Saturday 31 December 2011

The Fourth Annual OB Innings Of The Year

On a dank Chelmsford night back in July, Owais Shah played the shot of the season. Under lights, from the bowling of Charl Langeveld, he picked up his bat, pushed forward and sent an 85mph outswinger over the field, over the boundary, over the stand and out of the ground. It was a shot that was emblematic of the game in 2011, the forward defensive push supercharged by technology and ambition into something extraordinary. It was a shot that said this: anything is possible.

Shah's little masterpiece sat above all of the blasts, flips, scoops, glides and switch-hits; it was simple and beautiful in its way. Batsmanship, though, is more complex than ever, what with its extended repertoire and its multiple formats, with all of its choice. Selecting a single innings that somehow represents the year, or at least more than just the match it was played in, is the task at hand, and as with the three previous editions of this entirely arbitrary and little-known award [2008, 2009 and 2010 here] the criteria for the shimmering gong are as ever: an innings that I've seen, either in the flesh, on the box or down that handy ask-no-questions live stream via India, that upholds the principal that a great knock somehow transcends the numbers in the book. The winner need not trouble themselves with the rented tux and trip to the sponsored green room, because there isn't one: honour is all. And with that, the envelope please...

Jacques Kallis began the year with a hundred in each innings, and ended it with a pair - that's the batsman's life right there in miniature. The second of those tons, compiled in the great tradition of the walking wounded, was a feat of technical endurance and experience that at last, after a statistically epic career, proved Jacques had that more mortal attribute of heart to go with his glorious new head of hair. The Test though will resonate for one epic passage of play between Steyn and Tendulkar. An exquisite exchange of skills that will live forever in the memory was won - just - by Tendulkar, who made a 51st Test century.

Sachin had two more tons in him, both World Cuppers, that would for the 98th and 99th time belie the weight of expectation that has shadowed his life. Amusingly, he was outbatted in the first of those games by Andrew Strauss, whose 158 confirmed England as the 50-over side to follow if you wanted shit and giggles. They greatly enlivened a competition staffed by central casting and scripted by Spielberg. In losing to Ireland, they bowed to the endeavours of Kevin O'Brien, who produced an innings that, come the IPL auction, might yet change his life, and in the tie with India in Bangalore, engaged in the match of the tournament.

When the stage cleared for the big boys in Mumbai, Mahela Jayawardene made an 88-ball hundred silkier than a George Clooney chat-up line, but the force of destiny was ranged against him and Sri Lanka. Enter MS Dhoni, a man whose implacably sunny attitude to cricket deflects pressure of mercurial weight, for a rousing chase that finished with the ball burning through the night skies. It was a Bollywood ending for a tournament that dispelled much of the darkness and farce of the West Indies four years before.

The comedown for India was long and hard, but on what must have seemed like an endless traipse through England's damp green lands, Dhoni's spirits never dipped, and come some limpid one dayers he was once more undismissable. But just one man stood up to England's high summer onslaught, reiterating his quiet greatness. The Wall made three hundreds in four games, carrying his bat at the Oval and then going straight back in again. It was valedictory batting characterised by Ruler's ruthless judgment. To watch him leave the ball remains, in Gideon Haigh's phrase, 'an exchange of advantage so small as to be immeasurable'. You can be sure, though, that Rahul knows its value.

Sehwag was sold badly short by his rushed return to the side after shoulder surgery, but his day lay ahead and what a deathless day it was, a white hot morning in Indore when he made a world record 219 in an ODI against West Indies. The adjective that captures it best is joyous. Sehwag's ability has been eulogised enough. What was really memorable was his spirit. He was reveling in his moment. Who among us would not surrender a fair portion of out worldy goods just to be able to bat for an hour like Viru?

Australia's new role as the comedy entertainers of Test cricket required moments of excellence to set up their punchlines, and Michael Clarke produced two centuries of high class, his 151 at Newlands against the moving ball being the pick for some immaculate driving. 'It'll mean nothing if we don't win the game,' he said afterwards. If you believe that, you'll believe anything. Amla's hundred did win the game, and was just as good.

Before we reach the sharp end of this year's shindig, a word on Chris Gayle's explorations of T20 possibilities. He and David Warner have set the blueprint for scoring hundreds regularly in the format. Gayle's hitting is freakish - no-one strikes the ball harder - but his real value is in the amount of games he wins for his teams, and he does it by judging perfectly the tempo of his innings.

Aside from that electric, anachronistic month or so of the World Cup [50 over cricket remains on death watch], the year belonged to England. Bowlers - those poor saps - win Tests, but England's method is based on the relentless accumulation of runs for them to shy at. It has been a golden time. Cook and Trott had their sessions in the sun and Matt Prior remains the hammer of the declaration, but two players merited further consideration.

Ian Bell evokes rapturous notices for his timing and elegance but to me remains a pond-skater, sliding across the surface tension, afloat on the calm created by other forces. Unfair? Maybe, but that icy chip of indefinable greatness is still not obvious. You would though need a heart of stone not to enjoy his double at the Oval, when, on a glowing August afternoon, England iced their cake.

Kevin Pietersen made 175 that day, an innings that took his Test average back over 50 and ended a lengthy rehabilitation from a slump complex in its nature. Had it happened in an England side of the 1990s it might have been terminal, but both KP and the set-up deserve credit for coming through. His most human innings of the year came at Southampton against Sri Lanka, a knock of 85 in which he employed that huge stride to play massively straight, a homage to orthodoxy that even the wildest players must sometimes make. It was an innings of penance, an acknowledgement that the gods of the game must be respected.

He deserved a hundred that day, but it went to Bell. A month later, at Lord's in the 2000th Test, those gods relented. In return he grafted against the swinging ball, his first 22 runs taking 73 balls, his first fifty 134. But then, the next took 82, the third 75 and his final 50 just 25. He went to his double hundred by smoking Suresh Raina for 4, 6, 2 and 4 from consecutive deliveries as Lord's vibrated with the strange magic that he only can impart. The occasion, the venue and the moment had aligned, and England's best player had stepped up. The series was shaped, and England's upward curve confirmed. KP, the innings of the year is yours.

Friday 23 December 2011

'I thought I'd been shot': facing Michael Holding

I've been working on something kind of inspired by this blog, that hopefully will at some point see the light of day via this blog. The opening part of it concerns the late Bob Woolmer, who did the first amazing thing I ever saw on a cricket field.

I'll save that, but in writing about it, I found this. It's Woolmer's own description of his dismissal by Michael Holding at the Oval in 1976. It came on the third morning of the match and the day after his amazing thing:

'Holding's feet barely touched the ground as he ran in. He moved in silkily, and his body swayed like a cobra's: it would have been magnificent if I'd been watching it from the outside. But here I was more intent on watching the ball, moving back and across as Colin Cowdrey had taught me.

'Holding was bowling with only one fielder in front of the wicket at cover point. He bowled, and I moved back and across. I saw that the ball was pitched up, so I moved forward, feet first and then into the shot.

'Before I knew it, the ball had smashed into my pad. Even though I was wearing state-of-the-art buckskin pads, the pain was so incredible I thought I'd been shot. A small explosion of whitening emanated from my pad and a loud appeal from the bowler and fielders. Dickie Bird was not known to give too many lbws. But this time he had no choice: the ball would have broken middle stump'.

Bob Woolmer wrote this 23 years after the Oval match. Some things stick in the memory. Facing Michael Holding in 1976 is evidently one of them.

Monday 19 December 2011

Farewell then, declaration bowling

Mark Pettini is a bristling and of late saturnine presence at the top of the Essex order, a county cricketer unremarkable not in the pejorative sense, but in the way that lots of talented and hardworking men ply their trade without their names appearing in newspaper headlines or at the bottom of IPL contracts.

Yet his record contains some of the more arresting statistics in the first-class game. There is his 24-minute, 27 ball hundred against Leicestershire at Leicester in 2006. And then there is his career return as a bowler: 18.5 overs, 191 runs, 0 wickets, at an economy rate of 10.14 per over.

These records are not unconnected. Pettini's century came in the second inning of the last game of the season in Div Two, 2006. Essex batted first and made 486, scored at 3.30 runs per over. Leicester replied with 372-4 at 3.96 per over. Essex went in again, and scored 186-0 from 9.4 overs at a rate of 19.24 per over in an innings that was concluded in under half an hour. Pettini's 114 from 29 balls included 12 fours and 11 sixes. His partner, AN Cook [yes, him] made 66 from 32 balls, and managed a six of his own, too. Pettini's bowling figures were compiled in similar circumstances in other games: he is one of Essex's declaration bowlers, a reliable purveyor of floated flotsam, useless trex, hittable junk. It's a skill of sorts, but as of last week, one that is probably now confined to the past.

Collusion in county cricket has been longstanding, but it is impossible to see it surviving into our new and cynical age, an age in which the domestic fixture is 'at greater risk' than an international game, according to the ECB's Head Of Corruption Chris Watts. The era when one skipper would knock on the other's door and with pen and fag packet scope out an acceptable chase before working backwards to the number of dreck-filled overs required to set it up, must now be gone. For this was a calculation that would quite often be known to the local radio man and the BBC stringer as well as to the players on both sides, and no doubt the members who bothered to ask, none of whom would have dreamt of phoning the local bookie.

These were innocent passages of play regarded by all - except perhaps the fielding side - as a fitfully entertaining requirement of the wider contest. There were deeds both famous and ludicrous: Glen Chapple also made a 27-ball hundred, his in only 21 minutes, against Glamorgan at Old Trafford in 1993. Murray Goodwin got a ton in 25 minutes at Southgate. Andy Afford, the former Notts spinner, recalls a spell early in his career when he and Paul Johnson were required to bowl at Viv Richards while Somerset set up a game: for some reason Richards blocked everything that Johnson sent down but hit Aff for a six that rang the bell in the Trent Bridge pavilion, to great amusement all round. When Pettini got his hundred, Leicester opened the bowling with batsman Darren Robinson, who returned the figures of 4.4-0-117-0. As recently as 2010, Alastair Cook was required to turn his arm over against Bangladesh A, and bowled five overs for 111.

It already seems anachronistic, its astounding figures somewhat compromised by the accelerated glories of the Twenty20 game. The thought that a section of a professional match might be arranged by both sides so that they can compete to an unrehearsed conclusion is surely dead in 2012 under the gimlet eye of Chris Watts. Another connection with a less complex past has been cut.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Ceaseless time

To mark the twentieth anniversary of his death, last night the BBC screened John Arlott in conversation with Mike Brearley. It was filmed in 1984, four years after Arlott's retirement and the year after Brearley's, at Arlott's home on Alderney.

It took a sentence for Arlott to get to the heart of the matter, the centre of his life. Brearley first asked him why he had chosen Alderney. 'Well,' said Arlott in a voice rising up over the hot coals in his chest, 'the tempo here is magnificent'. Not for him a description of the views or the of the peace and quiet, but instead that connection he felt to the cadences of the place.

That was present in everything Arlott did, in the rhythm of his sentences, both spoken and written; the melancholic beats of his verse, the rise and fall of his commentary. The way that he could almost conduct a passage of Test cricket was Arlott's true talent as a speaker - 'in through the eyes, out through the mouth' as he put it - his internal sense of the rhythm of the over, and the session, and of the day and the match, all building symphonically. He confessed at one point that his favourite moments in Test matches were batting collapses, and again noted the way they produced their own momentum, fed by the noise of the crowd.

Not saying anything helped to produce that rhythm too. When he spoke to Brearley about his parents, or about the son he lost in a car accident, he paused for long periods and the camera held his face, which bore all of the iniquities of age. Its stillness, which he struggled to maintain, conveyed everything that words could not. 'No...' he said eventually. 'Let's talk about something else'.

He told Brealey that he'd had a lucky life, the son of a cemetery keeper who became a poet, author, broadcaster, friend of Dylan Thomas and Betjamin, Hobbs and Botham. 'Well, lucky in some ways...' and the camera held that face again.

They do0n't make 'em like him any more, and they don't make many programmes like this, either. You can see it here on the BBC iplayer, if you're within range. It's worth it.

Monday 12 December 2011

What John Jacobs could teach Justin Langer about Phil Hughes

John Jacobs has coached golf to Open champions and desperate hackers for sixty years. He has a wisdom that comes only from decades of observation, and he has distilled that knowledge down to one universal thought: you can learn everything you need to know about a golfer's swing by watching what the ball does once it's been struck. It's fantastically obvious and wonderfully true, and it applies equally well to cricket. All that matters is that moment when bat meets ball. You could discover how to coach anything by talking to John Jacobs.

It's unlikely that anyone will ask Jacobs about Phillip Hughes, but the old master would recognise the unerring predictability with which the ball flew from the edge of Hughes' bat to second slip. After all, it's just happened four times in a row. And yet as Hughes slides sadly out of Test match cricket and into a future as uncertain as it once was gilded, it's Jacobs' thought that reverberates, that holds true.

It's a philosophy of reverse engineering, of learning before teaching. He examines the outcome before he thinks about what caused it. What caused Hughes to keep edging to second slip? Well...

Spring 2009: Phil Hughes comes to England to play for Middlesex on a short-term contract ahead of the Ashes. He has just played his first three Test matches, against South Africa, where he scored 0, 75, 115, 160, 33 and 32. He appears in three first-class games for Middlesex, scores another three hundreds and averages 143.50. It's no surprise. His life has been filled with such success: he scored 141* on his grade debut in Sydney, made 51 and 137 for New South Wales seconds to ensure a first-class debut where he got 51, and then scored a match-winning hundred in his first Pura Cup Final. He plays in the first two Ashes Tests of 2009, makes 36, 4 and 17 and is replaced by Shane Watson. The first coming of Phil Hughes is over.

His dropping was complicated by the way Hughes scored his runs. He was, like Bradman, a country boy coming out of nowhere, defying convention. Where The Don picked the bat up differently, Hughes ignored one of the immutable laws of batting and stayed legside of the ball, from where he carved and sliced through the offside and mowed down the ground like Nadal hitting a low forehand. Even in an age at ease with unorthodoxy Hughes was too much, and yet it was unorthodoxy that made him devastating, that set him apart.

Flintoff and Harmison went hard at him in Cardiff and at Lord's, and he was an appealing target. The great and unmentioned facet of the way he played was that staying legside of the rising ball had always been, in the accomplished batsman, a mark of cowardice. The only reason for not getting into line was a fear of being hit. That wasn't why Hughes did it, but he was fighting a century's worth of conventional wisdom, and almost subconsciously it played into a wider notion that he would have to re-invent his technique if he was to succeed as a Test match player.

The weird magic that Phil Hughes possessed has all but perished in the effort to do so. He is now just another lefty who gets caught at slip a lot. It needn't be that way. Almost universally, by the time a player arrives in Test match cricket, he cannot be radically changed. Coaching at that level is holistic, rather than prescriptive. It's about tuning the engine, not rebuilding it. England have integrated two deeply unorthodox players since 2005, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan. Both came into the Test match team with the dark thought that they were really one-day players trailing behind them. Pietersen's first Test innings were frenetic and free, quite different to his more measured game now. It's a solution that he arrived at by himself, without altering the essential structure of how he plays. Similarly, Eoin Morgan has not been asked to bat differently in the Test side: he will, you sense, stand or fall as what he is.

England perhaps learned from their experiences with two bowlers, Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, who were almost ruined by trying to drag their methods too far from the place they had arrived at naturally. It very rarely works.

Phil Hughes went to his first Test hundred with consecutive sixes. Doubt was not in his mind then. John Jacobs would have looked first at where the ball was going and what it was doing before he considered how it was getting there. Where it was going was to and over the boundary, usually at great speed. There was the starting point, the moment that things might have been different.

To a greater or lesser extent, every player gets found out, worked out, worked over. For the best, this happens at Test level because it's the only standard high enough to do it. Nothing unexpected happened to Phil Hughes. What's shocking now is how quickly he was first discarded and how completely his methods were written off. He gets caught at slip as often as he ever did before, and he doesn't score any runs either.

It's hard to go against the knowledge and commitment of someone like Justin Langer, who has been working with Hughes, but it's necessary too. Orthodoxy has laid low something special. The young, fearless Hughes was an extraordinary sight, and that has been lost in a world of doubt and confusion on the part of his coaches as much as himself.

Cricketers aren't like golfers, they don't have the luxury of deciding not to win or earn much money for a couple of years while they completely rebuild their technique [and years, from the examples of Woods and Faldo, is how long it takes]. Just worry about what it does after it comes off the bat, Phil, and good luck.