Monday, 3 July 2017

The Creation of Chelmsford


You probably remember Joel Goodman's wondrous photograph, taken on New Year's Eve 2015 and soon known as The Creation Of Manchester. Goodman's shutter clicked at the moment in which the 'characters' fell into perfect aspects and ratios that, with some glorious light, gave it a posed, painterly quality which has survived long beyond the fraction of a second for which the scene existed.

I wonder if cricket now has its own version in the form of this GIF, which captures Simon Harmer's dismissal of Steve Finn at Chelmsford last Thursday.




It crams an awful lot into a few seconds. As a set-up, the initial still is perfect: seven fielders around the bat and the long four-way shadows of the floodlit gloaming offer an instant narrative of a tight, late finish. Essex were about to win by a vast margin in the scorebook, an innings and 34 runs, but in reality the end came with the clock at a minute to nine pm and three deliveries left in the game.

The spring had been winding tight throughout the last afternoon, when Nick Compton batted for 303 deliveries - 59 more than he'd faced all season - in making 120 and Paul Sterling summoned an unlikely three-and-a-bit-hour half century alongside him. Harmer, in blistering form, worked his way through the rest, taking the first eight to fall. Dan Lawrence winkled the ninth, bringing the Watford Wall to the crease.

Those hours of tension, of the effort in the daily lives of professional cricketers, are deep within the image. It's part of the genius of the game that its great, tidal lulls are transformed into climactic moments of exquisite tension, felt by everyone. Finn picks the line as leg stump-ish. I'd guess somewhere halfway through his leave he knows he's wrong, or at least wrong enough. Perhaps the umpire feels the pull of the drama as he realises he must bring final judgement on four days' of toil.

As the appeal is answered, the nine men of Essex sprint left and out of frame, a murmuration of cricketers, leaving the stage clear for the principals. Finn hangs forward, his head bowed. The umpire holds a pose of his own, presumably waiting for Finn to acknowledge his fate. Finn can't - or won't - look up, and he doesn't have to. He knew as the ball hit his pad, and if he didn't know then he knew as the Essex players flew past him. What's remains is a perfect image.

The Creation of Manchester was one of a series of other, less good photographs either side of it. The same is true of this GIF. It's the editing that isolates it and holds it in time. By removing everything else, it somehow retains the story of the game within it. Maybe it should be called The Creation of Chelmsford...

NB: H/T to my pal Nick Hogg with whom I discussed this on Twitter. And read Paul Edwards' on the whistle report, which mentions Grayson Perry and John Dee in the intro. Marvellous.





Friday, 23 June 2017

Cricket and psychogeography number 3: Tilford - Billy at rest



This pub sign, unearthed in Barnham, West Sussex but originating from an establishment a couple of hundred yards from where it now stands, bears the image of 'Silver' Billy Beldham in his dotage [read part one of Billy's story here]. It comes from the Cricketers in Wrecclesham, which itself is now a restaurant called The Bengal Lounge, but which Billy frequented with his brother in law and batting mentor John Wells, and where, on one wall, was scrawled the commemorative legend: 'Good beer as drunk by those famous men Beldham and Wells'.

Billy was born a stone's throw from the sign in Yew Tree Cottage, a glorious tumble of sagging bricks and beams with a raked roof, Grade II listed since 1972 and possessing a measure of fame itself as the model for 'Oak Cottage', one of those Lilliput Lane miniatures that stand on nans' shelves everywhere. It was probably built in the 16th century, although there are records of a dwelling there since the 1300s. Billy arrived in 1766 and handed the tenancy of the house to John Wells in 1820, the year before his long playing career came to a close.

The ground beyond the sign is The Rec, home to Wrecclesham CC, founded in 1902 and who first played on this pitch in 1927. Billy would never have seen cricket here (unless he ventured out of his door to practice, which is not unlikely), yet the ground further nestles this tiny village into the lore of the game. When I played for Wrecclesham's U15s (sneaking across the border from, whisper it, Hampshire) the Thorpe brothers were mainstays, Ian, eldest and captain, and Alan were buccaneering all-rounders; the youngest, Graham, was a left-handed bat... and in Graham Thorpe, Wrecclesham had another great player (I'm sure Graham still revels in the title, 'the second best batsman to come from Wrecclesham').

Nonetheless, by virtue of the era of his birth, and the alchemy he brought to a rural pastime, Silver Billy has a significance no modern player can match. In striding out to the ball and countering the early dominance of bowling, he made batting beautiful and cast the batsman as the aesthetic centre of the game. As Nyren wrote in Cricketers Of My Time: 'It was one of the most beautiful sights that can be imagined, and which would have delighted an artist, was to see him make himself up to hit a ball'. And when he was done as a maker of runs and a star turn of Hambledon, Surrey, MCC and All-England, Billy Beldham moved here:




This is the Barley Mow at Tilford, where, in 1821, at the age of 51, Billy became the landlord. The building adjoining the pub to the right is Oak Tree Cottage, home to Billy and his wife Ann. Ann was Billy's second wife, and his second wife called Ann (Ann the first bore him a daughter called Ann, too; both had passed away by the time Billy got to Tilford). It must have been like Mick Jagger moving to the village. Modern notions of fame don't really apply, but it's fair to say Billy Beldham had something of the rock star about him, from the blond locks that gave him his nickname to the stories that he'd fathered thirty-six children - nine is the more likely total, eight by the second Ann.

Tilford stands where the two branches of the river Wey meet, and its medieval bridges cross the water either side of the Barley Mow. In front of the pub is a triangular village green that rises quite sharply at the far side and rolls in swales that catch the light. It has been recreational ground since 1853, and Tilfird began playing cricket on it in 1886, but as with The Rec at Wrecclesham, it was Billy's playground before then. In the back room of the Barley Mow he made cricket bats, and where else would he have gone to test his workmanship (and how could he have resisted having a hit?).


Silver Billy was one of the first men to make a living from cricket. In one of his earlier seasons, 1788, he played ten matches for which he was paid a total of £44 and two shillings, more than double the annual wage of a farm worker. His form of fame lingered. He died at Tilford on 20 February 1862, and five months later, London Society magazine carried these lines: 'Old Beldham died last winter near Farnham, aged ninety-six. Not long before, the old man was invited to Lord's, and received with all honours in the pavilion: he was also advertised as expected at the Oval, to increase the attraction of a match between the old players and the young'. He was also said to have been the first cricketer ever to be photographed.

What's harder to feel is the texture of his life, the rhythm of his days. Billy died no more than seven miles from where he was born, and even that may have represented some journey for a rural villager given a short life of hard labour and hard drinking. Billy had travelled to the great metropolitan grounds of Lord's (he saw all three of its locations) and the Oval (said to have been named after Holt Pound Oval, where Billy played his first big matches). He journeyed regularly to Hambledon, thirty miles away, by horse. For anyone dropping by the Barley Mow to hear his stories, he must have sounded like an explorer or an astronaut, a resident of places that they could only imagine.


What drew him to Tilford is lost in time, and there's an odd connection, probably coincidence, but worth thinking about. In 1894, a young architect, Edward Lutyens, put up one of his first commissions, The Tilford Institute, opposite the Barley Mow. It has served as the pavilion for Tilford CC, and it's one of the few places in the world where you have to cross the road as you go into bat.



In its summer setting, a Lutyens on one edge and the Barley Mow on another, the green has become a vision of a certain kind of Englishness, a deeply timeless place. With the cricket on, watched by the drinkers in front of Billy's pub and the kids paddling in the river beyond, it has been used in adverts by companies emphasising their roots - British Airways, Rover, Courage Beer - and by Stephen Frears as the setting for his BBC film (apparently never shown) of the cricket match from the novel England Their England.

Somehow Billy, who had defined the aesthetic of the batsman when he played, ended his days on a green that still embodies this particular type of beauty. What a great and mysterious force he was.

Next time, to the early sites of Lord's, and the rise of another archetype that has run through the history of the game - the autocratic administrator...







Thursday, 30 March 2017

Cricket & psychogeography number 2: the fast bowlers of Hartley Wintney





This lightning tree stands in the fields between Elvetham and Hartley Wintney, at the North-East tip of Hampshire. Across the same fields, long before the tree was seeded, strode a cricketing thunderbolt, a man who would change the fabric of the game. His name was David Harris, and he bowled fast. Here's what it was like to face him:

'He left fingers ground to dust against bat, bones pulverised, and blood scattered over the field.'

He was born in Elvetham in 1755, and he emerged into a changing world. In 1744, the two stumps that made up a wicket had been raised to twenty-two inches in height. In 1775, when Harris was twenty years old, came the match at the Artillery Ground when Lumpy Stevens 'bowled' John Small three times, leading to the addition of the middle peg. The target suitably established, David Harris went to work.

 Elvetham was listed in the Domesday book with a yearly rent of thirty shillings and enough woodland to support ten swine. The Seymour family arrived in 1426, and in 1535 Edward Seymour entertained his brother-in-law Henry VIII there. Elizabeth I visited in 1591 as the guest of the Earl of Hertford, and brought an entourage of 500 with her. The fields and woodland around the hall were unchanged by the time of David Harris and some have barely changed now. Harris happened to be born in exactly the right place, as well as the right time.

Hartley Wintney cricket green, viewed from the Elvetham side

Cricket was played on this green in 1770, when David Harris was fifteen years old, and it has taken place there every season since, making it one of the oldest continuously used grounds in England. Although the name David Harris appeared on a scorecard for the first time on 27 May 1782 in a game at Odiham between Arlesford & Odiham and a Hampshire County XI, the case that he was bowling here, a mile or so from his home, some years before that is irresistible.


Looking from the square towards Elvetham


Harris' method, the ball raised to the height of his forehead 'like a soldier at drill' before he delivered, produced a spearing underarm delivery that kicked up from the pitch, a new and apocalyptic development for batsmen used to a ball that stayed low or ran across the ground. 'Length', as it became known, forced through the new style of bat and a new style of batting, the one being refined by Billy Beldham a few miles to the south in Farnham.

But Harris did something more important than that. He introduced a psychological dimension to the game that wasn't there before, he broadened its hinterland. He brought in the notion of fear, of peril. He reinforced the idea of the batsman as being alone in a hostile universe. It was the other half of Silver Billy's model of batting as something beautiful, the aesthetic heart of the game, and together they formed something modern and new.

Here is the playwright Frederick Reynolds on how it was to face David Harris: 'I felt almost as if taking my ground in a duel... and my terrors were so much increased by the mock pity and sympathy of Hammond, Beldham and others round the wicket, that when this mighty bowler, this Jupiter Tonans, hurled his bolt at me, I shut my eyes in the intensity of my panic and gave a random, desperate blow'.

David Harris and Billy Beldham first faced one another in 1784, when Farnham played Hambledon, and they would appear as both team-mates and opponents from then on, two shaping forces, flip-sides of the same coin. A third man linked them, another archetype, this time of the autocratic administrator. His name was Lord Frederick Beauclerk, and he lived in Winchfield, the next village along from Hartley Wintney, in Winchfield House, a glorious pile that still stands.

Beauclerk's crib, Winchfield House

Ostensibly a cleric with a parish in St Albans, where, when he appeared his sermons were legendarily dull, Beauclerk made his money from playing and betting on cricket, and he was one of the game's great enigmas: courageous on the field but malicious too, a bearer of epic grudges, priggish, disdainful, haughty, both a maker and bender of rules and a man who had no problem with saying one thing and doing another. His betting came mainly in small-sided games, into which Billy Beldham was often co-opted.

Beauclerk would have loved to have hold of David Harris too, but his star shone briefly. He was a quiet country boy, with, as Nyren recorded, 'a remarkably kind and gentle expression', a potter by trade who never married and who would be dead at 45. Gout afflicted him so badly that he used crutches to walk and had to sit down between overs, and after his last games in 1798, 'was latterly a cripple'. He's buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Crondall, not far from his home in Crookham.

As John Major wrote in his book More Than A Game, 'The name of David Harris does not convey the magic of a Sydney Barnes, a Harold Larwood or a Shane Warne, but his role in changing the face of cricket was greater than any of theirs'. 

Harris had a reputation for being incorruptible, 'a man of so strict a principal', not pragmatic enough for Beauclerk. Instead, Hartley Wintney was to throw up another rapid-fire merchant for him, Thomas Howard, born in the village in 1781, a man who would take part in a contest of such infamy it would lead to a radical change in rules, and to a feud that cost careers and lasted a lifetime.

It involved Beauclerk of course, who could not believe his luck when he found a left-arm length bowler of Howard's talent emerging just up the road from his country house. Howard appeared in the inaugural Gentleman versus Players matches at Lord's Dorset Square gound in 1806, where Beauclerk captained the Gentlemen and recruited Silver Billy and William Lambert as 'given men' [Billy swapped sides for the second encounter, during which Howard dismissed Beauclerk for an ultimately decisive 58 in the Gentlemen's first innings].

By 1810, when Beauclerk asked Howard to play with him in a money match against William Lambert and George Osbaldeston, Howard was established as a leading player of the day. The bet was for £100, and it was a gamble - Lambert was to vye with Billy as the premier batsman of the age, and Osbaldeston was a skilled all-rounder, a swashbuckler known as the 'Squire of England'. When Osbaldeston fell ill at the toss, Beauclerk saw his chance and refused Lambert's request to postpone the game. He told Lambert to play or pay up and Lambert responded by bowling so wide of the wicket that Beauclerk's hair-trigger temper duly went off and the match was lost.

Beauclerk's vengeance was lifelong. A year later his hand was behind the institution of a Law declaring a one-run penalty for a wide delivery. In 1817, Lambert was accused of trying to fix a match between Nottingham and Beauclerk's All England XI. Beauclerk was struck on the finger during that ill-tempered game and almost died after the wound became infected. When Lambert became embroiled in a row during a match at Lord's the following season, Beauclerk called him in front of the MCC committee and had him banned from playing for a year. For Osbaldeston he had to wait a little longer, but revenge came when he resigned from MCC in protest after an argument during another single-wicket game and Beauclerk refused to readmit him. The Squire's cricket career fell terminally away.

Here have stood giants...

Hartley Wintney is a thriving club [and a ground I conquered myself once or twice] and each year they host a charity game, generally with Hampshire's beneficiary, so the great and the good continue to stand on earth that connects them to cricket's deepest history. It's quite something to be a part of.


The dastardly Lord forever remembered in Winchfield

Next time, to London for more from Beauclerk, and then Tilford, for the last days of Silver Billy...





Friday, 17 February 2017

Cricket & psychogeography number 1: Holt Pound


It's the morning of 23 August 1791. In the field behind this gate, George Finch, the ninth Earl of Winchilsea, has been dismissed hit wicket for four while batting for Surrey against Hampshire. His opening partner Charles Anguish is out for nought. Harbord, the number three, goes for a duck too, and Louch at number four manages nine. Two of the three Walker brothers, Tommy and Harry, fall quickly, for nought and two. By the side of the pitch, among the crowds, William Beldham, 25 years old and perhaps already the greatest batsman in the land, awaits his turn. He's down at number eleven, the last man in.

The bowling is underarm, each over consists of four deliveries. On Holt Pound's rudimentary wicket, staying in is hard, making runs harder. When he gets to the crease, Billy Beldham scores nine in the first innings and 17 in the second - and Surrey win by 17 runs. In the first-class season of 1791, Billy finishes with 532 runs, the most in England and almost 150 more than anyone else. Despite being run out for a duck in the second innings and completing a pair, George Finch is third with 345.

Billy came from Wrecclesham, a hillside village to the south of Farnham and a community that was said to spend its sundays 'in scenes of profanity and vice', drinking and gambling on games of marbles and pitch-and-toss, no doubt a terrifying sight to the metropolitan elite. William was a handsome country lad, tall and with long fair hair that won him the nickname 'Silver Billy'. He lived in Yew Tree Cottage on The Street, Wrecclesham's main thoroughfair, a winding strip that boasted five pubs along it and another three nearby. The Holt Pound ground lay behind one of those, an establishment currently known as the Forest Inn, at the top of Wrecclesham hill.

The Forest Inn, glimpsed from the far side of the ground

In the spring of 1791, Lord Stawel, the ranger of Alice Holt forest and the captain of Farnham Cricket Club, had employed Billy and his brother John to create a newer, more permanent ground behind the pub to cash in on the growing interest in cricket. Land in the forest was being cleared to produce wood for the Royal Navy, and the arena that  Billy and John produced was described by Charles Grover in his book My Native Village: 'It was banked and level and free to all parties, and as the game is considered a most manly one, all classes engaged in it most extensively.  At this time few counties or towns could cope with Farnham and more particularly the little village of Wrecclesham, which could boast some of the most clever and celebrated at the game, as well as one of the best grounds. Matches would often last three or four days and when there, would assemble thousands of spectators, and carriages very numerous'.

Silver Billy's vision

Billy was schooled in the game by Harry Hall, a gingerbread maker from Farnham, and the Walker brothers of Churt - Harry Walker is usually credited with creating the cut shot. Farnham were a powerhouse of a team, and Billy debuted in their first recorded match, on the field he'd turn into Holt Pound, on 13 August 1782. They played Odiham, and Billy Beldham was 16 years old. Between that debut and the summer of 1791, Billy became a giant, one of the first men to play forward with a high front elbow, a style that demanded a new shape of bat and a response from bewildered bowlers.

George Finch first saw him play when Billy scored 43 for Farnham against Hambledon in 1784, and the following Spring visited him in Wrecclesham with an offer to become his patron. From then on, and for the rest of his playing career, Billy earned good money from cricket, and what's more, invented the notion of batting as something beautiful, an aesthetic pleasure. He made the batsman, rather than the bowler, the lone existential hero of the game.

John Nyren, son of the great yeoman Richard, landlord of the Bat and Ball at Broadhalfpenny Down, and from whom we know most of what we know, would write of Silver Billy in his pomp: 'It was a study for Phidias to see Beldham rise to strike, the grandeur of the attitude, the settled composure of the look, the piercing lightning of the eye, the rapid glance of the bat, were electrical. Men's hearts throbbed within them, their cheeks turned pale and red. Michael Angelo [sic] should have painted him...'

Imagine it's a sightscreen...

Billy struck one of the first hundreds on Thomas Lord's ground at Dorset Square, and appeared in both of the other first-class games played on Holt Pound, Surrey's two famous wins over Lord Frederick Beauclerk's All England side in 1808 and 1809 - turning out for Surrey in the first and England in the second. It's easy to imagine how he felt, a boy from nowhere who drew thronging crowds and the patronage of lords to the ground outside of his village, setting men's hearts athrob as he went...

Billy wasn't the only shaping force to appear at Holt Pound. George Finch, ninth Earl of Winchilsea, began playing at the age of 33 and thereafter 'would go anywhere for a game of cricket'. His bat was reputed to weigh 4lbs 2oz, which perhaps contributed to his erratic form. It was away from the pitch that his presence was felt. He was a founder of MCC, the club that would soon become the focus of the game, and he offered Thomas Lord the patronage that helped him construct Dorset Square, shifting cricket from country to city.

The lane beside Holt Pound

To find Holt Pound today, drive through Wrecclesham, past Yew Tree Cottage, which still stands on the Street, and on up the hill, where you'll pass a garden centre and a sawmill and then cross the border from Surrey back into Hampshire before you reach the Forest Inn, and the tumbledown little laneway beside it that leads to the ground. It's a prosaic place now, administered by Binstead council, a bare and unloved field with just a dog-walkers' track across the middle. Farnham left it behind after 1851 for their existing ground on Folly Hill, and save for a brief revival after the first World War, Billy's oval at Holt Pound receded into history, unknown now to the cars that fly by on the A325.

There should be a blue plaque, at least, if you could bolt one to the gate...

A view from the middle

We'll return to the story of Silver Billy when we visit Tilford, but next in the series it's Hartley Wintney, for a meeting with a demon bowler who Billy often battled, and the oddball Lord who seized hold of the Laws of the game...

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Mourinho and fear

Given a different life, Jose Mourinho would make a fascinating cricket coach. Last night Manchester United drew 0-0 with Liverpool and had just 35 per cent of possession in the game, the lowest figure since Opta started recording the stat in 2003/4.

The usual modifier to use would be 'despite having just 35 per cent of possession,' but Mourinho considers possession of the ball differently to most football coaches. When I was working on The Meaning Of Cricket, I wanted to write about fear and anxiety and how it can impact on both batsmen and bowlers, and I came upon Jonathan Wilson's brilliant piece for The Blizzard magazine, The Devil And Jose Mourinho.

The piece listed Mourinho's seven-point plan for winning big matches:

1. The game is won by the team that commits fewer errors.

2. Football favours the team that provokes more errors in the opposition.

3. In away matches it is better to encourage mistakes rather than try and be superior to the opposition.

4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.

5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of a mistake.

6. Whoever has the ball has fear.

7. Whoever does not is thereby stronger.

Never was this strategy more evident than last night, a result Mourinho described as "a point that stopped them winning three". He negated Liverpool's on-trend 'high press' with the simple tactic of having his goalkeeper boot the ball up the field rather than pass or throw it out to his defenders.

What I found most interesting about Mourinho's rules was his bald acknowledgement of the role fear plays in big games and tight situations, and how he develops tactics to manage that fear. It's rare in sport that the word 'fear' is used, such are its connotations around notions of courage and professionalism, and yet as Mourinho knows, it exists in myriad ways.

 In T20 cricket, fear has almost disappeared, partly because the length of the game attatches less weight to individual failure and also because the whole mindset is about the acceptance of risk. In the longer game, where small mistakes can have a big impact, sometimes days later, things are different.

Mourinho, I suspect, would be brilliant in his analysis of these attritional moments, when a 'negative' tactic, like playing on a batsman's nerves by keeping the ball wide, or drying up runs from a favourite shot, can impact on ego, self-image, anxiety, fear...

There are far more such nuanced siuations in a long game like cricket than a short one like football. Mourinho's understanding that sometimes, handing the ball and the 'advantage' to an opponent can often make them crack, would I'm sure have its effect, especially when a single mistake can be fatal for an individual.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Baxit

In the mid-1700s, the men who would emerge as the premier batsmen of their age were coming to a realisation. Tom Sueter, the great left-hander of Hambledon, broke free of the "heresy" that a player should stay back in his crease to ward off the many dangers of fast underarm bowling on pitches pitted with mud and stones, and began stepping forwards towards the ball. As John Nyren would write in Cricketers Of My Time, 'Egad, it went as if it had been fired'.

And in the fields around Farnham, 'Silver' Billy Beldham was taught by Harry Hall to present the bat to the ball with the left elbow high and play through the line rather than across it, and Billy became, in Nyren's words, 'safer than the bank'. At Churt, a few miles up the road, Harry Walker hit upon the cut shot (and Harry came from an inventive family; his younger brother Tom is credited with being the first to bowl roundarm).

Batting was making its response to the ball's early dominance. The shape of the bat standardised and handles were spliced in, rather than carved from the same piece of wood as the blade. The next great challenge would come when round-arm bowling became overarm, and Grace came to meet it as modern batting's overwhelming conceptual force.

The history of the game can be seen as the history of bat versus ball, one ascendent and then the other fighting back. Now, after a couple of decades in which almost every bowling record was broken, in which both spin and swing were reinvented, we have entered an era of the bat. Driven by the dawn of T20, it has been nothing short of a revolution in both mentality and technique, the greatest shift since Grace's famous declaration that he "determined to test" the conventional wisdom of defensive batting.

There is a tendency to view the era that you're living in as the apex moment, the point of the arrow, when in fact a better analogy is that the game's past, present and future is a river into which you dive at a random point, swim along for a while and then leave. The balance between bat and ball has always been contentious, from the Massive Bat Incident of 1771, through Bodyline, uncovered pitches, reverse swing and lots of other responses to one getting on top of the other. And yet the balance has always self-corrected as the generations come and then go.

The MCC Cricket Committee's report, Balance of the Game, (available here) is a more rounded document than the issue that it has been reduced to, and yet it doesn't really mention this ever-moving history. It's an apex moment document in that regard. It lays out the statistics of the new era of the bat (in Test cricket in the 1950s one ball in every 4,127 was hit for six, now it is one in every 189*), it considers anecdotal and scientific evidence (a study by Imperial College using recreations of bats from different eras) that the balance may have shifted, and examines the reasons why.

Those reasons cannot be unknotted from one another: techniques have changed; players are fitter and stronger; their intent is different; the bats are better... It is impossible to come up with some sort of ratio that allocates weight to each of these factors. Players cannot be limited in how they train or play or think, and so the only variables that can be adjusted are the bat, the ball, the pitches or the playing conditions. Of those, by far the easiest to change are the bat or the ball - and there's an interesting, somewhat overlooked section in the report on what manufacturers think they could do with the ball in terms of making it seam or spin more.

The bat, though, is the focus of the game, a totemic and potent object invested in part with the hopes and dreams of the player holding it: the batsman is alone with it when all's said and done. When, at the tail-end of the 1970s, the Scoop and the Jumbo saw the first real changes in its shape for a hundred years or so, it became obvious by the reaction to those bats that there is an emotional connection as well as a physical one. It's this connection which has perhaps made the debate more heated.

However much it may want to be, cricket is not isolated from time. The primary equipment in almost every sport has improved exponentially. Tennis no longer has wooden rackets, golf clubs aren't made of persimmon any more, footballs aren't of the cannonball leather sort hoofed by Bobby Charlton, and so on. It's unrealistic to think that cricket bats would not follow the trend, and their dynamic reinvention has improved the game. And bats and their materials are more closely governed by the Laws than most other bits of sporting gear, to the point that any sort of virus that affected the English willow Salix Alba in the way that Ash Dieback or Dutch Elm Disease affected other types, would decimate the industry.

The science in the MCC report is debatable: as someone who knows told me, "[it doesn't] want to say anything definite because of too much noisy data". The laws of physics cannot be cheated, and bats are not heavier now - if anything they're lighter. According to Imperial College, the biggest sweet spot on any of the bats they tested came from the 'scooped back' - ie a bat conceived in the 1970s. Instead, performance of the willow has been pushed to the max by good design and different pressing techniques. For every leading edge that flies over third man for six, there's another that carries to slip or is caught in the deep.

Yet there is merit to MCC's points about safety in the amateur game, especially for umpires (I've seen two hit by straight drives this year), and common sense says that there should be some kind of limit to the depth of a bat if there are limits on its width and length. Batmakers may have sighed wearily at the science, but many are relieved that the pressure to keep pushing a natural material to its absolute limits will abate. As Chris King of Gray Nicolls told me when I wrote about bats for EspnCricinfo: "If I have two bats of the same weight, same grain, that pick up pretty much the same and that sound the same when I knock them up with the mallet, the pro will always choose the one with the bigger edges. Always will. It's psychological."

Now that psychology can be contained by a maximum size. No-one with any insight believes that the way batting is going will change because of it. The ball will continue to be hit higher, harder and more often than ever before, because that's the intention of the players doing it. It will go just as far from a 35mm edge as a 40mm one because the performance of the bat will barely alter. What will change batting is a response from the bowlers of the next generation.

But the argument is settled. It's the right decision taken for the wrong reasons in our post-factual times.

* One six in every 189 deliveries = one per 31.5 overs, or not that often...

NB: Forgive the plug, but I've written about the bat and modern batting, along with other stuff, in The Meaning of Cricket, out now...

Saturday, 30 April 2016

From the lake of dreams (Sussex) rises Merlin...

Bryson DeChambeau is the latest golden hope of American golf, low amateur at the Masters followed by a T-4 finish in his first tournament as a pro at Hilton Head, and just the fifth player to win the NCAA and US Amateur titles in the same year - the other four were Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore.

It's not just the golf, either. The Americans are well stocked on Boy Wonders, what with Spieth and Fowler and so on. DeChambeau, once a physics major at Southern Methodist University, is trying to rip up some of the game's conventional wisdom, playing with a set of clubs that he conceived and helped to design. Instead of gradually decreasing in length towards the wedges in the regular way, all of DeChambeau's irons have the same 37.5 inch shaft, his theory being that he can make exactly the same swing on every shot - a swing he has tailored very specifically to his body type. Because the clubs are all the length of his six iron, his swing is anachronistically upright, and when coupled with the flat cap he favours, gives him an old-school, deeply marketable look.

It started in 2011, when DeChambeau's coach told him to read The Golfing Machine by Homer Kelley, published in 1969, a book described by Golf Digest as 'an arcane, science-based tome' and blamed by some for what the magazine called the "high-profile flame-outs" of Mac O'Grady and Bobby Clampett (O'Grady in turn is now an equally controversial swing instructor who plays scratch golf both right and left handed). Dechambeau's revelatory flash came upon him when he read 'Chapter Ten, Component 7, Variation A', which dealt with the notion of what Kelley termed the 'Zero Shift Swing'.

The ins and outs of the Zero Shift Swing are for the pointy heads of golf mechanics, but it's worth noting that what DeChambeau has done is not prescriptive: he believes that the golf swing is entirely individual, and that everyone can play: "It's not talent, it's just practice... If I wanted to learn Arabic or Russian, I could. Or tie my shoes in a new way, I could. Why? Dedication. I'm not really smart, but I'm dedicated. I can be good at anything if I love it and dedicate myself."

DeChambeau is already picking up significant amounts of TV airtime when he plays, and he's a telegenic guy. He's far better known than 150 or so veteran tour pros, and the differences in his swing ensure that every time he's on, one of the commentators will talk about his clubs.

Golf clubs have, like the cricket bat, been through their transformative moment: the difference is that they can to a degree keep pushing forwards with new materials and gimmicks. Willow will always be willow, with all of its beauty and constraints. But If DeChambeau is right, and he has found an alternative way of playing the game, then he's offering manufacturers an entirely new market.

Cricket will not have that luxury, at least while the rules on what materials can be used in the bat remain (and maybe there's a case that they shouldn't). When I wrote about bats for cricinfo a couple of years ago, Chris King, who makes them for Gray Nicolls, was working on designs that would make the player feel better, the willow itself having been pushed to the edge of its useability.

I've been thinking of DeChambeau, and of Chris' ideas since I've had hold of Newbery's new bat, the Merlin. Two seasons ago, entirely out of the blue, I got one of the greatest emails of my life asking if I'd like to try out the then-new Kudos, a blade that has since joined my personal pantheon. When it became Newbery's fastest selling bat, the link was obvious*, and I couldn't get down to Hove fast enough when the offer of the Merlin came along.

In appearance the Merlin is classically understated, a beautiful bat with slender shoulders and sweeping lines. The toe is squared off, which seems in vogue at the moment, and the bat is pressed slightly differently (the result of a mistake on a prototype, apparently) giving it a flatter, apparently broader face. Looking down on it, it has a sort of sultry power that, a few years ago, you'd associate with much bigger, less sophisticated cudgel (I may be overthinking all of this, but Chris King is onto something - a bat must make you feel good when you look at it in your stance... whatever 'good' means to you).

The twist to the bat is in the top of the handle, which is hollowed out in order to drop in a plug of lignum vitae, a dense, heavy, green wood designed to act as a counter balance. It weighs a few ounces, and is there to make the bat come down faster once it's at the top of the backlift, a very DeChambeau type of idea that probably has something to do with the moment of maximum inertia.

I was somewhat skeptical about this, but in pick-up the bat does feel slightly unorthodox. I've only used it three times, twice in the nets when I hacked away (I hadn't batted for so long I could barely see the ball, let alone hit it) and once in a game (on an artifical pitch last weekend, where it was so cold it was also quite hard to actually see) when I managed to middle a couple (the bat has that deep, satisfying sense of prolonged contact when it happens). I felt as though I was at the ball early a couple of times (any excuse...) so perhaps I was swinging it a little faster.

It's a fascinating idea that has a psychological impact as well as a physical one (maybe more so, in fact, certainly for me). With a material like willow, which in the modern bat is worked to within an inch of its life, expanding its development takes imagination and flair and the Merlin has both.

There is a trend trend for global sports 'brands' (uurgh) mostly concerned with selling trainers to sticker up bats and pay big-name pros lots of money to use them (and good for the pros, make it while you can) but these are not the bats that you see out on the club pitches of England. Bat making at heart is artisan and individual. You know a Newbery bat by its look and feel, in the same way that you know a Gray Nicolls, or a Salix or a Woodstock, a Millichamp & Hall and so on. These are the bats that people want, because they are bats that the owner can make a connection with.

*I'm joking. It is obvious though.

NB: also obviously, and in full disclosure, Newbery gave me both the Kudos and the Merlin. The last bat I bought before that was a Newbery. They make great bats that suit me. Like all good makers, you can go along to see them and talk about the bats they've got, probably until you're blue in the face and they're edging you towards the door. You don't buy often, so when you do, make it a good one...

NNB: If you needed any more confirmation that cricket bats are sexy, Gordon Lee, Newbery's CEO and a man as happily obsessed with the product as everyone else there, used to work for Ann Summers and Wonderbra. Now that's what you call a CV...