Monday 18 June 2012

Talent and Tom Maynard

There were many tributes today to Tom Maynard, and some, from his mates and fellow cricketers, were heartbreakingly raw, such is the immediacy of the form in which they now come. As you get older what you feel most is the weight of life unlived. Twenty-three years is half a lifetime away from me now - all of those days he cannot have seem very poignant.

Among the Twitter posts was one from Scyld Berry that said: 'Tom Maynard was so talented that when at Millfield [school] he played for the neighbouring village of Butleigh, batted left-handed and hit a 100. RIP.' 

Stories like that one are really about the difference between us, the distance between not just the amateur and the pro, but between professionals and internationals and between internationals and the genuinely great. Ultimately, they see the world differently. Martin Amis described it brilliantly as 'the natural severity' of the truly talented ball-player. What they do is different; when they strike the ball it makes a different sound, it goes to a different place, at a different speed.

Barry Richards once made a fifty against a club side while turning the bat sideways and using the edge, back in the day when the edge of a bat was slightly thicker than a padded envelope. David English recalled the time that Richards turned out for his charity side, the Bunburys: 'He flew from Queensland specially to play against Norma Major's XI at Alconbury. He had no gear, just a well worn pair of golf shoes. With hastily borrowed equipment and a bat so old cobwebs still adorned the handle, the Master, bespectacled, stood at the crease and proceeded tentatively at first, to perform his strokes from memory. He had not lifted a bat for 12 years but scored 52.'

Just this weekend, Mark Ramprakash tweeted that he'd loaned Viv Richards a bat for a charity game, and Richards had made 40 with it. Jeff Thomson remembered a net with Don Bradman in India: 'On a rest day, Bradman was around in the nets. I was bowling only legspin to him, but he had a couple of young blokes trying to get him out. With no pads, no nothing ... for a 68-year-old, he belted the hell out of them on a turf wicket. And he hadn't batted for 20 years.'

It's the same in other sports. My dad, a very decent representative table tennis player in his day, once played against Johnny Leach, the world champion, who beat him using a matchbox instead of a bat. Andre Agassi used to talk about beating players 'both ways' - playing left and right handed. Ben Hogan was said to have thrown some golf balls down on the fairway and hit one onto the green using every club in the bag from driver to putter.

That's the difference, and most of us can only imagine what it must be like to occupy it, as Tom Maynard did.

Friday 8 June 2012

Will the second-best T20 batsman in England go to the World Cup?

England are now so good, they can admit out loud that certain Test matches mean more than others regardless of what they charge for the tickets, the staging fee or the TV rights, and they can divest themselves of their best T20 batsman, a man in no small part responsible for their only ever international title, in the pincers of contractual small-print. Either that, or hubris is beginning to set in.

They might go to Sri Lanka for the title defence without their second-best T20 batsman too, because that is Owais Shah and they don't seem to like him much, either. But the great meritocracy of sport sends its messages whether they are acknowledged or not and on Shah the free market has spoken. Pietersen aside, he is the one successful English player in the IPL. He has been bought on four different occasions by four different teams, and this year got his first decent run, for Rajasthan Royals. He played 13 games and made 340 runs at almost 38, at a strike rate of 132. That put him inside the top 20 batters in the tournament. In the Big Bash, where he played for Hobart, he averaged 70 at a rate of 150 over eight games.

At the crease he is a magnificent oddity, a one-off, a wired bundle of quirks and ticks, eyes wide and brain burning with the sheer range of possibilities he brings to each delivery. Last year he played the shot of the season at Chelmsford, a defensive prod that went over the stand. With his limber wrists, he might just have easily got the same ball through fine leg, or slipped it past third man. Equally, on another day, it might have struck him plumb in front, or been popped back to the bowler from a leading edge. In attitude, in approach, in appearance, he is an enigma; in short, everything that England distrusts.

The other day, he came in for Essex in a CB40 match with the game won and Ravi Bopara on a hundred. He played incredibly straight; his bat looked like a barn door. He flicked one to the boundary, took a few singles and did nothing really extraordinary, but that was sort of the point: even in so little there was something about it that illuminated Bopara's conventionality. Bopara is very good, and his desire and attitude deserves respect. But the shimmer of something extra.... no, it was all down the other end.

More than any other format, because it is condensed and amplified, T20 cricket needs that something extra, some dynamism from players who will walk the tightrope. Pietersen did, Eoin Morgan does, and so does Shah. It's a quality that's most effective and magnetic when the player has learned to control it, to bring it out when it's needed, and Shah seems to be at that point now.

He should replace KP, but he won't. In fact, they should both play, but neither will. Last year, in the post about Shah's shot of the season at Chelmsford, I wrote that he had 'a racehorse temperament' that had stopped him playing more for England. This was disputed in an anonymous first-person response underneath. I have no idea whether it was genuine or not (it's still there, if you scroll down) but I regret writing it now anyway: it's too glib a description of a complex player. Shah has made his case in the arena where it counts. Wonder if England are going to notice?

Saturday 2 June 2012

The art of not fielding, while fielding

In a game at the start of the season, we fielded for 47 overs in the bone-deep cold. The distant pavilion glowed like a cottage in the paintings of that old fraud Thomas Kinkade. The grass on the outfield was thick and stringy, the ground soft and heavy underfoot. I was wearing trainers following a pre-match incident with the sole of my boot. We didn't even get drinks, but then they would probably have been brought out by a St Bernard. In the warming clatter of the pub afterwards, a team-mate said that he thought that the moments that the field came together after the fall of a wicket were a way of reconnecting with the game after the solitary time spent in one position or other. That seemed true.

No batsman goes to his grave thinking, 'I wish I'd spent more time fielding'. Time in the field is the other side of an unequal equation. No-one can really like it can they? The only similarity between the two is the sense of absorption, although it is absorption of two different kinds. Batting really well (admittedly more of a memory than anything else these days) induces an interior state that you don't really want to come out of, because when you do you have to confront ordinary life again. It is not something that you want to end. Fielding for long periods is about introspection of another kind, starting in bursts of claps and shouts and then slipping gently into fairly eventless solitude as the overs tick past.

In Netherland, Joseph O'Neill describes the 'pulmonary' rhythm as the field walks in and out. It's a lovely image, but a little too lyrical for the aimless trudge it becomes after an hour or so. Fielding's tasks are essentially menial: returning the ball to the bowler, stopping the odd one, hoofing after the ball when necessary (and what fresh hell is this relay throw - two of you chasing it now, can't just leave it to the other bloke who's you know, nearer...). The chance of a catch is a hiding to nothing, and a drop often reminds you of how withdrawn from the rest of the game you've become; its shame and embarrassment and exposure.

Not liking fielding is one of the game's dirty little secrets. You have to pretend it's alright. It's a team thing, and more than that it's a game thing, because if you didn't field there wouldn't be one. It's different for bowlers, because it's their arena and time in the field will be punctuated by what they do. But for batsmen it remains a deal made in order to play the game. It's a deal that feels slightly different every time. Fielding before you've batted is different to fielding afterwards, and fielding after you've scored runs is different to fielding after you haven't.

Most of all though it's a mood thing. Sometimes, on a beautiful ground it's just too churlish, too ungrateful, to do anything except be thankful that you're there. Other times it's about smothering anxiety, killing boredom, finding humour and life in the little things. Occasionally it's just about getting it over with, and every now and again it can be extraordinary. The art is to do it while not doing it, to let it wash over you, its lulling effect opening the window to an implacably calm interior state that can resist its length and its demands and takes you somewhere else until you come up smiling.

Even so, 47 overs. I mean, come on...