Saturday 29 March 2014

Fergie, Gilo and the meaning of control

There's a terrific scene in Class Of 92, the documentary about Manchester United's FA Youth Cup winning side of that year, when its six most famous players, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville, are sitting in a restaurant reminiscing about the ways in which Alex Ferguson would tell them they'd been dropped from the team.

'He came up to me once and said, 'son, you're not playing today, but don't worry about that, there's a game in two weeks that I need you for',' said Gary Neville. 'I thought, 'hang on there's three matches before then...' I couldn't work out whether I'd been dropped or whether he thought I was so important, I had to be saved...'

'He told me it was too hot once...' said Scholes.

'He said to me the pitch was too nice,' recalled Butt. 'He said, 'November's when I'll need you son, when the ground's heavy...'

'I never used to answer my door if we were in the hotel,' said Giggs.

'Yeah, you used to hear that little cough in the corridor, and you knew it was him,' said Gary Neville.

'He wouldn't come if you were playing,' continued Giggs, 'but I used to think, 'if he can't find me, he can't drop me...'

It was all said with affection, and left you thinking that they would still run through walls for Ferguson if he asked them too.

When he reflected on what made him such a successful manager, Ferguson said that the most important element was control. As soon as he felt a player was threatening that control he was ruthlessly dispensed with.

While direct comparisons between football and cricket are specious, it seemed obvious that England's most successful coaches of recent years, Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, each had a measure of that control - at least until their eras descended into horribly similar kinds of entropy.

Ferguson's notion of control was partly psychological. Being aggressive and dictatorial was only a temporary fix. His real authority came from the ongoing success of his methods, which he was clever enough to adapt to changing circumstance. Often - as with the cough in the corridor - his presence was enough.

Similarly, Duncan Fletcher's legend was neatly coined by the title of his book, Behind The Shades. He understood the value of silence, of being enigmatic. Many England players tell of the strange sensation that would overcome them when they felt his presence behind the net in which they were batting.

Fletcher would say very little to his players, thus everything he did say (and a lot of what he left out) became imbued with significance. His technical knowledge was crucial: his charges realised that he understood deeply what he was talking about. Like Ferguson, he was ruthless in his judgment. He built close relationships with his captains, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, and kept the rest guessing.

Andy Flower's control came from a different place. His record as a player was better than any of the team, and the strength of character he had exhibited in essentially exiling himself by protesting against Robert Mugabe spoke of unimpeachable integrity. Like Fletcher he appeared introverted and steely. In aligning himself with a new kind of technical analysis, he moved the English game forwards. He knew more than the men he coached.

As Ferguson had asserted, once control was gone, so, soon afterwards, was the coach. In part this was simply the natural cycle of events. External forces are often uncontrollable. Yet both Fletcher and Flower brought England momentous and joyous successes that have broadened the horizons of the game here. In his later years, Ferguson sensed that the amount of money in football had made the players too powerful to control with explosions of anger and the use of authority, and while Fletcher retains much of his enigma as he coaches India, his presence feels different and lighter there.

Now that England have been eliminated in Bangladesh, the next major event is the appointment of a new coach. If the unsubstantiated story that Gary Kirsten has turned down the job because he was unable to select Kevin Pietersen is correct, then control is already an issue. Ashley Giles is the favourite, and the idea of a coalition with Graham Thorpe and Paul Collingwood carries much of the same appeal of the rumoured takeover of Manchester United fronted by the Class Of 92. But they lack the natural advantages that Fletcher and Flower had in asserting control, mostly because of their familiarity. In an age of uncertainty, that could be key.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Jos Buttler's alternative future

'He is one of my favourites... he is a class act.'

When Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards rates a batsman it's fair to say that he may have something, and it's hard to argue with the great man when considering the extraordinary hand-eye talents of Jos Buttler. Richards himself was one of the first players to walk outside his off stump to the faster bowlers and flick the ball from his toes to the fine leg boundary. Buttler plays a new age, supercharged version of the same shot, and perhaps King Viv recognises his fearlessness. Buttler, in this early phase of his international career, either dominates or gets out.

In the generational turnover of talent England are in a downward cycle, and it's compounded by their rigid perception of what that talent should look like. A new way is coming, and it's only natural that players will make themselves known in a different manner - David Warner and Steve Smith are at the leading edge of the phenomenon.

England cannot afford to waste Jos Buttler, and by encouraging him to keep wicket they are not adding to his value but confining it. He should give it up. Anyone wanting to bat seriously in the top order in Test cricket can't keep wicket too. The matches are too close together, the series condensed by the demands of other formats. Even the masterly de Villiers can get no higher than five with the gloves, and, like Sangakkara, he's surely going to jettison them soon.

Buttler is a long way removed from such company but there is a glint of something special, as Richards has said. England have tacitly acknowledged an impending future of prosaic batting in their urge to have Eoin Morgan play Test cricket again. A top order that one day contains him and Buttler crackles in a different way.

The only prosaic part of Buttler's game is his keeping. It's painful to watch his unsuitable physique put through its stresses and his restrained character forced into its cheerleader role. The real giveaway though, is the sound. The ball whispers its way into the gloves of a natural keeper. In the West Indies, outfield throws smacked into Buttler's and then shivered uncomfortably down the stump mikes.

England have an odd attitude to keepers. For a side that believes in the advantage of marginal gains, they don't see them as coming from behind the sticks (I have an alternative theory). Graeme Swann, just out of the dressing room, probably gave away the current view on Buttler's position when he said on radio last week: 'Jos Buttler is not ready for the Test side as a keeper or a batsman... Jos needs two or three years with Lancashire. I think it could set him back to throw him in now.'

This at least is true. He should be offered the chance to fulfill his potential as a batsman, starting with a season of opportunity in first class cricket along with his international white ball commitments. England need to look again at Craig Kieswetter and also Steve Davies, who might become genuinely effective at seven in Test cricket and who are superior keepers.

Most of all, Andy Flower, in his position of almost unprecedented influence over coaching and theory, could think hard about exactly how the new generation of batsman are going to manifest themselves. It will almost certainly be in T20 cricket and the criteria for judging Test match potential should shift along with that.

There will always be the de Villiers and the Kohlis, the Sangas and the Pujaras, who are to the manor born. But the last decade has brought Pietersen, Warner, Steve Smith, Eoin Morgan, Shikhar Dhawan and others that began far less conventionally.

When the notion of David Warner wearing the Baggy Green was inducing not only ridicule but indignance, Virender Sehwag, avatar of modern batsmanship, said that he'd be a better Test player than he was a T20 hitter. 'All the fielders are around the bat,' Sehwag told Warner. 'If the ball's there in your zone, you're still going to hit it. You're going to have ample opportunities to score runs. You've always got to respect the good ball, but you've got to punish the ball you always punish.'

He wasn't far wrong, was he? It's not a bad place for Buttler and Flower to begin. 

Thursday 6 March 2014

A day at Newbery

What is it with bats, those inanimate chunks of wood that somehow, sometimes appear to live in the hands? I wrote a piece about the myths surrounding Sachin Tendulkar's for ESPN's book on the maestro - the bat he used for the great rush that took him to ninety-nine international centuries, its grain split open and darkened by the dye of a thousand cricket balls, told a story of obsession. There was the time I met Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, and Punter (as I never call him) remembered his first: 'a Duncan Fearnley, size five, kept patching it up, taping it up... still got it somewhere'. Mike Hussey's was a County Clubman that cost $19, a sum that cast him as a rich kid in Ponting's mind.

The role call of mine is long and noble: the first a Stuart Surridge, way too heavy, the big red initials of its logo stamped into the wood; a St Peter my dad acquired from a man on a building site; a GN 100 Scoop (got my first ever hundred with that bad boy); a Powerspot in one of those odd white poly covers that came along for a while; a couple of Slazengers, including a V12; A County Geoffrey Boycott signature (never got out with that one... well, sometimes); Gunn & Moore, Kookaburra... had 'em all and and plenty of others too.

There's something totemistic about them, especially now, with their mad names and their glowing stickers, and yet even though cricket bats, like everything else, have entered the commercial age, they retain a mystique. They are still organic, unique, once-living things subject to infinitesimal change in weight and fibre that can make them feel one way one day and one way another.

So when an invitation from Newbery to go down to Hove and try their new bat the Kudos in the nets against a couple of Sussex bowlers came... well. I couldn't get in the car fast enough. As a declaration of interest, the deal was that I could keep the bat in return for blogging about it. And as another, my current bat is a Newbery too, bought with my own hard cash from the same showroom last year. There is a deep connection to bats and batmaking there that I wanted to try, and although I had perhaps my worse season ever, the blade itself was blameless (it was once chucked quite violently into the boot of the car after I was caught off a gentle leading edge - at deep fine leg).

The Kudos comes with a little mystery of its own, each is made by one of three brothers at a location in Sussex that no-one seems keen to reveal (one of the brothers is said to have been an apprentice to John Newbery himself, the others, who knows...?) The bat is handsome and understated, the blade very slightly shorter than usual, allowing the brothers more leeway in keeping the deep swell of its middle while taking weight out. I went for the lightest one in the shop, a hair under 2lbs 7oz, but you'd never guess to look at it. It had a slither of heartwood, too, and nine grains. I've always liked Newbery's handles, slender at the bottom and oval-shaped, and they fit particularly well with this bat. The pick-up is gentle and all of the weight low, which is where you want it on club wickets.

It faced a stern test right away at the indoor school behind the Hove pavilion, where Lewis Hatchett, James Anyon and Steve Magoffin loitered, ready to roll a few down. Young Hatchett bowls left arm over from a tremendous height. Anyon looks as though he's spent the entire winter in the gym. Magoffin watches the first deliveries and leans back on a pile of chairs, knowing that he won't be needed here...

I play the trusty 'haven't batted for two months lads...' card, and am treated gently enough. The Kudos is soon scoring heavily, though, an inside edge from an Anyon inswinger a certain boundary (to much amusement) and although I catch the inevitably short rejoinder high on bat, it flies well into the stands (or is caught at deep square leg, depending on your view - six it was, then).

The middle, on the couple of occasions I found it, is deeply satisfying, the ball staying on the surface of the bat for a fraction of a second longer, its weight biting the willow before cracking off. The notion of the shorter blade might be purely psychological but it's enough for the handle to offer some extra whip. It reminded me of the long-gone expression 'give it some long handle' - there is a nice echo of it here.

Last season I kept a weather eye on the bats that club players actually buy and use. Of the big manufacturers, only Gray Nicolls and Gunn & Moore have any real presence. I see them at every game, but alongside are lots of smaller and boutique makers. My theory is that bats are expensive now and quality and personal service add to the pleasure of choosing and buying one. Newbery, Millichamp & Hall, Salix, Laver & Wood, Chase, Mongoose - all appear more often than (for example) adidas.

Newbery, and others, are a little like ghostwriters sometimes too. In the showroom at Hove was a small huddle of bats for pros, awaiting shipping and stickering with the logos of other manufacturers. It must be slightly heartbreaking to see your work go uncredited, but the provenance of cricket bats remains an oddity of the business, one that adds to the intrigue and the myth that surrounds them.

Will the Kudos join my personal pantheon of greats, retired to Valhalla up in the loft after their sun-filled days of glory? It feels as though it might, but we will see...