Monday, 28 September 2015

Reflecting on the light...

The notion of light in cricket almost always comes with its dread prefix 'bad': it's forgotten until it's barely there. And yet its beauty is such that it sometimes breaks the heart, especially as the season ends. We played our two last games in the chilterns. The first was at Stonor Park, a ledge of a ground that sits across the road from the entrance to Stonor House, a grand gate and a one-track road that weaves between two hills which rise steeply on either side. Deer threaded their way through the trees. Red Kites flew overhead; late in the afternoon they flushed scores of crows - a murder? - from their roost in the woods behind the ground. All of this was washed by the autumnal sunlight of England, low and soft and luminous. The shadows grew almost impossibly long. Everything seemed like a race against time.

The following day we played at Aston Rowant. The air already felt colder. The ground was damp from a week of rain. Halfway through the afternoon the clouds blew out over the valley and the same light came down as the last overs ticked away. It was a perfect end really, the setting and weather and game all in sync to produce those ineffable feelings of sadness suffused with deep and lasting enjoyment.

I've played in Australia, where light flares upwards from the wickets and everyone squints like Steve Waugh against the brightness. Earlier this summer, in one of my greatest days on a cricket field, we had a match on the Nursery at Lord's on a perfect summer day. The light then was rich and golden, the outfield dappled with shadows from the trees in one corner and the groundsman's house. I looked through the gap between the stands below the media centre and out onto the main ground, which shimmered in the heat. It was magical.

The most evocative time to play can be on a long English summer night, when the light holds and holds and then seems to disappear almost as soon as you're done. I played lots of those games as a junior, often on the old village grounds of Hampshire and Surrey. They're never flat, and the swales and hollows of the outfield catch and trap the light in a way that newer grounds never can.

It may be a trade-off against the rain and the cold and the cancellations, but when the English light does its thing there's nothing else like it.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Dreaming of the Kudos...

Last night I had a terrible dream, the kind that remains with you for a few minutes after you've woken in relief... It was about my my bat, the mighty Excalibur that is the Newbery Kudos. Just as in dreams people that you know well can look unfamiliar and behave in strange ways, so the Kudos had altered: it had thick shoulders, one of which had split, leaving a deep and splintered crack running vertically down the length of its noble back. Rather alarmingly, I pushed at it with a small screwdriver, which fell into the chasm...

It's not a hard dream to interpret. The Kudos is in its second season, its middle growing ever sweeter - the great sadness of which is that it's a signal of the bat's ultimate death, its dry fibres pulling inexorably apart. Through a mix of superstition and laziness it badly needs regripping and re-covering, but there are only four games left in the season and me and the Kudos are going to get there together.

Dreams about cricket happen quite regularly - anything that occupies the waking mind for long stretches must manifest itself there too. My anxiety dream is always on the same theme: having to go into bat but being unable to get my pads on - nightmarish velcro that won't hold - or not having any boots. Less often, I dream that I'm playing well, scoring runs in a game that, it gradually becomes apparent, isn't actually a real game or on a proper ground.

I think it's universal among amateurs and pros. When I met Ricky Ponting (clanging name drop) he said his was leaving the dressing room to go in to bat and getting lost in a vast and unrecognisible pavilion. Horrifying, but not a situation the amateur will ever have to worry about... My team-mate Tom's is that he's running into bowl "faster and faster, swing my arm down harder and harder and the ball just plops down on the wicket..."

However, he happily admits to occasional dreams in which he's "a brilliant batsman". Tom was once coached for two hours by Alastair Cook, who, somewhat perversely, taught him how to play the on drive (I say perversely because the on drive is a) difficult and b) not a shot you often see Alastair Cook playing). In the next game, he made 24 not out, and nailed an on drive, feats he is yet to repeat. This year he's trying to score a hundred - in total, not in one innings - for which he's being sponsored in aid of an orphanage in India. After a swaggering start to the season in which he racked up his first 44 in short order, he is now engaged in a run of noughts so destructive that in a recent match he was telling the bowlers that they were "ruining the lives of orphans" before he'd even taken guard, a reverse sledge that sadly didn't do him any good.

Will such a run of batting provoke an anxiety dream about bowling? Can dreaming of batting well ever cross the strange, liminal border between the unconscious and conscious mind? Apart from their uncontrollability, is there a vast difference between dreams and visualisation? What about the neutral, unthinking 'zone' that is so often aspired to - what goes on in there, when batting itself can feel like a dream in which nothing is unanticipated, in which nothing can go wrong?

NB: If you're one of the bowlers that has plucked food from the mouths of orphans by dismissing Tom and now feel guilty, or if you just want to get caught up financially in the drama of his final push for 56 runs from a possible five innings, you can sponsor the great man here.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Darren Stevens has a day out

As the last county championship season faded out into autumn, I went to the Ageas Bowl to watch Hampshire play Kent. Hampshire were as good as promoted, Kent weren't, and Hampshire's ebulliance and effort was evident, despite a marvellous, gimlet-eyed 80-odd from Sam Billings, who was walking down the wicket to some short stuff from a biblically-bearded James Tomlinson. But when Kent went into the field the physical hardship of the nature of their work was clear.

Darren Stevens took the new ball. Powerfully built, a few steely-grey bristles clinging to the sides of his shaven head, he looked the part but the stiff-legged and weary jog to the crease told its story. The ball seemed to loop to the other end and Billings was soon standing up. All of the weight of a long, hard season that had given little and had no more to offer was upon him. He was 38 years old and he'd been doing this for seventeen years. The first whispers of winter in the chill breeze must have felt welcome.

Cut forward to this year, Surrey versus Kent in the T20 Blast at the Oval. A dreamy, soft-lit summer's evening and the ground is rammed. For some reason, Kent have decided that they'll play T20 cricket in a team kit that looks like some kind of demented acid-house outfit that the likes of Billings and Bell-Drummond can just about get away with but which, on the fuller frame of Darren Stevens, paints him as a grandad at a rave.

He came out to bat at number five in the tenth over when Kent already had 94 on the board. Whatever had been drained from him by the previous year's work was back: he faced 39 deliveries, hit ten of them for four and another five for six, some struck so cleanly and so high that they seemed to fly up level with us in the upper tier of the Bedser stand. It was all done with a terrific sullen power. Stevens was an old pro - 39 now, don't forget - schooling the young blades Surrey had picked. Among them were the Curren brothers, the youngest, Sam, just 17. Stevens was already playing county cricket when Sam was born.

He was way too good, and knew way too much for them. Kent went from 111 to 220 in just under eight overs. Stevens got 90 and a raucous, affectionate standing ovation as he walked off. It was deserved, not just for that night, but for all of the effort over all of the years.

It's an overlooked gift of the T20 Blast. Darren Stevens will never play for England, but he knows what it feels like to light up a full house at a Test match ground.

He opened the bowling soon afterwards, took a wicket in his first over and finished with 4-39 to go with the runs. Earlier in the season he'd been dropped to the seconds to find some form. I saw him again on TV the other day, creaming a sweet hundred off Glamorgan, one checked drive sailing out of the ground and into the Taff. It's some gift that Darren Stevens has, and some kind of life he has lived.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Cricket at Avebury

'No one knows who they were, or...
'What they were doing...'

So sang Spinal Tap of the druids, and driving past the neolithic majesty of Silbury Hill on the way to Avebury CC, with bleary revellers, blissed-out new agers, wide-eyed truth seekers and bedraggled hippies wading through waist-high grass, strewn in road-side ditches and crashed out by camper vans, it was obvious that our prehistoric past retains all of its mystical pull.

The summer solstice usually means no cricket for Avebury, whose dazzling little ground lies just beyond the stone circle and below the great man-made ditch, because the local police take over their clubhouse as a temporary base for operations. But this year strings were pulled, the ancient gods appeased and the constabulary kept in situ by the arrival of a marquee to act as a temporary pavilion, and a game fit for the longest day was agreed: one hundred overs, two innings per team and all results possible.

A hazy, chill morning slowly gave way to an English summer's afternoon. King Arthur Pendragon was spotted in the village. Several druids floated down the path that runs across the far side of the ground, one the harbinger of a wicket for our skipper, charging in up the hill as if pursued by King Sil himself. Between innings we climbed the ditch and looked down across the stones, following the path that whoever placed them had picked out, an avenue for the rising sun that stretched far up the hill beyond.

Perhaps beset by superstition, I batted in a helmet for the first time in aeons. It felt strange but comforting. The cricket was a suitable spectacle, a fifty and then a dreamily-struck ton for a couple of our boys ultimately overcome by Avebury, who hit powerfully to all corners. Wickets fell, catches were held and more than six hundred runs scored across the day. Our opening bowler survived a fearsome crack on the ankle, offered up a prayer to Herne The Hunter and produced a lethal off-cutter that trimmed the bails.

"I've always wanted to bowl one of those..." he said.

I was half-hoping that the game would not finish but instead be enveloped by a swirling, Arturian myst rising unbidden from the ground: Avebury's South African pro - apparently a quick bowler by day - had other ideas, and burned some vast sixes beyond the fence, four in succession at one point, to bring things to a close with an over or so to spare. It was almost 7.30, and still two hours until dark.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Alastair Cook: the [relative] evil of banality

Nine thousand runs, 27 hundreds, 114 caps; more runs and more centuries than any other Englishman, the eternal Gooch eclipsed... We must start to consider the greatness of Alastair Cook: the stats alone demand it.

It feels strange to do so, because Cook is so evidently only part-way through his time as a Test match batsman and few players make such a demand at such a stage. It's also strange because Cook is not obviously great in the way that Richards or Lara or Tendulkar or Ponting or any other of those obviously great players have been. And when Cook is bad he's not even good, let alone anything else.

In a way he is the mirror image of his bete noir Kevin Pietersen. Almost everything Pietersen does at the crease is memorable for one reason or another. Almost nothing Cook does remains once it is over. Huge hundreds exist as blurs, as flickering and repeating images of clips through midwicket, rasping back cuts, checked punts past cover and most of all, that relentless judgement of off-stump line - leave, leave and leave again... Close your eyes and imagine Brisbane and Adelaide 2010 or Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Kolkata 2012, or his monolithic 294 against India in Birmingham in 2011, and these trace elements are what's left behind.

Opening the batting in Test cricket should attract stubborn, attritional men: every Gayle or Sehwag or Warner needs their counterbalance. Cook's batting lacks ego - or perhaps more accurately, his self-image doesn't need reinforcing with big shots and back-page headlines. At his best he dominates through time; he presumes that you will break before he does.

With an irony he may not appreciate, Cook's batting is most interesting when it is going wrong. His dry spell between summer 2007 and early 2009, when his average dropped from 48.79  to 40.87, and his famous century-free trot between July 2013 and May of this year, provided more drama than the oceanic calm of his big innings because the internal battle was plain to see. For Cook, the gap between his best and his worst is wide. He's not a player who can hit his way back into form with a streaky 70-odd. Only time at the crease will do it, and he just couldn't stay in.

Technical problems were widely analysed: the heavy head, the loss of judgement of line. And the world's bowlers were wising up and not feeding the cut and pull, which for a while left him struggling for a response. He tried to broaden his range, primarily for the 50-over game, adding a slog sweep and a lofted drive, but it seemed to rob him of more than it gave.

He solved it the only way he knew how, with hour upon hour of practice, regrooving the stance and the trigger movement and the backlift until the world was right once more, and the ball could be left with safety and the bowlers got bored and started to bowl at him again and then the clip off the legs came back and the strike rotated and the opposition got tired and deliveries that he could cut and pull arrived and were cracked to the boundary and everything clicked back into place. He and Goochie like peas in a pod - practice, practice, practice - and Cook, on his mentor's shoulders, finally surpassing him into history.

Much of this was done in dark times, the Ashes whitewash, the sacking of Pietersen, the unequivocal backing of the ECB that actually weighed heavy rather than lightened the load. Whatever you feel about Cook, that sheer bloody-minded self-belief is what greatness is built on, and all of the greats have it.

Often though, greatness is conferred through a judgement of aesthetics. It's why you hear the name David Gower more often than Ken Barrington, why David Beckham is world famous and Paul Scholes is one for the football connossieurs, why a de Villiers hoick appears textbook and a Graeme Smith straight drive looks like a man strangling a chicken. As watchers, as fans, we value beauty because that is what seperates them from everyone else who can hit a cover drive or a decent forehand or a straight three iron.

It's into this gap that Cook, like Graeme Smith, falls. The stats make a case for elevation to the very top rank of players, and yet they are not always mentioned. Cook will probably have a long-ish while left after the captaincy is gone - win or lose, the end of the Ashes may be a good time to pass it along - and he could end up on the all-time lists somewhere around Lara and Mahela and Sanga, perhaps even Dravid. It would further his case to have an average nearer fifty, but every other English Test record will be his, and it would be hard to deny him the laurels then.

We may not remember too many of those runs with the kind of piercing clarity that the box office batsman offers, but they all look the same in the book. Cook's feats are ones of day-to-day reality rather than imagination, and he'll have the satisfaction of other, more lauded players having to crane their necks to see how far he sits above them.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

KP: The One Who Knocks

Amid the power and the glory of Breaking Bad came the moment in season four when Walter White at last articulated to Skylar, his panicking wife, his transformation from terminally ill middle-aged chemistry teacher to badass drug kingpin.

Are we in danger? She asks him. Are you going to answer a knock at the door and get shot?

"I'm not in danger, Skylar..." Walt rages at the end of one of TV's great monologues. "I am the danger... I am the one who knocks."

In the long-running power play that is the ECB versus Kevin Pietersen, the same kind of moment has come. It's a delicate moment, a complex situation, and no-one involved seems to know the whole story. Colin Graves has subtly manourvred events so that the argument will at least be settled out on the pitch, where it should always have been resolved.

With a single phone call to Pietersen, he has softened an official position that had helped to turn the ECB into a self-described 'toxic brand'. He has shown Paul Downton how he should have dealt with the situation, and put on notice a chief selector who appears to have let the modern game pass him by. This is a nuanced intelligence at work; one that has been missing throughout the gaff-prone year just gone.

There is a notion that Pietersen was looking for the chance to ditch his 'disappointing' $205,000 IPL contract, but I doubt that. Few are the cricketers who can afford disappointment on that scale, and Pietersen is revered in India. He is playing for Surrey because he is the one who knocks. The path is clear now. Score enough runs and the sheer force of them will open the door.

Pietersen has played something like twelve first-class games in eight years. He averages 98 in that time. He will knock again. How that will sound for Downton and Whitaker depends on their performance now. He won't get back into a winning team, at least not at first, but whether England are winning or not depends a lot on the choices they make.

There's a fairness to it which reflects the meritocracy that sport should be.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Sylvester Clarke: Unforgiven

Steve Waugh could feel the will of his Somerset team-mates "disintegrating" a full week before it happened. By the time the players were getting changed for the game, "half of them were out already". When Waugh himself went to the crease he faced "the most awkward and nastiest spell" of his career.

He described the experience as "something you can't prepare for. It's an assault both physically and mentally and the moment you weaken and think about what might happen, you're either out or injured..."

Waugh was hardly alone. Viv Richards said that Sylvester Theophilis Clarke was the only bowler that he ever felt "uncomfortable" facing. Graham Gooch had his helmet split down the middle. Zaheer Abbass was struck so hard that his lid had an indentation as deep as half of the ball. David Gower had the padding and thumbguard ripped from his hand, along with most of his thumbnail - they ended up "near third slip". Simon Hughes, hit on the head by the third ball he ever faced from Clarke, wrote from the blessed safety of retirement that he had been left "two millimetres of man-made fibre from death".

The name of Sylvester Clarke is receding now, but during the first half of the 1980s in his years at Surrey it hung over county cricket in the same way that Sonny Liston's had hung over boxing: star-crossed, whispered, feared... His first class figures - 942 wickets at 19.52 - suggest an outstanding talent; his eleven Tests - 42 wickets at 27.85 - hint at a man born out of time. Yet the numbers are like the list of Sonny Liston's knock-outs: a simple frame on which to drape the myth.

Whether he was the quickest of his time is a moot point. Geoffrey Boycott, who faced them all, thought that Thomson and Holding at their peak were the fastest. What set Sylvester Clarke apart were two things. The first was his attitude at the crease. He was in a way unknowable; wordless, dead-eyed. All that was clear of his personality was the way he bowled - with bad intentions. Once, challenged by an umpire for repeatedly pitching short, he turned around and said: "it ain't no ladies game..." The second was that his pace was accompanied by steepling bounce, and worse than that, an action that made it unpredictable.

From a short, slow-ish run his natural line was towards the batsman. Dennis Amiss, who made a double hundred against Michael Holding and Andy Roberts at the Oval in 1976, called it "the trapdoor ball", because it was hard to pick up and then it just kept zoning inwards at the throat. Any batsman will tell you that the worst kind of bouncer is the one that follows you. Sylvester's could be like a heat-seeking missile.

Superficially it seems as though he might have been a legend (or at least a different kind of legend) had he not been born at a time of astonishing abundance in West Indies fast bowling, but that was not his fate. Like Sonny, he appears to have been an outsider. On a rare tour with West Indies, he was pelted with fruit and rubbish by the crowd in Multan. He threw a brick boundary marker back at them and seriously injured a spectator. A couple of years later, in 1983, he went on the benighted rebel tour of South Africa. The list of players that accompanied him includes Richard 'Danny Germs' Austin, the 'right-handed Sobers' who died recently after a life of homelessness, begging and drug addiction; Lawrence Rowe, who moved to Florida to escape the stigma of the fallout; Franklyn Stephenson 'the greatest all-rounder never to pay for West Indies'; and David Murray, son of Everton Weekes, who walks the beaches of Barbados selling 'stuff' to tourists. Many of the eighteen that went never recovered from the life ban handed down to them after the tour.

Then there was the rum. There is a famous story that Clarke was discussing his life with a journalist in Barbados, where he'd returned after his retirement. Pushed on whether his career had been affected by Clive Lloyd's selection policies or the rebel tour, he looked at the bottle on the table and said, "that ruined my career." His Wisden Almanack obituary retells the tale of his day as a net bowler when England toured West Indies in 1993, long after he'd packed up professionally. He arrived at the Bridgetown nets wearing plimsolls and no socks, evidently "well fortified" on the demon rum and bowled a spell to Graham Thorpe off a short run that was as quick as anything England faced on the tour.

He collapsed and died on 4 December 1999 at his home, aged just 45, the day after Conrad Hunte and three weeks after Malcolm Marshall. I thought of him this week during a World Cup where pace - this time from left arm bowlers that can bring the ball into the batsmen at 90mph - is the coming trend. No-one brought the ball in at a batsman like Sylvester Clarke.

Sonny Liston once said: "Some day they're gonna write a blues for fighters. It'll just be for slow guitar, trumpet and a bell...."

Maybe they should write one for Sylvester Clarke, too.

NB: There's a marvellous story on the rebel tour here, from where I nicked the headline above. Also, Garfield Robinson's terrific piece for Cricbuzz, that sent me straight to Steve Waugh's autobiography for his recollections.