Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Third Test Notes: Ishant Sharma Keeps Running In; The Conversion Of Jonny Bairstow

Ishant Sharma was born in 1988. The Indian cricket team began that year by playing West Indies in Chennai, the final game of a four Test series. Opening the bowling for West Indies were Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh. Opening the bowling for India were Kapil Dev and Mohinder Amarnath. India won by 255 runs. Kapil sent down eleven overs in the match, Amarnath, in what was his 69th and last Test, just five.

Mohinder Amarnath took 32 wickets in his Test career and was really a batsman, but that didn't matter, because India was no place for fast bowlers. Kapil was simply the exception that proved the rule. Any cricket-mad parent would wish first that their kid was a batter, second that they were a spinner, thirdly, and impossibly, that they may be as good as Kapil. A fast bowler... Well in India, that was a calling of a different, far harsher kind...

When Ishant Sharma made his Test match debut in 2007, only four Indian fast bowlers had ever taken more than 100 Test wickets: Kapil, Karsan Ghavri, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan, and of those, only Zaheer was still playing. At Perth in January 2008, Ishant Sharma, nineteen years old and running in like Peter Crouch trying to beat the offside trap, did something extraordinary. During the second innings he bowled a spell at Ricky Ponting that lives in the memory of all that saw it. Lightning-quick and with hurtful bounce, he barked the knuckles of the great number three, speared his head backwards on his neck, had him kicking at the crease-line open-eyed and rattled during eight overs that one reporter called: "as good as anything seen from a visiting fast bowler in a decade". Almost out on his feet, Sehwag urged him to bowl a ninth, and in it Ponting nicked to Dravid. India won. A star was born.

But it was just the fourth Test match for this nascent star. Ishant Sharma - gauche, gummy, rail-thin, accident-prone - had many miles still to travel. On dead pitches and in white-ball shoot-outs, he lost first his pace, then his confidence. When it happened, he stood out for the wrong reasons, too tall, too lanky, hidden in the field, lost at the bowling crease. His first fifty wickets cost him 31.76. By the time he had seventy-five, it was 37.40.

He came to Lord's in 2014 with 174, behind only Kapil, Srinath and Zaheer, the average still over 37, and bounced England out in one mad and glorious afternoon. With the old ball he produced what David Hopps described as "one of the most memorable spells in the history of Indian fast bowling," a careening rocket ride either side of lunch that brought India their first overseas Test win for more than three years, and only their second ever at Lord's.

Hopps went on: "India... will have eyes only for the performance of Ishant, who returned career-best figures of 7 for 74 and invited comparisons with the brilliant spell in Perth in 2008 when he roughed up no less a player of fast bowling than Ricky Ponting and encouraged India's hopes that they had a great fast bowler to reckon with. Ishant's career has never quite turned out like that..."

Ten months after Ishant had bowled that spell at Perth, Mitchell Johnson debuted for Australia against Sri Lanka. And the winter before Ishant destroyed England at Lord's, Mitchell Johnson had destroyed England in Australia. Johnson, who shared Ishant's capacity for haplessness as well as brilliance, had the classic, redemptive career arc, a three-act structure beloved of all scriptwriters: early promise, then rocky road, followed by last-reel, feel-good fulfilment.

In the week that Mitch hung them up for good, Ishant came to Trent Bridge with India needing something, anything, from a player other than Virat Kohli. They got it, too. England resumed their second innings miles behind but with their openers intact as the fourth day began. By inducing edges from first Jennings and then Cook, Ishant kicked open the door.

On the radio, Jonathan Agnew said of him: "He's not quite a one-trick pony, that would be harsh..." It was a backhanded compliment and you knew what he meant. Everyone understood how Ishant would bowl to England's left-handers, including Alastair Cook, who Ishant had dismissed ten times. Stopping him was another matter, and that is a hallmark of quality.

We invest great hopes and dreams in fast bowlers, yet even the real bruisers like Ryan Harris and Pat Cummins are physically fragile, always at the limits of what their bodies can do. Many of them, like Mitch and Ishant, are at the whim of the fates too, subject to a muse and rhythm that descends when it feels like it, rather than when we all think it should.

Things have changed for Ishant and for India. On TV commentary, Michael Holding noted that pitches for domestic competition there have become more conducive to fast bowling (well, it would have been hard for them to become less conducive...) and around Ishant were Jasprit Bumrah bowling in-slanting rockets for his first Test five-fer, and Mohammed Shami with his reverse swing touching 90mph. They have another swing bowling, hard-hitting all-rounder on the books, too, and plenty more where they came from.

Ishant has walked the bridge between then and now, and at times it has been a treacherous one to cross. The average is down to 35.16, and he has 249 wickets, behind only Zaheer and Kapil on the list. He has served his calling the best he can. He may not get Mitchell Johnson's final-act finish, but Ishant Sharma keeps running in.

NB: Sky produced an interesting stat: At the Trent Bridge Test, every Indian seamer bowled at least one delivery quicker than any of the England seamers

The Conversion of Jonny Bairstow

In a moment that felt like a Passing Of The Gloves, Jonny Bairstow got a broken finger and a golden duck, departing the crease moments after the standing ovation for Jos Buttler's century. The Gods seem to be pointing one way: Bairstow as the specialist batsman England crave, free from the onorous physicality of keeping wicket, Buttler as keeper, batting enforcer and captain in waiting.

England have middle order problems for sure, but they're nothing like England's top-order problems, where the openers don't score any runs and the number three looks tired, haunted and desperate to come in at number four. A thought emerged, from some knowledgeable ex-pros and commentators, that perhaps Bairstow, sans gloves, should open the batting.

My view, which is becoming, like many of my views, less popular by the second, is that Bairstow is not an opener in five-day cricket. His technique for the short forms is radically different, as demonstrated by the trouble he had in the first Test of the India series when he was so leg side of the ball he was almost conversing with the square leg umpire.

But there's a more interesting reason too. Bairstow would be making a strange kind of history should he successfully make such a switch. Trent Bridge was his 56th Test. He has batted 98 times, once, in 2016, at number four, and that aside, never higher than five. It poses the question, has anyone in the modern era successfully converted to opening so late in their career having never batted in the top four?

I couldn't think of anyone immediately, so I put out a Tweet, which produced this list of suggestions: Virender Sehwag; Justin Langer; Sanath Jayasuriya; Brendon McCullum; Simon Katich; Shane Watson; Tillakaratne Dilshan; Alec Stewart; Michael Vaughan; Ravi Shastri; Graham Gooch; Greg Blewett.

A pretty quick and unscientific search of cricinfo turned up the following info on when each first opened in a Test; their average as opener; and overall career average (F/T = full-time opener):

Sehwag: First opened in 6th Test; 8027 runs at 50.04; career 49.34
Langer: 2nd Test (F/T 42nd Test); 5112 runs at 48.22; career 45.27
Jayasuriya: 14th Test; 5932 runs at 41.48; career 40.07
McCullum: 1st Test (F/T 52nd Test); 1316 runs @39.87; career 38.64
Katich: 24th Test; 2928 runs at 50.48; career 45.03
Watson: 9th Test; 2049 runs @ 40.98; career 35.19
Dilshan: 55th Test; 2170 runs at 42.52; career 40.98
Stewart: 3rd Test; 3348 runs at 44.64; career 39.54
Vaughan: 16th Test; 3093 runs at 45.48; career 41.44
Shastri: 11th Test; 1101 runs at 44.04; career 35.79
Gooch: 3rd Test; 7811 runs at 43.88; career 42.58
Blewett: 34th Test; 588 runs at 29.40; career 34.02

On closer examination, many of these are easy to discount. Sehwag, Vaughan and Jayasuriya shifted early in their careers, and were top order batsmen already. Shane Watson also moved early and later dropped back down, as did Ravi Shastri. Justin Langer spent almost all of his first 40 Tests at number three. Simon Katich had been out of the Australian side for two and a half years when he returned as an opener. Graham Gooch spent the 1978-9 Ashes at number four plus a portion of the following summer, but opened for virtually all of his international career. Greg Blewett moved relatively late, and his record as an opener was worse than I remembered.

The remaining three are more intriguing. Tillakaratne Dilshan had played just two Tests fewer than Bairstow when he began opening, and like Bairstow, had never really batted higher than five.

McCullum and Stewart both kept wicket for long periods of their careers, and their key stat is perhaps average with and without the gloves. McCullum averaged 34.18 as keeper and 42.94 as a batsman. Alec Stewart was even more affected, averaging 34.92 with the gloves and 46.70 without.

Bairstow turns that stat on its head, averaging 42.33 when keeping and 28.96 when not. Surrendering the gloves and moving up to open after more Tests than anyone in the modern era would be quite a feat - according to the numbers at least.






Thursday, 16 August 2018

Second Test Notes: In the Flesh

It was the first day of the second Test... Well it was the second day if you're being like that, but it was the first day on which there was any play, so that makes it the first day in most people's minds... In my mind, anyway.

So, it was the first day of the second Test, my first day at a Test since last year, first time seeing India for four years, and well... you forget don't you. The TV coverage is brilliant now (I saw a clip of Botham's Ashes the other day - the picture was almost square, the resolution like looking through a pair of someone else's glasses... Beefy's beard smeared across his face, the pitch-invading kids Lowry stick men...), it's brilliant but much of the depth and speed, all of the sensory joy, is lost among the pixels.

We were still on the stairs at the back of the stand when the first wicket went down, but everyone stuck outside knew what had happened. The noise was unmistakable. The wicket cheer. Slightly different to the wicket roar, which you only get occasionally at Lord's (it came later in the game though, when Broad got himself on another hat-trick), and to the DRS cheer (recent addition to the canon, but easy to distinguish). We pushed up to the top of the steps and could just see a thin line of the electronic scoreboard by the Pavilion: 'India 0-1', glowing quite orange-ly under heavy skies.

"What happened?"

"Jimmy bowled him..."

"Bowled who?"

"Vijay..."

Pujara was already out to the middle, radiating innocence in his usual way. He bears the look of someone whose dad still drives him to the game while the cool kids sit together on the coach (as someone whose dad used to drive him to games, I know it when I see it...).

"Who have they dropped then?"

The replay goes up on the big screen at that moment, Vijay, Bollywood hair falling from his helmet, trying to hit an outswinger through midwicket. A shame because on the last tour here, he was one of the few who batted well. Very solid. On the scoreboard I see 'KL Rahul', so poor Shikhar has gone the way of all flesh. Wouldn't have minded seeing the old moustache stroke a few of those glossy cover drives... Ah well...

The clouds banked up to the left of the Pavilion, unyeilding as tower blocks. Rahul drove Broad for four, and although Broad was 'only' bowling about 80mph, it happened quickly and with such precision, the small movement of the feet and hands, the batswing just a sweet little punch, like the ones that old boxers don't see coming. Rahul has a Kohli-esque beard, perhaps a subconscious act of hero worship, and his cover drive is like Kohli's too. He seemed to be compact and strong, a reaction to his terrible shots at Edgbaston, probably, and the likely Shastri bollocking that followed.

The groundsmen came on to the outfield behind the boundary rope with the hover cover. Rahul hit another four but then Jimmy Anderson nicked him off, and instead of signalling the grounsmen on with the cover, the umpires let Kohli walk out and face two deliveries. This was very poor, I thought. They knew they were going off, and within a minute it was raining and dark, the Pavilion looming like a mansion in a ghost story. How was that fair to Kohli, or to India, or to a lot of the people in the ground who'd paid out for their tickets in the hope of seeing Kohli have a go at the England bowling?

By 3pm, when the ground was essentially underwater, Kohli had comically run out Pujara, whose dad, if he was like mine, was probably sitting in the car quite annoyed. Kohli showed the self-preserving instincts of the superstar, and Pujara at least had the luxury of being able to graciously forgive his captain over lunch, and not have to worry about being out through his own error.

We'd sneaked into the Mound stand, and we sat and watched the standing water get funnelled off through little drains in the outfield until somehow the sun broke through and what had been a series of small lakes receded and Lord's became a jewel glowing in the luminous afternoon light.

From side-on it was easy to see why Kohli has a bad back. He likes to stand with his feet almost parallel to the stumps and then twist his torso so that his head is out in front of his body and looking squarely down the pitch. He managed to miss most of the miracle deliveries that England sent down by keeping his hands close to his chest, and then smiling phlegmatically at the slips as they moaned about him.

The slips were both brilliant and terrible. Root kept changing them around and joining in himself, which didn't help. The problem seemed obvious, especially when Anderson and Broad were on, in that they had to stand close enough to catch the soft-handed edges from balls bowled at eighty miles an hour, but then Anderson or Broad would occasionally send one down in the mid-eighties that bounced and then flew at Bairstow, threatening his chin.

Then when Woakes came on the slips didn't really seem to move back, even though he was noticably quicker. Buttler dropped a couple, one from Hardik Pandya that he went for like a wicketkeeper, hands cupped and trying to ride the bounce, and missed completely. Woakes didn't look too happy and gestured at Buttler to catch Australian style, with his fingers pointed up. Pandya nicked the next one too and this time Buttler did catch it, so, much like Pujara and Kohli, he and Woakes could be friends again.

It was that sort of day for India. They were on the wrong side of everything from the toss to the weather breaks. I suppose as a professional you get used to that happening occasionally. Everything seemed fated, and, like the rule that says work expands to fill the time allocated to it, so India's innings fitted perfectly inside the final session, with only the remarkable, redoubtable, spider-like Ashwin really resisting Woakes, with his bruiser's run-up and boxer's rhythm, and Anderson, who flitted around like Roger Federer and sent the ball swimming through the claggy air, its rough side resisting the path the smooth side wanted to cleave.

107 all out at nineteen minutes past seven. Cricket in England in the raw, in the flesh.



Sunday, 5 August 2018

First Test Notes: Virat Breaks Bad; Root-mathing Rooty's Fifties; Worst Shot Award

In Breaking Bad Season Three, Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin of New Mexico, is almost exactly halfway through his transformation "from Mr Chips to Scarface". Walt has already, with varying degrees of willingness, killed several people, but now he is dealing with the genuine article, his dead-eyed boss in the crystal business, Gustavo Fring. Fring has manipulated the near fatal shooting of Walt's brother in law, the swaggering DEA agent Hank Schrader, and in doing so, steered the assassins away from Walt himself.

For Walter it's a revelatory moment. Not only does he puzzle out the "much deeper game" that Fring has designed, he admits - both to Fring and, implicitly, to himself - that "I would have done the same..." Less than a year later, he organises Gus Fring's murder.

Walter loves chemistry because chemistry is "the study of change". It's the metaphor for the show's five seasons, as Walt, in the words of his partner Jesse Pinkman, "breaks bad". Yet it becomes apparent, as Walt meets his fate, that change is also about accepting your true nature. Walt did what he did, he confesses at the end, "because I liked it..."

Okay, it's a writerly leap from Breaking Bad to Test match cricket, from Walter White to Virat Kohli. But what is Kohli if not a man who has embraced his true nature as India's alpha-dog player and the game's latest supernova, a man for whom batting is absolutely the study of change.

Sam Curran many have been the man of the match at Edgbaston, but the award fooled no-one. This Test match revolved around the powerful gravity of Kohli's star. By the game's third evening, England's players were openly admitting the obvious: that the result was intimately bound up with Virat's fate. Graham Gooch's 154 of England's 252 at Headingley in 1991 has been called Test cricket's greatest innings. Kohli's 149 of India's 274 walked in the foothills of such mastery. At Headingley the next best score was Mark Ramprakash's 27; at Edgbaston, it was Dhawan's 26.

Much has changed since 2014, and you can read about Kohli's transformation anywhere. He will talk happily about the small technical changes, tiny shifts of back foot and hip position, that have allowed him to do his thing. What is more impressive and more important is the act of will that has accompanied it. Kohli changed because he wanted to, because it is his nature, because he likes it.

He has evolved a preternatural, majestically orthodox style of batting that works in every format: all he does as he swaps between them is alter the tempo, retune himself to different frequencies. It is pure and beautiful. He is 29 years old and has 57 international hundreds. Only Kallis, Sangakkara, Ponting and Tendulkar have more, and all of them played over 500 games. Kohli has played 340.

More than this, Kohli's desire to fulfil himself and to leave his mark on history is important politically. India and the BCCI's commitment to Test cricket must match his - Kohli demands it, and the whole game benefits. He lifts us up.

Root-mathing Rooty's fifties

After Joe Root's first-innings run out, Jonathan Liew tweeted: 'You hear lots about Root's (very poor) conversion rate from 50 to 100, but very little about his conversion rate from 0 to 50, which is insane. It's 43%, which is the highest of any batsman since Bradman'.

It kicked off the old debate about whether it's better to have a champion player who scores fifty all the time, or one who scores 100 and then nought but averages fifty.

Since his last century, against West Indies in August 2017, Root has played twelve Tests, batted 21 times and made eleven scores of fifty-plus. Of those twelve Tests, England have lost seven and drawn two. All three victories have been at home, against West Indies (in a series win), Pakistan (draw) and India.

England players have made hundreds in some of those games: Stokes against West Indies at Leeds (lost); Malan and Bairstow against Australia in Perth (lost); Cook against Australia in Melbourne (drawn) and Bairstow against New Zealand in Christchurch (drawn), so the argument, when refined, is not just about one batsman making fifties.

The significance of course is that England came up against players that did convert, notably other members of the current Big Four, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Kohli. Steve Smith batted seven times, making three hundreds and two fifties; Williamson batted three times and made one hundred; Kohli has batted twice and made a hundred and a fifty.

It's a (too) small sample size, but it suggests a ruthlessness that shows up in their overall stats. Smith has batted 117 times in Test cricket for 23 hundreds and 22 fifties; Williamson 116 times for 18 and 26; Kohli 114 times for 22 and 17. Root stands at 128 innings, 13 hundreds and 41 fifties.

England are below India, Australia and New Zealand in the Test rankings. The question of which is better, consistency or big scores from players with similar averages and overall output, seems to have an answer - not that Bradman would have been in any doubt...

And the Worst Shot Award goes to...

Has there been a Test match in recent times in which so many good players have got out to such truly terrible shots? Not just the usual nick-offs, hole-outs and brain-fades, the workaday lapses of concentration and moments of fear and panic (of which there were plenty on both sides), but the kind of shots that you would be deeply embarrassed to play yourself.

There was KL Rahul determinedly dragging on a wide half volley second ball having edged his first through the slips. There was Ajinkya Rahane playing the weirdest of half-bat wafts to Ben Stokes - if he was trying to edge it to slip, he couldn't have done so any better; and then there was Stokes himself, essaying a magnificently atrocious, almost indescribable caught and bowled to Ashwin. He looked like an indulgent dad on the beach, contorting his arms to make sure that he directed a wayward tennis ball back at his three-year-old to catch.

Almost as culpable was Joe Root, who lollied Ashwin to leg gully off the face of the bat having just stared at the two (count 'em) fielders placed there, and Johnny Bairstow, following him in, playing the same shot to his first ball...

It was a wonderful Test match, made in part by its participants' fallability.





Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Watching You Watching James Vince

For hardened James Vince watchers, for the jittery acolytes of batting’s fragile beauty, his latest recall to the England team, this time for the final one-dayer against India at Headingley, was very James Vince indeed. He hit his first ball for four (check); went scoreless from the next seven (check); got to a lovely twenty (check); was dismissed in frustrating fashion (check); opinions on both sides were retrenched (check)…

It joined the long list of very James Vince moments: the run-out at Brisbane, the Mitchell Starc miracle delivery, all of the nicks and all of the brain-farts, the recalls when he hadn’t scored any runs, the dropping after he made a double hundred… Each of these states are familiar not just to Vince but to the James Vince watchers. Because James Vince has something about him that comes from deep inside the game: it’s the longstanding trope of the underachiever, the dilettante, the dashing artist cut slightly adrift by attitude and time. Vince, like CB Fry, like Compton, like Dexter, like Gower, is carefree with his talent, playing fast and loose with a gift offered to the few – that precious extra heartbeat in which to see the ball and play it.

It’s not true of course. A state like that could only exist if we were able to inhabit the minds of each of these players and know what they were thinking and feeling, instead of just how they looked. David Gower, for example, said: “When people came to me and went, ‘You are not trying’, I said, ‘Honestly, I am’.”

In the age of ultra-professionalism, of seed-based diets and marginal gains, such ambiguity shrouds James Vince, refracting him in a harsher light. His grace at the crease can be overpowering for the watchers. Words trail along behind him, stripped of their power; they lumber after his cover drive like defeated fielders to a distant and shimmering boundary at which the ball has already arrived. He glitters with a promise that his stats call fool’s gold.

Jonathan Rendall once wrote a newspaper column about a colleague of his who looked like Richard Gere. At first it didn’t matter because Gere wasn’t famous, but as he became a star, it had a knock-on effect for the man who looked like Richard Gere. His life changed too. Women became available to him. He began to live in a certain way. He missed a business trip because he spent the entire time in a tryst with a girl he’d met at the airport. He lost his job, his marriage broke up, his house was repossessed. Looking like Richard Gere ruined his life.

The story was about the power of appearances, how they could shape lives one way or another. Behavioural psychologists will talk about anchoring and heuristics, but what it comes down to is that it’s fundamentally human to appreciate something beautiful, to have it stir up emotions, sometimes inchoate. It applies in sport as much as in art. Professional footballers were in no doubt about who the better player of Paul Scholes and David Beckham was, yet their careers and lives were dictated in part by their appearance. Gower and Graham Gooch were the classic English cricketing juxtaposition, wafter versus grafter. How much of this perception came about because of the way they looked when they batted? Who can know, but there is something deep-lying in our judgement of such things, and it skews the table.

To say that James Vince is a divisive figure understates the case. On Twitter any mention of him is catnip for the outraged, for the un-seduced and for those who think they scratch beyond the superficiality of surface. As I’ve blogged before, he’s cricket’s equivalent of a Rorschach test: what you see in James Vince tells you something about yourself.

Most cricketers fail most of the time. How they deal with that failure may shape and define them. In his introduction to David Frith’s book Silence Of The Heart, Mike Brearley wrote: “cricket more than any other sport helps a person work through the experience of loss by virtue of forcing its participants to come to terms with symbolic deaths on a daily basis.” For James Vince, and for the watchers of James Vince, each of his dismissals comes seeded with its own particular sadness, a sadness for what will not now be seen. For the outraged it’s simply more evidence of what James Vince is not. Either way, that is a very particular burden for a cricketer to carry.

NB: You can also find this post at Wisden.com, along with lots more from the premier independent voice in the game...

TAKE ME THERE NOW...

Friday, 30 March 2018

So you've been publically shamed... By, er, me...

One Saturday afternoon in the long-off winter of 1979, an object of some interest arrived at the Gover Cricket School in Wandsworth. It was the aluminium ComBat, as recently used by Dennis Lillee in the Test match between Australia and England at the SCG: used and then hurled "fully forty yards" across the outfield when the umpires made him swap to a conventional blade after Mike Brearley, the England captain, complained that the ComBat had damaged the ball.

I'd seen the report on the news, Lillee, completing his futuristic cowboy look with a white helmet and perspex face guard (an object itself almost as alien then as a NASA space suit), struck one through mid off and then engaged in some finger-pointing with Brearley and the umpires before underarming the ComBat high into the air and out of view. It was in all of the papers, too, but they said that Lillee wasn't going to be banned or anything like that. The laws of the game didn't specify what a bat should be made of, so why couldn't he use an aluminium one...?

Alf Gover's school was housed in an old industrial shed, and when a ball struck one of the steel crossbeams that supported the roof it was like being inside a great bell. The air itself seemed to vibrate. The ComBat was a deeply strange thing. Aside from its colour and texture, like that of the flat side of a kitchen knife, it was thin even by the standards of the day, and the back had barely any spine, so it looked almost the same on both sides. When it made contact with the ball here in Alf's shed, it sounded unearthly, like one of those effects when cartoon characters hit one another with frying pans.

Reading up on the ComBat this week, the only real censure Lillee faced came from the Wisden Almanack, which Pootered: "The incident served only to blacken Lillee's reputation and damage the image of the game as well as, eventually, the Australian authorities because of their reluctance to take effective disciplinary action." The players realised right away that it was a stunt. The ComBat had been developed by Graham Monaghan, a friend of Lillee's, with the idea that it would be a cheap product for schools and juniors. When Lillee asked the England players to sign the one he'd thrown across the SCG, Brearley wrote "good luck with the sales".

It was an incident from another time, played out at another speed, and it exists now not as a cautionary tale, but as burnishment to Lillee's legend. Brearley was aghast that his carefully shined ball was flattened by the ComBat. Had AB de Villiers gone to the crease with one in Cape Town, he could have saved Cameron Bancroft a job (and Smith, Warner and Lehmann theirs). The Laws have been amended to ensure that bats are made of willow, yet they still mitigate to a degree against reverse swing, a thing of deadly and useful beauty.

Imagine, say, David Warner hurling his Kaboom forty yards across the field because it wouldn't pass through the bat gauge. The thought that he might not be banned is actually an unthinkable one: he'd be more likely to face criminal charges. This is not simply a function of changing mores and morals. It's clear, from the Ben Stokes case and now the Sandpaper Three (or four, if we count Darren Lehmann), that the essential substance of such issues are being affected by the surrounding culture, specifically social media. The shape of them, their actual outcomes, are distorted in and by real-time.

Stokes is not the first cricketer to get involved in a punch up. David Hookes died in one. Botham hit Chappell, Warner hit Root, Ponting copped a black eye in a bar in Sydney, Andrew Symonds had an altercation at a hotel in Brisbane, and so on. The difference with Stokes was that someone filmed the incident on a camera phone. Everything that followed, followed in the light of the footage. Stokes' suspension was inevitable once it was seen on social media. Regardless of whether or not that was the right course of action, it became the only one open. It left a tortured course ahead for everyone, from the CPS, the police and Stokes, who face a Crown Court trial in which some of the evidence will have been publically available for almost a year, to the ECB, with whom it's possible at last to have some sympathy (although their new thing is suing journalists, so you know, fuck them).

At least the Stokes case is now protected by sub judice. Its social media moment has come and gone. The sandpapering in Cape Town may be the Ur manifestation of the near-future. Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publically Shamed brilliantly framed the phenomenon, the dizzying and unstoppable speed at which events unfold online, the weight of comment acting like ballast, moving the story in different ways. It looks at the divorce between the unreal, virtual world, in which everything is permitted, and the real one, where the subjects of the storm, at first unknowing, cocky, secure, are suddenly, bewilderingly, upended and changed by its momentum. It is no longer comment but part of the story itself, integral to its outcome and demanding its price.

Its unpredictability - which event will it latch onto, which will gain no traction; which transgression is insignificant, which is instant fuel - makes it frightening and alien, too.

The best analogy I can think of is that being on Twitter this week was a bit like driving your car. Inside it, you are both part of the world and sealed safely away. You can say anything you like to the other cars and their occupants because it has no effect, or at least it has a false effect: one that makes you feel omnipotent in your tiny, 2015 Vauxhall Corsa. You are never the one doing anything wrong.

I'm a writer. If I don't write, I don't get paid (and when I do write, I don't always get paid much, but that's a different matter). I aim to be as good as I can be, whether it's a 100 word review or 100,000 words of a book. The 140 characters (or 280 or whatever Twitter is now) is seductive. It offers instant feedback, instant satisfaction. Publishers want writers on it and visible. The problem is that it's a fucking timewaster, and it changes the way that you think. In the recent past, when something like ball-tampering happened my first urge would be to blog about it, which demands a certain kind of piece, a particular consideration. I realise now I blog less in part because that sort of thinking takes a bit of time. Twitter's easier, and it kills the urge to write properly. A post here usually gets about a thousand hits. Over 24 hours after Cape Town, my Tweets had 50,000 impressions.

When James Sutherland's first press conference finished, a cricket writer I respect very much sent me a DM that said: "what the fuck was that?" I was thinking exactly the same. The difference was, I Tweeted something like it too. His piece came out later; it was properly weighted, properly judged, and I envied his wisdom in messaging to satisfy that initial urge to say something. 

Mickey Arthur wrote a piece about his time coaching Australia (one that I found out about on Twitter), and he mentioned Homework-gate, which had led to his own public humiliation and sacking. I realised I couldn't even remember what had happened beyond it maybe having something to do with Shane Watson and papers under hotel doors - or perhaps that was something else entirely...

The other effect of these storms is that they pass so quickly it makes their consequences appear unreal, too. I think in the case of Smith and Warner, these twelve months are going to feel prehistoric, monolithic. Real time is slow time, and virtual time moves away from it at the speed of light.

I love Twitter. I met the people I now play cricket with there, which has enriched my life in all sorts of ways. Lots of great things have happened for me because of it. A week dripping in sanctimony hardly needs any more, but there is cause and effect in everything, even being a wise-ass on Twitter. It's not the effect on anyone else, it's the effect on me and the way it makes me think that I don't really feel as sure of any more.

NB: Now I'm off to Twitter to post this link...

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Ramprakash and Hick: onwards down the years...

Thursday 6 June 1991, Headingley. First Test, England v West Indies. The Windies team-sheet is a study in greatness, or at least in grandeur beginning imperceptibly to fade: Simmons, Haynes, Richardson, Hooper, Richards, Logie, Dujon, Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh, Patterson.

England's side has some old stagers with no illusions - Gooch, Lamb, Smith, Russell, Pringle - two established fast bowlers in Defreitas and Malcolm, an opening batsman, Mike Atherton, who has made three centuries in his first thirteen Tests and is already regarded as a future captain, and three debutants blinking softly in the Yorkshire gloaming: Steve Watkin, Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick.

Under rain-streaked skies, Viv Richards wins the toss and bowls. Hick, at three, doesn't have to wait long for his chance. After 22 minutes, Atherton is bowled by Patrick Patterson and he walks out. Few modern players have taken guard in Test cricket for the first time with quite as many runs behind them. In the seven years he has spent qualifying for England, he has made 2,000 runs in a season, a thousand runs in May, been named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year and has a top score of 405 not out for Worcestershire against Somerset, an innings so vast and rare that it was reported on the Nine O'Clock News.

He bats for 51 minutes, hits one boundary and is caught by Dujon from the bowling of Walsh for six, leaving England on 45-3. As Hick walks off, Mark Ramprakash walks out. They pass one another just inside the boundary rope.

Many years later, I had the chance to talk to Mark Ramprakash about that day. While he wasn't carrying quite the expectations that Hick was, he'd made his County Championship debut for Middlesex while still at sixth-form, struck a first class hundred at the age of eighteen and followed it with an innings of 56 in the NatWest final, which won him the man of the match award. Now he was twenty-one years old and playing for England.

What he remembered most was not just the unforgiving brilliance of the West Indies bowling, but how good their fielding was. After a while he'd looked around and thought, 'how am I going to score a run here?' Yet he made 27 of them, the third-highest total in an innings of 198 all out.

His knock was set in further context when England dismissed West Indies for 173, with only Simmons, Richardson and the great Richards, with 73, making double figures. From there the game assumed its real significance. When England batted again, Gooch scored 154 of the team's 252, an innings regarded now and perhaps forever as the best played by an Englishman in Test cricket, and ranked in the top two or three of all time. West Indies were bowled out for 162 and England won by 115 runs, a first home victory over the Windies for twenty-two years. They went on to draw the series 2-2 by winning the last Test at the Oval.

Mark Ramprakash scored 27 in that second innings at Leeds, too, and it would become, eleven years later, his final average. It was one of the strange symmetries that echoed through the careers of he and Graeme Hick: the shared debut, the shared trajectory, the notion of each being, in their way, an enigma. They are, and will probably remain, the last two players to score 100 first-class hundreds, the traditional mark of a kind of batsmanship and a type of career that has now passed. Two others in that Headingley game, Viv Richards and Graham Gooch, immediately precede Hick and Ramprakash on the list. Viv Richards was Ramprakash's batting hero, and each would end their career with 114 hundreds.

In the Ashes series just gone, Hick and Ramprakash opposed one another as batting coaches for Australia and England respectively. Each would have recognised in their line-ups some of the struggles that they endured, in James Vince's ability to get started and then get out, perhaps, or in Shaun Marsh's endless drops and recalls. People often wonder what batting coaches at that level actually do, aside from develop the world's strongest shoulders via the dog-thrower.

Last year, for Wisden Almanack, I spoke to Joe Root about his innings of 254 against Pakistan at Old Trafford. Root felt he'd been playing well going into the game, but remembered that Ramprakash had asked him whether he was 'still in one-day mode' after watching him give it away a little in the defeat at Lord's. Root at first disagreed, but then thought about it some more, and with Ramprakash, made some small but crucial changes to his technique against Pakistan's three left-arm quicks, each of whom bowled quite differently.

The result was that definitive innings, and Root was happy to acknowledge Ramprakash's unobtrusive but key role in it. That's what batting coaches do, although, like everything in cricket, it doesn't always happen and it doesn't always work. Having the knowledge to understand what to say, and the sensitivity of when a player may want to hear it said, are skills that can take a lifetime to develop, especially in the blizzard of noise that surrounds every international performance.

For a long time, I wanted to write a book about Hick and Ramprakash, a kind of double-biography which would begin at the Headingley game and somehow spin outwards to talk about England in the 1990s, and about notions of success and failure and what those twin states actually are. That one's just another on the great pile of 'books' destined not to exist, like Martin Amis' joke in The Information about the novels of its central character Richard Tull: 'Unpublished, then unfinished, then finally, unwritten and unthought of'. But I did get to write a chapter in The Meaning of Cricket, The Descendants, about it and about that day talking to Mark Ramprakash.

The era still feels like an extraordinary time. Joining the quartet of bowlers that Ramprakash, Hick and Atherton squared up to at Headingley would come Wasim and Waqar, Warne, McGrath, Muralitharan, Kumble, Donald, Pollock, Saqlain and many more. With that little lot, plus reverse swing and mystery spin, almost every bowling record would be shattered during a decade that looks, in hindsight, more like a reign of terror. It's easy to imagine Ramprakash and Hick, Nasser and Athers and Graham Thorpe and the rest listening to the discussions about Australia's Ashes attack, wearing the kind of smiles that are always best described as wry...






Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Australia player-by-player; Going at it home and away - final Ashes notes

Steve Smith said that he felt the series turned on Nathan Lyon's run out of James Vince on the first afternoon at Brisbane. The city was unseasonably cool, the Gabba pitch one England would have knelt down in prayer for, low and sluggish and about as typical of Queensland as Julian Assange. Vince was on 83 and cruising like a rich granny, England 143-2, ahead for the first and, as it turned out, last time. Smith was right, Brisbane was England's chance. How fleeting it was, and how suddenly it was gone...

David Warner
(441 runs at 63.00, HS: 103)
The mighty Bull turned righteous Reverend was uncharacteristically mild until the Ashes were won, visibly set on an unlikely (for him) strategy of seeing off Broad and Anderson then to feast upon white underbelly. He saw sense in Melbourne, where he scored 103 of Australia's first 135 runs, the only man to overpower a wicket that demanded players outlast it. It's a mark of Australian dominance that his final mark of 63 was good enough for just fourth place in their averages.

Cameron Bancroft
(179 runs at 25.57, HS: 82*)
Warner's tenth opening partner may soon yield to number eleven, Bancroft's series post-Brisbane both jarring anomoly and a stinging lesson in holed technique. He is only 25 and has time to regroup, while Australia will probably return to the even more youthful Matt Renshaw. Warner may reflect that his one stable partnership has been with Chris Rogers, gentleman of a certain age...

Usman Khawaja
(333 runs at 47.57; HS: 171)
Australia remain equivocal about Khawaja, who rather marvellously doesn't seem to bother himself with such trivia. The main criticism, expressed at length on commentary by Michael Slater, was that he didn't "give off enough energy" at the crease, whatever that means. It's nonsensical of course, as useful a piece of advice as when Ian Bell was urged (and tried) to "impose himself" on the opposition. Yes, someone who glares and re-fastens his gloves like Warner, or struts to square leg like Smith, is going to look more engaged than Khawaja, who is soft of frame and gently round-shouldered. But he gutsed out fifty in Perth and then unfurled majestically in Sydney, where his timing outshone his captain's.

Steve Smith
(687 runs at 137.40, HS: 239)
Let's not talk more about the Bradmanesque technique and what it may mean, and instead consider Smith's cricketing intelligence. He read the game like a great Shakespearian actor reads the Bard, with an innate feel for how it should be expressed. It may be a flowery analogy, but how else to explain the way Smith produced his fastest hundred and his slowest, how he altered his stance and his grip and the shots that he chose? He inhaled the game and breathed out pure cricket, and by the end had batted so long it had driven him slightly mad. His final hour at the crease became eccentric even by his standards; he lost some timing and scooped a nothing catch to Moeen with an historic fourth hundred a few runs away. Captains engage in a Yin and Yang struggle in long series. Smith already had the advantage in firepower when he was handed a cache of free ammo in the Bairstow 'headbutt' and Duckett pint fiasco. From then on, he simply had to smirk at Root to let him know the score.

Shaun Marsh
(445 runs at 74.16, HS: 156)
Sometimes the gods laugh... At 34, Marsh was a kind of Australian Graeme Hick, dropped and recalled so often even he couldn't remember how many times it had happened. Yet he arrived in form, his first ball hit the middle of the bat and at last the world was his. The story goes that Mark Waugh had liked Marsh since 2003, when Marsh brought up his maiden first class ton by hitting Waugh for consecutive sixes in a State game. Whatever the reason, the selectors got this, and a couple of other borderline choices, exactly right. In the Aussie rooms their batting coach, one Graeme Hick Esq, might have permitted himself a smile.

Mitchell Marsh
(320 runs at 106.66, HS: 181)
There's nothing like a bit of brotherly oneupmanship to stir the familial blood. Their mid-pitch celebration at Sydney when Mitch joined Shaun with a second hundred of the series was funny and touching, but you can be sure there was some grit in the pearl - little brothers fight hard not to be outdone. There was a weird familiarity to Marsh's uncomplicated batting - the cut, the pull, the beefy biff down the ground - and then it dawned: he's not unlike a prime-era Flintoff in approach.

Tim Paine
(192 runs at 48.00, HS: 57)
Great teams - very good teams even - feel solid; they have a kind of inevitability to them, with all questions answered. Tim Paine seemed so far away from being a part of it, and yet after the bolshy Wade, he was the perfect fit. Beyond an early drop, his glovework was smooth and his batting there if needed; a question answered so well it seems strange it was ever asked.

Pat Cummins
(23 wickets at 24.65, BB: 4/39; 166 runs at 41.50, HS: 44)
Unlike England, who turned up with two ageing thoroughbreds, a couple of punts and half a spinner, Australia had planned for eighteen months to get Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood on the field together. It was more difficult than it sounds - Cummins' five Test appearances prior to Brisbane had occupied six years, his first made in November 2011 and his second in March 2017. Still not 25, only now could Cummins' body withstand the rigour he put it through as a strongarm enforcer from brutal lengths.  

Mitchell Starc
(22 wickets at 23.54, BB: 5/88)
Starc is almost two bowlers in one, such are the difference in angles when he goes over and around the wicket, and England really didn't need two Mitchell Starcs bowling at them... Full or short, it was that bone-chilling speed, the sort that has its effects on the central nervous system. The plan to destroy England's tail, which, when Stokes was in the side and Moeen batted at eight, brought so many runs, was lethally executed.

Nathan Lyon
(21 wickets at 29.13, BB: 4/60)
The least likely member of either side to be involved in a Daily Mail kiss-and-tell nonetheless pulled that feat off, the continuation of his equally unlikely but increasingly substantial career. It's not usual for a man with almost 300 Test wickets to have a semi-ironic nickname, but the GOAT continues to feed, especially on left-handers, and it was his run-out of Vince in Brisbane, and his first spell there, which edged Australia into the series. England's lefties need more solid plans for two years' time, because Lyon, Australia's unlikely lothario champ, will still be there...

Josh Hazlewood
(21 wickets at 25.90, BB: 5/48)
So evenly were Australia's wickets shared that Hazlewood took one of just two five-fers from the 89 that they knocked over. He is the least flashy of the pace trio, and in a way the Ur version of the player England want to produce: someone that bowls 90mph at the top of off stump, and stays fit while they do it. Hazelwood sent down some compelling, tireless spells, particularly in Brisbane and Perth, and his moustache remains the only truly indefensible thing about him.

Home and away with the neighbours...

Cricket Australia's sale of rights to BT Sport has resulted in a predictable car-crash for viewing figures. The series was essentially invisible in one of the competing nations. Numbers for the Perth Test, Andy Bull reported for the Guardian, were 82,000 per day. For Melbourne it's possible there were more people in the ground than watching on British TV.

With the announcement that "there will be no specific review" of England's performance from the ECB (compare and contrast to the internecene blood-letting of last time) it seems that the Ashes 2017/8 will be quietly swept under the carpet, least heard, soonest mended.

It is becoming a contest divided between home and away, still subject to the great anachronistic timescales of the era in which it was invented. A more stable proposition, and a more competitive one, may be to play a six-match series across both countries, three in England ending in September, three in Australia beginning in November, once every two years. In the event of a tied series, an away win would count double. Alternatively, there could be four Tests in England, three in Australia, and then vice versa.

Any sport - indeed almost anything - needs to accelerate to match the speed of the culture it lives in. The era of five Tests once every four years in each country is creaking unsteadily towards its end.