Monday 31 December 2012

The Fifth Annual OB Innings Of The Year

Is that December already? Can it really be five years of bestowing an arbitrary and unheralded gong that its recipients know nothing about? Well it looks that way. And an award that goes to a single innings* somehow feels more appropriate than ever in what has been the most atomised 12 months since this blog began.

Each of the previous winners have appeared emblematic of other things. The first, in 2008, went to Brendan McCullum's 158 in the IPL's debut game; 2009's was Thilan Samaraweera's 159, made a few months after his recovery from being shot in the legs in the Lahore attacks; 2010 went to Alastair Cook's 235 in Brisbane, the moment when England's superiority over Australia at last felt more permanent; and 2011 was Kevin Pietersen's double hundred at Lord's as England became the number one Test side (on reflection this is the one that now feels wrong: Dhoni's World Cup winning innings in Mumbai holds more ongoing meaning).

In 2012, none of the candidates carry much freight beyond the immediate enjoyment of having seen them played. If the idea was to recognise the batsman of the year, there would be just three contenders, Alastair Cook, Hashim Amla and Michael Clarke. Of the three, Cook is the only one without a triple hundred, but in his way he seems the most remorseless, his runmaking less about individual knocks than the overall effect. The circumstances of the matches change as do the settings, but Cook remains, occasionally out caught at slip or leg before, but more often than not pushing through cover, cutting behind square, bunting off his legs, hour upon hour, session upon session, day upon day. There is very little jeopardy once he is in.

Both Amla and Clarke appear more ethereal, although probably not if you're fielding at cover. Clarke in particular always seems to give the bowlers a chance. By my back of a fag packet calculations (okay, it's a guess), there has been an increase in the ratio of Test triple hundreds scored in the T20 era. Clarke's 329, made at Sydney against India four days into the year, came at a strike rate of 70.29, Amla's 311 at the Oval in July at a hair under 59. During both, two other batsman made scores of more than a hundred, all at a slower rate. Clarke and Amla are both classicists of course, and Clarke's was perhaps the more sustained effort.

All triples, though, sort of end up being about themselves, in that the score tends to supercede other considerations. Clarke embarked upon a golden run, and three doubles followed. For connoisseurs, his 259 not out against South Africa at Brisbane was perhaps the pick. It was counterpointed by an Amla hundred too, and a stoush in which that well-known digger-out of scores David Warner claimed that the South African batsmen had problems concentrating. Faf du Plessis duly made 110 from 376 deliveries in one of the great modern rearguards in Adelaide, and the Saffers took the series in Perth on the back of 196 from Amla and 169 from De Villiers.

Like David Warner, I dined at length on my own words after a conversation with a friend at the start of the English summer when I called Marlon Samuels "a waster". In this case, it was a pleasure to be proved wrong. Samuels possesses the same coiled athletic grace as Viv Richards; he is utterly unhurried. The waster comment was directed at his evident talent and this was the year it aligned with the properly matured man. His batting at Nottingham, when he made 117 and an unbeaten 76 in a nine wicket defeat, had the England side waiting at the top of the pavilion steps to applaud him off. Samuels' running battle with Jimmy Anderson was a highpoint of the tour, as was Sammy's noble ton at Nottingham and Tino Best's 95 at Edgbaston. The windows really were in danger that day.

The best of Samuels came in Columbo in the final of the ICC World T20. His matchwinning 78, in which he dominated Lasith Malinga, was an exhibition of pure skill, and perhaps alone of the innings mentioned here came closest to being that emblematic moment of previous years. If West Indies re-emerge in all forms, we may look back on it as such. In isolation, it was perhaps the most joyous, along with Tino's mad run at a Test century.

Chris Gayle's 75 from 41 deliveries in the semi-final against Australia was typical of the method that is transforming T20 batting. In the 2012 IPL, Gayle hit 59 sixes in 14 innings, during which he averaged 61.08 while striking at a rate of 160.74. This still feels slightly unrecognised. Mavinder Bisla, almost the victim of an undercover match-fixing sting, changed his life in exactly eight overs in the final, turning those 48 deliveries into 89 runs that crowned a charged tournament that remains just the right side of overwrought.

Neil McKenzie, a man who appears to have dispensed with anything as superfluous as a backlift, would seem unsuited to T20, yet Hampshire's ongoing success owes much to his wiles. This year's win was made possible by his ghostly 79 from 49 chasing down Nottinghamshire's 178 in the quarter-final. Sometimes it's what you know as much as what you do that counts.

Yet there came a feat of sustained and pure hitting that was to eclipse all others seen, at least by me, and it came from Scott Styris, a man whose resemblance to George C Scott playing Patten grows with each passing year. On a misty and mystical late July evening at Hove, he batted for 37 minutes and 37 balls, making a round hundred. Nine sixes, five fours and a strike rate of 270 told their story, as did the season's most remarkable over, bowled by James Fuller, which went for 38. He concluded with figures of 3-0-57-1.

Is Kevin Pietersen a great player or a player of great innings? The former I think, although a number of series have now slipped by without him making more than one century. He made three in 2012 and all were game-changers, which sums up his strange magic. To say he bats on emotion does not do enough to acknowledge his complexity, yet he is usually highly-charged. But the force that united these three was that they could not have been played by anyone else. His 151 in Columbo and 186 in Mumbai came on wickets that no other batsman could make sense of in the way that he did. The 149 against South Africa at Leeds was the knock of a man who had isolated himself and had just one form of communication left.

It was the Mumbai innings that produced a rare consensus among experts and veteran observers. Almost all used the word genius. It felt justified, because it was an innings that ran against all logic. A few days before in Ahmedabad he didn't look as though he knew what end of the bat to hold. In Mumbai he could have made a hundred with either end, so in control was he. He'd come in with England having just lost 2 for 2, hit his first ball for four, and the internal switch had clicked. This is why we watch cricket. Last year, he won this prize and maybe shouldn't have. This time, there can be no doubt. As a thing of wonder and beauty it stood alone. KP, the innings of the year is yours.

*The full criteria: an innings seen by me either live or on the telly. If you played a blinder in 2012 and I missed it, apologies.  I'm sure you're gutted.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Somewhere Else: Lara and the 90s

The 90s have gone. Not simply in a literal sense, that's self-evident and happened long ago, but gone in that they have slipped through that hinterland of recent memory and into history. They're in another place now.

It became obvious the other night, when ITV screened a documentary about Brian Lara. It was nothing revelatory, but it was nice to have the great man talk through his recollections of those liminal weeks in 1994 when he urged batting into its new age, making seven hundreds in eight innings, a run that began with his 375 in Antigua and ended with 501 at Edgbaston. Both records inside two months? We were somewhere else.

Lara said some things that not many people get to say - "I suppose I scored about 150 runs or so before lunch" sticks in the mind - and as he spoke, highlights of the innings played. His genius was present and total, that endless backlift counterpointed by the low and level head, his certainty and speed through the hitting area contrasting with the languorous beauty of his follow through; it's timeless. Yet all around him was context. His bat, the classic Scoop, was slim and straight, lacking the great bows and edges of modern warfare. Shirts were baggy, pads buckled, scoreboards pre-electronic. No-one in the crowd had phones or cameras, the fashions and haircuts appeared odd and lost. For the first time, 1994 looked like a period piece, as all things eventually do.

It wasn't until the story rolled forwards to the mid noughties that the terrain surrounding Lara became familiar; the bats bigger, the gear lightweight, the clothing fitted, the crowds contemporary. When he made 400 to rightfully reclaim his record, only one other player from either side was still there, and that was Graham Thorpe (although Shiv Chanderpaul played in the 375 match, his fourth Test).

Viewing those games again, one belonged to an earlier time, a time that had slid into unfamiliarity. The 90s suddenly felt like the 80s, distant and filled with the heavy weight of the past. The years goes on before we notice.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

A meeting with Punter

 Few careers end with novelistic symmetry, however much circumstances urge them to. RT Ponting's at least ended where it began, at the WACA, with long shadows across the ground on a perfect summer's early evening. The storyline might have suggested Ponting's circle close with his team back at number one and a big score in the book to echo his debut all those years ago, but it was not to be. It won't matter in the long run.

There will be lots of stats and anecdotes in the papers to sum up the epic sweep of those years, so no need to repeat them here. Instead, here's something else: the day I met Punter. It was in the summer of 2010, and the Australians were over for some one-day internationals. They had a press day for their sponsors at the team hotel in Kensington. In what was a rare foray into proper cricket journalism, a magazine had commissioned me to go along and ask the captain of Australia some questions sent in by their readers, except the readers hadn't sent any so I made them up on the tube on the way over.

In a low-lit conference room somewhere in the basement, its tables lined with untouched and slowly-warming tins of the sponsors' product, Ponting sat on a small sofa, his loyal lieutenant Michael Hussey to his right, and, for comic relief, Dougie Bollinger to his left. I hadn't been told that the others would be there, but seeing as I'd just made the questions up anyway, invited them to join in when they felt like it. They were all dressed identically: trainers, standard issue team kit and sponsors baseball hat. Ponting had a big white sticking plaster on his elbow. Squished together for some hours already, patiently answering what were no doubt the same daily press enquiries, it would have been understandable had they been keen to sit tight and get things over with, but Ponting rose to shake hands and introduce me to his team-mates himself rather than wait for the hovering PRs or presume that I knew who they were.

He was taller and leaner than I'd imagined, and even the famous hairy forearms weren't actually that hairy. The snaggle-toothed grin that made him look so punchable in those early years of apparently endless victory was much softer in person. We sat down. I knew one thing would be true of him just from watching him play: he was obsessive about his bats, you could tell just by looking at the clean and perfect blades he always used, so I asked him if he could remember his first one.

"Oh yeah," he said right away. "It was a Duncan Fearnley, size five. God knows how long I had that bat for. I kept patching it up, taping it up. I'll still have it somewhere."

"Mine was a County Clubman. It cost $19..." said Mike Hussey.

"Nineteen bucks, Huss... that was expensive back then."

"Yeah, for the '50s," said Dougie, and Ponting gave him a perfectly-timed reproachful glare.

Ice broken, we had a high old time, or at least I did. We talked about dreams of cricket, the moments when you're just about to fall asleep and see a ball flying at your head and jerk yourself awake, and anxiety dreams where you can't find your bat, or tie your laces. "Yeah," he said, "going out to bat and you can't find your way from the rooms down onto the pitch. I have that one."

He told the story of losing his first baggy green after about 20 Tests or so, in transit from Sri Lanka, and how anyone who lost one now would have to fill out lots of forms to get another because somewhere along the way, the cap itself had become a symbol of value (his sympathies were with the older players "doing it tougher than us" who were reduced to selling them on ebay). Mike Hussey chipped in with a vivid description of what it was like to face Murali in his pomp, the great whirr of elbows and wrists, the whites of his eyes glowing as his arm came over.

It was good to watch them interact. Dougie was funny,  but he was careful not to cross the line with his skipper. Hussey, true to form, just seemed to like talking about cricket. I mentioned that Viv Richards was supposed to have had such sharp eyesight that he could pick out individual faces in the crowd. "Ricky likes to spot fights," Hussey said. "He quite often comes down between overs and says, 'Hey Huss, see a couple of blokes having a go over there'..."

The hour passed quickly. I wanted to know if he knew what his highest Test and ODI scores were, and also his averages. "My highest in Tests is 257," he said. "In ODIs it was that game against South Africa, 167 or 174 or something. All I know is we lost." He didn't know his averages, and then Mike Hussey tried to claim that he didn't know his either, and Ponting and Dougie smiled.

We spoke about various bowlers and he said that the one who had given him the most problems had been Harbhajan.

"Does that bother you?' I asked.

"Yes," he said, and folded his arms.

For Ponting to have confronted his decline in the way he did seems entirely typical, yet the 'results' he reckoned have nudged him into retirement have not been catastrophic. In 2012, he has made 600 runs at 42.85 (better than Watson, Warner, Cowan, Quiney, Marsh, and also Tendulkar, Bell, Trott, Gambhir and plenty of others). Yet he was born into greatness. It's only a hunch, but I think he watched Michael Clarke play the way he has, and Hashim Amla too, and realised that he could no longer visit that place. It's not that he doesn't think he's as good as Kawaja or Hughes or whoever fills his spot. It's that he knows he will never again bat like Clarke or Amla are at the moment. It has gone for him. That is the mirror he has stared into, and there was only his past to stare back.

That past will soon assume its nostalgic glow. Ricky Ponting's batting was never quite beautiful but it will live long in the memory. He is what the Americans call Test cricket's "winningest" captain. Yet what gives his retirement its poignancy is the distance he has travelled as a man. He took over the Australian side knowing nothing of defeat and with a sense of entitlement that it took losing to erode and turn into something else. He grew as his team declined. The innings that summed up best the second act of his career was that day-long 156 at Old Trafford in 2005, one of the great and defiant match-saving digs.

Beyond that, he has been true to himself and true to the game. To all of the tributes with that point, add this one. He had no reason to make my hour with him enjoyable, other than his duty to the captaincy of his country, and also to himself. It was over for him as soon as the PR shut the door, but I'll always remember it. That's the secret, and the truth about him.