Saturday, 27 August 2016

Timing's right for Bell's return

Ahmedabad, November 2012. Kevin Pietersen lurches forward to the left arm spin of Pragyan Ojha, bat and pad divorced and estranged. He's beaten in the flight and his hands grope for the ball like a drunkard searching for a candle in a blackout. But it's to no avail - the ball beats the outside edge and he's comprehensively bowled.

His dismissal leaves England in real trouble, tottering at 69 for 4 in reply to India's 521. Alistair Cook is still there but the next partnership will be crucial, it may even decide the game. Fortunately replacing Pietersen is a man with more than 5000 test runs, a man possessed with an unnatural degree of talent and a consumate player of orthodox spin. We are in safe hands.

His first ball is a slow, floated delivery. There's a chassis down the pitch, a full swing of the bat and the ball floats gently into the hands of mid off.  Ian Bell c Tendulkar b Ojha 0.  Horrid. Not ugly, never ugly, just horrid.

For many such dismissals will always define Bell. Soft and self-inflicted, seemingly proving that deep down he just isn't made of the right stuff. It's nonsense of course. This is a man who now has almost 8000 )Test runs and 22 hundreds. Only Cook and Pietersen have more. This is the man who almost single-handedly ensured that England won back the Ashes in 2013. You don't do that by being soft. Of course when you stop scoring runs as well (Bell averages less than 30 and is without a hundred since those 2013 Ashes) then you are in trouble. The decision to drop him following the 2014 series in the UAE was tough and I would argue mistaken given the weakness of the alternative candidates, but hardly unfair.

Ironically he now stands on the cusp of an unexpected comeback in part because of a succession of 'soft' failures by what we might call his aesthetic successor, James Vince. Currently England's top order is hopelessly shaky. Alex Hales and Gary Ballance have done little to settle doubts about their long term suitability although it is likely that at least one will survive to tour this winter. In this context the return of Bell seems essential, he might not be in the greatest form but it is not form that this top order is lacking. It is class.

If nothing else, Bell's return should immediately relieve some of the pressure that has piled up on Cook and Joe Root. Despite decent looking figures neither will be entirely happy with their summer's work with promising starts too often failing to result in match changing scores (and dare I say it one or two rather flaccid dismissals too), But these are clinical, pragmatic reasons. Important for selectors, irrelevant for cricket lovers. I just want to see Bell back. For me, for you, for the game. We should all want him back.  In these power obsessed day where bats have sides rather than edges there is a special joy in witnessing a player defined not by muscles but by grace and timing. Like so many things you don't appreciate it until it is gone. I know I didn't. This time I'm just going to sit back and enjoy it.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Mystery Spinner: The Life and Death of an Extraordinary Cricketer by Gideon Haigh (Book review)

I've been reading and collecting cricket books for more than thirty years. My first was "Kiwis and Indians" a pictorial account of the 1983 season, the photos of Patrick Eager complemented by Alan Ross' pithy commentary. It's a big dog-eared now but I still know it word for word, picture for picture. It will always remain my favourite because it was there beside me as I was discovering the game - at the boundary's edge at my local club, on my favourite seat in the Ladies' stand at Old Trafford, in front of the television set on a Thursday morning in the height of summer and next to the radio smuggled into my bed on a winter's night.

When I was seven, cricket was simply wonderful - the best and only important thing in the world. But then I started to grow up and I realised that it was much more (and of course much less) than that. Even today I'm still discovering the depths of its richness, its complexity, its subtleness and its occasional brutality. Of course first hand experiences, playing and watching, have been the greatest influences but alongside throughout have been my books. Not all have been great, although many have been, but very few have failed to enhance in some way or other my love of this silly old game.

This is one of those books. If you haven't read it then hopefully it might persuade you to do so, if you have read it then maybe it'll inspire to re-read as I have just done. 




Hubris. It can be a mortal enemy. Like a parasite, it finds us at our weakest moment and silently, insiduously latches on. It bides its time, waits for us to lower our guard, and then it strikes.

And our weakest moment? When we dare to hope, we dare to aspire, we dare to dream. When we do so we leave reason to the wind and embark on a glorious, epic journey where there are no boundaries except the limits of our own imagination.

Jack Iverson knew all this better than most. From the moment he first flicked a cricket ball in earnest  he felt hubris' shadow at his back, stalking him, taunting him. "Go on Jack", it said, just you dare to believe.

But he never did. Despite his obvious talent, unique and precocious, he wouldn't, he couldn't. Not even when selected for the Australian Test team for the first time, alongside nine of Bradman's '48 'Invincibles' did he let his guard down. He never aspired beyond the current game, always convinced he was going to be "found out" once and for all. His threat to "give the game away" became a ritual in the face of the slightest set back. One can only imagine how long he would have survived in today's world. For there would be no sneaking away at the end of a day's play for a solitary bite to eat at a local greasy spoon, as he did on his Test debut.

And herein lay another of Jack's problems: he wasn't a cricketer at all. He was wasn't even a bowler really. The extraordinary flicking action produced by a superhumanly strong middle finger, was a result of years of practice with a ping pong ball. He had merely adapted a supreme talent to a new format. True he was both metronomic and deadly. Able to land a viciously spinning ball on a sixpence seemingly at will. Leave it there and one has in mind another Shane Warne. But infuriatingly for his captains and captivatingly for us, there was one thing missing, one crucial element that talent could never replace.

Virtually every cricketing source that Haigh interviewed confirms the same thing - poor Jack was entirely lacking for a 'cricketing brain'. He had no idea about field placings, no concept of bowling strategy and no eye for batsman's strengths or weaknesses.

It has always been a pet peev of mine, the lazy, catch-all use by cricket commentators of the word 'inexperience' to explain an error.  Whilst Test cricket may be well-named and undoubtedly asks more questions of a player than any other form of the game, it is still essentially the same one that they have been playing for over a decade in most cases.

Well, almost all Test cricketers. Jack Iverson had been playing regular cricket for approximately four years when he made his debut at the age of 35. In Jack's case and in his defence, he really didn't know better.

Ultimately hubris did get him but not in the Shakespearean way. Jack stood strong to the end, but his mind buckled under the weight of his own self-restraint. His star burnt brilliantly bright but more briefly than it should have. Self-doubt (coupled with a noble but perhaps exaggerated sense of familial responsibility) cost him a Test career that many felt had not peaked (had he toured England in 1953 many experts thought him likely to be unplayable on the soft, uncovered wickets); and it may ulitmately have contributed to his premature death.

Gideon Haigh guides us through this compelling but inspiring tragedy with guile, skill but most importantly with empathy and genuine compassion. Because for all his 'strong, silent type' persona Jack was a sensitive soul.

Of course the book is also beautifully written, forensically researched (as it needed to be because for Jack was a tough man to track down) and the story flows wonderfully. Even the title is perfect for a man who remained an enigma until the very end.

The only real quibble I have is the amount of time spent putting Jack's particular skill in its historical context. A whole, rather long chapter in the middle of the book is dedicated to bowling innovators through time. Some background is useful but the length seemed unnecessary and, if I am honest, led this reader to indulge in spot of page flicking. For one thing, there are many books which cover these details better and more comprehensively but secondly and, and perhaps this is something of a back handed compliment, it takes us away from Jack for far too long.

As if to illustrate the point, Haigh finally seeks refuge in that slimmest of libraries "cricketing fiction" in an attempt to find a figure and a story to match Jack's. Unsurprisingly he does not suceed. Mystery spinner indeed.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Trescothick can provide the template for Hales to open up

It's not just that May in England is too early for serious cricket watching, it's that it's far too early, uncivilised really. All right I grant you there may be the odd early cricket riser who's been up since April, probably awoken by some unholy racket coming from India but that's hardly a worthy reference point is it??

If there are still vestiges of cherry blossom on the trees, football and rugby on the back pages and  Eurovision jingles in our heads, then it's too soon. It still seems like pre-season. My visual constitution is simply not ready to digest anything more taxing than a couple of championship entrees, a few bites of limited overs stuff and a maybe an ODI snack. (I yearn to be magically transported back into that wondrous twilight zone that was the Benson and Hedges Cup group stage. This, I will acknowledge, is probably just me though.)

Nevertheless the first repast of the Test summer will be served up this morning at Headingley, a ground admittedly more dog's dinner than royal banquet. Ridiculous "point system" aside, there is much to play for particularly for two of England's top three, Alex Hales and Nick Compton neither of whom is close to offering convincing proof that they are right persons for their positions.

Compton's issues have been discussed at great length without anyone really identifying what the problem is. Too intense? Not chummy enough? Lackadaisical in the field? An unfitting face? Apparently he's changed, relaxed, mellowed. And yet the doubts remain. Long term he seems unlikely to keep his place. In the short term, however, a remedy is available: runs, lots of them.

Hales' difficulties may be easier to qualify but more difficult to solve. He suffers from a similar problem to that which afflicted another one-day expert Jos Buttler: the inability to know whether to stick or to twist. Should he just play his natural attacking game or allow it to be tempered by the conditions, the quality of bowlers and the match situation? Ask five people and you would get five different answers. Graeme Fowler, the former England opener, referred to a similar dilemma as the  "England Player Syndrome" whereby a player comes into the Test side having scored a bucket of runs in county cricket. He then immediately goes about changing the way he plays, the method that got him selected in the first place, in order to bat as he thinks a Test player should. Self-evidently it is a recipe for disaster.

Adaptation, as Darwin has shown, is the very essence of a survival strategy. At the same time the role of a Test match opener has changed (or been adapted) as well. Opening bowlers must earn respect where once it was all but given. Even thirty years ago the mere sight of Test match opening bowler with a new cherry was enough to ensure a degree of deference. Not any more.  Players like Michael Slater and more recently David Warner, Virender Sehwag and Chris Gayle have redefined the job description.

Not all of these dashers make good models for Hales to follow. Gayle and Sehwag "see ball - hit ball" approach is based on enormous talent, but also aided by largely benign pitches and the prevalence of the batsman friendly Kookaburra ball.  Unsurprisingly neither has enjoyed great success in England.

Warner's approach is a better one. His lightening progression from T20 specialist to Test opener without having played a single first class match was not a simply an inspired selectorial hunch. They saw that his powerful striking had its roots in a sound technique and a decent sense for the location of his off stump. His weakness, such as it is, lies in the field of "shot selection" - lofting the spinner with a man placed back, manufacturing pull shots off good length balls. A Test average of 50 suggests there are worse faults.

By far the best model for Hales is the man England have been trying to replace for almost ten years, Marcus Trescothick. Known for his pulverising cover drives and brutal slog sweeps, he was far from the traditional English Test opening batsman in the manner of Boycott, Atherton or Cook. He was, and remains, the most statuesque of openers - not through being tall and elegant but because his feet always seem cast in stone. The simple technique worked though as did the equally simple approach of playing the ball on its merit. If it was a half volley it got spanked, whether it was the first ball of the innings or the last ball of the day. Once 'in' he also latched on to the anything with width, scything it through gully and point. But when high quality bowlers put the squeeze on in helpful conditions he also had the discipline, temperament and patience to stick it out.  None more so than on his Test debut against the West Indies at Old Trafford in 1995, where he went an hour without scoring, doggedly seeing off a typically testing spell from the parsimonious duo of Ambrose and Walsh. He ended up making 66, scoring more freely from the less challenging fare offered by Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon.

So far Hales' has failed to show that he is the man to fill Trescothick's boots. It really doesn't seem to be a technique thing, in fact he looks a lot more solid than he did a couple of years ago when those in-duckers were causing him such problems. And yet in South Africa he fell to a succession of heavy handed but indeterminate pushes outside off stump.  There are those who would suggest the fault was in his half-heartedness. Neither one thing or the other. If you going to flash.. etc. Well it's a theory and may indeed be a good approach for someone like Ben Stokes, but for an opener more discriminating judgement is required.

 I have my doubts as to whether Hales has what it takes to make these improvements but nevertheless he remains a gamble worth taking for this Sri Lankan series. For the rewards of a fast start, as Trescothick and now Warner have showed, can be rich and long lasting.