Saturday 24 May 2014

One (thousand) run(s) in May

Last season was probably my worst ever with the bat. I remember clearly driving home from the final game feeling relieved that it was all over. I've been long reconciled to the idea that I'm not going to get any better. But I didn't really plan on getting much worse, either. A sort of gentle decline which nonetheless contained flashes of old glories and was compensated by extra nous, by know-how and cricket awareness* was more what I had in mind.

Instead, what was in my mind was a kind of white noise, brought on by a series of dismal, self-inflicted failures which had culminated that day in hitting a knee-high full toss straight to square leg. There was no common factor to them that I could figure out, except an increasing desperation. I've always had a rough game-plan to get to twenty and then see what comes. For some reason, probably dating way to back youth cricket, twenty always seemed like the liminal point between failure and success. Twenty wasn't great but it wasn't terrible either, and more often than not, you can go on from it. It's when batting always began to feel enjoyable.

Because I kept failing to get there, it became a thing, self-sabotaging and damaging. On the way to games I'd imagine unlikely scenarios - hitting five fours in the first over I faced, for example - just to be past the hurdle and into the sunlit uplands of a half-decent score. It threw me out. I lost sight of what I'd always been alright at, which wasn't hitting lots of boundaries right away but getting in and set, at riding out the early angst.

On that drive back after the last game, I turned it all over in my head. It was hard to think of a way forward. But as winter came the angst kind of drained away and some good vibes returned. I could start to imagine how it felt to play well again, and I decided that next season would be different. I'd be willing to accept failure - after all, there was nothing riding on how I batted. There are far better players than me in our side, and we'd won plenty of games that I'd contributed very little to. I'd just get out there and enjoy it.

I had a bit of luck too, in that Newbery got in touch through my blog and offered me my first ever free bat - their stunning new Kudos - to play with. 'At last,' I thought, on the smug drive back from their showroom at Hove, 'Sponsored... Exactly as I should be' (I'm not really. They've given me one bat not six, and I somehow doubt they're going to give me another one either, but in my head, it's a sponsored bat).

So, some lovely willow, a new season, a team that, of all the teams I've played for, I love the most. And as we reach the end of May, I have, so far, made one run. Not a thousand. Not even a hundred. In fact not even ten. One. And as today's game is off and we don't play again until next sunday, which is June 1, one it shall remain.

It's happened like this. First game at the end of April - rained off. Our second game, played out in the shadow of Windsor Castle versus the Royal Household CC, was as majestic in setting as it was disappointing in outcome. They had several fearsomely young and hard-hitting South Africans and Australians, one of whom got 140-odd, and who it transpired, didn't actually work for the Royal Household.

That's right, even the Queen has ringers.

I got a four-ball duck. I played back at the first, which ran down the bat face and bounced over the stumps. In my new mood of carefree abandon I drove hard at the second, which was wide, and missed it. I left the third and was bowled by the fourth. It seemed to keep low, but as Jammo, who'd been batting at the other end, pointed out, I'd just not moved my feet. Classic early-season dismissal. I could live with that.

Third game was cancelled, and in the fourth I got in for the last over after some excellent batting from the skipper and others. My job was simply to get that apparent ever-present in my new batting life Jammo back on strike, which was accomplished with a first ball prod to extra cover. One not out (I did get a bowl though. Bowling - it's so stress-free...)

Fifth game - cancelled.

Yes, that's it. Newbery, that's your return. One run in May (the bat has, however been much admired in warm-ups, and the middle really goes).

We all have our dreams, fed by the game. Mine are still there. I can feel those runs, just around the corner. Serendipity, come my way. Bring on June, flaming June. I'm ready...

* It's this year's 'executing your skills'. Cheers Nasser.

Thursday 8 May 2014

One of the greats, DIG?

The post a couple below this one wondered about the last great batsman that England produced (as opposed to those developed outside of the system). There were some tremendous tweets and comments in response and one name came up repeatedly: that of David Ivon Gower.

To digress briefly, the point of a blog (to me at least) is that it's written quickly, a sort of instant repository for a passing thought. Admittedly, the lack of research is a good get-out for whatever glaring omissions come along but when I wrote the post in question I'd thought of Gower, and had an undeniable flicker as I went to type his name alongside those of Geoffrey Boycott and Graham Gooch - and then didn't.

I've had to question why. Statistically, Gower's Test match average of 44.25 sits perfectly between those of Gooch and Boycott, as does his total of  8,231 runs. Many England fans, perhaps a majority, would pick Gower ahead of both in a heartbeat, and it's easy to understand that. His languid, trippy batting was hardly difficult to love.

Gower's Test career was the first that I saw from start to end. I can clearly recall watching his first delivery, a pirouette pull for four from Liaqat Ali, a seamer who bowled left-arm over. It remains the one thing anyone remembers Liaqat for: from the beginning Gower was sprinkling stardust from his hem.

His batting lives in the memory as something shimmering and ephemeral. He used a wafer of a bat, the Gray-Nicolls GN400, a four-scoop version of the legendary GN100, and he hardly seemed to swing it, yet the ball whispered to the boundary. Watching him live, his pick-up and follow-through both felt late: the gods had given him time, and he understood how to use it. He was a dream.

This drives at the heart of the arguments about him. I've always been fascinated by the role that aesthetics play in sport. Who can objectively know whether Gower found the game easier than Boycott? It's like trying to discover whether we all see colours the same. What's possible to perceive is that Gower made it appear easier. By physiological fluke, through the notions of art and beauty, he  looked better.

Once this was established a whole series of prejudices begin to apply. Gower's public persona as the gifted dilettante was set. Like Kevin Pietersen, he didn't seem overly bothered by getting out. Like generations of gentry, he appeared to regard cricket as a diverting way to pass the time, rather than an all-consuming obsession. Last in the nets and first out, that was David.

His county career pales when compared to Boycott's or Gooch's. He was apparently dropped from his school rugby team for 'lack of effort'. In his long-standing role as a TV presenter, he conveys the impression that the gig is another extension of an enviable lifestyle. As with his batting, charm is persuasive.

And yet... You don't score all of those runs without wanting to. No-one goes 119 Test innings without a duck by not being switched on from ball one.

Gower faced some fearsome attacks. His average and hundred count against Australia compares well with Boycott and Gooch, but against West Indies he made just one century and averaged 32, compared to Gooch's 44.83 and five hundreds, and Boycott's 45.93 and five tons. They both opened, too. It's here, against the best of all, that perhaps Gower falls short.

What is greatness anyway? It's easy to grasp when a player is considerably superior in terms of stats and longevity and success, less so when they play for a weaker side or burn bright and short. Ultimately, Gower's batting spread joy and grew a love for the game in those who watched, and that is an enduring legacy.

It's the best answer I've got, too...

Thursday 1 May 2014

Pete and Ali's first day, brought to us in partnership with Waitrose

Pouring money into Team England is no longer a frictionless exercise in logo-led corporate brand recognition, as the supermarket Waitrose are discovering. Today was the launch of their partnership with the national side and a jolly morning it should have been, hosted at their kitchens in central London, with lots of photo opps of Alastair Cook cooking and maybe even feeding Peter Moores with a long spoon while cracking a few gags about their recipe for success.

It was Moores' first public engagement since his reappointment was made official at Lord's and with a fresh ODI squad due to be announced too, all was set for a good news day - the first for a while.

Within minutes though, they were announcing the sacking of Graham Gooch, a parting that may have been inevitable given England's diminishing returns with the bat, but one that immediately cast minds backwards rather than towards the future. There was no replacement lined up to leaven the news, no full reshuffle of the backroom staff to be presented as a progressive move.

Alastair Cook was soon on Sky Sports News, Waitrose logo shining from his shirt, explaining the decision to part with his mentor. Perhaps it was designed to show a decisive kind of toughness. It really didn't. Humiliating a 61-year-old man who has given his life to the sport - and it's hard to imagine that having your sacking announced to the nation at a media launch is anything other than humiliating - seems like a callous misjudgment.

Cook has been let down here - and again it was he, rather than Moores, who was explaining the decision. Far better advice would have been to begin the new regime with good news, perhaps the ODI squad announcement with the accent on a couple of young guns being given their chance.

Moores and Cook could have appeared strong and decisive had they waited until the backroom staff had been fully reshaped and then presented them to the nation as a brand new team. Now, any further changes will start to feel like death by a thousand cuts. Cook endured the indignity of having a facetious Tweeted application for the batting coach's job from Kevin Pietersen read out to him during his live Sky Sports interview. The feeling of day-to-day chaos continued.

Waitrose must be wondering what they have let themselves in for. All they wanted to do was sell a few more groceries.