Sunday 31 March 2013

Nine words from Steve Waugh

He can still do it, can't he. He can still induce that vivid chill that blows back in from the early years of the century, when the things that Steve Waugh said came true (and some of the things he didn't say came true as well - 'you just dropped the world cup, son' being a case in point).

It wasn't just what he said but the way he said it, which was bluntly through thin lips, the baggy green pulled down almost to the top of his eyeline. Those eyes too, almost closed in a permanent squint, brought on, it seemed, by batting for so long on bone-white pitches from which the sun glared back at him.

Waugh is an indistinct presence in the game now, not in the media, not a coach, instead working on a couple of committees and keeping the kind of profile that preserves his mystique. He speaks rarely, so when he does, it retains impact.

'England aren't as good as they think they are,' he said at the New South Wales end of season awards, and if there's an England cricket fan that didn't feel that gentle tremor of truth to those nine words as they travelled halfway across the world, then they have probably come recently to the game.

It's a perfect piece of Steve Waugh theatre, brilliant in its understatement. It's no blithe McGrath prediction, not a lengthy piece of pre-series hype. Instead it's subtly undermining, it's suggestive, and it's also realistic. If there is a sensitive point to touch for England at the moment, then this is it. They bristle at any accusation of hubris.

Steve Waugh has not lost his sense of the fine margins that dictate the course of the game at the highest level. A stone-hard realist like him will understand why England are heavy favourites, and why they will most likely win. But he also understands what it takes to construct the psychology of a team, of how a myth is built up around it and how that myth can be reduced in the minds of those that must confront it.

They're a small thing, those nine words, but they're a start, as SR Waugh well knows.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Batting and Fear iii - The Last Testament Of Michael Hussey

In the title sequence of the 1970s TV phenom Kung-Fu (ask your parents, kidz...),  Grasshopper was challenged by his Master to walk across rice paper without leaving a mark. It came to mind today when thinking about Mike Hussey, one of the game's most diligent students, and the revelatory interview he gave to Daniel Brettig this week to mark his international retirement.

Hussey stepped softly through his impeccable career, often traceless as brasher legends stomped ahead, but he peeled back the skin of the pro game at the highest level in just a couple of paragraphs. Here was a place of constant doubt, of relentless hostility, of ongoing challenge, a place in which the beautiful surface of things is distorting an endless fight.

This is Hussey on batting with Michael Clarke: "Out in the middle it might look like it's entertaining and fun and free-flowing, but we're both very insecure. There's a lot of doubts and a lot of negative talk: 'I can't score a run, I don't know where it's coming from', and Pup's saying, 'Just back up mate, I just want to get down the other end - I can't face this guy.' So a lot of people say we looked like we're doing it easy, but it's never ever like that."

'I can't score a run...' 'I can't face this guy...' These are not the words of mugs, of tailenders or baffled novices. They are (still) Australia's best two batsmen, averaging over fifty in Test cricket with 42 hundreds between them.

And they are very human emotions, natural reactions to the constant grind of starting again and again, as every batsman must. It is this mental effort that drained Mike Hussey, that had him looking to the finish line with such relief. "I didn't want the stress and the anguish that comes with international cricket anymore."

When professional cricketers draw the wagons around themselves and make out that they are engaged in a game that the outsider can't really understand, it's feelings like these that they don't or can't really articulate. It's the point at which the amateur love of the sport disappears and a new and more oppressive reality takes over.

Aside from the heightened physical ability they possess, the best batsmen must be able to confront and defeat the doubt and the fear, the sure and certain knowledge that out there somewhere is a delivery with their name on it. To stave it off for as long as possible, ball after ball, day after day, game after game, season after season is the true confrontation of one's limits, a genuine rejection of fear. It's why cricket, as a game and as a test, is unmatchable.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Ghost grounds

It's hard to write about a feeling as elusive as this one, yet it's that elusiveness that makes it both rare and worthwhile. It happened the other day, for the first time in a couple of years. I was driving through a town somewhere when the road became familiar in a way that might have been real or imagined. On one side was a high wooden fence with another chain-linked one behind it, reaching even higher. Ivy was growing up through its gaps. The traffic slowed, caught by a set of pedestrian lights just ahead. Through a couple of fence panels that had warped and come apart from one another I caught sight of a blade-width of green field and a fragment of a two-story pavilion, then, in the next gap, a section of scoreboard.

It felt right away like I had played there. I could even recall a fragment of the game, fielding second while their opening bat, a big lad with black hair and a Gray-Nicolls, started belting the bowling indiscriminately over mid-on and midwicket, not slogging exactly but swinging, the ball falling just out of reach of the fielders who, in true club style, were being carefully positioned to stop the delivery just gone. I don't remember much more: he hit quite a few, but got out eventually. They probably won. What really came back was the cast of the ground - its shape, its size - and the weather, which was warm but overcast, the sky full of darkening summer clouds with no wind to move them.

The traffic eased, and the ground was gone. There was an old painted sign with the name of the club on it, but I couldn't quite read it in the rear-view mirror. It probably wouldn't have helped. The feeling was almost dream-like in the way it refused to become clearer or more solid in the memory. It certainly happened, but did it happen there?

I've played a lot of cricket in a lot of places, and lots of it was a long time ago now. Where do they go, those games and those places... If I had to sit down with a piece of paper, I'm not sure how many I'd remember. It seems to take something more than just effort to bring them back; it needs a sense memory or a chance encounter that trips some kind of synapse. It's the odd and ethereal familiarity that you have been somewhere before.

Sometimes I dream about playing on unknown grounds too, so perhaps a place occasionally makes something imaginary seem slightly more real.

It's a strange sensation, and it's not one that needs a definite answer even if that answer existed. These are the ghost grounds of half-remembered games, and it's good when they appear.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Batting and fear - a coda

Alex Massie marked the eightieth anniversary of Bodyline with an excellent Spectator blog. Amongst other things, it brought home how distant it is. Bodyline exists now in those few flickering black and white images of Woodfall staggering away, and also in the layers of myth and memory that surround it. There's also the amusing, but still hovering apparition of the 1984 mini-series, with its catch-line of 'The Day England Declared War On Australia', and Hugo Weaving as a dastardly Jardine: "Harild... lig theory..." as his famous line used to go...

So one sentence in Alex's piece jumped out: 'Perhaps no more than (at most) 25% of the overs England delivered that series were bowled to Bodyline fields.'

Having just written the post below this one on the changing nature of fear in batting and read some of the comments underneath it*, this seemed like a piece of Machiavellean genius worthy of Weaving's lofty fop. Knowing that something bad is coming, but not necessarily when, is a fear that's set in childhood. It's easy to imagine how it felt to suddenly see that legside ring tighten around you, with Larwood at the end of his run... Such a thing affects not just the psychology of facing it, but of waiting for it to happen, too.

What's easy to forget is how physically vulnerable a batsman was eight decades ago. No helmets, obviously, but more than that, no real thigh pads, no chest or arm guards, barely any gloves... Young pups might find it hard to comprehend, but a batsman might have had on their hands a thin covering of some kind of flannel, often with an open palm and with sausage padding stitched onto the fingers. They might even have worn spikes, a flimsy rubber mould intended to repel the worst of the impact (there's a picture of Jardine batting in a pair here).

As late as 1970, when Colin Cowdrey was flown in to face the onslaught of Lillee and Thomson at the age of 41, he opened his suitcase to reveal home-made foam-rubber padding he'd improvised after watching the Australian attack on the TV highlights. David Lloyd, who opened against the pair, half-joked about having a folded towel as a thigh-pad. Facing very fast bowling then was different to facing it now. Part of the reason that technique has been able to shift from 'classical' methods is down to the emancipation brought by better gear (or in the case of Bodyline, any gear).

In everything other than combat sports, physical danger is supposed to be a by-product of competition. We live in more cynical and knowing times than the cricketers of the Bodyline series, so it's easy to overlook the mental shock that being deliberately targeted would have provoked. Here was a stark choice: fend the ball towards our trap, or be hit.

Part of Bodyline's devastation was its newness, its intimations of the future.

* This blog is blessed to have so many good and regular commentators who know more than I do: Russ, John Halliwell, Tim Newman, Brian Carpenter, David Barry and many more. Thank you all.