Thursday, 7 December 2017

The seduction of James Vince, and fear of the dark: more Ashes notes

James Vince is one for the dreamers. He's like a batting version of a Rorschach Test: look at him and tell us what you see... Shimmering possibilities... an indistinct waster...

There was a moment during the Adelaide Test, Vince's first delivery of the first innings, facing Mitchell Starc. England were 29-1. Starc had detonated Mark Stoneman with the final delivery of his fourth over, and then Cook played out a maiden from Hazlewood, leaving Vince on strike. Pumped, Starc went full and very fast, 90mph+ with a small amount of tail at the off stump. Vince played it remarkably: easing forward, knee bent, somehow dropping the face of an angled bat onto the ball.

Confronted with that, most players would have been happy to jam the toe down over a reflexively stiff front leg. Vince had the one thing that separates real batsmen from the rest: time. It's the most precious of commodities, and it was easy, in that moment, to see what the selectors saw, to understand the punt they had taken on him.

He blew it in Adelaide, as he has so often before. Blew it because he 'gave it away', blew it because he played the wrong shots, blew it because he's not a conspicuous tryer like Stoneman or Malan, honest toilers who visibly sweat out their twenties and their thirties. At the heart of that is an acknowledgement of his talent. Social media splatters pixellated venom every time he's out. There seem to be a great number of people who are personally offended that he's in the team.

Vince has made England's only half-decent score of the tour. Along with Root, he has looked like the  top-order player who is capable not just of surviving for a while, but of taking the game from Australia. A player that makes 100, 0, 0 and 0 will win more games of Test cricket than one that makes 45, 24, 56 and 17, although his life may be more precarious. Vince's innings in Brisbane, and Root's second in Adelaide, were the two moments of English control with the bat.

He is a shot to nothing for the selectors, too. There were no outstanding candidates to bat at three, and Root doesn't want to. A poor tour could have set back a next-gen player like Haseeb Hameed or Dan Lawrence by years. If Vince succeeds then it's a bonus. If he fails, he can be jettisoned permanently at no cost, like Michael Carberry. He has been indulged less than Gary Ballance.

Beyond those arguments, players in Vince's mould strike at something fundamental about the game - its capacity for aesthetic pleasure, for beauty, for demonstrating something rare. What infuriates about him isn't just the manner of his failure, it's the possibility of his success. "It's not how, it's how many," goes the old saying. That's only partly true. If the game was stripped of artistry, it would be fatally diminished.

James Vince is a very, very long way from David Gower, but his batting has the same languid charm, and the same ability to make the watcher want to rent out their spleen in frustration. He needs to score some runs, but so do the rest.

And after all, the point of a Rorschach Test is that it tells you about yourself...

Fear of the dark

Like Amsterdam, vampires and Iron Maiden's trousers, Test cricket changes by night. I don't remember uncovered pitches, but do remember them being spoken of in hushed tones, the game's deus ex machina, random destroyers of the status quo.

Rain, in the days before weather apps, was predictable only by an old pro gazing over the stand at some distant hills, or the umpire's gammy leg starting to twitch. Night, on the other hand, is as inevitable as death and taxes. Never before has cricket been confronted with such certainty and regularity of change, and it was interesting to see how much it affects decision-making.

Root's choice to bowl seems logical. Yet as day-night cricket develops, maybe the reverse will apply. Given that both sides will - in almost all cases - have to bat through night sessions at some point, the most desirable outcome must be to have two well-set batsmen when that session starts. Batting first may be the best chance of that.

England's long summer twilights mitigate against it working here, but day-night Tests have already offered a new dimension. Will the first 'night specialist' batsman be that far away?

1 comment:

growltiger said...

Two completely unrelated topics in one note, but perhaps a comment on two topics is the logical consequence?

Vince is infuriating because, as you say, he appears to have the capacity to be so much better. He has time to play the ball and some nice strokes too. But he does seem incapable of deciding consistently when to play those strokes, and he gets himself drawn into doing things that offend aesthetically as well as appearing to lack fibre. What separates him from Gower is not only his inability to leave, but that fatal commitment to playing a stroke that will be ugly when replayed in slow motion. He nicks to slip because, in those moments of tempation, and absence of mind, he plays across the line. It doesn't take a great ball to beat him. It doesn't seem all that likely that he will be the player who averages even 30 by compensating for strings of ducks by making the occasional match-winning hundred. His problem is that his average is 15, his modal score is about 19, and he always gets out in the same way (and it is his way of getting out that is etched on the eyeballs of those who have stayed up to watch him bat).

On night-time cricket, unlike Vince, there is not yet enough data to be sure what is going on. However, it appears that there is a prime time to bowl, and the period of bright sunshine that follows the toss is not it. If England had batted in this match and got bowled out for 200 by dinner, they would have been able to bowl in the cool of the evening on the first day, not the third. The balance of the match could have been entirely different, even with equally dire batting. One suspects that Root made his decision knowing this, deep down, but drawing the wrong conclusion from his belief that his team would not manage to bat until dinner on day two. He cannot possibly have thought that putting them in straight away was giving his bowlers the best chance. (I am giving him more rope, so didn't write "Even he...." but this feels as if it is not far in the future).

At bottom, Test cricket is a game played in the mind, and that is why we abhor mindlessness in captains, as well as absence of mind in batsmen. Style is important in both, but doesn't compensate.