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Stokes rediscovered

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.”

Note:

(1) Weather permitting

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Inhabiting the Eoincene Era

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.

One-two, one-two.

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.

Running catch

Brears-page-001

Credit: Lord’s TV

 

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.

How?

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 running of the (white) balls

7 July 2017 – festival in northern Spain

The annual running of the bulls in the city of Pamplona pits several dozen men and women against a dozen bulls. The latter are released into the narrow streets, where they find the bull runners between them and their destination, the municipal bullring. Nobody died on the opening day of the festival this year. Five people were hospitalised, with injuries including the goring of one man in the chest and another in the scrotum. A third man suffered serious head injuries after being lifted and tossed by a bull.

Medics line the streets in a 21st century nod to human welfare as a tradition, of hundreds of years standing, continues to attract thrill-seekers and those with a need (and audience) to prove their mettle. So refined is the medical attention that, it is boasted, a victim of a goring will be stabilised within ten minutes of the incident.

7 July 2017 – festival in south-western England

2,000 people gather at the sports ground of a 176 year old college, where they double as spectators and targets for the twenty-two cricketers. The five and a half ounce missiles, cork encased in dyed white leather, have a long heritage, although not in their current hue. Much more recent is the dual role of those who stand and sit at the perimeter of the field. For decades, cricket fans have simply appreciated the action in front of them. Now they play an active part in the drama.

The day’s first casualty finds a ball narrowing in on him as he sits on a plastic picnic chair one row back from the fence. Two people ahead of him jump out of the ball’s way. He rises from his seat parrying the ball from his chest and is knocked backwards over the back of his chair. He lands heavily on his back and is carried away, strapped to a scoop stretcher.

Minutes later a ball sails over the boundary fence, skips off an awning below which diners are recovering their appetite and smashes into the tray of empties being carried by a waitress. Shards of glass tear at her hand and wrist. The ball is dried from the dregs it landed in and tossed back onto the field.

The spectators are now alert. When the next missile heads their way, it is caught competently by a local club cricketer. His view of the ball was cleared by a large man, from the local rugby club, sidestepping its path and landing heavily on the foot of a lady in sundress and sandals. She is lifted away from the incident, visible swelling suggesting a metatarsal fracture.

New Zealand’s former captain plays a short innings. He applies his famed strength and timing to just one delivery. It travels low, hard and fast through a gap in the field, bounces once inside the boundary, clips the top of the boundary board, which diverts it upwards in a direction unanticipated by those braced for its arrival. It catches its victim below the chin, breaking his jaw an instant before his teeth clamp and sever the tip of his tongue.

A high, long hit claims the afternoon’s last casualty. It soars to the back of the temporary stand, where a beery group rise to greet it, but succeed only in deflecting it onto the forehead of their neighbour who is treated on site, before exiting for concussion tests.

This Cheltenham College bloodbath is, with the exception of the concussion case, a fiction, departing from reality at some point after the ball is described crossing the boundary. It is not a fiction that has required a lot of imagination. One of these five incidents happened. The other four very nearly did.

The injured bull-runners at Pamplona do not attract much sympathy. They have willingly entered into a dangerous activity and suffered painful, but predictable consequences.

We do feel sympathetic for anyone injured watching a cricket match. “Should’ve kept their eye on the ball,” some might quibble, flinching as they remember turning to talk to a friend, or looking down at their newspaper, as the crack of a middled slog-sweep is heard.

But with sixes hit at a rate of one per 25 deliveries in professional T20 games, haven’t we reached the point where the need to evade or gain protection from balls smote over the boundary has itself become predictable? And if a risk is predictable, where does responsibility for its mitigation, or liability for its occurrence lie?

A little internet research reveals opposing views to this question in the UK and USA. In the judicature that covers the city of Cheltenham, case law points to sports clubs having responsibility for taking steps to counter reasonably foreseeable risks to the safety of the public.

Across the Atlantic, courts have sided with sports organisations, concluding that spectators understand and accept the risks of attending baseball or ice hockey matches. To place the liability with the franchise would, it is argued, increase their insurance costs, and push the price of tickets beyond the reach of those sports’ core fans.

Gloucestershire County Cricket Club may envy the legal protection enjoyed by the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they operate under the less forgiving legal code. What then, should the county club be doing to fulfil its duty of care?

I have three proposals which relate primarily to cricket played at occasional or festival venues, such as Cheltenham College. Spectators at purpose built professional grounds are less at risk. The playing areas are larger and the rows of fixed seats facing the middle help to keep spectators’ attention on the action. The ECB, with its plan to move to an eight team T20 league in 2020 may have the ultimate solution. These proposals are for interim precautions.

Pitch location

The pitch at Cheltenham was located off-centre. The distance to the nearer square boundary probably only just exceeded the minimum distance required by ECB playing regulations: 50 metres. That short boundary, opposite the college buildings, is where the majority of spectators were sat or stood. Sixes hit over the longer square boundary were highly unlikely to cause harm as so few people were in the line of fire. I would recommend that pitches at grounds like Cheltenham are central and certainly not closer to the square boundary where most spectators are gathered.

Protect areas where spectators mill

One of the pleasures of festival cricket is the promenading, dining, or standing and chatting in sight of the action. People thus occupied are distracted from the game and so less likely to be able to evade a ball hit towards them. Preserving the traditional pleasures of festival cricket needs to be balanced with the modern artillery of limited overs cricket. Protective netting can allow the two to coexist. Occasional grounds lack stands with roofs or double tiers, which could be used as a frame for protective netting. But a temporary net could be raised between the playing area and the concentrated zones where spectators expect to have sight of the match, if not their eye permanently on the ball.

Pad hard surfaces

The really unnerving moment at Cheltenham was when McCullum’s pull shot ricocheted from the lip of the boundary boards. Its pace and sudden change of direction would have defeated anyone but the sharpest slip-fielder. Grounds should ensure that the fittings erected between the players and the spectators do not exacerbate the threat to spectators. Padding around the top of boundary boards and other hard surfaces would absorb the ball’s momentum.

Unlike Pamplona’s running of the bulls, the running of the (white) balls is unlikely to last into the next decade at grounds such as Cheltenham College. The event’s passing will happen whether or not the safety of spectators from flying balls is given a higher priority. In the meantime, do not turn those spectators into unwitting bull-runners; or the players into bulls. John Simpson of Middlesex launched the six that hit the head of the man at the top of the temporary stand. Simpson held up play and walked towards the boundary, concerned for the injured spectator. He only allowed the game to restart when he saw one of the teams’ medics run across the outfield and climb the steps of the stand. The very next ball, mind perhaps not fully returned to the game, Simpson judged a quick single poorly, and was run out.

 

Not a straightforward win

Friday afternoon, just past half-way through the fourth innings, Middlesex’s disciplined, probing attack pushed it ahead of the other two teams contending for the 2016 County Championship. That was also the point when the Captain, my erstwhile opening partner, challenged me to name the 1993 Middlesex side. 

Barely an hour later, Toby Roland-Jones bowled Ryan Sidebottom to complete a hat-trick, Middlesex victory and Championship. After the match, approaching the pub, 15 minutes walk from Lord’s, I enjoyed a moment of clarity, reeling off the last three names in the Middlesex side for their final match of the 1993 season. “… and Mark Feltham!” I cried, before my pals mobbed me and carried me on their shoulders to the bar so I would have the honour of buying a celebratory round. 

Embellishment and simplification. The truth was altogether less straightforward. 

At lunch Middlesex had a lead of 80 with seven wickets in hand. To push for victory, it seemed clear that they would need to continue the acceleration Malan and Gubbins had managed before the break. Yorkshire took the new ball, but wickets didn’t fall and Middlesex ticked along at 3 to 4 runs per over. Yorkshire’s fielders had stopped jogging into position between overs. The cricket was respectable, but not Championship-winning. Neither side had a grip on the game. 

Processing the Captain’s question, I recited names of Middlesex county stalwarts of yesteryear: Barlow, Slack, Gould, Williams. I was recollecting real players’ names, but had telescoped the past, focusing on the era I had first followed cricket, 35-40 years ago. Gatting and Emburey came quickly to me, but they both spanned the period from my early interest in the game and 23 years ago. My mind had no traction on the question. 

Around 2pm, a change of bowling, of tactics, of atmosphere. Lee and Lyth bowled in the manner described in footnotes to fast scoring records as, “to expedite a declaration.” The fielders, stationed away from the busy traffic areas of cover point and deep mid-wicket, watched balls pass them, or chaperoned balls to the boundary rope. Some instincts stayed keen: Brooks took a one-handed catch at square leg before he remembered what was going on. Franklin came into bat and was talking to his opposite number, almost before he had a word for his batting partner. Collaboration, conspiracy – a pre-agreed target was being set. 

It wasn’t just my mind working on the trivia question. Four former teammates were pondering, keeping fingers away from smart phones. Tufnell, Fraser were added. But we were approaching stalemate. The Captain offered assistance – a big, juicy clue. “West Indian opening batsman.” We pounced on that: “Haynes” and our game was up and running again, fed more assistance, trying not to compromise the integrity of trivdom. 

There were a few moments of unaided excellence. We diverted to consider the Worcestershire team that took the field against Middlesex in September 1993. Our regular quiz-master (and Worcester resident), reeled off the majority of the playing XI, climaxing with a nonchalant “Gavin Haynes”. 

Yorkshire’s pursuit and Middlesex’s defence of the target of 240 in 40 overs brought sterner, more purposeful cricket. The players had to find the right balance of attack and defence. Errors might be irretrievable; a teammate lined up to replace any bowler or batter off their game. Yorkshire progressed to 80-3, slower than we had anticipated, but with Bresnan batting fluently a platform and the right personnel in place. 

Our minds now attuned to the task, we gradually filled out the 1993 Middlesex order. Discussion roved from England players of the era, to players that moved counties that might have included Middlesex. Our focus narrowing productively.

The home team’s burst to victory – six wickets in fewer than six overs – rewarded the pressure applied by Roland-Jones and Finn. But it also fed off Yorkshire’s commitment to attack come what may. To eschew the cricketers’ obligation to make the other team’s victory as hard as it can be. To fulfil an agreement made with Middlesex, that shut out the hopes of Somerset, the other team that might have won the title; that would have won a very first County Championship if Yorkshire had fought for a draw once it knew it could not win. 

My moment of clarity to remember the last three members of the 1993 Middlesex team never happened. Pure embellishment. The answers – John Carr, Keith Brown and Mark Feltham – were gifted to us, like batsmen swinging and hoping when the game is on the line. 

Perhaps it’s common for achievements to feature a share of compromise and collaboration with the opposition. It would seem fitting not to lose sight of that, the ambiguity tucked behind the victory and to acknowledge some unease amidst, or at least soon after the celebrations it creates. 

I can cope with the rain. It’s the drizzle I can’t stand

Winton heronFaced with uncertainty, the human mind devises narratives to feign predictability. All the way from answering the foundational question of ‘Why are we here?’ to the humdrum ‘Will I get wet later?’

Yes, humdrum, but dealt a 13 week season, impinged by football, school trips and family holidays, knowing whether it will rain later, has become one of the determining considerations of my life as a junior cricket organiser. Yesteryear, when the weather was really significant, we would consult seaweed, or the posture of cattle.

Nowadays, there’s a very modern indicator of coming rain: text messages. It starts in the late morning. Parents: “Will tonight’s game be rained off? I’m out of town, so would be good to know.” I understand the need to drive out uncertainty, the modern middle-class parent’s desire for the one quiet evening at home that a cancellation can deliver. The thing is I’m out of town as well.

Six years into this role and I am also very clear that if we decided whether matches in England’s north-west should be played based on weather conditions at 11am and forecasts for the early evening, our youngsters would play very little cricket at all.

Living in a temperate zone of this globe, with very few climactic extremes, weather is a state of mind as much as it is an objective fact. For cricket enthusiasts in this damp region, there is a pragmatism about conditions. We’ll start if it’s not raining (hard) and carry on if it’s not pouring. Recently, I drove through heavy traffic and heavier rain to Winton CC. As I pulled onto the drive that skirts the ground’s southern boundary, I saw a heron wading on the outfield. But the rain had stopped. Our hosts put the kettle on, joined me in conference with the neutral umpire and agreed we’d give it half an hour – but would mark the boundary anyway (cordoning off the wading bird reserve at wide long-on).

Thanks to the practicality of our hosts and the shared view that it’s only a game that nobody gains from cancelling, our teens played on. 270 runs in 34 overs showed it was a batters’ night and that weather is, within parameters, a state of mind.

To agree ‘it’s only a game’ may be a luxury that’s being depleted. Umpires have responsibility for ensuring the safety of playing conditions. That’s well understood. An opposition first team player umpiring an under 13 game once tried to bring the teams off in light rain. His legitimate concern was that the boys didn’t have spikes and were slipping. The opposition coach and I walked out to the middle to assess conditions. The boys were loving it, performing sliding stops and soft-landing dives. “No more long run-ups,” the other coach and I decreed before returning to the scorebox, out of sight of the parents fretting over laundry.

With that responsibility placed on the umpires comes an opportunity for litigation. A case has already reached court (Bartlett v ECB Coaches Association, 2015). A fielder was injured on a wet outfield after having argued with the umpire that the game shouldn’t take place. The court, in this example, dismissed the claim against the umpire, perhaps noting that the fielder, concerned about the conditions, had nonetheless attempted a sliding stop. The very fact of this legal case will cause a ripple through our recreational umpires, like a cricket bag dragged through a carpark puddle.

There’s another impediment to a laisser-faire approach to the weather and junior cricket. It’s the hierarchy of needs within the club. Ten year olds share the same square as the club senior teams. Allowing an under 11 match to go ahead and damage the first XI track is heresy. The balance is tightest on a Friday night, when the pitch will have little time to recover before the weekend’s big fixture.

On many a Friday afternoon, watching drizzle’s pathetic, stubborn dampening of the street outside my office window, my duty to play and play on, has shunted up against a wish for it to just rain properly and put us out of this misery. I check my iPhone weather app with the compulsion normally reserved for the Test score. The teasing of rain specks on the windscreen continues on the drive to the ground. The texts are coming in thick and fast. “We’re on,” I announce with fingers on keypad when I get to the ground and find the moisture hanging in the air, making the grass greasy, the square so inviting for a young cricketer to skid across and wreck tomorrow’s track.

“As long as it doesn’t get any heavier,” I explain to opposition, umpire, parents. We dig out bar towels for the fielding team to dry the ball that will still swell like a raisin in a Moroccan stew. Bats left carelessly on the grass will lose their sharp report. The fielders’ hair, that started in a variety of self-conscious shapes, becomes uniformly flattened on their scalps. Meanwhile, the pitch for our first team’s match takes on more water. Should I, shouldn’t I just call the game off? I can cope with the rain, it’s the drizzle I can’t stand.

This season, I’ve been spared the Friday game of chicken with the elements, with the matches I organise occurring on Wednesday evenings. But back in May, we played at home on the eve of a county second XI match at our ground. This was a prestigious fixture, for which we wanted the ground and in particular the square, looking its best. We got under way with grey clouds occluding the sun in the west. Club officials, looking more often at the sky than the play, stood on the boundary. Soon after the second innings started, the clouds began to leak and the covers made it to the pitch before the players reached the pavilion. Three of us stood sentry in the middle, heads cocked upwards like men have done for millennia. Then each of us 21st century men would look down and consult our smart phones, two of which told us it was raining and one claimed sunshine. Meanwhile, the square, the covers, the outfield, our heads and shoulders were rapidly filling in white as snow fell.

Big Nick

It was a toot, like a brass instrument being tuned. Incongruously high-pitched. Strongly, warmly associated with cricket and companionship.

The first time I heard the toot it came from behind me. I had shuffled down the pitch to the off-spinner, mis-judged or deceived by flight. But I had laid a healthy edge on the ball which would be hurtling in the direction of many of my scoring shots as an undergraduate, to thirdman.

The toot was the prelude to a more throaty, but still high-toned chuckle. Turning in the direction of the laugh, I saw Nick, occupying a space between first slip and gulley, with his left arm out-stretched, hand wrapped around the ball, shaking with merriment and enjoyment at his own display of agility.

Three or four years later, I became a teammate of Nick’s. I was now an old boy and the broadest, deepest allegiance that traced back to my student days was being forged. Our group was always happier, ruder, funnier and more generous when Nick was with us. We worried more, mostly about Nick, when he wasn’t.

Nick soon opted to be a non-playing tourist on our annual August Bank Holiday weekend jaunts. His last game left him melancholy. He had taken four wickets, at least two of which were slip catches to his leg-breaks that turned and bounded some way back up to the heights from which they’d been delivered.

While the rest of the team tolerated a slow, uneven decline playing on for a further 15 years, Nick called a halt. The distinctive nasal laugh would have been absent that evening.

Nick had been an unusual and highly effective bowler. At over six foot four, he could spear wrist spun deliveries to a quick bowler’s good length. I only faced him in practice nets and found it almost impossible to play forward. Stepping back, my bat met the ball in front of my chest.

The tooting continued, particularly around cricket. Nick was the most rewarding of companions for a spell of cricket spectating. In 1995, we watched the West Indies together at Lord’s. Meeting in the Grace Gates queue, he was bubbling with anticipation at 9am. Understanding that the ticket was a freebie, Nick undertook to cater the day, which he did with an entire loaf of smoked salmon wholemeal sandwiches. We sat in the lower Warner from where I was despatched regularly to the bar for another round. Just as adjacency to Nick seemed to shrink cricket gear, so pints of beer in his hand looked like, and were treated as, tumblers.

The real pleasure of his company  wasn’t the food and drink (although his knowledge of both were doctoral), but his enthusiasm and appreciation for the game. Lara came out to bat and Nick seethed with delight. “That back-swing, so high. Look at it,” he commanded no one in particular, but I and the dozen or so people in easy earshot complied. Nick wasn’t the kind of voluble spectator that cleared seats. His joy transferred. People in front of us turned and nodded. Those directly behind us didn’t curse this man obscuring their view but responded to him adding character to their day at the Test.

Lara and Hooper batted throughout the afternoon. The run scoring was slow. Peter Martin and Dominic Cork exerted a check so inimical to the pair batting. It was a tense session with few boundaries and fewer wickets. To be honest, it only lives so strongly in my memory because I shared it with Nick and glimpsed the game through his eyes.

A decade later, our old boys’ annual tour coincided with the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge. Since the series began in early July at Lord’s, my mind had been dominated by thoughts of how England might finally defeat Australia. At times, particularly the final morning at Edgbaston, it had been suffocating and it was regularly waking me at night as I computed scenarios and permutations. I was passionate for English cricket, not cricket.

Around our tour fixtures that weekend we gathered in our residence’s living room to watch coverage, live or recorded, of the Test. We came to will England to victory, roaring and cursing, if needed. However, we found an impediment to our partisanship. Nick, occupying the sofa, was cooing, purring over Warne’s bowling. “It’s the top-spinner,” he would divine as an England batsman was about to be hurried in a defensive shot. “Look, look at the wrist angle,” Nick would urge as super slow-mo dissected what Nick had already informed us. At the time of great national release, Nick was our conscience and our analyst, expecting more of us. His high nasal laugh signifying the great satisfaction of watching great cricket played by some great cricketers.

Soon the old boys will gather. There will be no toots and we won’t worry about Nick. There will be the formalities and then we’ll toast him and the pleasure that his company brought to our group and to each of us as his teammate and friend.

Imposters at the Sir Leonard Hutton Gates?

gatesPolice forces across the world have utilised the tactic of sending invitations to unapprehended criminals to collect prizes. It crossed my mind briefly that I may be being set-up, but I am law abiding, so the ECB invitation to Headingley was more likely to be a wind-up than a set-up. In turn, that anxiety slid into a more familiar one: imposter syndrome.

It’s a universal truth that there’s always someone better than you are at cricket. Only the Don is exempt, sitting at the top of that pyramid scheme. It’s almost as true about being a cricket obsessive. In the right environment you’re never more than an anorak away from someone with a finer appreciation of the skills of the game, its history, current players or ‘knowledge ‘ about why that journalist wrote a particular piece about that player. Perhaps it’s only in the security of a blog that one’s obsession reigns supreme.

And coaching, six years after qualifying, remains an area of shifting sands, few solid foundations and ever evolving puzzles. Why can that lad suddenly play that shot? How did that girl develop a throwing arm like that? Why’s that lad suddenly firing the ball down legside? The relationship of my methods and their outcomes are not just disjointed but appear to be on different planes. I am the arch-imposter when coaching.

Attending an event with, amongst others, a current minor counties player, someone who played club cricket with ‘Stokesie’, a county head of coaching and a university head coach reinforced the suspicion, as we gathered by the Sir Len Hutton Gates, that I was a little out of my league.

But inside the ground, sitting square of the wicket, trying to rationalise England’s loss of five top-order wickets to Sri Lanka’s seam attack; attempting to forecast the weather using a mixture of sky-gazing and smartphone apps, brought us all onto a level.

Maybe it was just a day of imposters – out in the middle, not just sat in the crowd. Were England’s top-order shut away in a windowless room in Leeds while a gang of look-a-likes started the English summer for them? Take Alex Hales: leave, leave, leave – no heave. Cook stretching forward, having a dart outside off-stump, when a milestone of run aggregation lay so close by. Root simply failing to be magnificent.

Yet Hales, having made the decision to forego IPL riches, has ample motivation for adopting a new degree of prudence. Earlier this month, against Yorkshire, he accumulated a mere 35 from only five fewer balls than are delivered in an entire T20 innings.

Cook had been characteristically Cooky off his pads. He attempted two off-drives, connected juicily with one, but his edge to the second may make it his last of the summer. And Root bounced to the wicket and played short balls high on the tips of his toes.

Most authentic of all were Stokes and Bairstow. The former banged a few boundaries in defiance of Sri Lanka’s rapid removal of the top order, before bunting a drive to mid-on. Bairstow banged a few balls, too, but it was his energy at the wicket that verified his identity. All but the tightest of singles saw him turning to set off for a second. He charged one 3, when most batsmen would have settled for 2, and had to be sent back from attempting an all-run 4.

Another England batsman made a fine impression. Mark Ramprakash was walked across the ground at lunch to greet the award-winning coaches, treating each, whether genuine or imposter, with quiet congratulations and wishes for a enjoyable day.

My cover wasn’t blown, or my company were too polite to out me. In truth, I had had a narrow escape – not at Headingley though, but at the conference I was to attend before I received the ECB’s generous invitation. I was to share my expertise on transforming contact centres. Imposter alert!

Three days in September

Three days of cricket-spectating at the end of the season. Sandwiched between a county championship fixture at Lord’s and an ODI at Old Trafford, was the final game of my club first XI’s league fixtures. That club match was more dramatic than watching Middlesex recover from a 190 run deficit to defeat the County Champions, Yorkshire. It was an occasion of more disappointment than watching England, for the first time with both my sons, fumble and spill the chance of a rare ODI series victory over Australia.

Nick Compton and James Franklin’s progress on Thursday had been closely monitored. Until their sixth wicket partnership, Yorkshire threatened to take the match inside two days and with it the plan for live cricket to accompany the reunion of my college old boys team. On a warm Friday morning in the Upper Compton, we saw a lesser Compton bat with diligent correctness. His partner after Franklin’s early dismissal, Simpson, batted as though the lesson of his long wait to bat had truly sunk in. 

200, the lead we felt might make Yorkshire uncomfortable, was in sight when Compton fell and was achieved before Simpson was out. 40 overs later and the lead was 380. Toby Roland-Jones had a maiden hundred and James Harris a solid 60. The pitch seemed flat, as did some of the Yorkshire bowling, but the affront to their Champion status was evident from the double tea-pot Sidebottom gestured to Middlebrook for allowing an all-run four and the double, double that bowler and captain showed to Sidebottom for dropping Roland-Jones at long-leg. In the final overs of the day, the plummy PA announcer noted that Middlesex had reached their highest score against Yorkshire, surpassing a total set in 1877. Gale, whose team had the hosts 146-5 129 overs earlier, reacted by throwing his cap to the turf. 

Our reunion could continue for a second day at Lord’s although I was heading north. To top our day at the Home of Cricket, we joined a crowd behind the Grandstand watching the final overs of the 4th ODI on the screens on the bar wall. The bar was shut and we stared at England’s chase and Maxwell’s boundary brilliance through metal grill, while security staff circled unsure of the etiquette of removing cricket spectators watching cricket after the close of play. 

Two days later, my sons and I found our seats at Old Trafford while Jason Roy challenged a first over lbw decision. Sat down, we saw his hesitation the following ball when faced with the same situation – such indecision doesn’t bode well for a format that demands instant choices. Timed out, he wasn’t allowed to challenge the second errant judgement. 

England batsmen fell to a succession of crooked shots to straight balls and bats pushed at wider ones. ‘This will happen from time-to-time to a young team,’ is the conventional explanation, that means nothing to boys aged 14 and 9 hoping to find some heroes. Finch and Bailey ensured the match continued at a pace, which was a better outcome for fans young and old than a slow, stuttering overhaul of England’s score. 

Travelling home, a little unsure of themselves as critics, the boys and I agreed that, yes it had been a rubbish match. Disappointing, but not in the same way or to the same degree as my experience the day before – the middle of the three days in September. 

As the rain fell at my club on Saturday morning, the 1st XI were second in the table. A win that afternoon, against the top team, would seal promotion and reward for a season spent, until the final month, leading the division. A few miles west, the team in third could leapfrog us, but only if they won and we did not. 

The wet conditions reduced the match from 50 to 33 overs a side. The visitors set 132 as the target for victory and promotion. Early wickets fell and kept falling in our chase. As the middle-order folded, the runs stagnated. Finally, a little momentum, but still wickets fell, so with the team barely half-way there, there were nine down. 

Spectators’ attention was turned to sporadic reports from the match featuring the team in third. Initially news was poor: our competitors for promotion were progressing well towards their target of 200. An envoy was sent to their ground to provide reliable updates. The first call from our source brought news of a switch: seven down with over fifty to get and batting slowly. Perhaps our struggles would be academic, although it was pleasing to see our final wicket pair battling on. 

The team and supporters gathered in front of the pavilion, watching our game that could be extinguished at any moment, listening to the club chairman relay updates from our source. When the ninth wicket fell and the final overs began at the match out of sight, we began to take ball-by-ball feed. The moment of our probable promotion would be announced live; but we continued to calculate the required run-rate. They needed 12 per over off three; then 12 off each of the last two, which rose a touch to 14 off the final over. Two tenth wicket partnerships were in parallel progress, ignorant of each other, and holding the fate of a 22 week season.

The final over, described to us, began with a six. “Who’s bowling? The left-arm spinner!” It continued, leaving four runs needed off the final ball. Quiet.. “It’s what. You’re not winding me up. He’s hit it for six.”

Grimly, our attention turned back to our match, our tenth wicket partnership. Finally, our batsmen were making clean strikes. Thirty runs short quickly became twenty. The opening bowler, brought back, was struck for six. 50 partnership; 12 to win from seven balls. Then a skied sweep to deep backward square, right in front of us, and in an instant, a bold innings, the match, promotion gone. 

Quick single: An Australian Partnership – Fidget and Meringue Man

Fidget

I can well imagine going on holiday with Steven Smith. 

Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..

Smith pats his trouser pocket, breast pocket, back-pack and bumbag, compulsively and repeatedly. Just checking. Just checking again. Checking again. Again.

Batting, between deliveries, Smith checks: helmet grill, right pad, left pad, box, helmet crown, bat twirl. Twice over. He’s a blur of manual reassurance. Fidget. 

Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. 

Taking strike, the bowler about to begin his run up, the batsman settles, steady and still, eyes level, energy conserved, ready to pounce. Not Fidget. He stands at the wicket. His bat wags towards gulley like the tail of a well-behaved dog, hearing his master return home at the end of the day. A dip at the knees, then another. A shuffle to the right, another dip. 

Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. 

Non-striker, Fidget rehearses front foot shots. Left foot forward, bat sweeps and his back foot drags, drifts or rotates. Without the ball, he practises his idiosyncratic technique, where most players emulate the text book. A solid base, the coach insists; au point, this twitchy ballerina practices. 

Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. 

Running. A forward defensive and Fidget is five yards down the track before bouncing back into his ground. When the ball is directed into open space, Fidget is away, looking for two, three, an all-run four at the very least. His body moves forward, at pace, his limbs scatter. He’s like a junior playing his first game in unfamiliar pads. The bat’s not tucked economically under his arm, but an extra limb, an unneeded crutch, as much in the way as helping him towards the other crease. 

Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. 

All this energy and motion, critical to a one-day run-chase, to setting and maintaining a momentum. But this is day one of a Test match. He bats from mid-morning to lunch. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. All afternoon. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency..  And through to the close of play. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. 

Fidget’s at work, on tour. Batting hard on a pitch he might not take home, but would enjoy on holiday. Passport, tickets, credit cards, currency.. 

Meringue man

The ingredients of a meringue start loose and liquid. 

Rogers is off the mark quickly. A waft over the slips, then smooth punches through the off-side, easy tucks off his pads. Comfortably out-scoring his more heralded opening partner. 

As energy and activity are applied to the meringue mixture, it stiffens.

His fifty up and into the afternoon session, the sun is out and Rogers is trying to accelerate. Driving, the bat turns in his grip and the ball finds his instep, not the boundary. Cuts clatter into the ground beside him, not the sponsor’s boundary advertising. Meringue Man’s batting is becoming viscous. It’s sticky, slow work through the 60s and 70s, relying on the toe end and outside edge of his bat. 

The meringue has a hard, if fragile, surface.

It is the delicate cuts from the slow bowlers that keep Meringue Man’s score accumulating. Just brushing the face of his bat and skittering away to the third man boundary. Fine deflections, not full-on impact, move him into the 90s. 

Finally, a full connection with a straight drive takes Meringue Man to his 100. And now he’s transformed, shattering his crusty shell, middling the ball and speeding to 150.

A meringue crumbled and made fruity. An Australian Eton Mess?