Wednesday 29 February 2012

The Life Of Brian

BBC4's screening of Fire In Babylon once again offered the chance to see Brian Close batting for England against the West Indies in 1976. He was 45 years old. Never has an innings of 20 been as brave. And for all Close's courage, there was great humour too: his Yorkshire intransigence was passing into legend. Soon afterwards, Eric Morecambe came up with his famous joke: 'you know the cricket season has arrived when you hear the sound of leather on Brian Close'.

By coincidence, Close is the subject of an entertaining interview in the new Cricketer, in which the great sweep of his career is again worth a moment's thought - England's youngest player, and almost its oldest too. Certainly no-one since, or ever again, will represent the country at 45. The piece finds Closey in vintage form. Asked about the self-inflicted danger of his fielding at short leg, he says: 'The only places I could get hit was my shoulders, below the knees or my head...' Today's bowlers? 'They bowl a few at 90mph and think they're fast'; Nutritionists and analysts? 'I'd sack 'em'; Best advice given by a coach: 'We never had a bloody coach'.

Magnificent. It brought to mind a show I once attended with my dad called 'The King And I', a winter theatre tour by Ian Botham and Viv Richards, compered by David English. It was a riot. Botham told a brilliant shaggy dog story about Close from his early years at Somerset, when Close was the grizzled, autodidact skipper.

Somerset took the field, and in need of a wicket just before lunch, Close bought himself on to bowl. The batsman knocked up a dolly of a catch, which a youthful Brian Rose somehow contrived to spill. 'Bloody hell Rosie,' yelled Close. 'I could have caught that one in the cheeks of my arse...'

The reprieved batter stayed in for the rest of the day. At tea, Close had changed into his plimsolls, but, enraged by Botham's lack of a breakthrough with the ball, decided to bowl the last over of the day himself.

By now Botham had the theatre in silence, everyone wondering where the story was headed. Close ran in but as he hit his delivery stride the tread on his plimsolls gave out. He sprawled head-first down the wicket just as the batsman got a leading edge. The ball lobbed gently towards the prone Yorkshire legend and landed in the small of his back. Close quickly trapped it with his hand and claimed the catch.

'There you go Rosie,' he shouted triumphantly. 'Told you...'

Closey is 81 now, the iniquity of the years etched deep into his face. The same issue of The Cricketer has a tribute to King Viv, who is 60 soon. Time passes too quickly. What men they were, and are.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

All ten

It was a perfect summer's day many seasons ago, a midweek game that, even when you had nothing else to do made you feel like you'd bunked off real life for the afternoon. I don't even know what made me think of it: maybe it was the sight of Junaid Khan laughing as he walked into bat against England in the last ODI in Dubai. His face was a picture, the look of a total chancer in love with the absurdity of it all.

The ground was deep in the countryside somewhere, a natural bowl out in the woods with an erratic boundary line dictated by the encroaching trees. We got changed in a stone hut with a thatched roof set side-on to the wicket. We scattered some plastic chairs outside. The peeling scoreboard still had the numbers from the last game hanging on it; someone was unhooking them and throwing them noisily onto a pile. A single, weathered sightscreen stood at either end.

We bowled first. Simon opened up. He marked his run. He was like a minor character from Blackadder, short back and sides in a severe parting, bumfluff pencil 'tache, big old bowling boots that looked like they'd been passed down through generations. He came in with knees pumping, quickish, but a little bit slower than he apeared.

The new cherry sang for him that day. A couple were bowled, I caught one at second slip. We stuck in a short leg and got one there too. They were four or five down for not very many. A brief stand, then a couple more. By now we had about five slips, gullies, close men, the works. Simon got another: that was eight. Every over from the other end had a strange tension - neither side actually wanted a wicket to go down. At drinks, we half-joked about deliberately dropping one if a chance came, but that somehow didn't feel right either. If it was going to happen, it couldn't be manufactured.

Simon did it. The last two, from memory, were bowled. We surrounded him. We had Junaid Khan smiles. He was a lovely guy, always great to play with. He deserved it. It had taken maybe an hour and a half. They'd only made 60-odd and we knocked them off quickly, on the ground surrounded by trees, underneath the perfect sky.

It's a melancholic feeling, thinking about it now. I wonder what happened to Simon, and to everyone that played that day. Have they had good lives since then? I hope so. Nothing ties us except that game, but I doubt that anyone who played has forgotten it. All ten. Not bad. Well done, mate.

Sunday 12 February 2012

What if Sachin finishes on 99?

In August 2008, a scientist turned statistician called Charles Davis uncovered what he thought might be Don Bradman's 'missing' four runs, the boundary that would produce the 'perfect' career average of 100.

It came in the final stages of the eight-day fifth Test of 1928-9 at Melbourne, where Bradman made 37 not out batting at number seven [decent top six in that game, evidently]. A boundary attributed to Bradman's partner Jack Ryder appeared in a couple of the 'wrong' sections of the book, suggesting that it might actually have been struck by Bradman.

Davis was not sensation seeking: his was an endeavour of forensic, almost thrilling, nerdiness. He spent some years re-scoring Bradman's entire career, and found along the way that there were many small anomalies in the books, concerning Bradman and others too. He was diligent enough to confess that there are several plausible explanations for the Melbourne error, of which Bradman notching an extra boundary is just one.

'At least one resolution involves transferring the boundary to Bradman,' he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. 'If so, a Holy Grail of statisticians has been found, and the 'perfect' average of 100.00 achieved. Is it really possible? Well yes it is, but unfortunately it is unlikely'.

The interesting reaction is Davis's regret. It's understandable from the view of a statistician who has laboured long and hard, panning his numbers for years on end awaiting that sliver of gold in the mud, but the truth is, the best thing about 99.94 – aside from its ability to inspire awe – is its imperfection. Contained within it is the story of that last innings, when the Don, with watery eye, let one from Hollies slip through. Along with everything else, he was human, too.

Ninety nine point nine four, when spoken, almost alliterates; anyone can remember it. While '100.00' might have its glassy, unapproachable sheen, the reality is that had Bradman survived that first over from Hollies, he was unlikely to have made just four. We would have been left instead with something like '100.32' or 101.09' or some other figure that lacked both the lyrical fragility of 99.94 or the roundness of 100.

Buried now by time, unalterable, monolithic, we don't often stop to think about 99.94. It just is. One day, there will be Sachin Tendulkar's final tally of international centuries alongside it. It's becoming just slightly conceivable that it too will stay shy of three digits, mildly more so that it will finish on the round 100, but most likely to end up just over.

In terms of statistical impact, such fractions matter little. Bradman remains, by average, 30 per cent better than anyone else who has ever played, a distance that makes him not just the best cricketer of all time, but the best sportsman [as I've blogged before, Usain Bolt would need to run the 100m in six seconds to be 30 per cent better than other sprinters; Woods would require another ten majors and so on]. Tendulkar's feat, though, is perhaps even greater, and he will be more than 30 per cent better than anyone else in terms of international hundreds scored.

Yet there is an undeniable romance to his finishing on 99, if that's what he does. It's the number he'll be remembered by, purely because it's the number that best represents the epic grandeur of his enduring brilliance. If the number shows both his greatness and his humanity, if it tells his story the way 99.94 tells Bradman's, then it will be perfect whether it's 100 or not.