Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Seventh Annual OB Innings Of The Year Award: Put Out Your Bats

At the start of the English season in 2009 a magazine asked me to go down to Lord's, where Middlesex were having a press day. It was one of those steel-cold April afternoons when the fingers go numb and Summer seems like a distant land. The Lord's Tavern bar was full, not because the papers had undergone a damascene conversion to County Championship coverage over the winter, but because it was an Ashes year and Angus Fraser had put Andrew Strauss up for interview.

Gus lurked like Eeyore as Strauss produced a straight bat to a couple of polite enquiries about Middlesex before spending the next half an hour or so discussing England's chances, but like the wily old press man he once was, Fraser had a rabbit to pull from the hat. As Straussy departed with the air of someone who understood that the phoney war had only just begun, Gus brought in Middlesex's new overseas signing, fresh off the plane and swaddled so deep in his tracksuit it was hard to see if there was someone actually under it.

This was Phillip Hughes, Australia's new Boy Wonder who, between signing his short-term deal with Middlesex and arriving in England, had gone to South Africa to open the batting for his country and laid waste to to the most feared bowling attack on earth. The memory of the two carved sixes with which he had gone to his debut hundred in Durban was still new, as was his Bradman-esque backstory.

The Macksville banana farm must have seemed like a long way away. He'd probably never been anywhere this cold. What struck me immediately was how small he was - this was the guy carting Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel for boundary after boundary? - and how self-possessed. For a man whose life had become some sort of whirlwind, he was appeared unfazed by any of this. No-one's future appeared more certain than his.

In the cold early summer Hughes piled up the runs for Middlesex just as he had done for every other team he'd ever played for, and it still seems remarkable to me that Australia dropped him so quickly once the Ashes series began. It was both a measure of their own uncertainty as their greats faded away and also of cricketing orthodoxy. Hughes' technique, much discussed even then, struck a nerve in a way that other unconventional players did not, mostly because he often stayed legside of the short ball. This is something that goes deep in the psyche of batsmanship.*

How fleeting and sad life can be. The certainties of that day in 2009 seem both a long, long time ago, and like yesterday. The rawness of emotions in the weeks that followed his death were all the more moving for the pure, unmediated way in which they came, and were captured perfectly by everyone from Australia's estimable captain and players to the PutOutYourBats hashtag and images. It seemed to lift the game itself to new heights.

This is the seventh annual Innings Of The Year blog, an obscure, daft, unimportant and wholly arbitrary award that goes to a knock that I've seen either on TV, via a patchy, probably illegal stream or live. It's even more meaningless in the light of the above, but that does not diminish the great innings played soon after Phillip Hughes died, and it's clear that 2014 divides not into Northern and Southern summers, but into the days before November and those afterwards.

Hughes' own 63 at the SCG stands apart, and no-one will play a more courageous innings than Jason Hughes, Phillip's brother, who made 63 himself when he came back to play for Mosman in Sydney Grade cricket.

As Test cricket returned, it was as if grief had only one true expression, one currency - runs, and in particular centuries. Brendon McCullum began the deluge against Pakistan with a 188-ball 202 that glowed with anguish and anger, his granite, Desperate Dan jaw clenched tight against the world as he did it.

Then came the Australians, first David Warner (145), who had accompanied Phil Hughes from the field for the final time, and then Michael Clarke (128), who carried the great weight of office as captain so nobly during the days that followed, and then Steve Smith (162*), a player whose own unorthodoxy was becoming something new and different. That they all felt inevitable, somehow foretold, is their greatest tribute.

The match at Adelaide will always stand apart, yet the series it began crackles with rivalry and glory. Steve Smith has undergone a KP-style transformation from low-order spinner to shredder of bowlers - his 192 in Melbourne was studded with offbeat checked drives and that lethal back-foot flail through point. There has been much talk of Che Pujara as the new Dravid, but India's real rock in the uncertain waters of overseas Test cricket has been Murali Vijay. His big hundred at Trent Bridge and then a 93 at Lord's were among the most skilful new-ball innings of the year, and his ability to withstand Anderson and Broad and then Johnson and Harris while accompanied by the far flakier Shikar Dhawan at the other end was a deeply impressive exhibition of heart and technique.

The departure from Tests of MS Dhoni further emphasised the way that batting now has its new era; the apparently ageless Kallis and Hussey play on in the Big Bash, but the giants of the recent past have gone. Virat Kohli spearheads the new. I'd predicted a big series for him in England which shows what I know, but while he floundered here, he achieved something England's young blades could not, and that was to take on Mitchell Johnson in Australia. Some of the passages of play during his 163 at the MCG were the best mano-a-mano duel since Steyn-Tendulkar, and his twin hundreds in Adelaide, the second of which took India tantalisingly close in an epic, thrilling chase, were the purest expression of batting that you could wish to see.  His oppo Ajinkya Rahane produced a century at Lord's on a first day greentop, where he came in at 86-3, that was the equal of his 147 at Melbourne. That is the natural steel of a real player.

England had a benighted year, the year of 'outside cricket' and Paul Downton, of the Ashes wreckage and the Big Three. Their new Test batting side is not yet anything other than workaday, symbolised by Joe Root, into whom they appear to be investing much. Sans KP, there is precious little to truly excite, the exceptions being Jos Buttler, whose one-day century against Sri Lanka at Lord's showed that he at least has his head and hands in the future, and Moeen Ali.

Moeen has been an utter joy, whether it was the debut Test ton at Leeds against Sri Lanka, in which his judgement of line was so magnificent, or the sudden electric charge he brought to opening in the ODI series in Sri Lanka. The English psyche still needs to catch up with Moeen. When he made 119, 2, 58, 19, 2, 34 and 0 in Sri Lanka, there was doubt over the failures rather than acceptance of them as the price of success.

Yet there is an obvious dynamism beneath the surface. On a lovely late summer's day at the Ageas Bowl, I saw Sam Billings make 80-odd for Kent against Hampshire. With the bright, gimlet eye of a young man, he stood out of his crease to the Hampshire seamers, walking towards their shorter deliveries and swatting them aside. The crack that eminated from the vast blade in his hands was something to behold. Of the domestic T20 year, the lethal hands of Jason Roy impressed, as did the bull-chested Aaron Finch, who hit a memorably brutal 88 for Yorkshire in the derby with Lancashire just before he jumped on a plane home.

One giant of the last era stood tall. England were in trouble from the moment Kumar Sangakkara decided to fly into Durham in what appeared to be the middle of winter and got a duck on a greentop in his first innings, wearing so many sweaters he probably couldn't move his arms. He proceded to put on an exhibition in which Test batting was reduced to something utterly simple - keep out the good balls, hit the bad ones. It was done so easily it just had to be genius at work. Accompanied by Angelo Matthews' 102 at Lord's and 160 at Headingley, Sri Lanka thoroughly deserved their series win.

As Kumar eases towards retirement (I'm still not sure what formats he is and isn't still playing at the moment), the world's most rounded batsman remains the sublime AB de Villiers, who is supreme in any game of any length. Mitchell Johnson was still an adrenalised, moustachioed post-Ashes monster when he went to South Africa last February and blew almost everyone but AB away. The 91 at Centurion from a team total of 206 was of the very highest class: I thought it was even better than the 116 in the next game in PE. This month, he and Hashim Amla made huge hundreds against West Indies - that contest seemed unfair by comparison. A mention too for the great Younis Khan, whose tons in Dubai and Abu Dhabi I didn't see, but can imagine. 

I'm still not sure what to make of Rohit Sharma's 264 in an ODI against Sri Lanka, or really what to make of Rohit Sharma. It was an innings that showed how the game itself is adjusting to new mental boundaries - all things are possible. Sharma is perhaps symbolic of the flipside of Indian batting, that brittle part that requires everything in its favour, yet when it is, remains remarkable.

So to the envelope, and the award. The very first installment of this dubious prize, back in 2008, went to Brendon McCullum and his futuristic 158 that launched the IPL. For a long time it looked as though that kind of knock, as deeply thrilling and transformative as it was, was all that McCullum had in his locker. How he has grown. He's my batsman of 2014, a year that began with a bleary-eyed viewing of his his 224 in Auckland against India, followed a week later by 302 at the Basin Reserve, a landmark moment for New Zealand cricket.

Like Sehwag, McCullum has a philosophy that he has distilled to a single sentence: "I'm coming anyway", a line that refers to his approach to charging the bowling but that serves as a general statement of intent. The 302 occupied 775 minutes and 559 deliveries. He then went 10 innings without scoring more than 45 before that 202 in Sharjah and then the astonishing 134-ball 195 at the glorious Hagley Oval last week. Now that's showbiz.

And so the innings of the year... Well let's leave that one open. It's both impossible and wrong to try and judge or rank those innings played in the wake of Phillip Hughes' death. Only the players themselves know what they took and what they cost. They stand proudly and together.

Put Out Your Bats.

* This isn't the place for the discussion, but I have blogged before on Phil Hughes and his technique.

NB: All good wishes to the man that Brendon McCullum overtook as New Zealand's highest scorer, the great Martin Crowe, who has double-hit lymphoma, and who writes almost as well as he bats.

NNB: Previous editions of the Innings Of the Year: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013