Sunday 18 November 2012

Pete's dream

It's one of the great beauties of cricket that a team game can sustain mad, glorious and destructive personal ambition. This thought came back to me when Chris Gayle hit the first ball of a Test match for six, because I once played with a man whose desire was to hit the first ball of a match for six, too. That simple dream had gripped his soul and would not let go. 

This was back in the days when bats were slim and sixes were rare currency. I was 13 or 14, just starting to play senior cricket along with age-group games. We'll call him Pete, because that was his name, a lovely man in love with the game. After thirty-odd years at the crease, he was still to make a fifty, in part due to the relentless pursuit of his goal. 

He opened the batting because he'd been at the club for as long as anyone, and because there was no man there who wanted to deny him his chance. It was made tougher because it was dependent on us batting first, so sometimes he would go weeks without getting the opportunity. But when it came, well... Pete died often, but he never died wondering. He heaved at every first ball he ever received, short or full, wide or straight, good or bad. I would imagine he got more first-ball ducks than any other opener in the country, but he never adjusted his game, never thought, 'I'll just bat and try and get that fifty,' never allowed reason to crush that pure and perfect vision of a bowler running in as the clock hit one, all heads turned upwards as a new red ball sailed up and out into the endless sky. 

He never did it, or at least not to my knowledge. But he did get his fifty. It came in an in-house game, when our U17 side played the first XI one hazy sunday afternoon. We had some good players in that U17 team, including a couple of very decent opening bowlers. They batted. Pete carved at the first ball, which missed everything. Then he carved at all the others, and miraculously it came off. Balls fell wide of fielders, edges went for four. He even middled a few, and he was a big, strong guy. Finally he swung, connected once again and the applause came up from the pavilion.
"Twenty-five years I've waited for that," he yelled, his bat held high above his head, his face split by a grin that said every moment of the wait had been worthwhile. He was out next ball. 

Friday 16 November 2012

It's never worth saying 'England can't play spin'

In London, it was the kind of day that seemed like it would never quite get light; a twilit lunchtime, an afternoon of dusk. Even the weather was intent on illustrating the differences between here and Ahmedabad. As England's batting quivered in the heat-haze, the Twittersphere and the newspaper OBOs were all certain about one thing: they can't play spin.

It is said so often, it's a phrase that's losing any meaning it ever had. It's become a default position for the man in the pub, cricket's equivalent of the football punter who pronounces that Roy Hodgson's finest "aren't good enough technically". Without context or definition, it's really nothing more than moaning.

Not being able to play spin is as broad a church as not being able to play pace, or not being able to field. In a way, it reduces the spinners' art, turns a thing of subtlety into an amorphous block. To begin with an obvious example, not being able to play spin in 2012 is different to not being able to play spin in, say, 2007, or any other year when Murali and Warne were in their pomp. Not being able to play the spin of Murali and Warne meant not being able to play the ball that spun and bounced prodigiously. To counter them required specific thought-process and techniques that differ from the thought processes and techniques needed to play spinners like Ajmal or Ashwin, who turn the ball far less and skid it far more. Murali and Warne could be played on line in a way that Ajmal and Ashwin can't, for starters.

There is also the difference between playing spin in the sub-continent and playing it everywhere else. Lots of English players can play spinners in England, just as lots of Indian players can play quick bowlers in India. It's a matter of familiarity. The real difference for England last winter and this has been the alien nature of both bowlers and conditions.

Graham Thorpe, now batting coach for England Lions, could play all kinds of spin, and he speaks luminously (in technical terms) on how to do it. What's noticeable is the gap between Thorpe's descriptions of being able to pick length and use the depth of the crease, and the way some of England's senior players have approached batting (and let's exempt Kevin Pietersen right away: his method is unique to men who are six feet four and have the eye of Zeus. He will always confront spin and live or die by the sword, and that sword has on occasion reduced Murali and Warne and others to mortal status).

What was evident about India's first innings was how often they played back. Sometimes the ball disturbed the surface and kept low, and on several occasions they seemed to just manage to get the bat down in time, but it bothered them about as much as being beaten on the outside edge would bother Nick Compton on a greentop in April.

There is an old maxim usually applied to swing bowling, but equally useful here: see it early, play it late. Compton, Anderson and Trott were all out today playing forward, and all out going hard at the ball. It's the fallback position, yet it doesn't work. It takes great nerve to go back and wait for the ball when you're not used to it and not sure what way it's spinning, but it is a method that works on these pitches.

As well as reducing the bowling, the phrase 'they can't play spin' also reduces the batting. Each man is an island. Cook plays forward, but he takes a short stride and waits for the ball. Bell has wonderfully soft hands, and advances down the pitch like a dancer to hit over the top. His problem is often that he disobeys another old maxim: never cut an off-spinner. Horizontal bat shots are, as a rule, not the batsman's friend, unless the ball is a genuine pie. Samit Patel might be the best of all of them against this sort of spin, he plays insouciently late: even when driving, the ball is under his nose.

It's easy to be critical of men who are playing at a level beyond the comprehension of most of us. None of them are trying to fail. Remember how foreign conditions reduced India's batting, and give England a break. This is the hardest of tours. Let's not damn them with a meaningless phrase.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Andrew Flintoff: Black holes and revelations

No man tells himself that he will be alright more often than a boxer does. He might not use those words to do it - Ali had his poems, Tyson said stuff like 'I'm going to eat your children' - but they all mean the same thing. Because their bodies are vulnerable and their skills are pregnable and their hearts are breakable, they psyches must be impenetrable, and if they're not convinced by themselves, then no-one else is going to be, either.

It's part of what can make defeat in boxing so devastating. The physical pain and the natural disappointment of sporting loss disappear; destruction of a sense of self is harder to recover from. In the most basic of ways, they're not the man they thought they were. Cricket has its sorrowful burden of suicide, yet boxing might be just as damaged. It's a sport with no structure, so the evidence is anecdotal, but it is everywhere if you look.

There is an unforgettable documentary called Assault In The Ring, which is about a fight between Louis Resto and Billy Collins Jr in 1983. Resto was the underdog, but he won after his trainer, a man called Panama Lewis, removed some of the padding from Resto's gloves, apparently without the fighter's knowledge. Collins sustained a severe beating, permanent eye damage and never fought again. He began drinking heavily and died a year later in a car crash that his family believe was a suicide. Resto was convicted of assault and served ten years in prison.

In 2007, Resto admitted that he knew what Panama Lewis had done. He apologised to the Collins' family, and in some of the most revealing scenes from the film, tried to confront Lewis, a man who still had a strong psychological hold over him.

Resto's is just one of hundreds of stories from the city of boxing, the city of delusion. Ricky Hatton's is another. After losing to Manny Pacquiao he retired, began taking cocaine, drank heavily and sat in his kitchen with a knife to his wrists while his family slept upstairs. His hard-won millions, his beautiful girlfriend, his son, his new baby, the regard in which he was held by his fans, could not stop his depression because they were never what it was about. Perhaps inevitably, he is making a comeback.

Hatton is a pal of Andrew Flintoff. They are a couple of uncomplicated Lancashire lads whose natural joy in what they did inspired something close to love in their followers. Flintoff experienced his own bouts of depression and heavy drinking while captaining England, and he's now taken up boxing. It's for a television programme, but there will still be a fight and he will have to face the moments that all fighters must, when all that's left is the other guy in the ring and the truth about themselves.

In most of the fight PR he's done, Flintoff has been talking up boxing, describing the attritional joys of training, and pulling muscleman poses for his photos. But in an interview in the Daily Telegraph, perhaps because it was with Celia Walden rather than a sports writer, he said this: "I'd swap everything I have now to play cricket again.... That last day (against Australia), it went by so quickly."

What he's missing is impossible to replace, with boxing or anything else. "It made you feel taller, stronger somehow. You'd get this hit of energy like you're a kid at Christmas and you're so excited about the next morning that in bed your legs can't stop running. It was an amazing feeling. And that's one of the things I miss most."

“Part of me still thinks I could play. I haven’t been as fit as this in a long time… The other day they put an old game on telly; I was playing in it but I didn’t at any point think it was me. It was bizarre – there was this complete detachment there, like I was watching someone else. I’d reached a point where cricket seemed so long ago. But now that I’m fit again… Well, you start thinking: could I?”

Flintoff's heavyweight opponent has yet to be announced. It's inconceivable that he could face anyone with pedigree; it will have to be a doorman, a cabbie, a part-timer. For all of his training, this is a stunt, and it's happening because Andrew Flintoff has a hole to fill, just as Ricky Hatton has. The great problem is that boxing can be a dangerous place to fill it, not physically but mentally. It's almost certainly not the place for Andrew Flintoff.

And Panama Lewis is still in boxing, too.

Friday 2 November 2012

Mark Cosgrove: let him eat cake

One of the marks of cricket's ineffable genius is its scale. The distance of 22 yards, the size of bat and ball, are somehow perfect; they have survived for almost the whole history of the game and they allow a bowler the size of Steve Finn to compete against a batsman the size of Sachin Tendulkar on equal terms. Unlike golf, where courses have been lengthened, or tennis, where the balls have been made slower, or team sports that have resulted in generally homogenised physiques, it is unaltered since Grace's day - and Grace of course was a giant of a man by Victorian measures.

Cricket has a grand tradition of girth. Some of the greats have been well upholstered and none the worse for it. Men of appetite are attracted to it, and not just because there are two square meals on offer during the day's endeavours.

All things change, and the post T20 era offers little mercy to the less than perfect, almost entirely because of requirements in the field (ah fielding, that dreary pursuit, that necessary penance...). More than that, there is a vaguely fascistic undertone that a 'fat' player is lazy, is less motivated, more blase than his team-mates, uncommitted to the endless round of bleep tests, BMI measurements and broiled chicken.

Mark Cosgrove has begun the Aussie season with runs, enough of them to encourage the odd long-shot twitter punt that he might have been under the eye of selectors who currently have David Warner, Ed Cowan and Shane 'two hundreds' Watson as their top three - a not entirely convincing confection. Cosgrove was a non-starter, unless he put Don-style numbers on the board, yet his talent is undeniable and extravagantly expressed. With the frizz of hair and flash of teeth, he's a fat, left-handed Barry Richards, not quite in Bad Baz's class (who is?) but surely of his type.

The general view  of Cosgrove is one of waste. A prodigy, he made a first-class debut at 18, was the Bradman Young Cricketer Of The Year, a player of innings so unequivocal and shot-packed they outshone illustrious champions. Then three ODIs in 2006, then the slide, the promise turned sour, the move from South Australia to Tasmania, some time at Glamorgan while others edged past him, and all the while the whisper that all would be different if he'd only, you know... lose some weight.

Yet what's fascinating about Cosgrove, what drives at some of the deeper psychology of the game, is why he didn't, why he won't. What are the upsides of being fat*? Well, none that relate to fatness per se, but plenty that come with the comfort of being yourself.

The golfer Colin Montgomerie once said that his rapid weight loss had negatively affected his swing, and anyone who has seen that swing up close would know that it was a thing of beauty even if Monty wasn't. Like the golf swing, the physical act of batting is governed by repeatable muscle memory and fine motor skills, and it doesn't always pay to mess with them when they've been happening a particular way for a lifetime.

The mental act of batting has even more complexity. Within the context of teams sports, it is one of the great expressions of individuality. All batsmen ultimately do what they do alone. The inner life is key, and crucial to that expression. In choosing not to join the club and shed the pounds, a player like Mark Cosgrove may not be lazy or unmotivated; in fact it's almost trite to think that he is.

More likely is that Cosgrove has a contrary streak a mile wide, as many great batsmen have. It can be a crucial part of the psychic armoury, and it's the same mentality that made players like Barry Richards, King Viv, and Ian Botham walk their own path, choose their own battles. It comes from the id, not the ego, and can express itself in many ways. It can't always be reasoned with, but its value cannot be weighed against a few pounds of body fat, either. In a perverse way, it's about personal pride and being true to yourself, and the mental equilibrium that brings.

Cricket in the new age is on a constant search for the smallest advantage. Poor fielding has been its major battleground, and it has had its casualties. Carrying timber has been seen as a weakness rather than a difference. In the case of Cosgrove, rather like that of Samit Patel, maybe the scale should tip back the other way. After all, England aren't worrying so much about his waistline while Samit's showing the super-fit how to play spin bowling on sub-continental wickets...

Ultimately, skill in batting has nothing to do with size, as everyone from Grace to Inzamam and Sehwag have shown. It's about the mental as well as the physical, about what is on the inside as well as the out. There may be many reasons to discount Mark Cosgrove, but his weight ain't one of them.

* That's fat in sporting terms, not in Jerry Springer coming round to cut the side of your house off terms.