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.


growltiger said...

The tragedy of Loughborough is that there are things that some experts know, that Loughborough does not seem to have cottoned on to. For instance, the weight-transfer mechanics of really fast bowling, based on the trebuchet action against a braced front leg. Australian coaches have got this, but ours apparently not.

The tragedy of Boycott is that there seems to be a decent person in there, trying to express itself, now he is 77. He was a paradigm of selfishness in his playing days. Why else do you think Botham ran him out?

The tragedy of Matthew Engel....I think you more or less have it. Engel was one of my favourite cricket writers, once upon a time.

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