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Victim of Jadeja

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.

Heartbeat

powerleagueMy 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.

Memorable

Hooper playing for Kent

Hooper playing for Kent

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.

Future stars of the Under 19 World Cup

u19 finalSarfaraz 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.

attainment level-page-001

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.

U19 country analysis-page-001

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.

U19 top performers-page-001

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.

Test debutants-page-001

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.

Mitchell Johnson – role model

Weird.

It’s the most disdainful insult (short of cursing) used by the youngsters I know.

Weird.

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.

Ryan Rickelton – South Africa under 19 cricketer

Photo by George Franks

Photo by George Franks

Handling the highs and lows

Ryan Rickelton describes both his great successes and his disappointments with the same calm precision. He appears to embrace each extreme of experience, in Kipling-esque fashion, as necessary parts of the road to realising his potential as one of South Africa’s most promising young top-order batsmen.

The modesty and groundedness of Rickelton, who turned 19 in July 2015 while in England playing for Sale CC, comes across when he talks about first recognising he may have a future in cricket. These positive thoughts didn’t occur after a particular innings, or when praised by a coach, but waited for something much grander.

There’s a week at the end of December when all the provinces’ age-group sides get together for seven days and play each other. 13 was my first year. Then under 15, I did quite well. I got two hundreds and two fifties. I ended up being the highest run scorer and player of the tournament. From there I got invited to Cricket South Africa’s national awards, where you get the Test player of the year announced. I was named out as the under 15 player of the country. From there, I had a bit of a go and said. ‘I want to do this’. I realised I could play a bit, but I wasn’t banking on it.

Two years later, a low point came. Rickelton was part of the squad of 23 players preparing for the under 19 World Cup, but did not make the final party of 15:

I was under Ray Jennings, and he was a different coach completely. And so as I walked in, I was a little bit sure of myself at that stage, I guess. But he brought me down. He actually took me apart to show me it was a different level. And it is.

With the World Cup (and Jennings) out of the way, Rickelton was back in contention for South Africa’s junior team and on the 2014 tour of England, had the opportunity to learn from his earlier disappointment. On debut, on the first morning of the 1st test, he opened the batting at Fenners.

The night before they lay out the order and luckily enough I was squeezed in… We won the toss, we batted first and got 400-odd. I got 85, batted through the day, to eventually get out 15 or 20 overs before the end of the day. Very disappointing on my part. Should have got a big hundred. Had a few good partnerships with the other guys and we kicked on and made 420 on a good wicket. From there we were able to control the game.

But Rickelton is very aware that success at the next level will require the same philosophical approach and ability to learn from success, failure, inclusion and rejection. Coming off a first season in English club cricket that sparked, but not consistently ignited, he goes straight into the Gautang pre-season two days after he lands back in South Africa. Aiming for a position in the Lions Second Team and then from there to work his way up, Rickelton acknowledges, “there are very good players in the system.. there are tons of good players out there. It’s not easy. But it always comes down to you.”

Photo by George Franks

Photo by George Franks

The key influences

Rickelton acknowledges the role played by two figures in his progress as a cricketer. Firstly his father, Ian (Sports Director at St Stithians Boys College, Johannesburg).

I’d say ‘Dad, can we go to the nets? We were quite fortunate, we lived on the school so could use the nets. We would spend hours in the nets, playing and playing and playing. We’d have fights sometimes. I’d sulk and he’d say, ‘I’m not going to coach if you’re going to sulk’. And sometimes he’d sulk because I’d be doing something else.

My father’s always pushed me on. I think after every game I’ve played, even at Sale, he’s the first guy I’d talk to. After every game played in England and the sub-continent. A bit more than a coach. He knows me inside out: what works for me, what doesn’t work for me.

He played schools cricket and probably could have gone on from there, but wasn’t able to attend a trial for Transvaal schools and then decided to join the army when he left school. So, his cricket fell away. He’s the first one to admit, it was a bit daft, but too late now.

The second influence is Bongani Ndaba.

I used to train with one of the coaches at the school, Bongani Ndaba. He loves coaching more than he loves playing. Knows technically everything about you as a player. So I used to work with Bongs when I was 10, 11 and still work with him today.

The sort of relationship where he knows what I’m doing wrong and lets me find out before he tells me. He’s been a big influence. Even if I kick on further, I’ll always go back to Bongs and Dad.

The stability of his father’s and Ndaba’s mentoring plays an even more important role for a young cricketer whose achievements have seen him move from one team at one level on to another at a higher level and then move again.

Each coach has their own perspective on the game and their own opinion on the player. A lot of them try to correct you or change the way you play for what they think is beneficial for you. There’s been times when I’ve tried to listen to the coach as I’ve gone up and I’ve said. ‘OK he’s my coach. I’m going to listen to him.’

And I’ve tried to do that and I’ll go and I’ll not score runs for a bit and my Dad will take me to the nets. ‘What are you doing? Go back to normal.’ So I’ve swapped back to normal. There’s always differences. Player-wise, it’s what works best for you.

Rickelton accepts that the coaches are trying to get the best out of the player, but the player must take responsibility for their own game.

South Africa and England compared

After a season as an overseas player in the Cheshire League, Rickelton has some interesting perspectives on club and junior cricket in this country.

Club here is way bigger than it is at home. There’s more connection. At home, I play club cricket and I just rock up on a Sunday, play from nine to six and go home. That’s it. There’s no club day where everyone comes to watch the firsts play. It’s not like that.

[In England] there’s a lot more support of club cricket. It’s all over the internet. Even the newspaper that rocks up at my door every week. It gathers a lot more support than at home.

Junior cricket, on the other hand, is markedly less intense in England than was Rickelton’s experience at St Stithians.

Cricket at that age is at school, so it’s forced upon them. After school, they know they’re going to cricket. They’re all friends from school, all in class together, all net together. It’s not club cricket where you can say I’m going to play this weekend, but next weekend I might go away. At school you have to be there.

At nine, ten, eleven, I used to practice four times a week, play two games. You’re there every day, over and over again. Whereas over here, some of the kids will turn up on a Monday, maybe play a game on Wednesday. That could be the difference.

Finally, with England touring South Africa in 2016, I asked Rickelton if he had seen anything this summer that should worry his country’s top cricketers.

Joe Root, as usual. Mark Wood – he’s a bonus to the side. Good pace, good movement. James Anderson might struggle a little bit.

A lot more responsibility on the batsmen to not get knocked over for 200-plus. South Africa’s a place where you’ve got to put on 350, 300 minimum.

A prediction?

We’re going to take it.

———————

Post updated 20 September 2015 to correct factual inaccuracy. 

Quick single: He came like a king

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Hammond’s walk was the most handsome in all cricket, smooth in the evenness of stride, precise in balance. It was a flow of movement linking stillness to stillness. It was, as much as any feature of athletics, the poetry of motion.

JM Kilburn’s effusive description of Wally Hammond, walking to the crease at Lord’s in 1938, continued: “He came like a king and he looked like a king in his coming.” Kilburn acknowledges that Hammond essentially did not look any different that day than he normally did walking to the crease, although there was “an added quality”. It’s not that real or imagined otherness of the day Hammond went on to score 240 that interests me, but that he could be recognised by his walk.

The cricketers, if in silhouette and without context of match or location, that could be identified from their walk to the crease, is not, I think, great in number. Two immediately come to my mind. There’s Viv Richards, hips swaying, shoulders rolling. And I think I could pick out Alan Border: short steps and head tilted upwards to the sky and turning, like a meerkat looking out for airborne predators.

I am sure that if you watched a team all summer, you could come to recognise each player from his or her non-batting or bowling movements. For those of us following the game at a distance, or seeing a little of a lot of cricketers, there needs to be something very distinctive for the silhouette test to work.

With Jonny Bairstow’s recall to the England Test team, we have two players to view in the Ashes contest with very individual ways of running. Bairstow, in the field, works his limbs like someone unfamiliar with cross-country skis, trying to escape a polar bear over snow. Steve Smith, running between the wickets is a flurry of arms, legs and bat.

In the six months that I have had the picture at the head of this piece on my wall, I have come to enjoy it for an associated reason. In this case, though, it’s not movement that identifies the player, but fixed posture. Each of England’s three slip fielders (and to a lesser extent, the gulley) has a characteristic stance: feet position, bracing of the knees, prominence of backside, tension in the arms and shoulders. I am convinced I could recognise them separately from the context of the opening delivery of the 2005 Ashes. Are there other slip-fielders you find similarly recognisable?

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Quick single: Alternating keepers

Jonny Bairstow has been scoring runs at a gallop for Yorkshire. Meanwhile, the England top order has regularly given Test opponents a three wicket headstart. Bairstow’s call-up for the third Test (along with some shuffling of the order to accommodate him) aims to channel his strong form into a stiffening of the England line-up for the rest of the Ashes series.

Bairstow is also Yorkshire’s first choice wicket-keeper. He joins Jos Buttler in the team. The England keeper has made just 58 runs in four innings so far in the series. Neither player demands inclusion on the basis of keeping ability, and so needs regular runs to justify selection. It might seem that Bairstow’s return puts pressure on Buttler. It could be seen quite differently, though. A trip back to international football in the 1970s and 1980s will be used to illustrate.

Ron Greenwood became the England football manager in 1977. Two competitive matches later and England had failed to qualify for its second consecutive World Cup Finals. In Brooking and Keegan, the manager had two high class players. The team’s other stars were goalkeepers: Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence. Greenwood adopted a policy, from the qualifying campaign for the 1980 European Championships, until the final warm-ups ahead of the 1982 World Cup, of alternating Shilton and Clemence – as well as giving Joe Corrigan an occasional cap. Greenwood’s rationale was to ensure both players maintained international experience, which he could achieve without weakening the team. There was some recent historical justification for this unusual selection policy. At the 1970 World Cup Finals, England’s first choice ‘keeper, Gordon Banks fell ill before the quarter-final with West Germany. His replacement, Peter Bonetti, had just a handful of caps. His inexperience was exposed by the West Germans in their late three goal rally that eliminated England.

The England cricket team, under Peter Moores and now Trevor Bayliss are already coming close to emulating one feature of Greenwood’s approach to player selection as England manager. For a few matches in 1977, Greenwood, seeking a cohesive team, picked six players from the League Champions Liverpool as well as Kevin Keegan, who had recently moved from Liverpool to play in Germany. Six of the England squad that toured West Indies earlier this year were from the county champions, Yorkshire, which is the source of four players in the current Test squad. 

But it’s Greenwood’s more idiosyncratic selection policy of alternating keepers that could provide an inspiration for the England cricket team. The aim would not be to have two players with deep international experience capable of keeping wicket for England in the next World Cup. The objective would be to have at least one wicket-keeper, fresh and injury-free for that tournament. Buttler is the first choice keeper for Tests, ODIs and T20s. By the end of the next English season, he could be called on to play 17 Tests, over 20 ODIs, sundry T20 internationals and a World T20 tournament. For one player to fulfil the lynchpin role of wicket-keeper for the entirety of the itinerary, particularly a player whose batting is key to the team in limited overs matches, presents a real risk of burn-out or injury through physical stress. 

Having Bairstow in the squad offers the option of resting Buttler, if not from alternate matches, then regularly at the tail-end of series. In limited overs matches, Buttler and Bairstow could swap roles, allowing the Lancashire keeper to play as a specialist batsman. If England can farm the use of these two versatile cricketers their careers could be prolonged and their effectiveness when selected enhanced. Buttler, in these circumstances, if well managed, would not see Bairstow’s elevation to the squad as a threat, but an opportunity to become an even stronger all-round wicket-keeper batsman. 

What this scenario does depend upon, of course, is the new man – Bairstow – scoring enough runs, at the right times, to justify his retention. If his old technical flaws return in the face of the Australia attack, the plan should not be implemented. That does not necessarily mean Buttler must tackle England’s demanding fixture list unsupported. There’s another player, already a squad member, capable of dove-tailing with the number one keeper’s need for rest and relief. Sam Billings may turn out to be more than Joe Corrigan was to Shilton and Clemence. 

Short pitch: Radcliffe CC

IMG_1196Yesterday evening, I wandered around the boundary at Radcliffe CC, watching an under 16 cricket match. The play was of a good standard, but subdued. The two teams had played each other the night before in an exciting Cup Final and this match, despite having the potential to be a league decider, was passing calmly. The scene was peaceful, too. The ground, in bright evening sunshine, was still, belying its elevated situation to the north of Manchester, Pennine hills visible to the east. Family and players from both teams, sitting on the terraced benches rising up to the pavilion, chatted amicably.

The ground stands on the site of an old race course and was first used for cricket in the mid 1870s and has been in continuous use for the sport for 107 years.  For an urban-sited ground it is unusually spacious having not experienced the incursions from land sold for housing or from clubhouse extensions to earn the club fees from function room, bar or multi-sports facilities. The boundary, when the full field is in use, is marked by a narrow gutter and whitewashed low brick wall. There’s a low picket fence around one stretch of the field and whitewashed walls mark the club’s curtilige. The playing area shows devoted care that promises batsmen will get the full value of their shots. The outfield may be Test, let alone first-class standard. The square extends two-thirds of a central band running east to west across the ground. The tracks to the east, within 15 metres of the full boundary, are well worn, suggesting their use, not for junior matches but square practice with a mobile cage.

IMG_1204In the break between innings I climbed the steps to the pavilion bar. Charmed as I was by the ground, the bar brought even more treats. On a beam, above the picture windows looking out on the ground, that runs the length of the bar, were photos of each of the club’s professional cricketers. Worrell, Amarnath, Pepper, Sobers, Ramadhin, Pilling, Moseley, of those with instantly recognisable names. In an unlit corner, marked for sponsors, there was a sculpture of Sir Frank Worrell who had pro’d there from 1948-53.

As we drove away from the ground, I told my son that he had been playing at the club where Gary Sobers had played. “Was he famous then?” he asked.

“Oh, yes. He played Test cricket at 17 and held the record for highest individual Test score when he played here.”

“Why did he play here?”

I explained that there was very little money in the game for players before the 1980s and a professional in the Lancashire Leagues would be well paid for one or two days work a week. The key detail I didn’t have to hand, was that until the late 1960s strict residency qualification periods were in force for county cricket. For example, Bill Alley, synonymous with Somerset, spent five years playing league cricket in Lancashire before becoming eligible to join Somerset in his late 30s.

If Sobers had been born 60 years later,  he would still have been forced to migrate to make a good living from the game. But not to Lancashire (or Nottinghamshire), unless perhaps for a four week contract covering the final stages of the county T20 Cup, but to Bangalore, Brisbane, Melbourne or Mumbai.

Radcliffe is quieter and less vital than in the heyday of the Lancashire Leagues. The buildings and areas beyond the boundary are looking worn, but good attention seems to be paid to the bit of real estate that matters – the bit in the middle. The junior section thrives and, from my experience of watching three games, has depth and a good friendly spirit.

Next year, the club breaks a tradition of almost 80 years. Radcliffe leaves the Central Lancashire League to join the new Greater Manchester Cricket League. New clubs, fresh players and followers will have the pleasure of playing on and spectating at its excellent ground and pausing in the bar to take in its heritage.

Quick single: taking first strike

The first ball of a Test innings is long anticipated, quickly marked in the book and becomes a gradually reducing data point in the pattern of the innings. Ball two is less special and declines in significance at the same rate. Balls three, four, five and six are each still of note. Soon, though, the individual delivery is part of the greater ebb and flow without a given identity.

The batsman who chooses, or is assigned, to take first ball is the most exposed on the team.

Chris Rogers took strike on Thursday at Lord’s and was straight into action, defending Anderson’s first ball from the crease. The second, leaning forward, he steered to point.

Shortly after tea on Friday, with 10 hours in the field in his legs, Adam Lyth took strike. He also felt bat on ball immediately, dead-batting a short delivery from Starc behind square on the off-side. Lyth lined up the second on off-stump and offered another dead bat at it. But it curved away a little and lifted, drawing the opener’s bat, flicked the outside edge and through to the keeper.

Rogers’ read his third ball as full, stepped forward and drove. The ball swung, intercepting the edge of Rogers’ bat and lifted over the England slips, arms extending, hands grasping, and away for four.

Lyth looked down, recognised the option of staying didn’t exist and slowly moved back along the pitch. Past the umpire and Cook, he slowed again. A review had been called to check for a front-foot no-ball. But that provided no second chance and Lyth, head still down, had the pavilion ahead and a mobile cameraman pointing his device at the batsman’s face, retreating in step with the player, just out of reach should the subject want to take a swipe at the technology with his bat.

After a safe leave, Rogers sees the fifth ball pitched up again outside off-stump. His instinct is better this time and drives the swinging half-volley cleanly through the covers for four.

It took England 295 more balls, conceding another 26 boundaries, to dislodge Rogers. A single ball is all that might have separated opening over Lord’s ducks for Rogers and Lyth. Lyth will bat again in this match, with the chance to close the gap with his opposite number. He will face the first ball of an innings, the most exposed batsman.