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?