Tuesday 19 December 2017

More Ashes Notes: Boycott versus Engel; Bluffborough; Cleaned Out

There is an outtake from Death of a Gentleman, just a minute or so of footage knocked off by whoever had the camera outside the Oval after a Test match, a fraction of the many hours that ended up in the pixellated digital scrapyard once known as the cutting room floor.

It shows Geoffrey Boycott crossing the road, wheeling his suitcase behind him. His back is to camera, but the figure is unmistakable: immaculately dressed; panama hat tilted just so. People surround him, shout his name, follow him. He is oblivious because this has happened hundreds of times. Boycott's life has been lived before us, and almost everyone has a view, on his batting, on his commentary, on his personality.

He's in Australia now, and appearing on both BT Sport and Test Match Special, which means that back home his analysis is omnipresent. It hasn't gone unnoticed either. First came a soon-deleted Tweet from the ECB's Clare Connor calling him 'unbearable', a low character count, high-impact missive that quickly ignited. Matthew Engel then wrote a piece for the Guardian headlined 'Geoffrey Boycott may be vivid and trenchant but he is becoming unbearable'.

Engel is a storied writer and a former editor of Wisden, and as such is impishly aware of the weight of his words. These particular ones were well-freighted with their own little depth-charge, the line about Boycott suffering from 'Abbeydale Back', a "mysterious injury that seemed to beset him before games on the pacy pitch at Abbeydale Park in Sheffield, especially if the opposition had a menacing West Indian in the attack."

It's an old jibe, that Boycott avoided fast bowling, and one that has long been discredited by both empirical evidence and force of logic, but Engel must have known that it would sting - it's impossible to have followed Boycott's career and not do. Wrapped in a piece that was as much about the relationship between Engel and Boycott as his commentary, it hinted at the game's internal dialogue, at insider knowledge among those close to events.

Boycott was never going to ignore it. Why should he? Impugning his batting, and beyond that, his courage, is hurtful. Graeme Fowler became involved on Twitter, and then to his credit apologised to Boycott, who accepted.

I've always read and admired Matthew Engel, often a deeply human and empathetic writer: see, as just one example, his pieces on Peter Roebuck. But here, he has conflated a criticism of Boycott's commentary with an attack on his character as a player. I wouldn't claim to know how intentional it is: maybe it was calculated, perhaps he was just going with the flow of writing and memory, and that's where it took him.

There's a wider point to this. Engel's piece is not one that could be written by a journalist today, because that kind of career-long access to an international player, and to the inner professional game, has all but disappeared. Writers that have not been players work from a greater distance now, and it alters the level of discourse. Voices become homogenised, the level of received wisdom increases and the language standardises, in part because what most cricket fans get to hear or see comes from ex pros.

That's not to devalue it. Personally, I find Boycott fascinating as well as trenchant, especially on radio, where he has more time to elaborate. For a player who retired a long time ago, his view on the game has grown to embrace and enjoy the great sea-change in play that we are living through, and he does it far better than others of his era (ironically unlike Engel, who loathes T20 cricket). Mike Atherton, Ricky Ponting, Ian Ward and many more illuminate the game in a way that someone who hasn't played professionally cannot.

Yet those of us who play and watch experience the same game, and the same emotions. Everyone travels to its strange hinterland, and finds what they find there. Gideon Haigh, Jarrod Kimber, George Dobell, Andy Bull and some other of the finest writers working were not pro players. There's a whole new generation doing brilliant, on-the-whistle or over-by-over work that weren't, either, and it's filled with fun and love. When someone of the status of Matthew Engel implies that one of the great batsmen of his age - a "very flawed kind of genius" as he wrote - lacks courage, that erroneous judgement somehow widens the gap between the two groups. It hardens opinion on those that haven't played, that they somehow don't have empathy or understanding, even insight.

It's a small, probably unimportant, example, and a minor ruck for Boycott in a life that has been filled with far tougher confrontations. Anyone who's read Leo McKinstry's Boycs will be royally entertained by anecdote after anecdote that back Engel's more sustainable judgement: "Boycott was a remarkable batsman who made an amazing career out of relatively limited natural gifts. But he had great difficulty understanding how his personal performance tied in with the aims of the collective, was a permanent pain in the arse in dressing rooms, and a dreadful captain." It's the nature of the man that you'll read an equal number of anecdotes that back an opposite view, too.

Cricket has a rich history because the gap between pros and amateurs, writers and players, current pros and their predecessors, has been a fluid border, often crossed both ways. It's a game of common experience, and a game that will continue to sprawl its way across the years and formats, a river and its tributaries. Over here, the coverage of the county championship has been renewed online. The big names and TV players aren't the ones providing it because they're engaged elsewhere, so necessarily it falls to other voices. If cricket's reach is to be democratic, it can only be a good thing if writers, broadcasters, ex-pros and pros are in it together.


Losing the Ashes always brings with it a Pulp Fiction-style furious reckoning. If you have to ask who's to blame - it's you... Well maybe not, but among the first of the post mortems, and one of the very best came from George Dobell: "... the ECB are in the process of dismantling the MCCU system (through which almost 25 per-cent of England-qualified cricketers graduate), even though they pay nothing for it, they have poured millions into a centre of excellence that has produced very little - go on, think of all the fast bowlers and spinners who credit it for their development..."

That centre of excellence is Loughborough - or Bluffborough, as Dobell calls it. I went there on a few occasions some years ago to do various interviews for the England match day programmes. It was easy, non-combative stuff, talking briefly to Kevin Shine, who was head of fast bowling, and Peter Such, who had a role developing spin bowlers, and being shown around and so on.

One message was clear: it was high-tech. Science was what Loughborough was about. Andy Flower was interested in data, so there were rooms full of analysts, both of physiology and numbers. The game was being undressed, and each age-group squad there would follow a 'pathway'. Shine said that they had identified the key assets that every 90mph bowler possessed, and they were finding players that matched them. Such was working on a similar analytical, empirical approach to 'revs' and all that kind of twirlyman stuff.

It was new and impressive, lavishly funded and cutting-edge. Purpose hummed through it. Its setting, on the campus of a university with a reputation for sporting excellence, added to the vibe. There was talk of PhD students coming in with niche specialities as and when required. Everyone appeared to be wearing the same kit as the England team. It was a vision that for so long during the fractured 1990s seemed chimeric and distant, yet that had somehow now hoved into view.

The point is that Loughborough, once it existed, had to do something. It was never going to maintain the status quo, or adopt a passive, non-prescriptive approach. Perhaps its greatest discovery has been that the game has a mystery that cannot be unravalled by throwing something like Loughborough at it. Some kid with a tapeball and an alleyway for a wicket will come up with a method that you can't map, precisely because it has never existed before.

Imagine the horror if Loughborough really had, like some dreadful version of Deep Blue, come to the end of cricket... Perhaps we should be glad that it has failed.

Cleaned Out

In 2015, I was fortunate to work with Simon Jones on his memoir of the 2005 Ashes, which meant lots more re-watches of those famous games. In one of the DVD interviews, Michael Vaughan says of Jason Gillespie: "we'd cleaned him out". It was true: after his evisceration by Kevin Pietersen in the final overs of the ODI at Bristol, Gillespie went on to series figures of 3-300, and was dropped after the game at Old Trafford. He played just twice more (and what a finale).

The language Vaughan used seemed brutal, but it was simply the pragmatism of the pro game emerging. Gillespie's decline appeared sharp, probably because the margins at the top are so fine. There isn't much room once you start to slip. It was a feeling repeated when England dropped Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison mid-series in New Zealand a few years later, and replaced them with Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. Again an indefinable something, once there, had left them.

Now it's Broad's turn to feel its dread approach. His knee is troubling him, his team is being beaten, his skills are negated by conditions, and he has in his body all of those thousands of deliveries gone by, each drawing their infinitesimal fee. When Australia bowl, it seems like a different, newer game. We have had Anderson and Broad for so long, it never felt right to look beyond them, but the end sometimes rushes through.

Among all cricketers, fast bowlers rarely get to choose the time of their leaving. Jason Gillespie went. Simon Jones never played for England again after that series. Matthew Hoggard was finished by the New Zealand trip, and while Steve Harmison returned to the side, it was not as its spearhead. You hope that Broad can somehow outrun the distant sound of thunder, but it's coming... maybe soon... maybe now.

Thursday 7 December 2017

The seduction of James Vince, and fear of the dark: more Ashes notes

James Vince is one for the dreamers. He's like a batting version of a Rorschach Test: look at him and tell us what you see... Shimmering possibilities... an indistinct waster...

There was a moment during the Adelaide Test, Vince's first delivery of the first innings, facing Mitchell Starc. England were 29-1. Starc had detonated Mark Stoneman with the final delivery of his fourth over, and then Cook played out a maiden from Hazlewood, leaving Vince on strike. Pumped, Starc went full and very fast, 90mph+ with a small amount of tail at the off stump. Vince played it remarkably: easing forward, knee bent, somehow dropping the face of an angled bat onto the ball.

Confronted with that, most players would have been happy to jam the toe down over a reflexively stiff front leg. Vince had the one thing that separates real batsmen from the rest: time. It's the most precious of commodities, and it was easy, in that moment, to see what the selectors saw, to understand the punt they had taken on him.

He blew it in Adelaide, as he has so often before. Blew it because he 'gave it away', blew it because he played the wrong shots, blew it because he's not a conspicuous tryer like Stoneman or Malan, honest toilers who visibly sweat out their twenties and their thirties. At the heart of that is an acknowledgement of his talent. Social media splatters pixellated venom every time he's out. There seem to be a great number of people who are personally offended that he's in the team.

Vince has made England's only half-decent score of the tour. Along with Root, he has looked like the  top-order player who is capable not just of surviving for a while, but of taking the game from Australia. A player that makes 100, 0, 0 and 0 will win more games of Test cricket than one that makes 45, 24, 56 and 17, although his life may be more precarious. Vince's innings in Brisbane, and Root's second in Adelaide, were the two moments of English control with the bat.

He is a shot to nothing for the selectors, too. There were no outstanding candidates to bat at three, and Root doesn't want to. A poor tour could have set back a next-gen player like Haseeb Hameed or Dan Lawrence by years. If Vince succeeds then it's a bonus. If he fails, he can be jettisoned permanently at no cost, like Michael Carberry. He has been indulged less than Gary Ballance.

Beyond those arguments, players in Vince's mould strike at something fundamental about the game - its capacity for aesthetic pleasure, for beauty, for demonstrating something rare. What infuriates about him isn't just the manner of his failure, it's the possibility of his success. "It's not how, it's how many," goes the old saying. That's only partly true. If the game was stripped of artistry, it would be fatally diminished.

James Vince is a very, very long way from David Gower, but his batting has the same languid charm, and the same ability to make the watcher want to rent out their spleen in frustration. He needs to score some runs, but so do the rest.

And after all, the point of a Rorschach Test is that it tells you about yourself...

Fear of the dark

Like Amsterdam, vampires and Iron Maiden's trousers, Test cricket changes by night. I don't remember uncovered pitches, but do remember them being spoken of in hushed tones, the game's deus ex machina, random destroyers of the status quo.

Rain, in the days before weather apps, was predictable only by an old pro gazing over the stand at some distant hills, or the umpire's gammy leg starting to twitch. Night, on the other hand, is as inevitable as death and taxes. Never before has cricket been confronted with such certainty and regularity of change, and it was interesting to see how much it affects decision-making.

Root's choice to bowl seems logical. Yet as day-night cricket develops, maybe the reverse will apply. Given that both sides will - in almost all cases - have to bat through night sessions at some point, the most desirable outcome must be to have two well-set batsmen when that session starts. Batting first may be the best chance of that.

England's long summer twilights mitigate against it working here, but day-night Tests have already offered a new dimension. Will the first 'night specialist' batsman be that far away?

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Ben Stokes' 'crime' as art... Straussy's Dad's Army moment: More Ashes notes

As the weeks stretch on, it's becoming easier to think of the Ben Stokes nightclub incident as something mediated and unreal, an art installation, an arch comment on the role that the ginger avenger has in the England cricket team. In it, Stokes plays himself, of course, while Alex Hales becomes an avatar for the rest of the side. His lairy opponents, unpleasantly tooled up with beer bottles and plenty of mouth, represent... well you can guess who they're supposed to be. Hales prances around on the fringe of the action while Stokes gets stuck in and sorts out the troublemakers.

As in life, so in cricket. Stokes is a take-no-prisoners player, a man of the people standing up for himself and his mates, often outnumbered, rarely outgunned. An England team with him in it has a fine balance, and more than that, his presence reflects well on others. His success makes their job easier, makes them look better.

Sometimes in sport, greatness is defined by absence. Stokes is not yet a great, but minus his power, England are almost visibly weaker. A single Test is a small sample size but the defeat in Brisbane was one of early resistance then mild acquiesence. Moeen, Woakes and Bairstow all had their reasons for it. Whatever they are, they looked less good without Stokes beside them.

The fear of more defeat, and the slightly abstract nature of the charges Stokes may face for taking action against some at-best ambiguous characters, lends heft to the desire for him to play. I feel it too.

"They discourse like angels, but they live like men," Samuel Johnson wrote. Divorcing the lifestyle of the artist from the nature of the art has sometimes been important, as well. We yearn for Stokes' character on the field, but not in the street.

A month or so ago, I was at a Chance To Shine dinner at Lord's [message me and I'll drop the names of the other speakers]. The most affecting and memorable part of the night came from a teacher at an inner London school, precisely the sort of place that Chance To Shine wants cricket to penetrate. He spoke passionately about the need for Stokes to be held accountable for what happened that night. Some of his pupils looked up to Ben Stokes. Lots more of them knew who he was and had seen the phonecam footage of the streetfight. It was the sort of thing they'd watch and share regardless of any interest in sport.

How, he asked, were they supposed to know that punching someone in the street was wrong if it happened without consequences? Some of them lived chaotic lives, they existed in different worlds with moveable boundaries and mixed messages; and some of them were growing up in places where this sort of stuff, and much worse, happens all the time.

It's not up to Ben Stokes or the ECB to solve those sort of deeply-embedded, deeply complex issues, except maybe indirectly, by getting people into cricket. It's not Ben Stokes' fault that those issues exist. He hasn't committed the crime of the century (or, so far, any crime at all), and he doesn't deserve to be made an example of, because then he could fairly argue that all of his good examples be taken into account too, and there are plenty of those.

All of that other stuff is the job of the police and the justice system. But he does need to be held accountable, as all of us do. And while that is being sorted out, it's probably right that he doesn't play, even though that in itself is a form of punishment for him, and, as it turns out, for the rest of the team, and the England fans.

It's only the Ashes, after all...

Don't tell him, Pike

Meanwhile in Brisbane/Adelaide or wherever they were, Australia won by an innings-and-plenty with the Bairstow "coming together" of heads non-story. Here were more Stokes repercussions, felt even as he packed his New Balance* bags for New Zealand. Andrew Strauss, understandably sensitive about the whole drinking culture/curfew/naughty boy nets-type stuff, could do nothing but take this nonsense seriously.

There followed a comedy classic, 'Straussy' trying to coin euphemisms for headbutting on the hoof and in front of the mics, Bairstow painted as "socially awkward" with a load of rugby players for mates (someone save him...), all followed by the inevitable appearance of Chris Woakes before the press, a man who rivals a playing days Alan Shearer for implacable public blandness.

Next time, cut Strauss out and put Woakes up right away - the story will immediately begin gasping for oxygen...

*Good dummy from Stokes at the airport. New Balance have dropped him, but they sponsor the England team. The world's first pass-agg airport baggage?

Monday 27 November 2017

Steve Smith: more evidence that we've been playing cricket all wrong, and other Ashes notes...

It was said of Brian Lara that he had three shots that he could play to any one delivery. The genius of the great man was that he almost always chose the right one. Steve Smith often looks like he is playing three shots to each ball he faces, while taking his dog for a walk as well, but the results in the scorebook place him at batting's highest table.

His 141 at Brisbane took his Test average back over 60. In Australia it's 72. Since 2014, his year-end returns have been 1,146 runs at 81.85, 1,474 at 73.70, 1,079 at 71.93 and, in 2017, with three games to go, 842 at 64.76. He has made 19 Test hundreds in those four years. It goes beyond 'form'. It is sustained excellence at a level few have reached.

Cricket's rhythms are different now even to December 2006, when Ricky Ponting was averaging 59.99 after 107 Test matches. They are a lifetime apart from the Summer of 1948, when Bradman walked away with 99.94, swing compared to garage. Bradman's 19 hundreds took him 20 years. Yet Smith, in his oddness, is more Bradman-esque than almost anyone since.

The Don remains cricket's great outlier, its deepest mystery, thirty per cent better than anybody else. In The Nightwatchman and The Meaning of Cricket, I've written about Tony Shillinglaw, who has spent years unravelling and then mimicking Bradman's quirky, self-taught principles. He sees Bradman as cricket's road not taken. The game has chosen to write him off as some kind of cosmic fluke rather than trying to understand and teach what he did.

In Steve Smith, Shillinglaw observes some of the keys to the Don's game, especially the backlift and downswing that is key to Bradman's 'Rotary Method'. Smith may not move like Bradman, but his bat arrives at the ball along a similar pathway. He has Bradman's disdain for orthodoxy too. The only video analysis he watches is of himself scoring runs, to keep up his confidence, and after a couple of low Shield scores recently, he decided he'd change his grip. He plays on feel, the nature of which which is mysterious to everyone but him.

England's plans for him hover around bowling a fifth stump line. "He doesn’t seem to get lbw or bowled too much." Stuart Broad said. "If you look at the past four years in Australia, he’s had one bowled on 170 when trying to hit it out the ground and a couple of lbws when it was reversing. The best batsmen don’t miss straight balls and the outside edge is his biggest threat. If we get a pitch with any sideways movement and more pace it brings the edge into play."

Broad seemed delighted when Smith called the tactic "defensive", and its outcome was a slower than usual matchwinning hundred. It seems something of a fool's paradise: Smith isn't dismissed bowled or LBW because everyone bowls a fifth stump line to him, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

On commentary, Geoffrey Boycott proposed something else. Bowl stump to stump and pack the leg side. Not exactly Bodyline, but a new type of leg theory. It may at least offer the pleasure of watching a modern great solve a new problem.

Leaving Nathan

One of the more astonishing stats to emerge from Brisbane was that of the 360 deliveries Nathan Lyon sent down, 11 - 3.05% - would have hit the stumps. It's the kind of percentage that seems more applicable to the raging turn of early-years Murali than a more modest, over-spinning offie like Lyon. It also suggests that there is a way of playing against him, even for England's left handers, that doesn't involve propping hopefully and defensively forwards to every ball. Disrupting Lyon is the key to Australia's seamers bowling longer and more often, and to them retaining the energy to bounce out England's tail quickly when it's exposed. Once you realise he's not even bowling at the stumps, you can start to put a strategy in place.

Rootmaths enters new Andy Murray phase

Since scoring 766 runs in 2010-11, Alastair Cook's returns in Australia have been 13, 65, 3, 1, 72, 0, 27, 51, 7, 7, 2, 7 - in all 255 at 21.25. His career Down Under has been an odd one. His first tour, in 2006-7, realised 276 runs at 26.70, in 2010-11, 766 at 127.66, and 2013-14, 246 at 24.60. In all, he has played 16 Tests, of which Australia have won 12 and drawn one. On three of his tours - including this one - England have lost every Test (so far). The early hook shot that dismissed him in the second innings at Brisbane was one of his less phlegmatic moments. Maybe the mad old place is finally getting to him...

Joe Root, meanwhile, has a difficult stat of his own to reckon with. As one of batting's new 'Big Four', he has 13 Test hundreds from 112 innings, to Kane Williamson's 17 from 110, Kohli's 19 from 104, and Smith's 21 from 105. Root passes fifty once every 2.4 innings, more often than any of the other three, but gets to a hundred once every 8.6, a stat skewed even further by the fact that all but one of his hundreds have been scored in the first innings. By contrast, Smith gets a hundred once every five innings, Kohli every 5.5 and Williamson every 6.4.
Kohli has made five double centuries since 2016 and three other hundreds, two of which were unbeaten. Only twice during that run did he pass fifty without getting to three figures. Smith has made eight centuries since 2016, and six other fifties. Root, who has played 25 games in that period to Kohli's 21 and Smith's 19, has five hundreds, including one double, and 14 fifties, plus innings of 48 and 49.
He is remarkably consistent, but in this Big Four, he is shaping up as the Andy Murray figure, better than the rest, yet watching others blaze on ahead.

Monday 3 July 2017

The Creation of Chelmsford

You probably remember Joel Goodman's wondrous photograph, taken on New Year's Eve 2015 and soon known as The Creation Of Manchester. Goodman's shutter clicked at the moment in which the 'characters' fell into perfect aspects and ratios that, with some glorious light, gave it a posed, painterly quality which has survived long beyond the fraction of a second for which the scene existed.

I wonder if cricket now has its own version in the form of this GIF, which captures Simon Harmer's dismissal of Steve Finn at Chelmsford last Thursday.

It crams an awful lot into a few seconds. As a set-up, the initial still is perfect: seven fielders around the bat and the long four-way shadows of the floodlit gloaming offer an instant narrative of a tight, late finish. Essex were about to win by a vast margin in the scorebook, an innings and 34 runs, but in reality the end came with the clock at a minute to nine pm and three deliveries left in the game.

The spring had been winding tight throughout the last afternoon, when Nick Compton batted for 303 deliveries - 59 more than he'd faced all season - in making 120 and Paul Sterling summoned an unlikely three-and-a-bit-hour half century alongside him. Harmer, in blistering form, worked his way through the rest, taking the first eight to fall. Dan Lawrence winkled the ninth, bringing the Watford Wall to the crease.

Those hours of tension, of the effort in the daily lives of professional cricketers, are deep within the image. It's part of the genius of the game that its great, tidal lulls are transformed into climactic moments of exquisite tension, felt by everyone. Finn picks the line as leg stump-ish. I'd guess somewhere halfway through his leave he knows he's wrong, or at least wrong enough. Perhaps the umpire feels the pull of the drama as he realises he must bring final judgement on four days' of toil.

As the appeal is answered, the nine men of Essex sprint left and out of frame, a murmuration of cricketers, leaving the stage clear for the principals. Finn hangs forward, his head bowed. The umpire holds a pose of his own, presumably waiting for Finn to acknowledge his fate. Finn can't - or won't - look up, and he doesn't have to. He knew as the ball hit his pad, and if he didn't know then he knew as the Essex players flew past him. What's remains is a perfect image.

The Creation of Manchester was one of a series of other, less good photographs either side of it. The same is true of this GIF. It's the editing that isolates it and holds it in time. By removing everything else, it somehow retains the story of the game within it. Maybe it should be called The Creation of Chelmsford...

NB: H/T to my pal Nick Hogg with whom I discussed this on Twitter. And read Paul Edwards' on the whistle report, which mentions Grayson Perry and John Dee in the intro. Marvellous.

Friday 23 June 2017

Cricket and psychogeography number 3: Tilford - Billy at rest

This pub sign, unearthed in Barnham, West Sussex but originating from an establishment a couple of hundred yards from where it now stands, bears the image of 'Silver' Billy Beldham in his dotage [read part one of Billy's story here]. It comes from the Cricketers in Wrecclesham, which itself is now a restaurant called The Bengal Lounge, but which Billy frequented with his brother in law and batting mentor John Wells, and where, on one wall, was scrawled the commemorative legend: 'Good beer as drunk by those famous men Beldham and Wells'.

Billy was born a stone's throw from the sign in Yew Tree Cottage, a glorious tumble of sagging bricks and beams with a raked roof, Grade II listed since 1972 and possessing a measure of fame itself as the model for 'Oak Cottage', one of those Lilliput Lane miniatures that stand on nans' shelves everywhere. It was probably built in the 16th century, although there are records of a dwelling there since the 1300s. Billy arrived in 1766 and handed the tenancy of the house to John Wells in 1820, the year before his long playing career came to a close.

The ground beyond the sign is The Rec, home to Wrecclesham CC, founded in 1902 and who first played on this pitch in 1927. Billy would never have seen cricket here (unless he ventured out of his door to practice, which is not unlikely), yet the ground further nestles this tiny village into the lore of the game. When I played for Wrecclesham's U15s (sneaking across the border from, whisper it, Hampshire) the Thorpe brothers were mainstays, Ian, eldest and captain, and Alan were buccaneering all-rounders; the youngest, Graham, was a left-handed bat... and in Graham Thorpe, Wrecclesham had another great player (I'm sure Graham still revels in the title, 'the second best batsman to come from Wrecclesham').

Nonetheless, by virtue of the era of his birth, and the alchemy he brought to a rural pastime, Silver Billy has a significance no modern player can match. In striding out to the ball and countering the early dominance of bowling, he made batting beautiful and cast the batsman as the aesthetic centre of the game. As Nyren wrote in Cricketers Of My Time: 'It was one of the most beautiful sights that can be imagined, and which would have delighted an artist, was to see him make himself up to hit a ball'. And when he was done as a maker of runs and a star turn of Hambledon, Surrey, MCC and All-England, Billy Beldham moved here:

This is the Barley Mow at Tilford, where, in 1821, at the age of 51, Billy became the landlord. The building adjoining the pub to the right is Oak Tree Cottage, home to Billy and his wife Ann. Ann was Billy's second wife, and his second wife called Ann (Ann the first bore him a daughter called Ann, too; both had passed away by the time Billy got to Tilford). It must have been like Mick Jagger moving to the village. Modern notions of fame don't really apply, but it's fair to say Billy Beldham had something of the rock star about him, from the blond locks that gave him his nickname to the stories that he'd fathered thirty-six children - nine is the more likely total, eight by the second Ann.

Tilford stands where the two branches of the river Wey meet, and its medieval bridges cross the water either side of the Barley Mow. In front of the pub is a triangular village green that rises quite sharply at the far side and rolls in swales that catch the light. It has been recreational ground since 1853, and Tilfird began playing cricket on it in 1886, but as with The Rec at Wrecclesham, it was Billy's playground before then. In the back room of the Barley Mow he made cricket bats, and where else would he have gone to test his workmanship (and how could he have resisted having a hit?).

Silver Billy was one of the first men to make a living from cricket. In one of his earlier seasons, 1788, he played ten matches for which he was paid a total of £44 and two shillings, more than double the annual wage of a farm worker. His form of fame lingered. He died at Tilford on 20 February 1862, and five months later, London Society magazine carried these lines: 'Old Beldham died last winter near Farnham, aged ninety-six. Not long before, the old man was invited to Lord's, and received with all honours in the pavilion: he was also advertised as expected at the Oval, to increase the attraction of a match between the old players and the young'. He was also said to have been the first cricketer ever to be photographed.

What's harder to feel is the texture of his life, the rhythm of his days. Billy died no more than seven miles from where he was born, and even that may have represented some journey for a rural villager given a short life of hard labour and hard drinking. Billy had travelled to the great metropolitan grounds of Lord's (he saw all three of its locations) and the Oval (said to have been named after Holt Pound Oval, where Billy played his first big matches). He journeyed regularly to Hambledon, thirty miles away, by horse. For anyone dropping by the Barley Mow to hear his stories, he must have sounded like an explorer or an astronaut, a resident of places that they could only imagine.

What drew him to Tilford is lost in time, and there's an odd connection, probably coincidence, but worth thinking about. In 1894, a young architect, Edward Lutyens, put up one of his first commissions, The Tilford Institute, opposite the Barley Mow. It has served as the pavilion for Tilford CC, and it's one of the few places in the world where you have to cross the road as you go into bat.

In its summer setting, a Lutyens on one edge and the Barley Mow on another, the green has become a vision of a certain kind of Englishness, a deeply timeless place. With the cricket on, watched by the drinkers in front of Billy's pub and the kids paddling in the river beyond, it has been used in adverts by companies emphasising their roots - British Airways, Rover, Courage Beer - and by Stephen Frears as the setting for his BBC film (apparently never shown) of the cricket match from the novel England Their England.

Somehow Billy, who had defined the aesthetic of the batsman when he played, ended his days on a green that still embodies this particular type of beauty. What a great and mysterious force he was.

Next time, to the early sites of Lord's, and the rise of another archetype that has run through the history of the game - the autocratic administrator...

Thursday 30 March 2017

Cricket & psychogeography number 2: the fast bowlers of Hartley Wintney

This lightning tree stands in the fields between Elvetham and Hartley Wintney, at the North-East tip of Hampshire. Across the same fields, long before the tree was seeded, strode a cricketing thunderbolt, a man who would change the fabric of the game. His name was David Harris, and he bowled fast. Here's what it was like to face him:

'He left fingers ground to dust against bat, bones pulverised, and blood scattered over the field.'

He was born in Elvetham in 1755, and he emerged into a changing world. In 1744, the two stumps that made up a wicket had been raised to twenty-two inches in height. In 1775, when Harris was twenty years old, came the match at the Artillery Ground when Lumpy Stevens 'bowled' John Small three times, leading to the addition of the middle peg. The target suitably established, David Harris went to work.

 Elvetham was listed in the Domesday book with a yearly rent of thirty shillings and enough woodland to support ten swine. The Seymour family arrived in 1426, and in 1535 Edward Seymour entertained his brother-in-law Henry VIII there. Elizabeth I visited in 1591 as the guest of the Earl of Hertford, and brought an entourage of 500 with her. The fields and woodland around the hall were unchanged by the time of David Harris and some have barely changed now. Harris happened to be born in exactly the right place, as well as the right time.

Hartley Wintney cricket green, viewed from the Elvetham side

Cricket was played on this green in 1770, when David Harris was fifteen years old, and it has taken place there every season since, making it one of the oldest continuously used grounds in England. Although the name David Harris appeared on a scorecard for the first time on 27 May 1782 in a game at Odiham between Arlesford & Odiham and a Hampshire County XI, the case that he was bowling here, a mile or so from his home, some years before that is irresistible.

Looking from the square towards Elvetham

Harris' method, the ball raised to the height of his forehead 'like a soldier at drill' before he delivered, produced a spearing underarm delivery that kicked up from the pitch, a new and apocalyptic development for batsmen used to a ball that stayed low or ran across the ground. 'Length', as it became known, forced through the new style of bat and a new style of batting, the one being refined by Billy Beldham a few miles to the south in Farnham.

But Harris did something more important than that. He introduced a psychological dimension to the game that wasn't there before, he broadened its hinterland. He brought in the notion of fear, of peril. He reinforced the idea of the batsman as being alone in a hostile universe. It was the other half of Silver Billy's model of batting as something beautiful, the aesthetic heart of the game, and together they formed something modern and new.

Here is the playwright Frederick Reynolds on how it was to face David Harris: 'I felt almost as if taking my ground in a duel... and my terrors were so much increased by the mock pity and sympathy of Hammond, Beldham and others round the wicket, that when this mighty bowler, this Jupiter Tonans, hurled his bolt at me, I shut my eyes in the intensity of my panic and gave a random, desperate blow'.

David Harris and Billy Beldham first faced one another in 1784, when Farnham played Hambledon, and they would appear as both team-mates and opponents from then on, two shaping forces, flip-sides of the same coin. A third man linked them, another archetype, this time of the autocratic administrator. His name was Lord Frederick Beauclerk, and he lived in Winchfield, the next village along from Hartley Wintney, in Winchfield House, a glorious pile that still stands.

Beauclerk's crib, Winchfield House

Ostensibly a cleric with a parish in St Albans, where, when he appeared his sermons were legendarily dull, Beauclerk made his money from playing and betting on cricket, and he was one of the game's great enigmas: courageous on the field but malicious too, a bearer of epic grudges, priggish, disdainful, haughty, both a maker and bender of rules and a man who had no problem with saying one thing and doing another. His betting came mainly in small-sided games, into which Billy Beldham was often co-opted.

Beauclerk would have loved to have hold of David Harris too, but his star shone briefly. He was a quiet country boy, with, as Nyren recorded, 'a remarkably kind and gentle expression', a potter by trade who never married and who would be dead at 45. Gout afflicted him so badly that he used crutches to walk and had to sit down between overs, and after his last games in 1798, 'was latterly a cripple'. He's buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Crondall, not far from his home in Crookham.

As John Major wrote in his book More Than A Game, 'The name of David Harris does not convey the magic of a Sydney Barnes, a Harold Larwood or a Shane Warne, but his role in changing the face of cricket was greater than any of theirs'. 

Harris had a reputation for being incorruptible, 'a man of so strict a principal', not pragmatic enough for Beauclerk. Instead, Hartley Wintney was to throw up another rapid-fire merchant for him, Thomas Howard, born in the village in 1781, a man who would take part in a contest of such infamy it would lead to a radical change in rules, and to a feud that cost careers and lasted a lifetime.

It involved Beauclerk of course, who could not believe his luck when he found a left-arm length bowler of Howard's talent emerging just up the road from his country house. Howard appeared in the inaugural Gentleman versus Players matches at Lord's Dorset Square gound in 1806, where Beauclerk captained the Gentlemen and recruited Silver Billy and William Lambert as 'given men' [Billy swapped sides for the second encounter, during which Howard dismissed Beauclerk for an ultimately decisive 58 in the Gentlemen's first innings].

By 1810, when Beauclerk asked Howard to play with him in a money match against William Lambert and George Osbaldeston, Howard was established as a leading player of the day. The bet was for £100, and it was a gamble - Lambert was to vye with Billy as the premier batsman of the age, and Osbaldeston was a skilled all-rounder, a swashbuckler known as the 'Squire of England'. When Osbaldeston fell ill at the toss, Beauclerk saw his chance and refused Lambert's request to postpone the game. He told Lambert to play or pay up and Lambert responded by bowling so wide of the wicket that Beauclerk's hair-trigger temper duly went off and the match was lost.

Beauclerk's vengeance was lifelong. A year later his hand was behind the institution of a Law declaring a one-run penalty for a wide delivery. In 1817, Lambert was accused of trying to fix a match between Nottingham and Beauclerk's All England XI. Beauclerk was struck on the finger during that ill-tempered game and almost died after the wound became infected. When Lambert became embroiled in a row during a match at Lord's the following season, Beauclerk called him in front of the MCC committee and had him banned from playing for a year. For Osbaldeston he had to wait a little longer, but revenge came when he resigned from MCC in protest after an argument during another single-wicket game and Beauclerk refused to readmit him. The Squire's cricket career fell terminally away.

Here have stood giants...

Hartley Wintney is a thriving club [and a ground I conquered myself once or twice] and each year they host a charity game, generally with Hampshire's beneficiary, so the great and the good continue to stand on earth that connects them to cricket's deepest history. It's quite something to be a part of.

The dastardly Lord forever remembered in Winchfield

Next time, to London for more from Beauclerk, and then Tilford, for the last days of Silver Billy...

Friday 17 February 2017

Cricket & psychogeography number 1: Holt Pound

It's the morning of 23 August 1791. In the field behind this gate, George Finch, the ninth Earl of Winchilsea, has been dismissed hit wicket for four while batting for Surrey against Hampshire. His opening partner Charles Anguish is out for nought. Harbord, the number three, goes for a duck too, and Louch at number four manages nine. Two of the three Walker brothers, Tommy and Harry, fall quickly, for nought and two. By the side of the pitch, among the crowds, William Beldham, 25 years old and perhaps already the greatest batsman in the land, awaits his turn. He's down at number eleven, the last man in.

The bowling is underarm, each over consists of four deliveries. On Holt Pound's rudimentary wicket, staying in is hard, making runs harder. When he gets to the crease, Billy Beldham scores nine in the first innings and 17 in the second - and Surrey win by 17 runs. In the first-class season of 1791, Billy finishes with 532 runs, the most in England and almost 150 more than anyone else. Despite being run out for a duck in the second innings and completing a pair, George Finch is third with 345.

Billy came from Wrecclesham, a hillside village to the south of Farnham and a community that was said to spend its sundays 'in scenes of profanity and vice', drinking and gambling on games of marbles and pitch-and-toss, no doubt a terrifying sight to the metropolitan elite. William was a handsome country lad, tall and with long fair hair that won him the nickname 'Silver Billy'. He lived in Yew Tree Cottage on The Street, Wrecclesham's main thoroughfair, a winding strip that boasted five pubs along it and another three nearby. The Holt Pound ground lay behind one of those, an establishment currently known as the Forest Inn, at the top of Wrecclesham hill.

The Forest Inn, glimpsed from the far side of the ground

In the spring of 1791, Lord Stawel, the ranger of Alice Holt forest and the captain of Farnham Cricket Club, had employed Billy and his brother John to create a newer, more permanent ground behind the pub to cash in on the growing interest in cricket. Land in the forest was being cleared to produce wood for the Royal Navy, and the arena that  Billy and John produced was described by Charles Grover in his book My Native Village: 'It was banked and level and free to all parties, and as the game is considered a most manly one, all classes engaged in it most extensively.  At this time few counties or towns could cope with Farnham and more particularly the little village of Wrecclesham, which could boast some of the most clever and celebrated at the game, as well as one of the best grounds. Matches would often last three or four days and when there, would assemble thousands of spectators, and carriages very numerous'.

Silver Billy's vision

Billy was schooled in the game by Harry Hall, a gingerbread maker from Farnham, and the Walker brothers of Churt - Harry Walker is usually credited with creating the cut shot. Farnham were a powerhouse of a team, and Billy debuted in their first recorded match, on the field he'd turn into Holt Pound, on 13 August 1782. They played Odiham, and Billy Beldham was 16 years old. Between that debut and the summer of 1791, Billy became a giant, one of the first men to play forward with a high front elbow, a style that demanded a new shape of bat and a response from bewildered bowlers.

George Finch first saw him play when Billy scored 43 for Farnham against Hambledon in 1784, and the following Spring visited him in Wrecclesham with an offer to become his patron. From then on, and for the rest of his playing career, Billy earned good money from cricket, and what's more, invented the notion of batting as something beautiful, an aesthetic pleasure. He made the batsman, rather than the bowler, the lone existential hero of the game.

John Nyren, son of the great yeoman Richard, landlord of the Bat and Ball at Broadhalfpenny Down, and from whom we know most of what we know, would write of Silver Billy in his pomp: 'It was a study for Phidias to see Beldham rise to strike, the grandeur of the attitude, the settled composure of the look, the piercing lightning of the eye, the rapid glance of the bat, were electrical. Men's hearts throbbed within them, their cheeks turned pale and red. Michael Angelo [sic] should have painted him...'

Imagine it's a sightscreen...

Billy struck one of the first hundreds on Thomas Lord's ground at Dorset Square, and appeared in both of the other first-class games played on Holt Pound, Surrey's two famous wins over Lord Frederick Beauclerk's All England side in 1808 and 1809 - turning out for Surrey in the first and England in the second. It's easy to imagine how he felt, a boy from nowhere who drew thronging crowds and the patronage of lords to the ground outside of his village, setting men's hearts athrob as he went...

Billy wasn't the only shaping force to appear at Holt Pound. George Finch, ninth Earl of Winchilsea, began playing at the age of 33 and thereafter 'would go anywhere for a game of cricket'. His bat was reputed to weigh 4lbs 2oz, which perhaps contributed to his erratic form. It was away from the pitch that his presence was felt. He was a founder of MCC, the club that would soon become the focus of the game, and he offered Thomas Lord the patronage that helped him construct Dorset Square, shifting cricket from country to city.

The lane beside Holt Pound

To find Holt Pound today, drive through Wrecclesham, past Yew Tree Cottage, which still stands on the Street, and on up the hill, where you'll pass a garden centre and a sawmill and then cross the border from Surrey back into Hampshire before you reach the Forest Inn, and the tumbledown little laneway beside it that leads to the ground. It's a prosaic place now, administered by Binstead council, a bare and unloved field with just a dog-walkers' track across the middle. Farnham left it behind after 1851 for their existing ground on Folly Hill, and save for a brief revival after the first World War, Billy's oval at Holt Pound receded into history, unknown now to the cars that fly by on the A325.

There should be a blue plaque, at least, if you could bolt one to the gate...

A view from the middle

We'll return to the story of Silver Billy when we visit Tilford, but next in the series it's Hartley Wintney, for a meeting with a demon bowler who Billy often battled, and the oddball Lord who seized hold of the Laws of the game...