Tuesday 24 December 2013

What Swanny leaves behind

Decades ago on a Saturday afternoon in winter at Alf Gover's cricket school, a kid came to bowl in one of the nets. He couldn't have been more than 14 or 15; he looked younger than that. To right handers, he came left arm around the wicket, which at Alf's was no mean feat in itself because the run ups weren't exactly what you'd call extensive.

He was a wrist spinner. His stock ball turned into the right-hander, and it turned miles. With the angle he was creating and the loop, balls pitching outside off would have cleared leg stump. He dropped a lot of deliveries short, and he got hit hard and often but every now and again he bowled something completely unplayable, a ball that dipped alarmingly and then ripped upwards off the seam and through the gate or onto the gloves.

For the next few years, I half-expected to see him debuting for a county, or at least hear about him. He had something remarkable. Perhaps he didn't make it through the most important stage for a kid like him, when he'd get slogged everywhere by bigger, older players and he'd need a captain and a coach who could tell him how to handle it.

The reason I remember him is because spin bowling, unlike pace or swing, has the properties to be unique. The very best spinners can't be directly compared to one another; it is the loosest of generic terms. Warne, Murali, Ajmal, Harbhajan, Saqlain, Afridi, Kumble, McGill... they can be bracketed only in the broadest sense. When one comes along, they shift the imaginative framework of the game.

Graeme Swann emerged when conventional off-spin was consigned to the dustbin of history, sent there by the mystery of the Doosra; the twist imparted on its traditions by Murali's mad-ass wrist; by flat pitches and giant bats. In his way, Swann reinterpreted a dying thing. From the new age he took revs, imparting them in huge number on every ball except his slider. And from the ages he brought back the off-spinner's classic line, that drew the drive and opened the gate. Around the wicket to the left-hander he bowled at the stumps, and as soon as DRS began to show that he was almost always hitting them, old-style off-spin was back in the big time.

The magic of spin is in its distorting effect. The spinner has nothing to defend himself except the intrinsic deceit of what he does. Everything rests on the casting of doubt. When someone does it well it seems obvious, like a magician revealing the inner mechanisms of a trick, and yet they must have imagined it first.

Graeme Swann brought off-spin back from somewhere. It has had a distorting effect on England's thinking. His ability to rip revs onto the ball has led the spin department at Loughborough to center their development pathways on bowlers who can get above a certain number. They may be right too - another Swann would be welcome anytime.

Spin, though, resists rigid thinking. It's about imagination. Saeed Ajmal and Sunil Narine, for example, rely on moving the ball by the width of the bat just as Warne and Murali spun it across the crease. The next great spinner may do something else entirely. He might be a left arm wrist merchant, or he could be the new Jack Iverson. The one thing he's not likely to do is come up a pathway and knock on the door.

Swann's legacy will be the kid who has sat at home and watched the ball drift and dip and turn and has figured out a way to do something like it themselves. It's why all of the innovation in spin has come from outside of coaching centres, from someone who's stared down those 22 yards and let their imagination rip.   

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Mark Ramprakash: Enter Night (watchman)

Every now and again you get lucky, right? I did when Matt Thacker at The Nightwatchman asked, 'if you could write about anyone in cricket right now, who would you write about?' and before I really knew why, I said Mark Ramprakash. And not about his Test career either, but the part that came after, when he made more than 60 centuries and got to a hundred hundreds, probably the final name to join that hallowed list.

I'd seen him almost as an outcast, a brooding Heathcliff of the County Championship, misunderstood, abandoned, burning with something like revenge. A face at the window, pressed up against the glass... It's a somewhat fraught vision, true, but rooted in a question, and the question is why? What kept him going, during all those quiet afternoons on almost empty grounds? What made him do what he did?

For a while a long time ago, I'd had an idea to try and write a sort of double biography of Ramprakash and Graeme Hick, with the hook that their careers had a weird symmetry - the two great hopes of English batting who made their debuts in the same Test match and who became the last two men to score a hundred centuries. Within their stories were others: of English cricket in the 1990s and the notions of what success and failure in sport are, and what they mean.

That fell by the wayside, but Matt arranged for us to spend an afternoon at Lord's with Mark. We sat at the top of the Pavilion as Middlesex bowled out Derbyshire for 60, and I discovered the answer to my question. I watched him bat a couple of times during the summer too, and got to write the piece. It didn't turn out as I thought it would - a small scale version of that old maxim that 'every book is the wreck of a great idea' - but it was a privilege to have met him, and a great pleasure to try and write about it.

It's in the new issue of The Nightwatchman, which has some tremendous stuff in it, including Dileep Premachandran on coming to terms with Sachin's retirement, Mark Rice-Oxley on depression in cricket, Marcus Berkmann on playing for an ancient team and Alex Massie on Jardine, plus lots more. Well worth a punt if you like great and mad stories about cricket.

Friday 6 December 2013

Intensity, pressure and time

One of the notable features of the Brisbane Test was the intensity levels of both sides: Australia's was higher. It got lost a little in the fog of war, mainly because Michael Clarke's sledge was picked up on the stump mike, and that skewed the debate towards who was saying what, rather than who was doing what.

There's no way it would have escaped Andy Flower though, so James Anderson's first ball at Adelaide was like a punch in the guts, the moment I realised that they may well lose this series. It racked up 78mph on the radar and Chris Rogers had time to adjust his guard, wave to his mates in the stands and wonder what to get the wife for Christmas before he patted it gently back. The rest of the over was runless but had little else to recommend it. Anderson walked stiffly back to his mark, like he hadn't really warmed up.

Mitchell Johnson, by contrast, delivered the quickest ball of the ball of the match with his first, and by the middle of his opening over was at 95mph.

The point is not that Australia have a much faster bowler than England, but that Johnson was on it and Anderson wasn't. England couldn't shake the ennui of too much cricket. Confronted by an opponent of greater desire, they are fading. All of the overs, the hours, the practice, the battles, those great highs and their emotional effort, bring a toll eventually.

It's not even really a criticism, more an observation on human nature and the inevitability of time.  For a while, until he raised himself in mid-afternoon, Anderson looked like Hoggy did in New Zealand when he was taken around the back of the pavilion and given the icy news that he had lost his zip.

It's not too late, but like an old boxer, they've been in a lot of big fights and fresh punches carry their dreaded cumulative effect.


If Test cricket had a narrator, it'd be Morgan Freeman, especially that great line about geology being 'the study of pressure and time' from The Shawshank Redemption. Tests are about that too, the effect of a moment - Carberry dropping Haddin for example - slowly becoming apparent as time and pressure bear down on it.

Then Carberry has to go out and feel the great weight of that scoreboard as he tries to survive the last overs of the day, knowing that more time yawns ahead.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Visions of Mitch

Last April, I wrote something for The Cordon about how the Ashes would miss Mitchell Johnson. I'd like to claim great prescience in doing so, obviously, but that'd be as meaningful as the arrival of the Mitch bandwagon clattering into town. The nature of the man and the game suggest that what goes around comes around - and then goes around once more.

What's apparent about Mitch is that he is the kind of cricketer who has a hold on the imagination, or at least he does on mine. There's no single reason for that. Looking back through the history of this blog, there are some players that I write about again and again and others who are barely there, ghosts in the machine.

There's lots about Mitchell Johnson that exerts a grip.  No-one that good should be that bad for a start. The distance between his best and his worst, even his best and his usual, yawns wider than with most top-level cricketers, with their remorseless execution of skills, their slim advantages. Imagine facing a man capable of such great and terrible things.

He has fought his deep lows, come back with a new haircut, a new run-up. There's something man-made about his approach now, something mechanical, but it's followed by something fallible and human, that tremendous arcing swing that brings the ball out from behind his back while he balances for a second on the outside of his back foot. There's an extraordinary picture of it here, with Ed Cowan's rather wonderful piece about what it's like to be down the other end.

What nature has given Mitch is something that can't be coached; the ball arrives in the sightline so late it cuts down the reaction time of the batsman, it gives him extra heat. It's echoed in his batting, in that long swing when he's hitting down the ground.

So much of Mitch is at odds with the modern game, but strangely it's the modern game, with its science and its schedules, that has offered him his second chances, has salvaged him from his many wrecks. It's easy to project onto him, because he's more like us than most players. Relentless competence is the trademark of so many top cricketers; Mitch steps out in hope yet with no guarantees.

The beauty of blogging is that you can write what you want when you want, no deadlines, no editors. Some players and some events can just glide past without friction. Ian Bell is one for me - lovely batsman but inspires very little.

Instead, from this distance, they can be slightly unreal, like characters in a novel. They can be observed and read into. They can live a life other than their actual one, as Mitch does so well.