On Wednesday, I amongst thousands of others will stand and cheer and applaud. It may be at the start of play, or sometime during the day after England’s third wicket has fallen (1). We will be acclaiming Ben Stokes on his return to the cricket field. While I stand, the noise at Old Trafford persisting beyond the span of any normal welcome, I expect the pressure will build on my sinuses, my neck and scalp will become hyper-sensitive and my eyes will prickle. A few deep breaths will probably quell tears. Many in the ground, like me, will have personal reasons that merit such deep emotion, but it will be the sight of England’s bearded, ruddy-faced batting hero that might draw it from us.
2019 is Stokes’s summer. It started with that catch, leaping, back-handed, out of position, in the deep against South Africa. It has surely reached a peak with Sunday’s match-winning, logic-defying century. Its progression from one to the other is well known, its destination in the remaining two Tests is beyond my powers of speculation. The Headingley innings set new standards, but also was a rediscovery.
Returning to England’s line-up last summer, Stokes the batsman was stodgy. Tight matches against India, England’s fragile top-order and the burden of Bristol, we reasoned, were inhibiting him. Stokes’s template innings were Cape Town in January 2016 and Lord’s against New Zealand in 2015. Free-flowing, power batting. The full-face of the bat meeting ball at the apex of its swing. Boundary fielders unable to intercept cuts and back foot drives that travelled just yards to their side; or their heads tilted upwards as sixes soared above them.
“..I’ll probably never bat as well again..” acknowledged Stokes at Cape Town, suggesting a subtlety of character, admitting a tinge of melancholy at a moment of his profoundest triumph. ‘I’ll probably never bat as well again, again,’ Stokes may be reflecting this week. But for all his success in the World Cup campaign there was little to suggest he would rediscover those heights.
Stokes scrapped for runs through the World Cup. He played mature innings, responsive to the match situation. Once, on his previous visit to Old Trafford, the match situation imposed no responsibility. Stokes came to the wicket in the 48th over, after Morgan’s blitz had lifted England above 350. Ball one: fell over, trying to ramp; two: pulled straight to the boundary fielder for a single; three: beaten, nearly stumped; four: dropped cutting; five: swept for a single; six: bowled behind his legs. Meanwhile, Moeen Ali had added two sixes to England’s record number.
Then that innings in the Final. Stokes prevailed, not losing his wicket in regulation time and pressing England’s total forward in the super over. But Stokes had struggled to score. Buttler rotated the strike comfortably in their partnership; Stokes wasn’t able to reciprocate or keep up with the required scoring rate.
As wickets fell and drama piled upon drama, Stokes was being buffeted, swept up in the vortex of cricket’s strangest final. “Why me?”, he seemed to be pleading, anxiety an unfamiliar emotion to read on his face, in place of the stern focus and leonine grin to which we are accustomed. Too good and too lucky to get out; too inhibited by his own form and the circumstance to grasp the match and take England to a clear victory. Stokes give little sense of relishing this challenge. We admired his resilience and, at key moments, his calculation of risk but couldn’t ignore the good fortune that kept the victory within touching distance.
Stokes’s second great innings of the summer differed markedly from the first in the degree of control that he exerted. In the first, events and a live wire opposition had him reeling, but never falling. At Headingley, Stokes was the agent of misrule, upending tactics deployed by the Australians, bending their exertions to his ends. It may simply have been that, when the ninth wicket fell, England’s situation was so desperate that Stokes felt no weight of responsibility. By contrast, England had always remained within sight of victory in the World Cup Final that a single Stokes’ error would have erased.
The ease with which Stokes accelerated at Headingley, achieving a tempo change that eluded him throughout the World Cup, also felt like a rediscovery. The range of shots and his equable response to a misfire – repeating the ramp the very next delivery and hitting it for six – was evidence of a renewed confidence. Not all strokes were cleanly hit – the lofted drives against Lyon travelled over the long-off fielder like ducks winged by hunters. Square of the wicket, though, Stokes was able to reduce the fielders to collecting balls from the other side of the boundary. Most magnificent of all was the back-foot drive to the straight long-on boundary.
Stokes palpably savoured this innings – not that his relish extended to watching Jack Leach batting. If the World Cup Final was, “Why me?”, then Headingley was, “Look at me!”
Ian Botham’s great innings at Headingley was the first of three consecutive match-winning performances. Will this be emulated and the 2019 series be known as “Stokes’s Ashes?” In the aftermath of Headingley, Stokes’s response reminded me not of Botham, but the father-figure of English all-rounders. WG Grace had, reputedly, returned the bails to the wickets, over-ruling the umpires on the field. Stokes, asked about the Lyon’s LBW appeal showed similar certainty. He acknowledged the three reds on the technology before dismissing our modern source of authority, “DRS has got it completely wrong.”
(1) Weather permitting
Our day’s first sight of Morgan is well-received. On the big screen in the car-park, he is shown winning the toss – about which we are neutral – and, crucially, opting to bat. He has given his vaunted batsmen an opportunity to pile up runs against the weakest opponents in the tournament. We approve. We have, not a promise, but a probability of a full day of entertainment.
On our second sight, Morgan is less well-received. It’s him tripping down the stairs from the changing room, not England’s greatest limited overs batsman. The innings is in the 30th over. Buttler-time. But Jos is batting in scorecard order, not in situation-specific sequence. ‘Spare your back, skip,’ we mutter. England’s innings, without a Roy-based supercharge, has for 29 overs felt like an preamble, foundations built by a fastidious builder on ground that is already solid and ready for England to erect great towers and arches. Still scoring at 5 runs per over, with wickets in hand – it feels quaint, not bold new England.
Morgan does nothing to alter the tenor – a single off seven deliveries – and we enjoy the replays of Gulbadin’s return catch, taken at shin height, that stopped Bairstow’s progress towards a century and his, as the set batsman, anticipated assault on the bowling. Morgan, like a coach demonstrating the shot to junior cricketers, plays back and forwards with exaggerated care. His bat canted downwards as though surrounded by crouching Afghan fielders. In reality, five are arrayed at the edge of the 30 yard circle and, blue and red kit merging with the World Cup signage, four more are stationed camouflaged on the boundary.
It’s heralded by a no-ball. Morgan pivots on the free-hit and the ball clears the boundary in front of square. Before we know it, the game spirals. Like a boxer, Morgan deals in one-two combinations. Pitch it up and a clean sweep of the bat, sometimes vertical, but always angled optimally for the width of the delivery, sends the ball in gorgeous high arcs beyond the fielders and the straight boundary. Drop it short and Morgan swoops with sudden energy to put the ball beyond the leg side fence.
Morgan’s crouch and his bottom-hand dominant swing enable him to administer lofted drives to half-volleys, good length deliveries and near yorkers.
And there’s variation: the ball angled at his pads is slog swept to the distance; the quicker bowlers driven straight, with the trajectory of powerful artillery. A straighter pull-shot lands in our stand. It feels like a blessing, or coin tossed by the lord of the manor to his underlings.
Morgan may as well levitate, so intense and unreal in its assurance is his shot-making; he sees, he hits. I recall two mishits: the drop on the leg-side boundary and a single air-shot. He also defends, bat straight, with unerring certainty about which is the right ball to attack.
The spell he has fallen under captures us and who knows, maybe the Afghanis, too? For a little over an hour we have eyes, ears and thoughts for nothing else. Time and space are melded: we exist in the Eoincene era, Morganistan. Morgan provides a release, abstracting us from the cares and concerns of our lives, temporarily wiping clear troubled minds. The elation survives his dismissal but is soon gnawed at by guilt, at surrendering to this pleasure in a wider context of angst and discomfort.
One man present remains outside that spell. Root, arriving at the crease twenty overs earlier than his captain, reaches ten after around ten deliveries. He has reached the forties, scored off 40-ish balls when Morgan arrives. A run-a-ball, or thereabouts, through the careful building of foundations, the sudden acceleration of the innings and the sustained hitting. While Morgan has stretched the elasticity of time in a cricket innings, Root was metronomic, rhythmic, maybe detached.
I wasn’t detached. Morgan transported me and, no fault of his own, left me hungover as the real world and its agonies re-established their dominion. I feel sheepish at how readily seduced I was, but in the same measure grateful to have had – and shared – that experience. My memory of it will join other, largely more personal recollections, that I withdraw to, to find respite. Writing this, the day after, provides the same welcome relief.
David Barclay, Turl CC quizmaster, has concocted a new challenge. In David’s words:
I reckon there have been 28 Christophers who have played Test cricket – all are represented here cryptically and in some cases tortuously so. 15 are English, there are 6 New Zealanders, 3 South Africans, 2 Australians, 1 West Indian and 1 Zimbabwean.
There is of course only one Chris Smith.
Good luck! Answers to follow.
Three sudden jarring cries carry the 75 yards from the middle. A pause and then a broader chorus cheers, still high-pitched, but with less urgency. The batsman walks away from the wicket. The chorus members converge from their fielding positions. A wicket has fallen.
Evidence of the eyes: the stumps stand upright, location of bails unclear; the ball has now been returned to the umpire.
Rewind a few seconds. Grab a memory of this, the sixth, sixtieth, perhaps, 360th delivery watched today. Scan for clues: the batsman’s movement, the ball’s destination, keeper’s line, close fielders’ inclined heads.
Apply heuristics of many years of watching, layer with knowledge of the competitors, inject with understanding of the conditions of the pitch and the ball.
Settle on a theory: a thin edge, to a good-length, seaming delivery, gathered to the keeper’s left.
Away to your right, the scoreboard flatly conveys the truth: LAST MAN lbw b 9.
Watching cricket live is a challenge of concentration and observation. The difference between an edge behind, a drive to the boundary or a cautious leave, is found in a fraction of the seconds the ball is live. An experienced eye can make a lot of those fleeting images. But much of the appreciation when watching play at the ground is in the aftermath of the delivery and interpreting the movement of batsmen, fielders and bowler.
There are exceptions, where the key moments of action play out at the same pace as an alert spectator’s attention. My favourite, an incident that can crown any day at the cricket, is the running catch. The usual pulse of action is extended, introducing jeopardy, with just enough time for speculation and ‘will he, won’t he’ thoughts.
The flash of activity that ushers the chance is articulated: an advance down the wicket perhaps, invariably a full swing of the bat that grabs the eye. Following the ball’s course, the brain calibrates trajectory with boundary and deep fielder. Swapping focus, before settling on the fielder, carrying out her own speedy calculations.
While writing, I’m thinking of Damien Martyn ending Kevin Pietersen’s daring first Test innings, Alex Hales (and Moeen Ali) sucker-punching Misbah at Lord’s, a full-length dive at long-on by Cameron Bancroft at a T20 at Cheltenham. None was the most significant moment of that day’s cricket, but each imprinted deeply because I watched them unfold.
The fielder’s athleticism plays a part in the appeal: foot speed to gain ground towards the ball, agility to stretch or even dive to reach it on the full and dexterity to clasp and cling onto the ball while moving at pace. Yet, the running catch that resounds the strongest featured a greying cricketer, most comfortable scheming at slip. But it was from mid-on, in the closing overs of a one-day game, that he pitter-pattered with flat feet down the slope towards the Tavern, like an uncle chasing a paper plate blown away at a family picnic. Mike Brearley, at the 1979 World Cup Final, ran and ran before taking Andy Roberts’ skied pull over his left shoulder.
The Test series, the Ashes no less, slid away like a fall down a mountainside in a dream. Moments of stability, then another slip, painful scrapes, bruising, but when the bottom came, we were on the whole intact.
When, a little dazed, English minds turned to the one day series, first thoughts were of Moeen even more exposed and Woakes, blinking, but never scowling or swearing, getting carted around the park. Those were the instant notions I had, anyway. But, then, quickly they were chased away by something more upbeat and exciting. Not foresight of Roy’s fast starts, Buttler’s sprint finishes, Wood’s slippery speed or even Rashid’s googly. But the anticipation of an event with associations of its own. Exotic and intense, cricket played on its margins of performance and under lights.
The source of this thrill felt for limited overs, day-night cricket in Australia, pre-dates Bayliss’s supercharging of the England team, survives the years of plodding competence overcome by Australian boldness, precedes even England’s best team in the world World Cup runners-up of the late 1980s. It springs from the last minute Larry (Kerry?), almost improvised tour of 1979/80.
Australia celebrated peace breaking out between Packer and its cricket board by inviting over their common enemy. England agreed to come and perform as the object of ritual sacrifice before Australia’s united and very strongest team, as long as the Ashes weren’t at stake. There was more wrangling over format with the hosts insisting on Packer’s innovations and the visitors trying to hang onto their dignity, just as they had not given up the urn.
The limited overs internationals fell between and after the Test series that Australia won (without regaining the Ashes). England picked teams for both formats from a single tour party. 38 year old Boycott, naturally, stood aside from the short form games. Until, that was, England found themselves lacking fit batsmen. Boycott, who had made 50 from around 30 overs in the World Cup Final at Lord’s the year before was brought in to open the batting. I suspect he took more pleasure in confounding expectations than he did in his attacking innings of 80-odd, lofting down the ground the bowlers he might preferred to have dead-batted.
It felt that England, despite their recent form as World Cup finalists, were entering a new arena. Floodlit cricket at home meant novelty bashes held on damp nights on a carpet pitch laid over the half-way line at Stamford Bridge. In Australia, light flooded its vast cricket grounds, under spectacular twilight skies. Tens of thousands of passionate, partying Australians, watched from the dark fringes of the ground. The cricket was physical, demanding and unsettling. England, under grey-haired Brearley could get swept away. Their insistence on wearing white marked their naivety and discomfort.
But a single incident showed that England could raise themselves to compete, could be inspired by the novel challenge, not implode sulkily. It was more stunning and memorable even than Boycott lashing Lillee back over his head.
The Australian batsman flashed hard, lifting the ball over the infield. The ball was over the infield, when one of those infielders arched up and backwards, taking the shape of a high-jumper stretching hand first, followed by arm, head and back over the bar. Derek Randall emulated Dick Fosbury’s technique, and surpassed him by catching the ball mid-leap.
That single reflex action showed that England had the vitality and panache to play a full part in the heightened atmosphere of day-night cricket. At home, Randall’s catch was talked about all day before the footage could finally be seen.. on the evening news.
I carry with me the thrill of seeing Randall hurling himself backwards to grasp the ball. It remains dormant until, every four years or so, I think about England taking on Australia in a one-day series, under lights. The whites have gone, as have (usually) the Ashes by then. One day cricket has been normalised. It has been tarted up with rule changes to save the format from itself. End of tour series are derided. Individual matches and performances blend into insignificance. Yet, when this team is playing in a particular country it creates in me an excitement that I can trace back to that one instant.
From the book
England played Australia and the West Indies in a twelve match, three-sided series running from late November until the end of January. Two of the three Test matches between England and Australia fell during the one-day series, the last after the one-day, best of three game finals. West Indies defeated England 2-0 in the finals.
The one-day series began at Sydney on 27 November 1979, where Australia and West Indies contested the first ever ‘official’ ODI under floodlights. The following night, England played the West Indies. Randall’s catch came late in the game. Andy Roberts (not an Australian!) chipped the ball into the leg-side, where Randall launched himself to the ball. England won by two runs, placing all ten fielders (including wicketkeeper Bairstow) on the boundary for the final ball defending three.
England played in their Test match whites. Australia and West Indies wore stylised white outfits, with coloured piping and shoulder panels as well as coloured pads.
Geoffrey Boycott (39) was not selected for England’s first match, but replaced Geoff Miller for the second game, with Brearley dropping to seven in the batting order. Boycott scored 68 (85 balls) in a successful chase of 208. Boycott finished second top scorer in the tournament despite only playing six of a possible nine games with 425 runs (avge: 85), with one century and four 50s. His strike rate (69/100 balls) was higher than that of Gordon Greenidge, Greg Chappell, Alvin Kallicharan and Graham Gooch, amongst others.
He clasps the ball in both hands beneath his chin. It’s a devotional gesture from an often profane, exultant cricketer. A step forward, left arm swings down then back up again, briefly into his meditative pose. Then a transformation: his left hand close to his mouth, head turned with eyes following his right hand as it stretches out in front of him. The archer’s stance, the bow at maximum tension, an arrow about to be loosed with the deft flick of his fingers. But this archer is not still. The left arm drops, before being drawn back and up and over in an effortless swing, propelling the ball at the target fixed by his stare.
Watching England fall to defeat after defeat against India in late 2016, I became mesmerised by Ravindra Jadeja’s bowling. Gentle bobbing to the crease, the bowman’s coil, and best of all the fluid sweep of the left-arm. Time and time again, that easeful swing of the arm sending deliveries that zeroed in on pads, the stumps, the edges of bats. When Jadeja is to be memorialised it should be as a fountain. A tight, twisting jet of water flowing from the statue’s high left arm, landing hour after hour, day after day on a length, eroding the hardest of stone surfaces, with its insistent, repetitive delivery.
The gentle, economical back and forward of Jadeja’s bowling, tracing the same path through the air, again and again, lulled me and stole my consciousness. Hypnotised by its simplicity, an action shorn of any extraneous motion, I began to tell myself that I could bowl like that. A little forward motion, feet providing balance, a turn of the arm – each could be imitated, albeit in mirror image. Jadeja had crept inside my head, where he had occluded my great cricketing anxiety: bowling in the nets. Forty-five minutes of purgatory is the deal I must strike in every net session for eight minutes of release spent batting. Jadeja had shown me the way to fulfilment. I would be like him.
The days between Christmas and New Year were dry and bright. I committed to visit the nets each day the weather allowed, having leafed through Amol Rajan’s Twirlymen to remind myself of the required grip and practised around the house, whenever there was nobody watching, my Jadeja-inspired pure delivery.
I was alone on my first net trip. I channeled Jadeja, but found the connection to be poor. Rather than delivering jets that honed in on the crease, I sprayed it around, most humiliatingly sending the ball looping into the netting roof. Briefly I abjured Jadeja and tried seam-up, but found control, when holding the ball conventionally with fingers either side of the seam, impossible. Returning to the true and right way, I tossed out a couple of half-decent overs of finger-spin, enough to encourage me to return.
My second trip was with no.2 son. My dreadful, looping lobs had done nothing in the past to develop his batting as the slow and high bounce confounded him and discouraged him from playing forward. Here was the incentive to send darts down. Success, if measured by my son’s pleasing strokes into the off-side, was mine. A dewy track and sopping balls may also have played a part.
On venture three, I was accompanied by both sons. No.1 hadn’t touched a ball since September, yet when encouraged to try his arm at spin, put my efforts in their place. I asked him for some feedback. “Well,” he said, “your action is fine, it’s just so slow that imperfections have time to creep in.”
I had my inspiration, but realised that autodidacticism (even when leavened with no.1 son’s observations) had very severe limits. I needed a coach. The Old Trafford Indoor School provided one. I was hoping he’d find all the fundamentals in place and with a couple of expert biomechanical tweaks show me how to fire in a good offie.
Coach Andy watched me bowl a few deliveries. He talked me through the mechanics of the off-break then for 15 minutes we chucked balls at each other, all snapping wrists and illegal elbow straightening. Every one of Andy’s flew with red and white hemispheres distinct and jagged nastily on bouncing. Mine were a blur of pink and offered the subtle movement of my hero bowling on a day 1 track.
I tried to put the lesson into practice and Andy made some encouraging noises about my progress. Satisfied that he had identified a fault and a method, through extensive repetition, to address it, he suggested I have a bat. Twenty-five minutes of floaty bowling machine deliveries were enough to undermine my confidence in what should be my stronger suit.
Coach Andy repeated his advice as we left the net, but he asked, was there anything else he could help with? Jadeja’s sumptuous darts that I so coveted flickered in my mind’s eye and prompted a smile and a burst of confidence. “Yes, what can I do to get a bit more pace, more oomph into my bowling?” It was, surely, within touching distance.
Andy chuckled. “One thing at a time. Just work on that release. Keep practising the basics. It won’t happen in a hurry.”
Deceived. Made to look foolish. Just another victim in these last few months of Ravindra Jadeja.
My company’s 5-a-side team had spent 12 months being taken apart by streetwise sides in one of inner city Manchester’s evening leagues. But displaying the virtues of application, teamwork and finding a ringer or two, the double digit defeats (32-1, 29-0) were behind us and we were competing.
Our rise towards 5-a-side football competence is relevant because I remember feeling excited as I leant against the mesh fencing behind a goal, gulping air and talking to Laurie. Five or six minutes into the game and we were leading. Laurie and I had finished a shift (of five or six minutes) and been substituted – regular replenishment by fresh legs was another factor in our rise.
Laurie, I recall, was about to say something to me. With my attention divided between the continuing game and my colleague, I saw him fall backwards with the rigidity of a felled tree. Within seconds he had people – players from other matches – attending to him. I ran to the office to get an ambulance called.
Laurie didn’t make it. Heart failure. In his mid-40s, he was fit. Thursday evenings he played 5-a-side with us. Weekends, he played on a team with his sons. But there was some impairment in his heart that had been dormant through so many exertions and then emerged to strike suddenly and irremediably.
The last time I recounted this story, I was taking a first aid refresher course to support the junior cricket coaching work I do. The course leader asked if anyone had experienced a situation where emergency first aid had been required. In a group of seven, there were two of us who had witnessed fatal heart attacks playing recreational sport – the other example was from a cricket match. Neither involved someone doing anything more intense or exacting than their routine.
It’s rare, yet common enough to be a story to have touched many families, friends, teammates and opponents. David Epstein, in ‘The Sports Gene’, writes about a fellow high school runner, a state champion, who collapsed and died within metres of crossing the finishing line. Epstein goes on to write about the genetic condition, hypertrobic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which is a kindred, equivalently grave, affliction to that diagnosed for James Taylor this week: Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyapathy (ARVC).
How could Taylor, I wondered, who has been around the England set-up, with its legion of backroom staff, for almost ten years, not have had this serious condition identified sooner, as part of routine health testing. Epstein may provide an answer; several, in fact.
To begin with, the most telling indicator of HCM is an enlarged heart, which also happens to be common among healthy athletes (AVRC also has symptoms that affect the structure of the heart that can be caused by other factors). Distinguishing between the medical condition and a well-developed muscle requires the input of an expert, of which Epstein wrote, “there are precious few in the world.”
Both conditions are inherited and caused by genetic mutation. Presence of the mutation does not however mean that serious symptoms will be experienced. Moreover the mutations vary greatly with many being restricted to a single family.
These uncertainties create a dilemma for clinicians diagnosing the conditions in athletes – they cannot tell which patients may be at risk of a sudden fatal heart malfunction. Understandably, the advice given will be to avoid physical exertion and so withdraw or retire from competitive sport, just as James Taylor has announced today. Epstein recalls that at his running friend’s funeral, his peers emphasised that the young man died doing what he loved – racing. Epstein demurs: “For me, there is scant solace in the poetic detail that he died running.”
James Taylor will now be deprived of the heightened experience of cricket played at its most intense: duelling with fast bowlers, challenging fielders with aggressive running and steeling himself not to flinch when crouched close at short-leg. Just as Epstein’s friend would have “eagerly rechanneled his competitive energy elsewhere,” and Laurie would have settled for watching his sons play football and to continue his active role in his family’s development and his own career, so Taylor will find another outlet for the ability, poise and commitment that took him, if only briefly, to the top of his sport. I hope he can find that fulfilment somewhere in cricket.
The material on HCM is drawn from chapter 15 of ‘The Sports Gene – Talent, Practice and the Truth about Success’, by David Epstein.
Our audience cleared, taking back to their desks and their vans the quarterly dose of our distinctive homespun corporate wisdom. From the back of the crowd came Robbo. “You’ll like this. Got something to show you two,” he said to the boss and me. “You remember Carl Hooper? Well, my son met him at this event in London.”
I do remember Carl Hooper. I saw his last match for Kent. A Sunday League fixture at Canterbury. I was meeting some friends there on a stag weekend, only they didn’t show. I was watching play with one eye and scanning the crowd with the other – distracted and frustrated. I went to the trouble of finding the PA announcer to put out a message to the groom-to-be, before finally relaxing in front of the cricket. Hooper was out and received a standing ovation on his way back from the middle.
Robbo was holding his phone at waist level. I couldn’t see what was on the screen but expected there to be a photo. A selfie of a once majestic cricketer and Robbo’s son? What would he be like? Robbo, no taller than Hooper, is eccentric, rumoured to have hair that isn’t naturally his own, and a real cricketer. Not just club, but, I’m sure I’ve heard a bit of county too, back in the 80s. But I couldn’t find anything to verify that on CricketArchive.
So we built Robbo up. Each year he managed not to attend our company cricket match and each year his reputation was enhanced. Then last year we entered a company 6-a-side tournament run by a solicitors firm. The boss selected his squad and tapped the lucky ones on the shoulder while we supped ale upstairs in the Point after our company away-day. Immediately Robbo talked about hiring nets at Old Trafford. It didn’t happen and we turned up at the mid-summer tournament creaking and pasty. The boss made Robbo (creaky, but never pasty) our skipper for the day.
We won the tournament on the back of some ferocious six-hitting by two of our players, only one of whom is a regular cricketer. Robbo let his stars shine. He spent the day wearing not whites, but shorts of the variety worn by international cricketers when warming up. There was a message there and maybe it translated into his play, more club than county. Most memorable that day wasn’t his cricket but his style of communication as captain. His teammates (his company boss, included), opposing skippers, even umpires, were addressed with one of two names: “Shag” or “Shagger”. Not affectionately, not disparagingly, just matter-of-factly, we were all one or the other and probably both.
Seven months on, and Robbo is relating the anecdote that his son has told him. Carl Hooper is a guest at a financial services event. When the event breaks up, Robbo’s son approaches Hooper: “I have to ask you. My Dad is always telling these stories about the cricket he’s played. Can I ask, do you remember him?”
That’s a bold question. Especially to a player with memories of over 100 Tests, more than 300 first class matches and around 700 one-day games. I have experience of how slight an impact we can make on those with whom we share the field of play. I wrote once about my worst moment on a cricket field, playing as a ringer for my friend Dave’s team in a crucial end-of-season game. Twenty years later, I asked him about the match and my part in it, which has clung uncomfortably to me, and he had no recollection at all.
“What’s his name?” enquires the former Test player.
Robbo’s son utters his father’s name.
“Him!” Hooper laughs, “him. I know your Dad. He stole a game from me.”
At this point in his retelling, Robbo lifts the mobile phone. On screen is a scorecard of a Central Lancashire League Cup match from the mid 1980s. In the first innings, Robbo top-scored with 73 not out. The opposition’s scorecard has a long tail behind a fat middle that features 87 from CL Hooper – ct & b by my colleague, whose team scrape home by 3 runs. Scrolling down the screen to Robbo’s bowling figures: 1-0-8-2.
“We were going to lose. I snatched the ball from the skipper’s hand to get on to bowl. I was cocky in those days.”
Memories of tight matches won, catches taken, boundaries hit can sustain a player long after the best days are gone. For that memory to be recalled by a teammate or an opponent cannot be taken for granted. For it to be shared by a former Test cricketer.. That is memorable.
Sarfaraz Khan, Gidron Pope, Alzarri Joseph, Avesh Khan, Jack Burnham. Names that have earned recognition for performances at the Under 19 World Cup this month. But will they, and their peers at this tournament, be the successors to Brendon McCullum, Mitch Johnson, MS Dhoni and Kumar Sangakkara in the wider consciousness of world cricket?
An analysis of previous Under 19 World Cup participants will not tell us specifically whether, say, Keemo Paul will become better known for his exploits as a senior than junior international cricketer. It will, though, cast some light on the development of international cricketers.
For every member of a full nation squad at the Under 19 World Cups of 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006, I have recorded the highest level of senior cricket attained in their career. The ten year elapse since the most recent tournament reviewed makes it unlikely that any of the 555 players will reach a new peak. Unlikely, but not impossible: Stephen Cook, graduate of the 2002 tournament, made his Test debut this year.
Four levels of senior cricket have been identified, in ascending order: i) professional limited overs (List A or national T20 tournament), ii) first class, iii) international limited overs (ODI or T20) and iv) Test. With very few exceptions, this grading represents progress in a player’s career – ie he will have played the form of cricket considered lower than the level I have taken to be the highest level he attained.
Within each level, there is a broad range of attainment, measured by appearances. For example, from the 2000 tournament, grouped together at the first class level are Mark Wallace (England) with 249 appearances and Gareth Irwin (New Zealand) who played a single first class match in 2002/03. (Irwin is one of the exceptions to my hierarchy, as he did not appear in professional limited overs fixtures.) It might be fairer, therefore, to think of each group as containing players who have passed a common threshold, rather than attaining the same level.
The summary analysis of the 555 players shows that 45% have gone on to play international cricket (not all with the nation they represented at the Under 19 age group). 5% have not played any professional senior cricket.
I would have hypothesised that the conversion rate of under 19 internationals to senior internationals would have increased over this period; this being a reflection of the more structured approach taken towards the development of youth cricketers. The results don’t support that hypothesis: the proportion of under 19 players going on to play international cricket has varied: 2000 – 48%; 2002 – 40%; 2004 – 46%; 2006 – 42%.
There are some stark country-by-country differences. The youngsters of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have had a higher likelihood of becoming full internationals, two-thirds in the latter case – perhaps reflecting that selection in those countries is from a smaller pool of players. On the other hand, barely one-quarter of those who have appeared at under 19 World Cups for England have played for the senior team. Unsurprisingly, England, with its 18 first class counties has had no players fail to reach the senior professional game – nor did Pakistan, South Africa and India.
I also looked at whether performance at the under 19 World Cup was a good predictor of future prospects by narrowing the analysis to the top run scorer and wicket taker for each of the ten nations at the four tournaments. 50 of the 81 players in this sample (64%) have played senior international cricket, compared to 55% of the total population, which is less of an increase than I would have expected. The outlier is New Zealand’s Jonathan McNamee, who was their top scorer at the 2000 tournament, but has no senior professional record.
At the team level, success in the under 19 tournament has not been associated with having teams choc full of future international cricketers. Looking at the eight finalists in these four tournaments, 43% (Test: 31%; Limited over: 12%) of their squad members went on to play senior international cricket, compared with 45% (35%; 10%) of the total.
I was also interested in understanding the proportion of players who reach Test level who have been participants at the junior World Cup. My method provides an estimate, not a precise figure. I extracted the number of Test debutants for each nation in the period 2002-2012. The chart below shows the number of players in the four under 19 World Cups who went on to play Test cricket and the proportion they are of the total debutants in the eleven year period. It provides a rough, rather than definitive, picture as some participants in those four tournaments had debuts before and after the eleven year period; and some players from the 2008 and 2010 tournaments probably had debuts during the period.
Approximate though this analysis is, it does show that England and Zimbabwe are outliers. Around half the Test debutants from the other eight nations had played in the four under 19 World Cups. For England, that figure was below one-quarter. At the other extreme, those players accounted for over 90% of Zimbabwe’s Test debutants.
There are positive and negative connotations to these two extremes. England’s position could be evidence that it performs poorly at identifying future talent, or that its junior cricketers mature at a later age. It could be a strength that international selection remains open to players emerging from outside of the elite juniors. England may have the resources to invest in a broader base of juniors, making precise selection at 19 difficult. Experience of international cricket as a teenager may be a poor one, having a negative impact on English juniors, or their development is interrupted by injury. The opposite to each of these arguments can be made for Zimbabwe. The data cannot help us with this key point. I would be interested in the views of readers.
In conclusion, the data analysis shows:
- Unless from England or India, an Under 19 World Cup participant has close to, or better than, an evens chance of senior international cricket.
- The first class game should definitely be within reach – if not already attained.
- Having a strong tournament (relative to your teammates), desirable in its own right, boosts by a modest amount a player’s likelihood of moving onto senior international cricket.
- At Test level, there is a heavy dependence on Under 19 World Cup graduates, with around one-half of the debutants in the years following tournaments having participated in the junior World Cup.
- England and Zimbabwe are, respectively, less and more likely to choose Test debutants from Under 19 World Cup players.
It’s the most disdainful insult (short of cursing) used by the youngsters I know.
It’s the term they most fear being attached to themselves.
Mitchell Johnson was weird.
For all but a minority of extrovert youngsters, fitting in is the state they ardently seek, through the games they play, the clothes they wear, the way they speak, the company they keep.
Mitchell Johnson came to cricket late. Drawn away from tennis in his late teens, he would have shown up at nets attended by a tight group of young cricketers with a background of seasons together, nicknames and shared stories. The quiet teen Johnson would have waited his turn to bowl, standing 5 metres to the right of the knot of right-armers. Reaching the crease, without an athletic bound, arm swinging through far from the purist 12 o’clock, Johnson probably flung a few of his early deliveries into the side netting.
Weird is how his new teammates, apprentice bullies for careers in the tough world of grade cricket, would have viewed him. They probably stifled laughs and nudged each other when he bowled wide – maybe nervously, though, given the speed he could already attain. While he had his back turned, padding up, they may have dared each other to impersonate his run up and action.
Whether his peers accepted him, coaches did, including Dennis Lillee. Not committing to the game until his late teens, he was playing for his country before twenty. But like his mentor his progress was slowed by back injuries.
Johnson’s emergence as a senior international cricketer came when we might have expected a lull in Australia’s fortunes following the retirements of many of the team that white-washed England in 2006/07. Johnson seemed to bring to the team something that none of his eminent predecessors offered – a dynamic all-rounder. But it was what happened in the second phase of his Test career that renews my interest in him as a role model.
On the 2009 Ashes tour, Johnson’s pre-series billing as Australia’s spearhead was quickly quashed. As he struggled to bowl straight, expert opinion moved swiftly from the vulnerability of his slingy action to the fragility of his confidence. He was an introvert experiencing intense public scrutiny of his shortcomings. By the second Test, he was spared the pressure of opening the bowling. As each underwhelming, wayward spell passed, the thought occurred that dropping Johnson from the team might be an act of mercy, but also an exit without prospect of return. If only his rhythm could return.
Johnson’s rhythm was weird. At his best, bowling looked effort-ful. His run-up, as his career progressed, became less like the series of movements one would choose to proceed rapidly over grass. It looked like an action adopted from overuse of a cross-trainer gym machine, modelled on Nordic skiing. Johnson’s delivery was force, unembellished by grace. Javelin throwers, belted and bandaged around waist and knee, pour it all into six or eight throws each competition. Johnson flung, with no less commitment, more than 70 of his spears each day spent in the field.
Johnson battled through the tour, and back in the southern summer again took wickets with pace. But a year later, facing England again, Johnson’s bowling deteriorated. The undulations of his career were becoming more abrupt. He was dropped after one Test, returned for the third Test where he bowled Australia to victory, then lost whatever it was he needed for the rest of the series.
And this loss of form had its own musical accompaniment. An Australian quick, on home turf, had the unique humiliation of being sung about in a derogatory, gloating fashion by visiting spectators. Johnson later acknowledged that the “swings to the left, swings to the right” choruses got to him, which is an unusual, but honest admission for an active sportsman. He also said he felt it was a compliment that he was targeted. It’s probably better that he is allowed to think this, although I find it unlikely: he was targeted because he was vulnerable, not because he was feared.
Injury followed and Johnson had a slew of young, quick bowlers whom he would have to displace to get back in the Australian Test team; as well as having to convince that it would be correct to give him a place alongside another bowler much closer to the end than the beginning of his career: Ryan Harris. Johnson did play, but not regularly.
Intimations of what would follow came at the end of the English summer of 2013, when Johnson appeared as a limited overs specialist. While many extrapolated from England’s 3-0 Ashes victory that summer to an easy victory for the visitors in the return series, those who watched the discomfort with which the England players faced his bowling in the one-day series, must have begun to consider how secure England’s hold on the Ashes really was.
That Australian summer Johnson soared. Used by Michael Clarke inflexibly in four over spells, time and again that was time enough to puncture a hole in England’s batting order. Johnson conquered injury, self-doubt and public ridicule. Sporting an extravagant moustache he bristled and attempted to intimidate the England batsmen in his follow through – his least role model-worthy behaviour and entirely superfluous given the grip his bowling had on the opposition.
Johnson is not a cricketer I have enjoyed watching. He has made too many of the batsmen I want to see succeed flinch and duck and succumb. The deepest pleasure I get from watching cricket is see batsman score runs. I have loved to see Johnson hit for runs – the ball tears to the boundary. The camera focuses on his face. The defiant glare doesn’t look genuine. There’s perhaps bemusement, helplessness. Johnson knows what it is like when his form deserts mid-match and that doubt, the potential for another low, is humming quietly.
It is for his weirdness, for not fitting in with our aesthetic expectations of the fast bowler, for being a quiet man performing and flopping on centre stage, for his prevailing over public humiliation, for his return from injury to bowl his arm almost out of its socket for 24 balls at a time that I commend him as a role model. He has shown as much courage as any of the batsmen that have faced him, kept in line, ducked the bouncer and attacked anything loose. And, as we know, he bowled frighteningly fast.