dalby, into his stumps. Somerset are 55 for 3, and both batsmen are yet to face a ball. One of them, Tom Abell himself, has still to face a ball in first-class cricket.

From here, assisted by the experience of James Hildreth (although, given Hildreth's shaky form, it is hard to discern which is the experienced man and which the rookie), Abell slowly finds his feet, picking up runs on either side of the wicket with nudges and glances and covering up when required, his bat as straight as a die. He receives his fair share of short stuff, but, unlike his senior partner, he is never drawn towards recklessness. He ducks, he weaves and he leaves with the maturity and patience of the old pro that he is not.

As wickets continue to fall, Abell silently and unspokenly mutates into the senior partner. As Alex Barrow, Peter Trego and Craig Overton come to the wicket, he is the one who does the talking, focusing on the uncertainties of the situation and emphasizing the way they should play. When they each depart, he is still there, defending the good balls with efficiency of technique and economy of effort, and dealing with the rare bad ones with the sort of timing which can surprise and unsettle even experienced fielders. An example of this comes when he forces Jeetan Patel towards Jonathan Trott, who is fielding at mid on. As the ball comes towards him, Trott moves slowly, feeling that he has it covered. However, as the ball reaches him it is clear that it has much more pace on it than he first thought and he is forced into a late, scrambling dive. It is too late, though, and the ball is past him and into the boards.

On another occasion, Patel bowls a rare long hop and Abell is quick to abandon his circumspection. His bat comes down somewhere in the hinterland between a square cut and a back foot drive and the ball races to the fence like a shot from a gun. The thought starts to intrude that not only is this uncommonly assured batting for an inexperienced player, it is, in its adaptability and recognition of opportunity, batting of quite high class.

When Lewis Gregory comes to the crease the tempo rises, and Abell finds himself drawn in. In part this is an unconscious effect of the freedom and aggression of Gregory's strokeplay, but also the fact that Abell has realized that making runs in professional cricket is something he can do. They put on 84 in an hour, saving the follow-on, before Gregory is caught in the deep attempting another pull into the crowd. Soon after, the players leave the field because of bad light with Abell on 73, but within a short time they are back and Abell, with the impassive maturity he has shown throughout his four hours at the crease, continues to collect runs, assisted by the flamboyance of Alphonso Thomas and George Dockrell.

Once Abell reaches the nineties it is possible to sense the tension among the crowd, which, as the autumnal evening closes in, barely numbers three figures. To the left of where we are sitting, in the Old Pavilion, which has just weeks to go before demolition, there is a hill named after Harold Gimblett, a local folk-hero and the last Somerset-born batsman to make a century in his first innings in the County Championship.

Just as people are starting to believe, Abell turns a ball from Patel into the hands of William Porterfield at short midwicket. Abell has spent the afternoon dealing easily with such deliveries, but perhaps this one has stopped a little on him, or perhaps he has gone a little hard at the ball as the tension of the approaching landmark starts to weigh on his mind.

We will never know. As Abell, the last man to be dismissed in Somerset's first innings, walks towards the Andy Caddick Pavilion with 95 to his name, several of the Warwickshire players shake his hand. Some of these men, like Rikki Clarke, have been around, and they know that they have seen something which speaks of high promise for the future.

Nothing, though, is ever assured. Should Abell think that it is, he need only ask his erstwhile partner James Hildreth, who knows all about the way in which early promise and recognition can slip through the fingers before you really know what has happened.

Like everyone else who has ever batted for a living, Abell faces an uncertain future. There will be many cheap dismissals at the hands of skilled bowlers and errant umpires, but there will also be times, such as yesterday, when almost everything goes right.

This was only the start.



The old shibboleth which has it that there are only two certainties in life - death and taxes - missed one out. Or at least one that presents itself at the end of most working lives.


In cricket, as in most professional sports, retirement comes early. A cricketer departs the stage just as his peers are getting into their stride; he is required to pick up the pieces of his life - often an abruptly terminated adolescence - at just the time his school and university mates will be sorting theirs out.

Professional sport gives you the chance to do many things which most people will rarely, if ever, experience: you can earn your living - and by most people's standards it is a very good living - by doing something you love and would happily do for nothing; you will have regular opportunities to perform in front of crowds of people who will hang on your every action and applaud, even idolise, you if you do what you do well; you can travel the world (or at least the United Kingdom) and stay in the best hotels, with someone else picking up the tab. And in most cases you will do all this before you are thirty-five years old.

The payback is that you then have to start living your life all over again in the knowledge that nothing you do again will ever be so much fun.

In cricket, like life, retirements come and go. Some, such as that of Jacques Kallis, attract world-wide attention. Others, such as that of David John Grimwood Sales, who also announced his retirement this week, resonate a little less. Unless you've followed county cricket closely these past twenty years or so you may not have heard of David Sales. I have, though, and these are some fragments of his story.

David Sales grew up in Surrey. In his very early, and so talented, years, it seemed obvious that he would become a Brown Cap, but something I once knew about but which is now lost in the mists of time, went wrong, and he fetched up at Northampton. At Wantage Road. A venue never prominent in an England selector's diary, then or now. But it fitted Sales, and things started to happen.

70 not out in a Sunday League game at Chelmsford, aged 16, 1994. 210 not out in a championship match at Kidderminster, aged 18, 1996. 303 not out on his home ground, aged 21, 1999. 276, again at Northampton, in the first home championship match of 2000.

Sales could bat. This much was obvious, but, for all the scores, and despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that in these years England were a poor, turbulent, often rudderless side, he never seemed to be talked about too much as a potential international. Consistency was a problem, but what really set him back was the knee injury he suffered while playing beach volleyball on the England A tour of the West Indies in early 2001. It cost him a tour, and the whole of the following season, at a time in his career, anyone's career, when lost momentum can do terrible damage. He returned in 2002 but a season's average of 25 saw him fall back into the pack. Despite 7000 runs at 50 over the next six English seasons, double centuries scattered around like confetti on a windy day, he never left it.

In these lost years Wantage Road was a long way from my regular beat too and Northants never seemed to be on TV very much, so, in my mind's eye Sales remained an uncomplicated seventeen year-old in an England under-19 shirt on a clear blue day at Taunton in the summer of 1995, holding his own as he vied for attention with the likes of Trescothick, Flintoff and Alex Tudor, who charged in from the Old Pavilion End like our very own Walsh or Ambrose. In the seasons afterwards he often felt like a mirage: that player who once promised so much but who seemed destined to play his days out under leaden skies in soulless midlands towns. No matter how many runs he made, the vacancies weren't there, or, if they were, the selectors weren't looking in his direction.

Sales returned to my consciousness when he made a fine 70 against Middlesex at Southgate in a 40 over play-off game, late in the 2007 season. This was the Sales of legend: uncomplicated, technically sound, powerful and indefinably classy. But it wasn't enough. It never would be.

As with most players who were never given the opportunity to sample even the briefest taste of the international game, it's impossible to define or classify the reasons why with any certainty. A lack of form here, a lack of opportunity there. Injuries. Where they played. Everyone knows that historically it's been harder to get noticed by the selectors if you play for one of a number of counties. Broadly speaking these are those on the western fringes of the English first-class game - Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Somerset - and the unfashionable counties of the East Midlands - Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire.

Ask Don Shepherd, ask Alan Jones, ask Peter Trego, ask David Sales.
Other counties have players like this too. Once upon a time Hampshire had Peter Sainsbury; in Sales' own era Lancashire have had Glen Chapple.

If Sales, as he once seemed destined to, had spent his career at The Oval, he would probably have played for England.

Success at the highest level, or even having the chance to show what you can do, isn't everything, though. The county game, with its cultural richness, its history and its folklore, is a pretty good arena in which to spend the short years between apprenticeship and retirement.

There was a time when everything about David Sales - the prodigy's upbringing, the irresistible strokeplay and the massive scores - suggested that he would grace Test cricket. That he never did does not diminish Test cricket and it does not diminish him.

As he said this week: 'I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career...and whilst disappointed that I didn’t play at the very highest level, I will look back with pride at my achievements.'


Antidote to Madness

When people make definitive statements about places, or about books, or about people, there is always room for doubt, for contrary opinion.

Some you take, others you leave. Some you agree with, others you dismiss.

When people, as people often do, say that Lord's is 'the greatest cricket ground in the world', I tend to agree (Although that other familiar cliché 'the Home of Cricket' I'm less sure about. The Home of Cricket these days surely lies, literally or metaphorically, somewhere in India.).

I've been going to Lord's since the summer when Sunny Gavaskar batted through sixty overs for 36 not out. Today the ground, and the game, and the Indian cricket psyche, are very different. But they still fascinate and compel.

Friday 18th July 2014 is the hottest day of the British year. The mercury is in the low thirties - Lord's is a Fahrenheit sort of place, you feel, but these twenty-first century days Celsius is king - and, in the early afternoon, with the sky a deep and bottomless shade of blue, the fading vapour trails left by soaring aircraft traverse the sky. They, and the outside world they represent, seem abstract and separate, as they always do when cricket, even slow Test cricket, captures the attention.

The game is an antidote to the madness of the world.

Late the previous afternoon the news comes via Twitter that a civil airliner has been blown out of the sky over the Ukraine, probably by a ground-to-air missile. Then there is Gaza, where defenceless people are killed on a daily basis. Syria, where much the same thing has been happening for more than three years, has been temporarily relegated from the front pages, but it will, as surely as night follows day, return. These are examples of the lunatic chaos of a world in which millions of people have more important things on their mind - simple survival will do - than the outcome of a bat and ball game.

At Lord's, though, things are different, especially in the old Victorian pavilion and the adjacent Warner Stand. The talk is of the lives of sons, of daughters, of former pupils, of the price of London property, which, it seems, is rising faster than the shade temperature. In certain conversations there are deaths and serious, painful injuries, but these are the result of leisure time accidents, suffered while hiking, or skiing, or playing rugby; not of unavoidable exposure to terrorism or war.

During the hour before lunch in the Warner Stand the incessant chatter is punctuated by the sound of corks being forcibly expelled from champagne bottles. Such is their velocity, many of these end up on the beautifully manicured turf, which can often look more like a carpet than something composed of living, growing, grass. And, on a Sunday, when the pavilion fills with a younger class of member, with their pristine yellow passes and their sharp dress sense, the prevailing sensation for the older member is that of a friendless outsider at a public school reunion.

Lord's, with its hotchpotch of ancient and modern buildings, is a very different place from virtually any other cricket ground in the world. And, despite the heat, for the Indian players, brought up on the parched dustbowls of Uttar Pradesh or the cramped suburban fields of Greater Mumbai, that difference must seem especially pronounced.

But it is also welcome and inspirational. At different points in a match which remains even and compellingly contested until lunch on the last day, we are treated to the beautiful yet combative neatness of the Mumbaikar Ajinkya Rahane, and the versatility of Uttar Pradesh's Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a man who knows he can bowl but is finding out at international level that he also has an unsuspected gift for batting. Ishant Sharma, a man who has always looked to have the potential to take on the world but has rarely hinted at consistency, supplies the coup de grâce.

On the English side there are only poignancies and uncertainties and regrets. As the match hurtles to its conclusion on Monday afternoon, Matt Prior and Joe Root are both dismissed pulling the ball to deep fielders placed specifically for such errant shots. It is a kind of collective madness, based on the confidence deficit which repeated failure to win brings, and the uncertainty of the confused mind, brought low by injury and defeat.

As he leaves the field and walks slowly through the Long Room, Prior holds his head high. Although he surely knows, as we do, that not only has he played a poor shot but that it may be the last thing he ever does in an England shirt, he shows little remorse. He is the old warrior leaving the stage. Root, by contrast, can barely drag himself off the field, such is his obvious regret. For all his runs, Root is still a young pro who has yet to learn to guard his emotions. He wears his heart on his sleeve.

A short while later, with the game over and Alastair Cook, a drowning man clinging desperately to a sinking ship, answering Michael Atherton's questions with the same bland assurances we have heard so often before, the eye turns to Paul Downton, standing on his own, close to the pavilion gate. He looks around him with unfeigned seriousness, but you sense that he isn't seeing or hearing much.

He is wondering what on earth he has got himself into.


Local Boy Made Good

I wrote this last week for the Somerset supporters' site The Incider, where it appeared under the title 'Jos Comes Home'.

It is Sunday morning on the County Ground in Taunton, in England's lush south-west. The sky is an anaemic shade of grey, and, although the weather forecast is good, light rain begins to fall. As it does, the players of Somerset and Lancashire go through the elaborate warm-up routines which distinguish the modern professional cricketer from his predecessors. Some run after a football as a means of shedding Saturday night's sleep from their eyes, while others work on specific skills. They bat, they bowl, they catch, they field.

As the rain begins to get heavier, the players drift without purpose towards the Andy Caddick Pavilion. It is starting to look as though play will not start on time, and there seems little need to go through the motions. It is time for rest and contemplation. The toss, and play, will come later.

A young man with light brown hair, sharp, expressive eyes and the lithe, muscular build of the natural athlete moves among the Somerset players. His white T-shirt, bearing a time-honoured red rose, distinguishes him from his former colleagues. A glance here, a chat there, a hug, followed by a roar of laughter, somewhere else. This, if ever there was, is a local boy made good.

When Jos Buttler left Somerset to play for Lancashire at the end of the 2013 season, there was no animosity. Everyone, from the players who shared his hopes, fears and triumphs at the closest of quarters, to the rootless drinkers who occupy the Old Pavilion bar from start to stumps every day, knew that it was just business. In time, he would be back, and he would be welcomed. This is that time.

Eventually the rain clears and the toss is made. Buttler's county captain, Glen Chapple, chooses to bat. Chapple has pounded the county beat with unrecognized distinction since Buttler was a young child, and he grew into the professional game at a time when Taunton pitches were synonymous with runs.

He chooses to bat.

Times have changed, though, and modern Taunton pitches offer help to bowlers who know what to do. The Somerset attack is aware of this, and all of them, from the ageing but eternally competitive Alfonso Thomas, through the coolly flamboyant Peter Trego, to the young Devonian confrères Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton, make the ball bounce and move. Batting is difficult.

Mid-afternoon, 47 overs gone, Steven Croft plays a poorly-judged slash at a ball from the young Irish spinner George Dockrell and is caught behind It is time for Buttler, batting at six, to come to the crease.

The Taunton crowd is knowledgeable and loyal. It is customary for Somerset players to be greeted with warm applause but this courtesy does not always extend to the opposition.

When Buttler emerges on to the playing surface, things are different. The applause builds in rhythm and volume to the point where the announcement of his name is hard to hear. But it is, of course, unnecessary. Everyone here knows who Jos Buttler is, and what he has done.

For a brief moment there is the feeling that Buttler might, like Bradman in 1948, be applauded all the way to the middle, but, as he reaches the edge of the square and confers with Paul Horton, who has been batting since the start of the innings, the applause begins to die away. Normality reintrudes, but the thought occurs that Buttler, although he is simply a young man doing his job, would need to have a heart of stone not to have been moved by his reception.

Buttler's innings is an uneasy affair. As ever, he wants to dominate, but he is forced on to the defensive by the sluggishness of the pitch and the accuracy of his former team-mates. There are hints of his characteristic fluency of timing, but he finds the fielder too often, and even his two sixes are not quite struck with his usual robust clarity. At one point Thomas makes as if to Mankad Buttler, before embracing him to show that he wasn't serious. The crowd laughs along, but Buttler doesn't crack a smile. He was unhappy about what happened to him at Edgbaston and he is well aware that he needs to concentrate harder, both when backing up and when facing. This is especially true today, but, when he has made 18, Gregory gets one through his defence and shatters his stumps. The cheers of the crowd are even louder than the applause he received on the way to the wicket.

Jos Buttler knows what it is to walk through the Long Room at Lord's with the cheers of the crowd ringing in his ears, and, before he is done with the game, he will know what it is to be applauded from the field at many another of the world's great arenas. For all his quietly-spoken modesty he is still at an age where action and achievement are everything and nostalgic reflection is for the future. Sport as a job demands that.

However, we that have been around for longer and have never had to depend on the bounce of a ball for our living can reflect on the significance of what we have seen. It has been a demonstration of the common humanity which, particularly at the heart of the county game, still suffuses cricket.

One day Jos Buttler will do the same.


A Very English Batsman

Despite his Australian upbringing (and the fact that he was crassly written off as a 'poor man's Nick Compton' by Bob Willis after his first Test appearance), Sam Robson cuts a figure which seems far from out of place at the top of the English order, with the result that he already radiates a curious sense of belonging.

With his pale, pinched features, his diffident seriousness, his hunched, mildly idiosyncratic, ball-sniffing method, and his steadiness of tempo, Robson seems a world away from the popular notion - fed with relish these past couple of years by another Sydneysider - of the gum-chewing, Baggy Green wearing, top-order slasher, bristling with confrontational aggression. If you want to fall back on Aussie stereotypes from a dimmer past, years before Robson was even a glimmer in his now well-recognized father's eye, he's a good deal more Bill Lawry than Keith Stackpole, let alone David Warner. He bats as if he was brought up on the capricious surfaces of his adopted county, with their boundary roads and their exhaust infused atmospheres, rather than the true surfaces of the Australian world city where he grew up.

In this he fits. English cricket has always subsisted on an underlying conservatism of method, a mistrust of the unusual, a reluctance to embrace and celebrate genius. With Pietersen - a foreign-born and raised player whose contradictory nature and self-celebrated brilliance always ran counter to this - cast to the winds, there is a sense that, even though three of its newest recruits were born abroad, that the English side is retreating towards that which it knows best and feels most comfortable with. This may not, of course, be an entirely good thing.

Although sterner tests await, Gary Ballance has looked well-organised and temperamentally sound at three, replicating much of Jonathan Trott's calmness and resilience without his obsessive ritualism and sense of restrained, scowling anxiety, while Moeen Ali has exuded languid class at six, although each of his dismissals so far has raised questions. Chris Jordan has the air of a gifted and versatile operator, if one who still doesn't quite grasp the limitations of his technique or the limits of his potential. Joe Root, back in the side after a year of being messed around, accumulates with the unpretentiousness assurance of one who, for all his lack of distinctive elegance, knows that he can perform at the highest level and isn't afraid of being seen to enjoy the experience.

And then there is Robson's more experienced opening partner. With Cook we have been this way before, and, in the end, he always comes good. And, on account of his much-derided captaincy, the end for him will be further away than for many others, which, in its turn, reinforces the impression of a team which is rebuilding by retreating to the mode which it knows best, new players from around the globe or not.

This grates a little. England may be more stable sans KP and ultimately - although one's hunch is that it will be a long time - they may become as successful as they were with him. But it will also be a long time before they will excite in the same way.

For all that Robson appears to fit his role like a glove, he will never set many pulses racing. For that we may have to wait in hope for a player who was born in the county which Robson has adopted.

But Alex Hales still isn't deemed good enough for England's fifty over side, which, if you stop to think about it, says quite a lot.



I recently wrote a review of the 2014 Wisden for John Fuller's excellent Cricket Yorkshire website.

For anyone who didn't see it there, here it is:

There is a conception of the world – chiefly a certain kind of south of England, middle-class conception of the world, but a conception of the world nonetheless – which tells us that one of the first signs of the coming of spring in England is the publication of a squat hardback book with a chocolate cover, housed in a yellow dust jacket.

I'm not sure that this is true any more, if indeed it ever was. Over its many years on the bookshelves of the world, Wisden has been admired, it has been revered, it has increasingly been fetishised. It has even, in some cases, been read. However, when all has been said, it is simply a book about cricket.

Wisden's chief virtue, though, in both physical and psychological terms, is as a source of stability in a changing world. Since Wisden first appeared in 1864 (with its scorecards, of course, but also with its rules of Knur and Spell, and its concordance of the canals of Britain and Ireland, and its lists of the winners of classic horse races), the game of cricket has evolved through the legalisation of overarm bowling, the development of Test cricket, Bodyline, the World Cup, and, most recently and probably most significantly, Twenty20. It is easy to know when these things happened, because it is in Wisden (pages 1529 to 1532, since you ask).

The world has moved on too. Global wars have come and gone and technology has burgeoned to a degree which old John Wisden, sitting in his shop near Leicester Square stroking his whiskers, could only have dreamed of: photography, telephones, moving pictures, ultimately television and, most recently and probably most significantly, the World Wide Web.

The contemporary world of cricket is circumscribed by many of these things. Wherever you look it is on television, though you may have to pay extra to watch it. Where it is played live, people photograph it, they film it, they write about it. Increasingly this is not for newspapers; it is for websites and for blogs, or, in a more abbreviated form, on Twitter.

This is the world into which Wisden emerges every April. Because of people's awareness of the way in which the world has changed, its annual appearance is increasingly seen as a test; a test of format, a test of style, a test of relevance.

How, then, does Wisden shape up?

Over recent years, especially under the editorship of Lawrence Booth, Wisden has changed. In years gone by, while there were always feature articles in Wisden, the writing was rarely as good as it is now, and its primary function was at least as much as a document of record – history, statistics, laws – as a mirror on the world game. Aspects of it were absurdly cumbersome and archaic – until quite recently, its coverage of overseas cricket was a year behind – but now, largely thanks to Booth and his predecessors Scyld Berry and Matthew Engel, it occupies a distinctively independent niche, somewhere between cricket's traditional media arena of newspapers, magazines and ghosted autobiographies, and the wide world of the Web, with all its opportunities, triumphs and flaws. Of course, the statistics and the history are still there, but the real strengths of modern Wisden lie in the quality of its writing and its images, and the pungency of its comment.

Booth is a skilled, and, from personal experience, distinctively courteous editor, but he is also a sharp and distinguished writer. In his editor's notes, he takes aim at the way in which India, England and Australia conspired in early 2014 to alter the ICC's governance structures to ensure that they would receive a larger share of international cricket's income. It is obvious that Booth views the much maligned BCCI as the leading villains of the piece, but the smaller boards fail to escape censure for their response to the proposals and the ICC, of course, gets it in the neck. Booth's criticism focuses on its vacillation over the semi-mythical World Test Championship – if you ever see this take place, let me know – and what it says about the unhealthy relationship between world cricket's governing body and that of the country in which the game is most popular. Further on in the book, cricket's greatest contemporary writer, Gideon Haigh, delves deeper into the 'carve-up of world cricket' with characteristically forensic scepticism. In the scepticism at least, as Haigh makes clear, he is not alone. With admirable balance, Wisden allows Giles Clarke right of reply; he puts the ICC's side of the case well, but ultimately fails to convince.

We will hear much more about this.

Elsewhere in his notes, Booth broadly concurs with the England management's decision to terminate Kevin Pietersen's tenure in the England team, dutifully covers England's era-defining defeat in Australia and pays tribute to Andy Flower and the man who, perhaps more than any other, ultimately did for him and his team, Mitchell Johnson. To lighten the gloom (from the viewpoint of an England supporter), the achievements of England's women's team, twice Ashes winners over the past year, are given their due, and Booth pays a short but sweet tribute to the departed Sachin Tendulkar, while politely acknowledging his doubts about the manner and location of his departure. The continued absence of Test cricket from terrestrial television in Britain is also mentioned. And, quite rightly in my view, not in an approving way.

The rest of the book's Comment section contains a range of contributions which, while all interesting and well-written, do not quite match the standard of some of the landmark articles which Wisden has carried in recent years such as Christian Ryan's truly remarkable Jeff Thomson is annoyed from 2013, or Peter Gibbs' sublime and resonant memoir of Sydney Barnes (2012).

But this is a matter of personal taste; from this year's book I particularly liked Martin Crowe's Time to smell the roses, which is a timely counterpoint to what might be seen (from the game's fringes, or 'the outer' as Australians used to say) as prevailing professional opinion about sledging. There is little doubt that Crowe's call for cricket to rediscover the virtues of competitiveness without vitriolic personal abuse will receive much approval from those of us who feel that the amount of unnecessary verbal interaction between bowlers, fielders and batsmen has demeaned the game and the reputations of many of its leading protagonists for too many years already. Crowe also, intriguingly, describes Michael Clarke as 'a gentle, misunderstood man'. Well, misunderstood, perhaps.

Sachin Tendulkar is the almanack's cover star, and he is also the subject of a perceptive and finely-crafted tribute by Tunku Varadarajan which pays welcome attention to the man beyond the arena, and a further piece by his former Test match colleague Aakash Chopra, which describes what it was like both to play with him and to mix with him off the field. Tendulkar, as he always does, emerges with shining credit from both, and leaves one with the thought that if more international cricketers had his level of humility the problems described by Crowe would be substantially alleviated.

As anyone reading this will probably know by now, the Five Cricketers of the Year are Shikhar Dhawan, Charlotte Edwards, Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers and Joe Root, while the leading cricketer in the world is named – and it is hard to argue against unvarnished greatness – as Dale Steyn.

This year's five feels like a low-key selection, and, as such, perhaps reflects the fact that the English summer of 2013 wasn't, in strictly cricketing terms, all it was cracked up to be. The (male) Ashes series was disappointingly one-sided and relatively pedestrian, and, unlike many previous years, none of the candidates absolutely demanded inclusion. That said, Dhawan deserves it for his brilliance, Root for achievement and potential, Harris and Rogers for persistence and Edwards for brilliance, achievement and persistence.

Indeed, the selection of Edwards (and a fine feature article by Tanya Aldred) emphasizes another of the virtues of the modern Wisden. It is inclusive, and it is democratic. Another aspect of this is the writing competition, inaugurated by Booth in 2012 in order to open up the possibility of publication in the almanack to a wider range of writers, and won in its second year by Liam Cromar, with a clever Shakespearean take on the old game of hypothetical team selection.

Over recent years Wisden has become notable for the quality of its photographs. This year is no different, even if the monochrome pictures which precede each of the book's sections aren't quite as outstanding as in 2013. An exception to this is the picture of Ricky Ponting, batting for Surrey against Sussex at Arundel, which appears before the section on English domestic cricket. Ponting, with head level and still, awaits the ball in a manner prescribed by any textbook; the majority of the crowd and the umpire watch his every move, knowing they are witnessing the last days of a great player, but far away, on the grass bank to Ponting's leg-side, a solitary spectator stands with his back to the cricket and gazes into the rural distance. It is about the importance of everything and nothing.

Elsewhere there is a range of outstanding pictures of both Ashes series, and the winner and runners-up in the Wisden-MCC photography competition. The winner, by Atul Kamble, shows Tendulkar emerging from the Wankhede Stadium dressing room to resume his final innings in Test cricket. The picture carries echoes of a Renaissance painting, the arms of Tendulkar's worshippers raised as if in supplication (although, in reality, each one holds a digital device), with the man himself bathed in sunlight from the back of the stand as he looks into it to atune his eyes. It captures a singular moment; if it had been taken a split-second earlier or later, it would not be the picture it is. This picture is so astonishingly brilliant that it would be entirely justified to buy Wisden 2014 for it and it alone.

There is a pithy and well-timed appreciation of Graeme Swann by Vic Marks – just in case anyone has forgotten how important he was to England and how difficult he will be to replace – and a moving interview with Mark Boucher about his leaving of the game and his battle to regain the sight in his left eye. If you are a wicketkeeper and you read this, you will never again stand up to the bowling without wearing a helmet.

The obituaries, as always, are beautifully judged and written. I have long held the view that the best way to learn about a cricket personality is to read their Wisden obituary (if they're dead, of course). Nothing changes.

However, more generally, as has been said, these are changing times. Wisden has reacted to them. The laws were dropped in 2012 and the records section is now much nearer to the back of the book than it used to be. While it is usefully arranged, there is little if anything in this which cannot be found online, and it is out of date as soon as it is drafted. To take an especially telling recent example, no mention is made of the re-writing of New Zealand's Test record book by Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling; that will have to wait until next year.

Now in its 152nd year, Wisden endures. It still has its importance and its gravitas and its detail; most importantly it has its writing and its photography. It also, in a way it never used to, has humour. The final page of the book carries an 'index of unusual occurrences' which contains such entries as 'county player injured by medicine ball' and 'batsman dislocates shoulder celebrating hundred'.

Whether you start reading it from the back or the front, Wisden, as a result of skilful adaptation to a changing environment, is still as relevant as it ever was.

Perhaps, after all, it is a sign of spring.


The Tension of Expectation

It is a sunny afternoon at the County Ground in Taunton, and the April sky is a crystal shade of blue.

Away from the breeze it feels moderately warm. Jackets and jumpers are shed and the atmosphere feels somnolent as the Somerset openers begin their reply to Yorkshire's first innings total of 450.

However, though the crowd is quiet as lunchtime fades into mid-afternoon on the game's second day, the cricket is compelling. The Somerset openers represent both ends of the professional batsmen's spectrum: one is Chris Jones, 23 years old and with a century against Australia but little else to show for his nascent career. He needs time at the wicket, and runs, to begin the journey from promising youngster to seasoned batsman, and to justify the faith of himself and others. His partner is Marcus Trescothick. He is 38 and has been around the professional game since his partner was in short trousers. He also needs time at the wicket, and runs, to prove to others - and, though you should whisper it, to himself - that he can still perform as he used to. There is expectation, but there is also uncertainty and unspoken tension. This could go either way.

In the first over of the innings, bowled by Ryan Sidebottom, Trescothick eases away two boundaries. The second is an on drive which leaves the mid-on fielder scrambling fruitlessly for balance. I always used to say (still do, in fact) that you always knew when Marcus was playing well as he would usually get an off drive away early between the bowler and mid-off and that the timing and pace would, if his touch was right, always beat the fielder. This is that in mirror image. The ball is full and covers middle and leg, so Trescothick uses just a bit more left hand to guide it wide of the fielder, who has no chance of stopping it.

The fours are applauded, of course, but the crowd is barely more animated. There is suppressed recognition that Marcus looks good. Perhaps better than he looked in the whole of the 2013 season, which was his worst since before he became an England player. The tension of concern gives way to the tension of expectation, and of hope. These people have watched Marcus since he was the same age as Jones, and younger, they have known his triumphs and his setbacks, both on the field and off it. They are desperate for him to succeed.

Jones looks solid and fluent too, but his innings doesn't carry the same level of importance to others. For him there will, at whatever level of the game he finds himself, be many more opportunities. Trescothick doesn't have the same sort of time on his side.

In the sixth over Trescothick drives Sidebottom's partner Jack Brooks through the covers. He doesn't quite time it to perfection, and the bat turns slightly in his hands, but the ball easily runs to the boundary. Trescothick's call is loud and decisive. You can tell from its volume and tone that he feels as though he's starting to see it well. Expectation levels are raised again.

In the eleventh Sidebottom again strays towards the leg-side and Trescothick glances him to fine-leg for four. The stroke is wristier than is common from Trescothick, and so the ball travels finer. This is good.

The tension eases, slightly.

The very next ball, though, it is over. The delivery is full, and Trescothick plays over it. His stumps are broken.

It's one of the old truisms of batting that being dismissed is like dying. It can happen slowly, or it can happen suddenly, but it can happen at any time. The only advantage to batting is that after each death you can return for another go.

As you get older, though, it gets harder. More doubts enter minds, more questions are asked. One of the central ones, sometimes unspoken, sometimes not, is the question of when a poor run of form becomes a terminal decline. This is the question which hangs over every innings Trescothick plays now.

Last Monday there were hints, just hints, of old glories.

Tomorrow, far to the north in County Durham, it all begins again.


Just Another Victim

Michael Carberry's interview with the peerless Donald McRae for The Guardian last week was both refreshing and concerning.

Refreshing in that Carberry, perhaps feeling that his brief England career is over, was happy to disregard the modern convention that no England cricketer should ever, on any account, say anything controversial, heartfelt, spontaneous or interesting when conversing with somebody from the media.

Carberry is clearly unhappy with the way he's been treated, and he gave it both barrels. This is a great thing, and we could do with more of it.

Not that we're likely to get it. Carberry's goose was probably cooked as an international player before last weekend - he's well past thirty and probably didn't quite show enough in Australia to make him worth persisting with - but if it wasn't you can be fairly sure it is now. The precise identity of England's next coach is still a mystery but you can be sure that, certainly if it's Ashley Giles, his comments won't have passed unnoticed.

The tales of Carberry being left high and dry, unsure of where he stands with England, were unwelcome but far from unusual. Back in the old days, this was how everybody felt. For a while, though, it seemed as though England had moved on. England under Flower, under Strauss, won Test matches, won whole series, won the Ashes. This winter more or less everything associated with England's flimsy house of cards has come crashing down, and, if it ever really improved, communication with players has gone down with it.

Something I found especially depressing was Carberry's revelation that his request that his mother be his invited guest for the Melbourne Test was turned down by the ECB on the grounds that it is apparently 'policy' only to pay for wives, girlfriends (or male partners, presumably) and children. For Carberry to be treated in this way comes uncomfortably close to discrimination, and reveals that the ECB's commitment to player welfare is both poorly developed and inflexibly applied.

Michael Carberry is a player who has been through a lot in his career - changes of county, a battle to establish himself as a first-class cricketer, let alone an international one, serious illness - but, like Andy Flower, and Kevin Pietersen, and, as likely as not, Monty Panesar, he is just another victim of perhaps the worst period English cricket has ever known.

Unlike one or two of the others, Carberry has had his say already. And it's clear that, for all the defeats and for all that it may have ended too soon, Michael Carberry relished playing Test cricket:

"It was the ultimate test. Everything was ramped up tenfold, the intensity, the cricket, the way Australia played. Mentally, every innings was a challenge. But I thrived on that challenge. Walking out to bat and Johnson and Harris are flying in? I like that and I like big crowds. It heightens all your senses. You definitely feel alive. In county cricket you very rarely get those experiences."

The Rose Bowl on a grey Tuesday will never quite seem the same again.



It already feels late to be writing about Graeme Smith. Most of what needed to be said - and this, in truth, wasn't a player to inspire great literature - has been said. Best and most comprehensively of all by Jarrod Kimber here.

Time is short, and so one memory from the mind's eye will suffice.

It is a sunlit Lord's evening, 3rd August 2003. South Africa are about to defeat England. Graeme Smith, 22 years old and South Africa's captain, stands with his hands on the shoulders of Makhaya Ntini. Ntini has taken nine wickets in the game; he will take ten. Smith himself has scored 259.

Smith fixes Ntini with an unwavering gaze and speaks quietly, assuring him, reassuring him, that victory is about to be theirs. Its significance could go unstated, but Smith recognizes the importance of the moment and seizes it.

It is a gesture which speaks of gravitas and maturity.

This is a man destined to captain his country for a very long time.


Cricket in Winter

English winters come in varying forms. There is difference - some are cold, this one has been wet, wetter than anyone alive has ever seen or experienced - and there is also similarity, uniformity. There are always long months of predominantly grey skies and early darkness. This is normal.

For anyone who loves cricket, and, for reasons of time, or money, or both, cannot travel to those parts of the globe where cricket takes place throughout the English winter, the months between October and April are strange ones. Cricket goes on; indeed, if you have access to Cricinfo and Twitter, and, most important of all, Sky Sports, cricket is everywhere.

But it is not cricket as it really is. It is the easiest thing in the world to turn on your television and see cricket; one day it is Perth, the next it is Sydney, then it is Wellington, Dubai, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Antigua. But as much as you can see the skies, and marvel at the depth of their blueness, rare in Britain even in summer, or almost convince yourself that you can feel the heat or the humidity by thinking back to a time and place when you were there - or somewhere similar - you cannot really feel the rhythm of the game. It is refracted and distended through the lens of the TV camera, while the commentators' perceptions - skewed by experience and biased by nationality and personal taste - can influence the way in which you see things. Moreover, you can never feel the wind on your face, or properly hear the shouts of the fielders, or the crowd. If you tire of watching from behind the bowler's arm, you cannot watch from midwicket, or low down at long-on, or chatting at square-leg. You have not travelled to the ground, or arrived there; you will not have the experience of packing your bag and leaving at close of play. Unless you have an unusually barren life, perhaps one where you have no work to do and little need to eat or sleep or leave your house, it is rarely possible to watch entire sessions of cricket in the way you would do if you were there. Thus, some of the light and shade of batsmen's innings - fluctuations of tempo and mood - and bowlers' spells - changes of pace, of flight, of spin, of field, are lost. If a bowler's field is altered it may be mentioned by the commentators, or the moved fielder may be shown, but the way in which that changes the impression and the purpose of the field as a whole can be obscured.

What a winter of televised cricket can do is reduce the game, with all its grandness and glory, to a series of distilled impressions, presented to you by the director and his cameramen and mediated by the commentators' personal tastes and opinions. It is a very different way of experiencing the game, but it is by no means an entirely bad thing.

Advances in technology increasingly mean that a television viewer has a closer view of the action than someone at the ground will ever have. Seam position, rotations of the ball as it spins, the way in which batsmen's eyes instinctively close upon impact as they play a hook or pull off their nose, or the way the blade of the bat wobbles on impact with the ball, are all evident to the television viewer in ways they will never be to someone watching from the boundary. And in the Test match arena, as in anything long, and stirring, where emotion and feeling play their part, you can draw many conclusions from being able to see the whites of the players' eyes or the precise way they use their bodies.

Over recent English winter weeks it has been possible to experience the impression of surprise and incidental pride on BJ Watling's face as he hears the announcement that he has broken a world partnership record, and to see him shake hands with Brendon McCullum as the crowd on one of the Basin Reserve's banks rises to acclaim them. Or it has been possible to look in detail at the way in which, as his form slowly returned at St.George's Park, Hashim Amla's bat emerged from its distinctive backlift with all its straightness and ethereal timing, relying on the nuances of wrist and hand positioning for its power and direction. As Australia slid to defeat in the same game, it was possible to see the way in which reverse swing took hold of the ball in the split second between it leaving Dale Steyn's hand and destroying the stumps of Brad Haddin. Or, also from Wellington, it has been possible to enjoy the beautiful, persuasive neatness of Ajinkya Rahane, or Brendon McCullum's return to the changing rooms, 302 to his name and a small, vulnerable, but immensely proud cricket nation saluting him. Week in, week out (it seems), there is the compactness, power and technical efficiency of the man who currently looks like the best opening batsmen on the planet, David Warner. And there is Kohli. There is always Kohli.

Cricket viewed through the prism of television is different. In many ways it is a more limited, less rounded, less involving experience. In others it is richer and more concentrated, while also more artificial.

Now it is March in England, things begin to change. It still rains, but the days are longer, and, when the sun is out, there is a meagre warmth in the air and the quality of the light is indefinably distinctive.

Soon, as surely as the world turns, it will again be time in England for the real thing.


The Forces of Conservatism

Once upon a time, Viv Richards made 322 in a day for Somerset against Warwickshire at Taunton. One of the Warwickshire side who had the misfortune (or, looked at another way, the good fortune) to have to field to it was Robin Dyer, a young opening batsman and the son of a cricket bookseller from Yorkshire who used to advertise in The Cricketer and Wisden Cricket Monthly. Perhaps he still does.

Since then I've spent many days on the County Ground at Taunton. Twenty years after Richards, I even saw another Somerset player called Graeme Smith make 300 in a day there. Stuart Broad, a nineteen year-old bowler then, remembers that as well.

But when Richards made his runs I was the one who was nineteen, and I lived far from Taunton. I was obsessed with cricket, and I knew that things like that didn't happen very often. I read all the reports, collected all the cuttings. This was the era of Richards.

I haven't got it to hand so I can't recall it word for word, but Robin Dyer said something resonant that day. It went along the lines that here he was, struggling to establish himself and make a living from a difficult game, when he witnessed an innings that was so far beyond anything that he would ever be capable of - or perhaps anything that he imagined anyone would be capable of - that he began to question what he was doing. By most people's standards, Robin Dyer, with his two thousand plus first-class runs and three centuries, could bat. But the following year, 1986, he retired. It may have been illusory or simply wrong, but at the time there was a sense that Viv Richards had made him give up the game.

At times I feel like Dyer did when I read the writings of Jon Hotten, The Old Batsman. Last week, in the most lyrical and apposite of the many pieces written about the fall of Kevin Pietersen, he wrote:

But KP was English, or at least he was playing for England, and the English psyche, deeply conservative, deeply repressed, is a challenging place for the non-conformist. It was doomed from the start and I knew it. In a way, it's amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

Here Jon is, of course, right. There was always a good chance that Pietersen, with his naked ambition, his outspokenness, his tattoos and his unveiled genius, would end up a victim of the innate forces of conservatism which are as strong in English cricket now - in the age of prescriptive coaching, rigid gameplans and ubiquitous nutritional advice - as they ever were. In his time they also laid waste to David Gower, who didn't have the tattoos or the outspokenness, only the genius.

A more wide-ranging discussion of the qualities which made Pietersen the nearest thing to Viv Richards that England have ever had will have to wait for another day, but at the end of the Perth Test, I wrote that England's tour was starting to develop a fin de siécle quality, and, of all those involved with the England shambles, the futures of Flower, Pietersen and Swann were all shrouded in uncertainty.

Eight weeks on, with Flower, Pietersen and Swann all gone, and only one of them truly the master of his own destiny, the sense of an era ending is stronger still. And, while Flower and even, perhaps, one day, Swann, will be replaced, Pietersen never really will be.

It is a horribly trite cliché, but, for all kinds of reasons beyond the cricketing, it will be a very long time before we see Pietersen's like again in an England shirt.


Coming Home

It is still early in the year in southern England. For those of us who have been here all winter it does not seem cold. But still the rain lashes down. Everything looks dirty. The entire country feels as though it is drowning.

Alastair Cook notices this. He feels the chill and does his England blazer up. Alice, his wife, has brought him a heavy overcoat from home; he puts it on and turns the collar up. As the beads of water drip down the car window, the realisation sets in that he is home. For months, those killing, unforgettable months he has spent on the other side of the world at the focus of what is perhaps the most savage and pitiful defeat English cricket has ever known, the weather has made little impression on his consciousness. It has been hot, of course it has been so hot, but he has been there before and he is famous for never breaking sweat. The only thing disorientating or unusual has been the intensity and clarity of the sunshine, and the burning dryness of the air. All this is gone, now.

As the car leaves Heathrow Airport behind, images of defeat cluster his mind. It is a chilling montage of lost tosses, dropped catches, poorly executed strokes and the harsh, unforgiving glare of the camera eye. Unwanted post-defeat interviews in soiled kit, with thousands of Australians leering and jeering and laughing. Mark Nicholas, a preening martinet in a tailored suit, firing the questions with a forced mixture of levity and accusation. Why? Why? Why? Airless press conferences with all the Aussies there, Conn and his mates, with their crude and tedious jibes, laughing behind their notepads as they mock the fact that England's only truly successful player was born in New Zealand.

Nothing has prepared him for this. Not the gilded childhood, singing in the St.Paul's choir, nor those adolescent summers piling up runs on the school ground at Bedford as public schoolboys in museum piece caps bend to his will. Not the previous winter's glory in India, defying tiredness, searing heat and the weight of the past. There have been times these past few years when it has seemed as though Cook may be superhuman. We now know that he is not.

He was almost dropped by England once. But then came the Oval century against Pakistan, and the rest is history. 100 consecutive Tests and counting. Today, with jet lag setting in and defeat on his mind, he feels every one of those games in his legs and in his mind. The comforts of home cannot come soon enough.

The key turns in the lock. The house is warm. The bags are left in the hallway. Now, at last, a time to shed the layers of formal clothing crumpled by hours of international travel. A time to reflect on what has happened to him, and to the team which he has captained.

As the days turn into nights and back to days again, with Cook barely recognizing their passing, the recollections have an unwelcome tendency to come thick and fast, a bit like the Australian attack on one of its many good days. Cook relishes the opportunity to get away from everything - from holding a bat, from thinking constantly about bowling changes and field placings, from people, with microphones, or with beers in their hands, asking him 'why? - and he enjoys the serenity and security of being in his own space. He watches television, he reads a little, he talks to Alice, he sorts through the mountain of tedious paperwork which has arrived while he has been away. He spends some time outside, with the farm animals which have failed to register his departure, his absence or his return. This is how he likes it. He has been noticed far too much over recent months, usually for the wrong reasons.

But, as the activity lulls, the memories and anxieties return. In an instant he is back at the Adelaide Oval, late in the day, his mind and body scrambled by the relentless heat and noise, by the batting of Clarke and Haddin and Harris, and by his team's threadbare bowling. He is facing Mitchell Johnson, who is bowling to him as quickly as anyone has ever done. He sees the ball, but in an instant it is through him as his reactions, slowed by tiredness and stress, fail to cope. He hears his wicket break, and then, a heartbeat later, he hears the roar of the Australian crowd. In a sense this is flattering, as it signifies how highly his wicket is prized, but he knows that. He has no need for flattery. He needs runs.

Another time he is back in Perth. The heat has not receded and his team, theoretically, are chasing 504 to win. This time it is the hulking frame of Ryan Harris which confronts him. He sees the ball better this time as it doesn't quite have the pace of Johnson's delivery, but it swings in slightly through the air before cutting away off the pitch and hitting the top of his off stump. He knows he couldn't have done anything more to counter it - few left-handed batsmen alive could have done - but it cuts to the quick even more as it is the first ball of the innings and he knows that in all probability the Ashes are about to be surrendered.

These are extracts; he also recalls dropped catches, poor strokes, captaincy decisions. While his confidence - the sort of confidence which derives from a life of almost unbroken success - has been affected, when it comes to his batting failures he knows very well that he can bat. He always could, and the numbers are in the book. Form is temporary, class is permanent, all that. But captaincy is different. He hasn't done very much of it, and it shows, both on the field and off. He knows that what he has said about wanting to continue in the job, at least in Test cricket, is genuine and heartfelt. He wants the chance to show that he is capable of improvement. He wants the chance to help bring his England side back from its darkest hour. He feels, with Andy Flower, a man he likes and admires, still in charge, that better times lie ahead. Come the early summer in England, the pitches will be green, Jimmy and Broady will be fresh, perhaps Finny will be back, Stokes will be there. He knows how Sri Lankan and Indian batsmen play the seaming and swinging ball in English conditions. In his mind, for all its concerns, there is hope for the future.

A few days in, Cook is lazing around the house when the doorbell rings. Alice is nearer so she goes to the door. There is a brief, and, to Cook, inaudible, exchange of pleasantries. Then she calls to her husband:

“Alastair, Andy Flower is here to see you”.


After the Hard Yards

It has become a commonplace these past few weeks - not that it did England any good at all - that Australia aren't a great side. This is true; they aren't. Leaving aside the unpleasant reality of where that leaves the England side that they've just eviscerated, the current Australian team contains one great batsman, Michael Clarke (who also happens to be an excellent captain), and three men, Harris, Johnson and Haddin, who have given convincing short-term impersonations of era-defining influence. In the case of Harris and Haddin, age and fitness are against them, but, after their deeds of recent weeks, they will one day retire happy in the knowledge that they decisively defined the course of a series which, for all its deeply unsatisfying one-sidedness, has added an indelible chapter to the annals of Ashes history.

Another player who, for all his vast corpus of first-class runs, will look back on this as the time of his cricketing life, is Chris Rogers. Rogers, with his pinched, serious expression, his slight stature, his understated body language and his clunky, workmanlike left-hander's game, is nobody's idea of a hero, and, as a batsman, he is easy to underestimate. In the early part of this series, Geoff Boycott, who has made a career out of being unpleasantly disrespectful to people who deserve better, repeatedly described him as a limited (and, by implication and tone, very ordinary) player who would be lucky to last the series. The thought that he was merely continuing to grow into a role which he would have felt until earlier this year had passed him by for good, clearly didn't occur, although, to give him his due, by the time of Rogers' polished centuries at Melbourne and Sydney, even Boycott appeared to have developed an awareness that he could play a bit.

As a professional opening batsman who spent the best years of his career in the twin shadows of Hayden and Langer, Rogers has done the hard yards on both sides of the globe. In England, from the slow club tracks of Devon and Shropshire to the bleak, unconsidered county arenas of the east Midlands, and, more recently, to the broad and beautiful acres of Lord's; in Australia, from the hardness and pace of the WACA to the intimidating vastness of the MCG. There is little he hasn't seen or done, and, now in the autumn of his career, he has played a vital role in his team's regaining of an Ashes urn he would never have expected to be given the chance to compete for.

Parallels can be drawn and similarities observed between Rogers and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Both are studiedly unflamboyant, often ugly, but with a suppressed class which can be hard to recognize and define. But there the similarities end: Chanderpaul made his Test debut at 19 and has spent most of his career in a poor side trying to stem the tide of defeat; Rogers made only one Test appearance before the age of 35, but, at 36, has played in a side which has won every game of a five Test series and humiliated its oldest foe.

England's players, brought low by a perfect storm of complacency, hubris, staleness, poor selection and Australian verve and excellence, will take time to recover from this. Chris Rogers will finally feel that he belongs, really belongs, at the game's top table.

For varying reasons, this has been a time which neither of them will ever forget.



As some people may have seen, Cricinfo were good enough to publish some thoughts of mine about Jacques Kallis. They can be found here.

The piece was edited. They may well have done me a favour by removing some additional guff about my Dad and his trips to South Africa, but it was interesting to find that a reference I'd made to the 'mysteriousness and corruption' of Hansie Cronje had also been removed. I'm not in a position to make a judgement about why that was done, but I can't see that a reference to Cronje having been corrupt is controversial in any way. He admitted as much himself.

Anyway, the unexpurgated version is below

Newlands, early January, sun shining out of an azure sky, is a cricket ground for the dreams. People have photographed it, people have written about it, people have loved it. In the isolation years those of us growing up in the old Test countries would read about it, imagine it. The oaks, Table Mountain, endless sunshine. Players - some forgotten, some never known - playing out their days in the Currie Cup. Pollock, Procter, Richards, Barlow, van der Bijl, Fotheringham, McKenzie, Hobson, Kirsten. Hard cricket, sure, but an ever-present sense of unfulfilment. A kind of slow death. Memories of the world at their feet, Lawry's Australia humiliated, and then nothing.

Early January, 1996. I am there. This is what I thought about when my Dad came back from his business trips to South Africa with the newspapers and the magazines. This is what I thought about that time we went with him to the heart of the Apartheid Republic (Hell, I regret it 35 years on, but I was young and it meant time off school) and we went to Cape Town but didn't get further than Green Point athletics stadium.

But I'm not enjoying it. Really I am not enjoying it. The early year sky is unnaturally blue, which, for someone brought up in northern Europe, is slightly spooky, and it is hot. God, it is hot. And I am ill. Stomach trouble, brought from the UK, sunburn from Port Elizabeth and a streaming cold, caught on the Western Cape.

Just get through the match. It will not take long, as England will lose inside three days. Years later, if people mention Dave Richardson or Paul Adams (fortunately they rarely do) it makes me shudder. Memories of that time and place do the same to Ray Illingworth, to Devon Malcolm, to others. England, wasted in Australia, have it bad now, but that was a grim time.

It is still the first day but the scalding, relentless sun is too much. Shelter is found under the chalets. The embryonic Barmy Army on the grass in front, England battling away, trying to defy the weather and the odds.

Jacques Kallis, twenty years old, comes on to bowl. It is the first time I have taken any notice of him. He made his debut at Durban two weeks before but the game was ruined by rain and he barely got off the mark. People are talking about him, but only as a batsman. I have no idea that he can bowl.

Kallis here is slimmer than the barrel-chested figure of his later years, and he has all his own hair. He bowls four economical overs, high side of medium pace, robust, muscular action, bounce. It sticks in the mind.

From that day on, Kallis is around. For the first year or two he struggles, then the century comes at Melbourne. The rest is history.

For a long time people underestimate him. With his subdued personality he can seem a little too mechanical and unemotional. People do not warm to him. His batting (people say) lacks a signature, lacks defining elegance, lacks really big scores. Kallis (people say) is too one-paced, Kallis is not alive to the situation. Kallis is this; Kallis is that. All the while, though, Kallis is making runs. There is a bloodless technical perfection to his batting in the way there always was with Martin Crowe, but this does not mean that he is unworthy of greatness. Gradually he builds his reputation like an innings, brick by brick.

He is also - although sometimes with reluctance - taking wickets. There is always bounce, sometimes there is genuine pace. When conditions help and the muse is with him, as at Headingley in 2003, there is movement and what old English pros call 'a heavy ball'.

When he is not making runs or taking wickets, he stands at slip and catches everything.

For those that remember Sobers, Kallis has one particular fault. He is not and will never be Sobers. This is of course true in all ways but it doesn't matter. Every generation is territorial about its heroes, but comparison of players from different eras is ultimately meaningless and demeans those who try to score points through it. I can feel old around cricket these days, but I hardly saw Sobers. Through a young child's eyes in 1973 and then a cover drive from the Gods in a charity game at The Oval nine years later. I am happy to accept that Sobers was better, but he was a different player in a different time. Gideon Haigh said this week that Sobers was 'a cavalier among roundheads', while Kallis was 'a roundhead among cavaliers', and, while this is open to discussion, there is plenty enough truth there. Statistics are of little relevance in such an argument, but if you want to go there, well, Kallis' immense figures stand proudly against those of anyone else who has ever played the game.

When I was in South Africa in late 1995 and early 1996, the country was changing rapidly, both on the cricket field and far away from it. As the post-isolation era developed at Newlands, and Kingsmead and at the Wanderers, Kallis was at its heart. Young, and not as visibly or as showily as Rhodes, or with the pace and vitality of Donald, or the mysteriousness and corruption of Cronje, but he was there. Lately, in the era of Steyn and de Villiers, and of Smith, and of Philander, he is still there. Like Tendulkar he has outlived one epoch and seen his side into another. It somehow seems appropriate that they should retire within a few weeks of each other.

In this there is a sense of the passing of cricket history. This is an old, old game, and these are two of the best players it has ever produced. But it should not necessarily be a source of sadness. In the age of T20 the fabric and context of the game is shifting like sand, but it will still produce players to rank with any that have gone before. From Kallis's final game there is Steyn, there is de Villiers, and there could in the future be Pujara and Kohli.

Few, though, will ever be better than Jacques Kallis.

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