Wednesday, 12 August 2020

The mischaracterisation of Jos Buttler

If there was any remaining doubt that Jos Buttler is an outstanding batsman, there should now be none. His expertly constructed 75, in partnership with Chris Woakes, was a innings of class, temperament and skill in a high pressure situation for both himself and the team. And yet. And yet.

Despite all the evidence of his ability Buttler remains something of an enigma.  Exactly what sort of batsman is he? I don't mean is he a limited-overs specialist or a true multi-format exponent, those labels are boring, over-simplistic and frankly the question has been done to death. I'm speaking more deeply, more spiritually. Who is the batsman known as Jos Buttler?

I pose the question because many of the criticisms of him seem to stem from a lazy misunderstanding and therefore mischaracterisation of the player. To understand the player, you must understand the man, or the woman. And in this case, the misunderstanding comes from a subconscious desire to squeeze Buttler into a mould, a very particular and indeed unique model, for which he just doesn't fit.

When it comes to selecting a keeper there is every evidence to suggest that selectors consider batting ability more important than keeping skill, once a certain minimum threshold has been passed. This is not a new thing, both Les Ames and Jim Parks in an English context benefited from such thinking, but what was once a choice has now become a rule. If you're not capable of batting at seven or above, you won't play. But this new orthodoxy doesn't stop there, there is an unspoken, but evidential trend, certainly in England, favouring keepers who can bat in a certain style. And it stems from one man.

Adam Gilchrist wasn't the first Australian keeper to wield the willow effectively. His immediate predecessor Ian Healy was more than capable, Wayne Phillips before him was accomplished and stylish  and Rod Marsh was distinctly useful. And it was not just in Australia: Jeffrey Dujon was a delightfully attractive strokeplayer; Farokh Engineer, Alan Knott and Jack Russell were unconventional but highly effective; whilst Rashid Latif and Moin Khan were more than useful. But Gilchrist set a new standard, one to which every international keeper, including Buttler, is now measured and which not one has yet reached.

Superficially Buttler and Gilchrist are similar - gifted strikers of the ball who excelled in one-day cricket but who had to bide their time to earn their Test spots. But that is where the similarity ends. You often here commentators speak of Buttler having 'licence', Gilchrist never needed such authorisation. He was a natural game-changer, whether that meant counter-attacking from a position of weakness (rarely) or delivering the coup de grĂ¢ce to a flagging opposition (frequently). Where Gilchrist was instinctive and destructive, Buttler calculates and dismantles, where Gilchrist seemed carefree, Buttler always appears careworn. This is not a criticism of Buttler for it portrays a man who thinks and cares deeply, but it may affect his success - something he is well aware of, judging by the visual reminders with which he adorns his equipment. Perhaps he should write 'Gilly' on his bat handle instead - the meaning would be the same and television directors would be delighted. 

My point is that Gilchrist was a one-off. Over the course of a 100 Test innings at number seven, he averaged 47 with twelve hundreds at the frankly astonishing strike rate of 83. To put this in context, Brendon McCullum, a kindred spirit if ever there was one, scored at a rate of 63 in the same position (granted that it was only late in his career, after he gave up the gloves and assumed the captaincy, that McCullum gave full expression to his true self). Then there is Quinton de Kock who shares not only Gilchrist's left-handedness but his timing and flair. But even he only managed a strike rate of 70 batting at seven and he now bats in the top six, where he seems condemned to a never ending internal battle between team responsibility and his own more expansive instincts. Buttler's strike rate is 57.

If we absolutely must type-cast Buttler then it is to another master of white ball cricket that we should look. He most closely resembles MS Dhoni, a man so cool he could make a cucumber sweat, capable of strikes of enormous power and destructiveness but whose construction of an innings, particularly in one-day cricket always appeared calculated to the nth degree.

Likewise Buttler is not a particularly instinctive player, he thinks his way through an innings. And this is our misunderstanding. Where we see power, savagery and impudence, there is in fact strategy, guile and control. He doesn't play a reverse or a ramp on an impulse or because they look good but because he calculated it to be the right one in the situation. There is risk yes, but that lies in the execution and in that he has no fear. Talent and practice, particularly practice, much of it unseen and unrecognised, have seen to that. 

So the next time that we watch Buttler amble out to bat in that calm but intense way of his, let's not imagine the player we want him to be, but appreciate the one that he is.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second by Christian Ryan (Book Review)

Most cricket books can probably be squeezed into one broad category or another but there are few that simply refuse to be pigeon-holed, Beyond a Boundary is an obvious example. Feeling is one of those outliers.

Christian Ryan doesn't search for any deeper meaning to the game or attempt to place it in a wider context. Instead he presents it from an entirely fresh perspective, a new light if you will, without flash or airbrush, where cloud cover doesn't affect swing but the colour, or lack of, of the image before us. Through months of conversations, Ryan disects a year of photography, the Ashes summer of 1975, by the outstanding Patrick Eager, the foremost cricketing photographer of his and perhaps any era.

I was first introduced to Eager's work at a young age through his collaborations with Alan Ross, pictorial accounts of eight international summers, seven English, one Australian. Through Eager's effortlessly atmospheric snaps and through Ross, the poet, with his  smooth, Bordeaux-rich prose, I became intoxicated with the game without even realising how. Flicking back through those pages again now, the reasons are clear.

Ryan has a different style to Ross, his is sharp and fresh, like a Chablis - you probably couldn't drink a lot of it, but every mouthful is worth savouring. And his approach here is simple enough: allow Eager to explain his process - the science, the technique, the gear; then show the reader, and remind the artist, of the art within.

Eager, in keeping with many at the pinnacle of their fields is reluctant to assign design to his most successful images with perhaps the exception his most famous one, that of Jeff Thomson, that envelops the front and back covers. He continually refers to luck as his greatest ally - just repeated cases of being in the right place at the right time. Ryan gently disuades him of such unjustified modesty. 

In fact it is unfair to say that Ryan doesn't look for deeper meaning and wider context, he does, but at the macro level. He forensically analyses each photo, diligently researches the stories behind them and gently jogs Eager's memory for the inside story as he goes. He also adds just enough details on the man and teases out sufficient personal reminicences to fill out the artist's character without the book ever feeling autobiographical or indeed biographical. It is a thin line, expertly trod.
Eager's success rate seems particularly remarkable given the technical limitations of the era. Most of the time he had one shot at getting the perfect image and then would have to wait until the following day to know whether he got it. Again this is where his plead of 'luck' falls flat, only an intimate knowledge not just of light, angles etc but of the game, the grounds and the players themselves could produce such gems so regularly.

My biggest gripe and it was an immediate one, was the size of the book itself. I had assumed a book centred around a selection of photographs, and especially one that retailed at 20 pounds, would be large enough to allow the reader to peruse the images without the aid of a magnifying glass. No doubt cost was at the heart of it, but unfortunately it does make this unusual but worthwhile project feel a little cheap, and neither Ryan's words nor Eager's many iconic images deserve that. 

Monday, 17 June 2019

Absolutely Foxed by Graeme Fowler (Book Review)

It is often said that meeting one's hero is best avoided. The clash of the imagined with the real is unlikely to be a confirmational experience. Well growing up Graeme Fowler was my cricketing hero. And aside from a hastily signed autograph on the boundary edge, I've never met him.  I've watched him bat hundreds of times and on each occasion I recall feeling trepidation rather than expectation. He was that kind of player. Fielding was a more relaxing experience, one could comfortably sit back and marvel at his energy and athleticism as he prowled the covers or skirted round the boundary in front of the Old Trafford pavillion. I then read and re-read his first book Fox on the Run until the binding cracked and the dust cover was reduced to shreds. And when he retired I listened to him on TMS and giggled away as he bantered engagingly with Aggers, Blowers and Johnners. But none of those encounters brought me any closer to knowing the man. Until now.

'Frank and honest', it's the classic byline for a sporting biography. Usually it just means being a bit rough and unrefined, the result of a ghost writer's quest for the subject's 'authentic voice'. Well this book is definitely frank and honest, painfully so at times but it is neither rough nor unrefined.

What emerges is a complex individual a world away from the carefree clown-like persona for which he is most commonly remembered and which to some extent he cultivated. Fowler is clearly a deep and original thinker and something of an amateur psychologist; an inspiring coach who knew what made young players tick. What is surprising, although it is not an uncommon phenomenon, is his inability or unwillingness to channel those people skills into his dealings with higher echelons of power.  His refusal to toe the line in the face of the inevitable politics and bureaucracy that pervades cricket as it does every other walk of life, could be seen as an admirable trait but ultimately it served him badly. There certainly seems to be little on which he doesn't hold a pretty strong and uncompromising view; a degree of self-righteousness that, being a sportsman, probably helped and hindered him in equal measure. Whether you end up liking Fowler (as opposed to just admiring him) at the end of the book, will depend on whether you agree with his world view.

All this is set against the essential premise of the book, a most worthy one, to raise awareness of mental health issues and the dangers, the signals, the triggers and the consequences of depression. It is here where he is at his most honest and self-aware. The book starts with this, quite deliberately "I felt it was important as it allowed people to interpret the other stuff knowing I'd had depression later in life". It's the right choice. Not only does it inform the other stuff, but it reminds one of just how little of their real selves sportspeople, particularly those in team sports, feel able to reveal. It may be a more caring, sympathetic environment now than when Fowler started his career, but it can still be a brutal mix of euphoric highs and terrifying lows.

The most interesting aspect concerns Fowler's time as Head at the Centre of Excellence in Durham.  As he now seems to have the book writing bug, he could do a lot worse than dedicate an entire one to this story. The centres of excellence, now spread  around the country, were based on his own original idea and on his Durham model. They ought to have been his defining legacy to the game. They broke the paradigm that said that a teenager, fresh out of school, has to choose between sport and education. It's an idea entrenched in football and rugby, and since the demise of Oxbridge as a serious option for academically inclined sportsmen, in cricket as well. The provided a pathway both for those passionate about their cricket but uncertain whether they were good enough, or those passionate about their studies but with talent to burn. Safeguarding their futures as he says.

And yet in 2014, the ECB decided that the model was too expensive and too exclusive. The centres of cricket remain but the pursuit of excellence, intensive and elitist as it must be, has been diluted and diminished. Unsurprisingly it was the trigger for one of Fowler's most severe bouts of depression, but it should depress us all. Ultimately his vision, despite its concrete successes, wasn't shared by those who mattered. A failure of higher managment surely but could a more politically astute operator have changed their minds? Maybe. But that's heroes for you, great for some things but not so great for others. They're human beings after all, and this one's not a bad one.

Friday, 24 May 2019

The Strange Death of English Leg Spin by Justin Parkinson (Book review)

I recently reviewed Twirlymen by Amol Rajan, a joyful, celebratory dance to the music of spin. Well almost entirely joyful. During the rare moments when Rajan wasn't being swept away by boyish enthusiasm, he also found time to offer the odd lament on cricket's greatest but most difficult art. Laments to opportunities not taken, not given or not recognised, to dreams dashed or unrealised, to promise unfulfilled or undeveloped, and to legacies lost or discarded.

That theme and in particular as it relates to English leg-spin (and chinaman bowlers) forms the central premise of this book. A story that begins brightly with a trickle of English (and Scottish) ingenuity and innovation, but which then goes south, literally, as first a stream of South Africans and then, a torrent of Australians take over. It is an extraordinary fact that only 5 wickets have been taken by English leg-spinners (Scott Borthwick 4, Mason Crane 1) in Ashes Tests since Bob Barber dismissed Graham McKenzie at Old Trafford in 1968.

In assessing how and why this happened, the author takes us on a familiar path through the main protagonists and innovators. En route he provides some welcome clarity on Bonsanquet's popularising rather than inventive relationship with the googly as well as suggesting a hidden, deeper meaning to the 'bosie' sobriquet. Despite admirably thorough research that brings out a few gems, one is still left with more questions than answers when it comes to the greatest of them all, SF Barnes - surely just as Barnes would wish it. I particularly enjoyed the speculative suggestion that Clarrie Grimmett, known for his attention to detail, employed fox terriers to retrieve the balls from his purpose built garden net because they were known for their high-energy level and low drool output!

As far as English wrist-spinners are concerned it has always been an uphill struggle. It is not enough that they must master the most difficult skill in the game, in which, as Ian Salisbury rightly notes, 'a centimetre wrong in your action can affect it by two yards at the other end', but they must also overcome an ingrained distrust of their art which has seemed to pass like contagion from captain to captain, era to era. It is hard not see in McLaren's reticence towards the admittedly erratic but dangerous Bosanquet and Hutton ( a leg spinner himself) and May's reluctance to utilise the myriad talents of Johnny Wardle, more than a hint of the risk averse tactics of the Strauss-Flower era. It is something of an irony that England's one international class wrist spinner, Adil Rashid, is born and raised in Yorkshire an area deemed by Hutton to be entirely unsuited, climatically, to such extravagant pursuits.

Instead English leggies have relied on the backing of deep thinkers such as Mike Brearley and Peter Roebuck and innovative risk-takers, such as Adam Hollioake who revived Ian Salisbury's career. Roebuck, speaking before the T20 revolution and way before England renaissance in the 50 over game, speculated that in a game where 400 was the new 250 leg-spin would be a risk worth taking. A point Rashid and others continue to prove.

Faced with such overwhelming negativity, it is no surprise that many such bowlers have headed for the Promised Land in search of love and understanding. In perhaps the most interesting and certainly original part of the book, Parkinson charts the progress of a number of young Englishmen sent to Australia to work with Terry Jenner, leg-spin guru and mentor to the Great One. The results were not, as if you need telling, messianic. Like Aubrey Faulkner, mentor to Ian Peebles, Jenner believed there was a right way, his way and a wrong way, all the others. In keeping with many of us who have spent years trying to perfect a simple leg-break, he saw Shane Warne not only as the perfect model but the only one. Unfortunately, and I could have told him this myself, this turned out to be completely folly. The result was a certain disillusionment for the characters concerned and undoubted disappointment for the ECB who had funded Jenner's work. But who knows, judging by Rashid's recent resurrection, perhaps it has a brought a greater appreciation and understanding as well. Dying maybe, but not dead yet.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Root at a crossroads

Just over a year ago, with the Ashes imminent, there was some sensible talk (amongst all the trash) about the battle of the captains. Joe Root was still relatively new to the job, and even if he seemed to take responsibility in his stride it was widely thought that he was yet to really stamp his personality on the side.  Steve Smith, his opposite number, was more established, with less focus on his actual captaincy skills but rather on just how England were going to get him out. At the time I mused that the captaincy issue was a smokescreen, yes Smith and Root was the key battle but not one that would be decided by a moment of Brearley-like inspiration or a quirky Vaughan-esque field setting. No, this would be a battle of runs, and for England to stand any chance they needed a whole stack. In particular they need at least 500 including a couple of meaningful centuries, from their one world class batsman, their captain.  Root finished with 378 runs and a top score of 83. Smith made 687 with 3 hundreds including a best of 239. Like the series itself, it was barely a contest. 

Since then it's fair to say that Root and Smith lives have taken different courses, certainly in the court of public opinion. Smith is still serving his 12 month ban for failing to prevent two idiots carrying out an act so stupid even Boris Johnson wouldn't have backed it; meanwhile Root is feted as a sort of cross between Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Russell Brand for failing to respond like an idiot to a crass, but off the cuff remark.

Like the captaincy argument, this is just another entertaining side-show.  Cricket hasn't changed since Smith was banned. It's still all about runs and wickets. And England are still as dependant on Root's runs as they ever were, possibly even more so; as will Australia be when Smith returns. Root can be as upstanding a member of society as he likes but if he doesn't start batting to his potential, then he is not doing his primary job - influencing matches and series from the start in the manner of a world class batsman. Second innings hundreds in dead rubbers are nice for the average but little good for the team.

There is some mitigation. With England's next best players currently consigned to the 6 and 7 slots, Root is in effect carrying the entire top 5. Clearly this is a lot to ask, probably too much. A couple of things could help him. Firstly another re-think of Jonny Bairstow's batting position. Having him at 5, possibly interchangeably with Ben Stokes depending on workload, would give the top order a solider look. Secondly, a recall for Ian Bell to bat at 3. He may not be the player he was but if he is properly motivated he is still streets ahead of the other options.

But the buck still stops with the captain. England don't need just the old Root back they need a new, improved version. Nasser Hussain reckons that he has another level in him. I agree, but to get there he needs to rethink his approach. There is a still a boyish carefreeness to his batting. It has  served him well at times and made him a delightful player to watch. He likes to score, to put bat to ball early on, and put pressure on opposition bowlers. And all done with a smile on his face.

Nevertheless Root's game, along with the majority of the world's batsman, has stagnated. Stuck in adolescence. Sure his range of attacking shots has grown thanks to the white ball stuff but in terms of building an innings he is still doing the same thing he was five years ago. Meanwhile their opponents have matured. Aided and abetted by video and statistical analysis and encouraged most recently by some sporting surfaces, bowlers have wised up. Just as batsman have forsaken patience, they have discovered its worth. A couple of boundaries is no longer due cause for a kick of the footholes or a volley of expletives. Captains are now increasingly happy to offer boundary protection (keeping the catchers but offering the single) in the knowledge that these cavaliers are unlikely or unable to change his game. As a result bowlers are more willing to play the waiting game. They've watched the videos, they've seen the stats, enough balls in a certain area and most batsmen, Root included, will give you a chance.

It was telling that before the Test series in the Caribbean Root stated that "you don't win games by batting long periods of time, you win games by scoring big runs". Now while it is possible to bat for long periods of time WITHOUT scoring big runs, it is, especially in the T20 era, rather improbable. And surely the longer you bat the better your chances of amassing those runs? It almost makes you feel that the entire basis of the strategy set out in Sri Lanka, to 'get the runs before they get you', was predicated more on the ability and mental capacity of the English batsmen than on the conditions and the bowlers they were set to face. That it worked was a happy coincidence but it is not and can never be a recipe for consistent Test match success.

Instead of poo-pooing the value of patience and restraint Root could do worse than to look at the example of Steve Waugh. Hard as it is believe, but when he first game on the international scene he was lauded for the freeness and range of his stroke play. But such freedom brought only limited success. Only when he decided to sure up his game, eschewing risk and instead waiting for the bad ball did his fortunes change. In 46 Tests up to December 1992, Waugh scored 2166 runs at an average 36. In the next 122 he made 8761 at 56.

Even Root's contemporaries and rivals (and fellow captains) have shown the value of abstinence.  Virat Kohli performance in the English summer past, was a model for any batsman facing such 'ego-burying' conditions. Even Smith himself, when confronted at Brisbane by a bowling strategy designed (by Root) solely to frustrate and restrict, refused to give it away and ultimately redirected and amplified that frustration back to bowler and captain. Root had a front row seat on both occasions but appears uninterested in the lessons.

Go back three years ago and you would have put Root on a par with Kohli and Kane Williamson with Smith slightly ahead. For the moment he has been left behind. Despite the boyish smile there is no lack of toughness, but does he have it in him to suppress his natural instincts and be what his team needs him to be - not just an accomplished competitor but a talented fighter.  Kohli would see it as a challenge, does he?

    Friday, 8 February 2019

    Jennings returns as England seek to avoid calypso collapso

    Only three weeks ago I expressed concern that judging the progress of Joe Root's side would be  impossible if their next opponents reverted to the sort of spineless and inept performance which has been an all too regular feature of their Test cricket over recent years. I wish to offer an apology to readers, it was, admittedly, just a simple typo but a very misleading one. Of course I meant Jason Holder's side.

    Holder sits this last game out, convicted and punished for negligently stretching the Antiguan massacre well beyond its natural death ( probably somewhere after Tea on Day 2) and in the process prolonging the suffering of England supporters already burdened by the stresses, strains and painful decision-making processes (rum punch or Wadadli? paddling pool or jet-ski?) that are part and parcel of watching cricket on tropical island paradises. I hope he is suitably ashamed.

    Meanwhile Joe Root must be looking back fondly to those halcyon days before the Sri Lankan tour when the spectre of Alistair Cook still loomed large and questions were routinely raised as the Yorkshireman's 'ownership' of the side. Not any more. After the emphatic 3-0 victory, we all agreed: this was Root's team now. You're welcome Joe. Of course we may have slightly overestimated the Sri Lankans. They looked a poor side, possibly the weakest they have put out since their inaugural Test and yet their stock manages to drop even further every time England bat.

    So where does Root go from here? Well you would have thought the calming effects of the rum punch would have been a good starting point but whilst some of his teammates have taken this option Root has headed back to the sanctuary of the nets to iron out some footwork issues. To each their own. And maybe he's right. Certainly England's current problems would be eased if their one world class batsman, started performing like one. How effective would have Australia, India or New Zealand have been in recent years if Smith, Kohli or Williamson had performed as spasmodically as he has?

    It is true that India might choose to nuance their answer by pointing to their triumph Down Under and to the seminal role played not by Kohli but the pertinacious and indefatigable number 3, Cheteshwar Pujara or "Steve" as they call him in Yorkshire. "Geoffrey" might have been a more appropriate moniker. Certainly not Jonny.

    The brief and frankly desperate hope that Bairstow might prove to be the long term replacement to Jonathan Trott, seems now as ridiculous in practise as it always did in theory. It might have made sense if the English middle order was itself a balanced mix of stroke players and accumulators but it is not. 'Go hard' seems to be their default plan; if that doesn't work they go to their back up plan: 'go harder'. We can rightly ask, demand even, that such talented strokemakers display better shot selection and situational awareness, but to ask them to fundamentally change how they play would be self-defeating (as is in danger of happening with Ben Stokes). Even the great West Indies side of the 80's recognised that too much calypso risked too much collapso. They had Greenidge, they had Richards, they had Lloyd but they also had Gomes. Where is England's Larry? Or Steve? Or Geoffrey even?

    It was, I thought, somewhat ironic or indeed telling that Keaton Jennings was dropped after he and Rory Burns had put together one of the longest opening stands by an English opening partnership in some time in the second innings in Barbados. Jennings gutsed it out for almost 30 overs scoring a Brathwaite-like 14. He didn't look good, he never exuded permanence but he stuck in. How different the number three role might have looked to Joe Root (still England's best option in that position) if even this had been a regular event. Instead, and perhaps not unreasonably, the selectors focused on the method of Jennings' dismissal - a horrible stiff legged drive which once again suggested a technique modelled on the Test Match board game. Nevertheless it seemed an odd moment make the change, particularly with the sparsity of options available. Jennings' place went to Joe Denly a top-order player but one whose primary success has come in T20. It showed.

    Whatever the reasons and they are numerous, England simply aren't developing players with the application or technique that is required. What they would give for a player of Shai Hope's class at number three, or even someone with Kraigg Brathwaite's selfless restraint and resilience at the top. Now with only pride to play for and with little other choice, Jennings has been restored for the Final Test with Denly dropping down a spot and Bairstow retaking the gloves (and a more suitable batting position). But what odds on any of this top three facing Australia in August? Time for a rum punch I think.

    Saturday, 26 January 2019

    Twirlymen by Amol Rajan (Book Review)

    As someone who shared his shattered dream of a career amongst the 'twirlymen', I can easily relate Amol Rajan's almost obsessive enthusiasm for his subject. And whilst this book succeeds in its primary mission to inform and enlighten, it is the author's endless and unrequited passion for the tweaks, twirls and mystery of spin bowling that is its real feature.

    The book charts the history of cricket's innovators: those who looked at a little red ball and thought "what if?". It is no surprise then that the annals of spin bowling encompass so many original thinkers and unusual personalities. In fact such are the fascinating, complex and frankly eccentric characters which make up the spin brethren, that this book would work well enough as series of separate biographies. The contrasting styles and personas of spin partnerships from O'Reilly and Grimmett to Ramadhin and Valentine, Bedi and Chandresekharar, and even Edmonds and Emburey are particularly enjoyable. The wide-range of interviews provide a rich source of evidential anecdote.

    From a technical perspective the author provides a valuable service in debunking the claims of Dooland, Bosanquet and Saqlain to the flipper, googly and doosra respectively. Each, he establishes, were being bowled several decades earlier at the very least. Indeed he cites W.G. Grace as an early exponent of a flipper type delivery. None of this detracts from his rightful admiration for Shane Warne's ability to invent a new delivery or two prior to every Ashes battle. Deception is after all, an essential part of the twirlyman's armoury.

    Although he makes efforts to bring along the uninitiated through some useful diagrams explaining the various deliveries it is to the already converted that this book's appeal really lies. He pulls few punches and is particularly forthright on the subject of Muttiah Muralidaran whilst taking Gideon Haigh to task for his rubbishing of  the humble off-spinner.

    Whilst the author's enthusiasm is mostly endearing, too often it overflows into wide-eyed, childlike excitability at the cost of reasoned analysis. In particular, for a seemingly discerning chap it is disappointing to see him fall head first into one of the diseases of modern media. Just as an overbowled googly loses its impact, so too do superlatives when used excessively.

    He reserves astonishing praise for a couple of left-arm spinners. The recently retired Rangana Herath was certainly a gifted and canny bowler who also bowled an interesting carrom ball early in his career, but to describe him as 'scintillating' is really pushing it; meanwhile Daniel Vettori, a fine bowler but of essentially simple method, is described as 'brilliant'. In a book which features Grace, Barnes, O'Reilly and Warne, such high praise ought to have been less liberally assigned. It's a small quibble but one that grates from quite early on.

    Published eight years ago, the book has aged well. Perhaps too well. Of the new breed of twirlymen only the endlessly curious and imaginative Ravi Ashwin would now warrant serious mention. Mystery spinners may have enjoyed a renaissance in the T20 era, but it has also shown up the limitations of that format as a means of developing genuinely great bowlers possessing the control and subtlety to match their many variations. We still await the next exponent to whom the moniker 'brilliant' could justifiably be applied. Hopefully it won't be too long.