Sunday 29 May 2011

Meet the new boss, not quite the same as the old boss

There is an underbelly to the county championship. For all of its romantic evocations of the turning of England's seasons, it has been a place where men's dreams have died, where their image of themselves has been reshaped, where thwarted ambition has blackened. It has its dark side.

In that regard it always has its symbols, its totems, too. For a decade, it was Barry Richards at Hampshire, a man whose talent engaged in a long and sometimes futile battle with his ennui. There was the brooding, brutal presence of Sylvester Clarke at the Oval, a putative king in exile. Mike Proctor at Gloucester wheeled in endlessly in lieu of having anyplace else to do it. There were others too, and all were players who found it a place of last resort.

For Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash it was something different, a way of slaking a thirst perhaps. For seasons now, Ramprakash has been its premier player. It has probably been a long time since May has come and gone without a hundred from him in the books, but he is over 40 now and what could once be summoned at will doesn't arrive so easily now. It could be his final year.

So who will succeed him? The answer is simple: it can only be Marcus Trescothick. The vagaries of the modern calendar have denied him a thousand runs by the end of May. He has piled up 978 already. His exile to county cricket is of a different sort, and he'll be a different kind of king. There is still a sense of what might have been about him, but he wears it more lightly. The competition needs someone like him at the top as its symbol of excellence. While he's there, as with Ramps, it's in safe hands.

Friday 20 May 2011

Facing 'Warne' - one last time for Shane

Warnie bowls his final four overs today. The eulogies have already been written, so no need for another. Instead, here's what it was like to face him, or at least to face Merlyn, the bowling machine which was programmed to replicate him. England used Merlyn in 2005. This happened a year later down in Wales, in a sports hall, with Merlyn's creator, Henry Pryor, and his son, Matt at the controls...

Facing Warne

[With apologies to those who slogged through it when it first went up].

Thursday 19 May 2011

Tavare: the legend lives

There are some names that, as a young cricketer, you do not want. They are usually familial. The surnames of Botham and Richards were hard to climb out from under for Liam and Mali, because they stand not just for cricketers of note, but for something bigger: a way of playing the game.

Imagine then, that you are William Tavare, who made his highest first class score yesterday for Loughborough MCCU against Kent, a very respectable 53 out of 127 all out. Because as surely as Botham, Richards or Lara are names that come freighted with meaning, then so does Tavare. William is the nephew of perhaps the most extraordinary batsman to appear for England in the last 30 years, the motionless phenomenon that was CJ Tavare.

No-one who saw Chris Tavare bat will forget it in a hurry, even after therapy. If David Steele was the bank clerk who went to war, Tavare was the schoolteacher who took arms. Tall, angular and splayfooted, a thin moustache sketched on his top lip, he would walk to the crease like a stork approaching a watering hole full of crocs. Once there though, he began not to bat but to set, concrete drying under the sun. His principal movement was between the stumps and square leg, to where he would walk, gingerly, after every ball. If John Le Measurier had played Test cricket, he would have played it like Chris Tavare.

Tavare's feats remain the stuff of legend. His five and half hour fifty against Pakistan in 1982 was the second slowest half-century in the history of the game, and yet even that paled in comparison to the six and a half hour 35 against India in Madras the following winter. In a team that contained Botham, Gatting, Lamb and Gower, Tavare truly stood out. The mighty ballast which he provided against the Australians in '81 played a part in that famous win, albeit a part that never quite makes the highlights reels.

Like a lot of slow players, stories abounded that Tavare was a wolf in sheep's clothing, capable of pillaging county attacks on quiet Canterbury afternoons. If it happened, no-one remembers it now.

And so into a game that Tavare - now rather marvellously a biology teacher - would not recognise steps William. He got his fifty yesterday at a decent rate in the circumstances, but even if he turns out to be the next Chris Gayle, the Tavare name will plod after him - gently, and from a distance of course. Good luck, my friend.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Ramps: More Die Of Heartbreak

There's a nice piece with Mark Ramprakash in the new All Out Cricket. It's a simple idea: he was asked for 10 definitive moments from his career, and the results are short but sweet, or rather bittersweet, as things with Ramps usually are.

His final choice is his hundredth hundred, in 2008 against Yorkshire. 'There was a Test match on at the time and we were batting out a draw, so it was pretty low-key,' he says. 'Having said that, I was captain, Goughie was captain of Yorkshire and my parents came to watch, which was nice in terms of emotion. I'm in no way complacent about the achievement; I'm chuffed to bits and incredibly grateful to have had a long career but I know that only two of those hundreds are Test hundreds. When you look at the other players on that list, they're all great international players so my emotions relating to this achievement are qualified'.

He catches, in that brief paragraph, almost everything that make make him the figure that he is, the brooding symbol of an era. How much remorse echoes behind the words 'there was a Test match on at the time' - with its unspoken implication that he wasn't playing in it. Then the achknowlegement of a small group of people present who'd grasp exactly what he was feeling.

There's a tremendous wistfulness to his ambivalence, and it's gently heartbreaking that he doesn't feel worthy of his place on the list. He is. There may be only two Test hundreds, but they were high-quality ones, and there are few bowlers in the game that he hasn't bested sometime, somewhere. To put the achievement in context, Andrew Strauss made a hundred against Sri Lanka at the weekend. It was the 36th of his career. Ramprakash has been a phenomenon, and the rest is just life and its way.

NB: He also tells a good story about Dominic Cork selling him a bat for fifty quid. He got almost two thousand runs in a season with it. Corky's probably still got the fifty sheets, too...

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Cool Chris and Bad Bas

An average of 99 - there's only one adjective for that, isn't there? But Bradman-esque is never going to work for Chris Gayle. The Don wouldn't have sat at home watching him cream 39 off an over and said, 'yes, of all modern players, Chris Gayle is the one who reminds me most of myself,' not least because he probably wouldn't have liked the idea of the IPL very much.

But there is an adjective that fits for Chris, and it's Richards-esque - not Viv, but Barry. When Bad Bas was in his pomp, his aptitude for casual, off the cuff carnage was the equivalent of Gayle's. He made 325 in a day, for example, against a West Australia attack that featured DK Lillee, and a former-pro once told me the story of a bowler who displeased the great man by dismissing him in front of his parents, who had flown in to watch him bat. Richards told him in words of few syllables that he would be humiliating him in the second innings, and he did, almost cruelly. Richards was perceived, much like Gayle, as a mercenary who turned it on when he felt like it.

And Richards, like Gayle, possessed another, less definable quality, in that there was something extra about the way he struck the ball. In Richards' case, it was the way the ball seemed to gather pace as it went towards the boundary, or how it hung in the air as it cleared it. Gayle too has this. Lots of players hit the ball hard and a long way, but not like he does. Virat Kohli said today that he had 'the best and most dangerous' seat in the house to watch him. Dilshan admitted he was scared by the power with which Gayle strikes it.

Richards was better than Gayle, so Chris can be pleased with his adjective. Richards-esque it is. Famously, Bad Bas once turned his bat sideways during an exhibition match and made fifty using the edge in the days when the edge was the width of a slim volume of poetry. With the edge on Chris Gayle's bat he'd have made a double hundred.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Accidental heroes

Well, you leave the country for a couple of days* and come back to three new captains. Well, that's the line in the paper away, although one of them doesn't look that new to me. New to not having two jobs, I suppose.

So, at risk of banging on about old news, here's something about the situation that doesn't seem to have been analysed to death: it's the only obvious response to the future that is rushing towards us. It may have been a decision forced by circumstance, but it is one that acknowledges the increasing improbability of one captain being able to fulfill the role format-in, format-out, year-in, year-out without becoming a basket case after a few seasons.

England, Australia, South Africa and India in particular will never, while it's commercially viable, get that reduction of the calendar that the players talk about all year round [except when the IPL is on]. The sensible response for nations with the money and resources to do so is to develop their Test, 50-over and T20 teams as separate units with some interchangable components.

Most of the arguments here seem to have been about the components rather than the structure. That structure appears to be the only logical one in the face of the remorseless, relentless international game.

* In France. How can somewhere so close be so utterly cricket-free? They've not even heard of it.

Sunday 1 May 2011

D is for Danny

It's perfectly apparent that Danny Morrison is not all there. Or maybe he is all there, but there's just not a lot of it there in the first place. Either way, listening to him commentate on the IPL is like sitting next to the harmless fellow in the mad clobber on the bus as he tells you something you already know. It's slightly embarrassing and you kind of wish he'd stop, but it's nothing terminal.

Some people - men, mostly - exist quite happily without any kind of critical faculty. Everything they like is just great. I know a guy who is a fan of heavy metal [nothing wrong with that, I'm partial to a bit myself, especially just before batting...]. He has thousands of records and he likes all of them. He likes some more than others, but there aren't any that he doesn't like. You can mention any one of them, and he'll tell you it's great, because he likes heavy metal.

Danny Morrison likes the IPL. There aren't any bits of it that he doesn't like. He likes the way he can turn a company name into a verb ['He's DLF-ed him']; he likes shouting stuff like 'A is for Awesome' at the top of his voice; he likes it when anyone does anything on the field or in the crowd. He likes the sponsors, he likes the players, he likes the money, he likes the outfits.

It's inane and annoying but it's not cynical, or at least not as cynical as some people think. He's just, you know, one of those blokes...

Lathers, still going...

Further to the post below, good to hear from Brian Carpenter that Mark Lathwell is still playing, for Braunton CC in Devon.

And hopefully he still has one of these, too.