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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