Saturday 28 December 2019

Xmas leftovers Part I: The Strange Hinterland of Vinceness

For one reason or another, a piece sometimes falls by the wayside - inbetween commissioning and arrival, things shift and the spike is inserted. I've had a couple this year, so thought I'd throw them up here. The first was written around the start of the World Cup. It's about James Vince and the predicament of being England's spare man. Ultimately, he held the fort and played his part, so here's to the great JV...

 Ah, James Vince. A breathy sigh across the face of the game, a player that, even when hitched up to the runaway train that is England’s one-day batting, transports you to way-stations that no-one else can. Take Cardiff, the T20i against Pakistan last month. He hit one through cover so hard the ball seemed to leave a slight vapour trail behind, pixels of white-light. ‘Are you watching this?’ said one of my direct messages. ‘It’s not just the timing, it’s the power…’ Or Nottingham, where he opened against Pakistan and oozed the second ball of England’s innings to the boundary, a shot that produced from the crowd the kind of deep ‘aahhh’ of satisfaction that comes from air being taken in rather than expelled from the lungs.

Vince made 36 at Cardiff and 43 in Nottingham, scores that populate that strange hinterland of Vince-ness in which both fans and haters find their fuel. There is a vacancy for an enigma in English cricket, has been since Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash became the last two men to score one hundred first-class centuries. At the centre of any enigma is mystery, and Vince’s lies somewhere between those of Ramprakash and Hick. Like Ramprakash there is a dissonance between how he looks when he’s batting and how he feels. Like Hick, there is a woozy sense of diffidence, of not appearing to be quite present enough.

Here’s James Vince talking about how it feels from the inside, speaking to the writer Jonathan Liew: “Every now and again, you feel like your rhythm’s on, you can do pretty much anything. But those days are very rare. It always feels like a grind. There’s never an easy run.”

Then there’s the diffidence, the maddening repetition of fifteen of his twenty-two Test innings ending with catches somewhere between the wicketkeeper and cover. An analysis by the Cricviz website found that he was the unluckiest batsman in world cricket. Another, by Jarrod Kimber, focussed on the number of runs Vince scored in boundaries - around 62 per cent of his Test tally came that way, a figure as high as Sehwag’s.

Both analyses had value, both could be right, and also wrong. Enigma sometimes exists as disparity between how something appears and how it performs. Vince’s blessing, and his curse, is to make something that everyone knows to be difficult seem as natural as breathing.

A cricket bat maker once gave me a wonderful analogy about the way he approached the bats of this new era: “fast cars look fast,” he said.

James Vince looks fast. For the aesthete, his grace at the crease can be overwhelming. He creates a sense of possibility when he bats and when he gets out in the ways that James Vince gets out, he leaves behind a sadness for what hasn’t happened, for what won’t now be seen.

Some people, pragmatists generally, a group into which many professional and ex-professional cricketers fall, don’t really feel that loss in the same way. They were always on at Ramprakash and Hick, and now at Vince too, mainly for giving the appearance of being something that they’re not.

It’s hard to make the case that they are wrong, in this moment of extraordinary fecundity in England’s one-day batting. The line-up is as freakish as its results suggest, so James Vince will play the role of spare man, a state almost as tantalising as one of his thirties or forties.

Teddy Sheringham spoke recently about Manchester United’s 1999 Champions League victory. Sheringham was a substitute on the night of the final, and with United losing 1-0, Alex Ferguson told him that if another fifteen minutes went by without a United goal, he’d be playing: “I didn’t want Bayern to score because then it’s really hard to get back in the game. But I didn’t want us to score either, because then I probably wouldn’t get on…”

It’s a perfect summation of where James Vince is right now. Wanting but not wanting. Hoping but not hoping, just like Teddy, who pulled it off in the end.
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Wednesday 7 August 2019

First Test notes: England on the Edge (again); rethinking the last day

One evening during the Test, I saw The Edge, Barney Douglas' film about England's champion side of 2009-14. I've reviewed it for the next issue of WCM so I won't cover the same ground here, but soon after I'd sent the piece, I sat and watched England fold, and it was striking how the film's themes were being played out again in real time.

The Edge is structured around England's ambition to become the number one team in world cricket. It takes them two years to get there and another couple, give or take a few months, to fall apart. There is a core of players together for the whole span, others who drop in and out, but they all become part of something bigger, something that controls them as much as they control it.

After England beat India in 2011, Andrew Strauss is handed the ICC mace, a trophy so ridiculously grandiose it could only have been conjured by sports administrators. In his talking-head interview Strauss - and what a man he is - says, "I thought, is this it?"

That sense of anticlimax is not uncommon in sport. The golfer David Duval was so driven in the early part of his career that he briefly knocked a peak-era Tiger Woods from the top of the rankings, but when he won the Open Championship in 2001, it was his final victory on tour. Ten years later, when Woods had won 14 Majors to his one, Duval lost his tour card. His decline, which he likened to "a train wreck, and the train is loaded with toxic chemicals," had many causes, but one of them, as he admitted, was that same feeling as he held the claret jug: "is this it?"

It's a complex thought, but it must stem from the emotional release of achieving a long-held goal. What's missing is the goal itself, the meaning, the purpose, the journey. That's a wholly personal experience. Sometimes it comes back and sometimes it doesn't.

This England team, like Strauss', also had a four-year project, and it was also successful. This week, Jos Buttler spoke about the World Cup win. He'd kept England alive in the final, then batted in the super over, and then gathered Jason Roy's last, fateful throw during New Zealand's. A few days later, he moved house. "What was scaring me," he said, "was that if we lost, I didn't know how I'd play cricket again. This was such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a World Cup final at Lord's. It felt like destiny, and I was thinking, if it doesn't happen, I will have no motivation to pick up a cricket bat for a very long time."

For a pro sportsman, this is a wonderfully frank thing to say. It has an obvious flipside, too. Having won rather than lost, but having gone through the ringer either way, what motivation is there to pick up a bat again, anyhow? At least, not a week or so later.

Part of what The Edge is saying is that we get so close to sport, we disassociate the performers from real life, real feelings. They never move house. They are held to impossible standards, often by their own will, but by the collective will too. We've won the World Cup, but now we want the Ashes, after you've played a game against Ireland, because that will be the perfect summer, Boy's Own stuff. 

The teams of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook played Ashes series in 2009, 2010-11, 2013 and 2013-4. They'd won the T20 World Cup, and contested series against South Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, home and away, too. The film finishes, but the schedule goes on, a World Cup disaster, a Champions Trophy, another Ashes...

This summer has put the current team through the same thing. We're still throwing brickbats from the sidelines about Jos Buttler's only Test century, Jason Roy's mad charge, the 'declines' of Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, Joe Root not converting again... We look with great and rightful sympathy at the plights of Trescothick, Flintoff, Harmison, Trott, Finn, at the broken bodies of Prior, Swann, Tremlett and the rest. You may watch The Edge and find yourself re-evaluating Kevin Pietersen's "it's hard being me" moment, as I did.

And then you realise, it's happening again, and it's happening now, to a different group of people. It's happening because this is the modern game, but we're caught up in the moment and don't take a step back to see it. England looked shot at Edgbaston because they are shot. Who the hell can blame them, and who is going to do something about it?

Rethinking Day Five

In Duncan Hamilton's wonderful new book about Neville Cardus, The Great Romantic, he recalls the Melbourne Test of 1937, when Don Bradman outflanks Gubby Allen by reversing Australia's batting order in the Aussie second innings (Chuck Fleetwood-Smith asks why he has to open, and Bradman tells him that the only way to get out on this wicket is to hit the ball, and as Fleetwood-Smith never could do that... Chuck gets a duck anyway). Bradman made 270 from number seven and Australia won by a street.

If I was a proper journalist I'd try and find the stats of England batting out day five in the modern era. I'm not so I won't, but it doesn't happen very often. And yet every time, they do exactly the same thing. And they lose, and we all get annoyed about 'white ball techniques' and lack of sticks of rhubarb or whatever it is that causes them to be all out by 3pm.

What they never try is something different. Maybe not reversing the order (although if it's good enough for the Don...), but at least attempting to fit some tactics to the situation, rather than the meaningless "bat time" or "see where we are at lunch" (five down, usually).

Australia's pressure at Edgbaston was always going to come from Lyon bowling all day at one end and the seamers the other. As Jason Roy discovered, it was a risk trying to hit the GOAT out of the attack, but on a different day, or with a method agreed before play started, it would be no more risky than trying to block out. It's just less palatable, less easy. But sometimes audacity has its moment, too. 

Sunday 17 February 2019

Third Test Notes: No-one born slow gets fast

Pace bowling remains one of the game's great unknowables. There is mystery inherent within it, and very few men on earth can do what Mark Wood did in St Lucia last week. As the old sprinters' proverb goes: 'no-one born slow ever got fast'.

It was interesting to hear Wood describe it as "feeling like a superhero." When I worked with Simon Jones on his book The Test, he made the same analogy: "It's like having a superpower, it's a surge, an urge. It's a feeling like no other, to know that the opposition are worried about you, sometimes frightened of you... I've had guys throwing up in the dressing room toilets before facing me. I've had guys refusing to come into bat."

And Simon was always quick, he was born fast. When he was fifteen years old and still five feet six inches tall, he toured Zimbabwe with a Welsh schools side and removed the front teeth of a 30 year old sheep farmer who refused to wear a helmet against a kids team. He felt he was at his quickest, and his wildest, when he first played for Glamorgan. Their wicketkeeper Colin Metson thought he was the fastest he'd kept to since Wayne Daniel. Bob Cottam saw Jones almost hit a keeper on the Lord's groundstaff during practice on the eve of his Test debut against India with a delivery he later called the fastest he'd ever seen.

Simon's genetic line illustrated something. His father Jeff Jones was England's leading wicket taker in the 1965-6 Ashes, and regarded for a while as the quickest on the county circuit. Yet Simon has a fraternal twin, Matthew, and an older brother Richard, "who can bowl quickly, but not as quick as me".

We are in the age of sports science, when almost everything in every sport is undressed and analysed, and everyone and everything is getting faster, stronger, longer. And yet fast bowling isn't, and arguably, it never has. Those who saw Larwood or Thomson, or Holding, or Croft, or Patterson, or Wasim, or Shoaib, or Johnson or Simon Jones, or Mark Wood, have seen men bowling about as fast as anyone can, give or take the vaguaries of the human eye and the speed gun. While the science and analysis might make it happen more consistently (and that's debatable) its arrival is dependent on particular genetics. If you're born slow, you may get less slow, but you won't get fast.

Simon Jones and Mark Wood are often compared. Simon endured some horror injuries that curtailed his career, yet he played in teams that beat West Indies home and away, South Africa away, and of course in the greatest series of all, the Ashes of 2005. Wood has struggled with injury too, though happily not to the same degree. Both generate a lot of their pace from their action rather than the impetus of their run. Simon can still bowl at more than 80 mph from four paces, and, in common with Mark Wood, cut down his early, long approach to something much shorter - six paces at one point.

It's a far more complex process than you may think, and when Jones decided to extend his run again because the strain on his body was too much, he had to consult with Lynn Davies, the champion long jumper, to find something that worked.

Wood has a much smaller and more slender frame than Jones, and it seemed like madness that his run had been made so short. His body couldn't possibly survive that amount of repetitive strain. Even in St Lucia, watching the super slo-mo of his ankle when the force of delivery went through it was like a video nasty as the joint kinked one way and then the other.

And yet as both men say, it is a superpower, and it does strange things to batsmen. The West Indies players who had stayed in for days on an Antiguan minefield against 85 mph were jerked from that comfort by Wood's pace on a far more predictable deck. After he faced Brett Lee for the first time at Lord's in 2005, Simon Jones said that McGrath from the other end "felt like spin".

It's just a few miles per hour, but it is the vital few, at which physiological limits are reached. Fast bowlers who can do that live on in the imagination of batsmen. Mark Wood is something rare, and it is impossible to guess how long it may last, or when it might come again.

Monday 4 February 2019

Second Test notes: Root Maths - The Head of the Snake; Holder's Ban

The parsing of a player's stats in order to sustain a particular argument about their game has a name of quite longstanding: Root Maths. It generally fails because it assumes that stats are somehow infallible as well as immutable, when the truth is that they are as open to interpretation as a Jonny Bairstow straight drive.

But after the Antigua Test, when Joe Root's batting average as captain - 1,954 runs at 42.47 - fell more than ten runs behind his average when he's not - 4,594 at 52.80 - the urge for some Root Maths about the original victim of it becomes irresistable.

It was Glenn McGrath who put the concept of targeting the opposition's best batsman into the public arena, although the notion of Bodyline was constructed around it, as was the idea that the good Dr Grace's irascibility might occasionally be used against him. Cutting the head from the snake is especially attractive when it involves a captain: it rots authority; it opens psychic wounds.

So a specious bit of Root Maths appeals. Does team performance align with Root's when measured against his opposing skipper? Series by series, it looks like this:

Eng v South Africa (Home, 2017), Eng won 3-1
Root 461 runs at 57.62
Faf du Plessis 171 runs at 28.50

Eng v West Indies (H, 2017), Eng won 2-1
Root 268 runs at 67.00
Jason Holder 86 runs at 17.00; eight wickets at 39.12

Australia v Eng (Away, 2017-8), Eng lost 0-4
Root 378 runs at 47.23
Steve Smith 687 runs at 137.40

New Zealand v Eng (A, 2018), Eng lost 0-1
Root 142 runs at 35.50
Kane Williamson 124 runs at 41.32

Eng v Pakistan (H, 2018) Drawn 1-1
Root 117 runs at 39.00
Sarfaraz 31 runs at 10.33

Eng v India (H, 2018), Eng won 4-1
Root 319 runs at 35.44
Virat Kohli 593 runs at 59.30

Sri Lanka v Eng (A, 2018), Eng won 3-0
Root 229 runs at 38.16
Dinesh Chandimal 34 runs at 17.00

West Indies v Eng (A, 2019), Eng trail 0-2
Root 40 runs at 10.00
Holder 229 runs at 114.40; seven wickets at 17.85

Superficially, an argument could be made that there's some kind of link. Yet it has too many flaws to list. An Ashes of monolithic Australian dominance bears little relation to the delicate, butterfly-wing interventions of weather and fate that tilted the India series one way and then the other last summer. Root was outbatted in both. The batsmen around Root have collapsed like the post-Brexit Stock Exchange on several occasions, fatally in New Zealand and the West Indies, and so on, ad infinitum.

Notably, though, Root has been outmatched by the other 'Big Four' club members, Smith, Kohli and Williamson, whose hundred in the first Test of the short New Zealand series helped set up the win. And Root's decline as a batsman is evident. He has not averaged 40 in a series since the Ashes, and much of the old certainty that showed itself in the rapid, rhythmic starts to his innings has been whittled away.

Perhaps there is something more obvious. Root's reluctance to bat at three is understandable, as with England it's essentially opening. The captain should bat where he wants, and if Root, as the leading player, needs time to decompress then he should take it. But given the frailty of England's top order, does he get it?

Root has batted 47 times as England captain, eleven of those at three and the rest at four. Here's the breakdown of the team score at the time he went in:

  0-10 - 6
10-20 - 9
21-30 - 6
31-40 - 6
41-50 - 2
50-100 - 13
100+ - 5

In 27 of his 47 innings, Root has gone in with England at 40-2 or worse. In 45 per cent, it's less than 30. The bulk of those have been after his first three series as captain, when the oft-maligned number three batsmen were Tom Westley and James Vince.

There was moment in the India series, during the Southampton Test, when I thought that if India had drawn level at 2-2, Root might have seriously considered his position. His agony was palpable, and he is not good at hiding it. Perhaps his feeling is that he will only truly be able to shape a team once Anderson and Broad have gone, although the hole they will leave is terrifying. Maybe he sees the Ashes next year as some kind of watershed, as it so often is. 

Root Maths is Root Maths. But at some point, England and Root will have to decide whether his captaincy is worth the missing runs. In so many ways, it may not be.

Banning Jason

Jason Holder's ban for slow over-rates is pedantry of the highest order, which I accept is the definition of having rules, too. Yet there is an element of Root Maths to it. England batted for a total of 103.1 overs in a Test that was done in less than three days. It is the role of the match officials to make a calculation based around a minimum over rate of 14.28 per hour (which gives 85 in a six-hour day, plus an extra half-hour to reach 90). From that, they must deduct time for drinks, stoppages while adjusting sightscreens and kit, injuries, use of substitutes, use of DRS and so on. This time is within their gift, and many of the stoppages that they stand there and watch are against match regulations.

The game itself, in terms of time, was incomplete. Just as DRS must predict the path of the ball and has a Schrodinger's Cat element, so Holder could suggest that, had England been less inept, the fourth and fifth days would have incorporated the use of his spinner, Roston Chase, as selected, and had its effect upon the rate.

The travelling fans that paid to visit Antigua have been sanctioned not by Holder's over rates but England's terrible cricket, and have missed two days' play. Those that have shelled out for St Lucia must now watch one team that has been manifestly weakened (it'll probably be a better game then, etc etc). Either way, they are denied spectacle. No-one, apart from the match officials and some ex-pros in the commentary box, gave a fig about the over rate in Antigua. As Jason Holder might ask: were you not entertained?

And anyway, do you want to be the one telling Shannon Gabriel he needs to walk back faster?

Monday 28 January 2019

First Test notes: Moeen's Immaculate Disaster

Moeen Ali is a poetic cricketer, a cricketer to watch, and almost everything he does is worth watching. When he has a bad Test, or a bad tour, he accommodates failure in his own way.

The first innings in Barbados was a lovely example of this. Advance publicity on Moeen is that the short ball can unsettle him. His instinct is to hook, but he knows that he probably shouldn't, and in going against instinct he has created a problem for himself. When his first delivery from Kemar Roach came flying down, chest high and on the line of his body, he did no more than offer the bat horizontally before the ball was on him, but being Moeen, a poetic cricketer to whom things happen, the merest shiver of the blade in his hands was enough to send a top edge almost eighty yards into the maw of long leg. It was an immaculate disaster.

With players like Moeen, it doesn't always matter what they do, but how they do it. His dismissal may have left the team in further trouble and the dressing room in high dudgeon, but it had flair. It had drama. It had humour, the very black kind that makes you laugh at the ridiculousness of it all - of cricket and of life.

When he was thirteen years old, Moeen scored 195 in a T20 game, a knock of which his younger brother Omar says, 'it is nearly twenty years since that evening, but it is by far the greatest innings I have seen in cricket.' That's because Moeen is an aesthete and the things he does and the way he does them live on in the mind. In that sense he's kin to any number of otherwise disparate sportsmen, from Alex Higgins to Herol Graham or even George Best, where it's not really about numbers or statistics but what you remember of them [incidentally, Higgins once took this line too far in an argument with Jimmy White over a hotel room, of which Higgins claimed occupancy, "because he was an aesthete" and would appreciate it in a way that Jimmy wouldn't. Yet as the man who reported on the row, Jonathan Rendall, pointed out, so was Jimmy White, perhaps even more so than Higgins*].

It's something that pragmatists, of which there are many in sport, never get. England didn't so much have a bad day at the office in Barbados as drive to the office pathetically late and then crash through the wall while trying to park the car. But like Prince Philip, they'll simply have a gleaming new Land Rover delivered the next morning and start driving again, ignoring the deeper problem that it's not the broken car, it's the fact that they're 97 years old - or in England's case, that they are a team full of all rounders, three of which are wicketkeepers.

Moeen's destiny is in sharp focus because of it. He is, clearly, a batsman who bowls, yet England need a bowler who bats, and he will be caught in this cleft forever now. Perhaps his personality is not quite forceful enough to escape, in the way that Ben Stokes' has been. Moeen's batting is as under-rated as Stokes' is over-rated, and in both cases that is by a little rather than a lot. Steve Harmison once said of Stokes that if England treated him like a number eight, then he would bat like one. Well Moeen has not so much been treated as a number eight as something mutable, shiftable, disposable.

Imagine, briefly, that England had the top five that took them to the number one ranking they again crave: Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Bell. Would Stokes get into that? He would not, which suggests he is a not a genuine Test match number five, any more than he is a number eight. Of England's other middle-order players, Bairstow at his best might challenge an out of sorts Bell; Jos Buttler for sure has some of the mad and imaginative genius of Pietersen, if not the adrenalised swagger that enabled Pietersen to do it from debut.

And Moeen? Well not now, but there is an alternative universe in which his talent and difference were embraced and nurtured in the way that Ian Bell's were. At his best, Moeen is that good, that beautiful, that aesthetic and it is England's loss that his is a path not taken. The pragmatists will never get it, but this is an immaculate disaster.

* From memory, the upshot of this stoush was that Higgins refused to yield and spent three days sleeping in the bath.