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?
I was the top wicket taker in my first year at college. I bowled filthy, loopy slow lobs. Early the next season, we were knocked out of the Cup when a potentially close game was blown open by three consecutive sixes hit off my bowling and out of the ground. Bowling and I have never really been reconciled. Nets can be a torture, either side of the intense pleasure of a turn batting. So, there’s lots I don’t understand about bowling.
For example: Why can’t professional bowlers deliver a consistent line and length? Why do quick bowlers pitch short when conditions are favourable to seam and swing? What words would a bowler find helpful to hear from a teammate when he or she is struggling to direct the ball? How can a bowler carry on playing after being hit for six sixes in an over (three did for me)?
I also don’t really understand what ‘bowling as a unit’ means. Ian Smith said it of the New Zealand attack that has kept such pressure on the England batsmen in recent tests. I’m not clear how bowling as a unit is any different to all the bowlers bowling well.
To act as a unit means to co-ordinate efforts to work together. I infer from it that the sum is greater than the parts. It’s a familiar phenomenon in sport. A football team, say, when defending will combine to deny the opponents space and to pressurise the man on the ball. To some extent, it’s apparent in fielding as players back-up and support each other to deny the batsman opportunities for runs.
In these examples, the activity of the players making up the unit is happening simultaneously. They are interacting in real time to exert a combined influence on the game. Bowling is different to this: it is asynchronous, or more simply, each bowler takes their turn to deliver an over.
I understand well that bowlers have different roles. A stock bowler may be tasked with keeping an end tight, while strike bowlers attack from the other end. Alex of Lines on Grass has pointed out to me that some bowlers appear to have the ability to get wickets for the bowler at the other end. He cited Gavin Larsen; I would name Andrew Flintoff.
I can also see a bowler having a more specific role at a particular moment. For example, denying a front-line batsman a single towards the end of an over, to expose his partner, a tail-ender, to his fast bowling team-mate.
These practices seem to me more about all bowlers bowling well, than any heightened teamwork. Is there more to it than this? There could well be and I would like to be informed.
If there isn’t, I think we are in the territory of the tactical post-hoc rationalisation that Ed Smith wrote about recently. In trying to explain an outcome in sport, as in other areas of life, we seek a cause. Taking England’s lean spell in the 1990s, and the multitude of aspects of the game and society blamed for the national sport’s predicament, Smith notes:
The point, of course, is that causes are being manipulated to fit outcomes. They weren’t causes at all, merely things that happened before the defeat.
I speculate that the ‘bowling as a unit’ causal explanation arises when the bowling team has gained an advantage, without one of the bowlers ending up with an outstanding analysis – say, a five-for. Our personality-led preference for a ‘hero narrative’ isn’t available. In its stead, perhaps influenced by the culture of management and performance improvement, commentators and cricket fans may identify the ‘bowling as a unit’ cause. It’s much more purposeful and, superficially, more constructive than saying, “all the bowlers bowled well.”
But, I reiterate, I don’t know a great deal about bowling.
Alex at Lines on Grass has written a response to this piece, Hunting as a Pack, which I recommend.
A gentleman dozing in the sun is a popular image of the cricket spectator. The image conveys the tranquility of the sport, or less generously, that it is a game that moves so slowly that sleep takes hold of the viewer.
With England playing in New Zealand, and the guts of the day’s play happening after my bedtime, I am reminded that cricket has caused me more sleeplessness than sleep. I can pinpoint the very first night that my rest was disturbed by cricket: 30 December 1982 – day five of the fourth Ashes Test.
England began the match two down with two to play. The Ashes, held since 1977, were in serious jeopardy. Australia had won the second and third tests of the series, its fast bowlers providing the more effective attack. But the fourth test was thrillingly equal, from first innings to the final margin. The four innings fell within a range of just 14 runs. Australia had been set 292 for match and series victory. Advantage through their innings swung, just as the whole match had. 39-2.. 171-3.. 219-9. The chief protagonist of this middle-late order collapse was England’s young fast bowler, Norman Cowans (a surprise quick tour pick), who took four wickets in the fourth evening, on his way to 6-77 in the innnings.
Australia began the final day, me in bed listening to Test Match Special, on 255-9. Allan Border and Jeff Thomson were half-way towards the target for their final wicket partnership. I was tired and downhearted. England didn’t seem to be creating any chances and the runs were ticking away. I neither wanted to listen nor to switch off. After seventeen overs, Australia had closed to within a boundary of victory. I think it was CMJ commentating (do correct me) who described Botham’s delivery to Thomson, which went something like this .. edged to Tavare.. he’s dropped it.. no it’s caught by Miller. My hair prickled, I wanted to shout. I was exhausted. I couldn’t sleep.
Twenty years later, another England victory left me agitated and sleepless. The first test at Christchurch was played on one of the first ‘drop in’ pitches – i.e. cultivated elsewhere, and slotted into the ground for the match. This novel approach to groundskeeping turned upside down one of the constants of first class cricket: pitches deteriorate as a match progresses, making run-scoring increasingly difficult. This characteristic became apparent on day three as England’s sixth wicket pair, Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff, set off on a partnership at odds with the low, slow scoring of the first two days. England, the radio pundits said, would manage with a lead of 250, which they were 80 short of at the fall of the fifth wicket. Fifty overs later and the lead was 460.
New Zealand were eventually set a target of 550. I went to bed with New Zealand down a few wickets and many hundreds still to get, but batting with some verve. Restless through the night, I tuned in to hear commentary as breathless as I can remember. Nathan Astle had run amok, and with Chris Cairns, a lame last wicket partner, were making the most audacious assault on the England attack. Boundaries followed boundaries. England’s attack was hapless – short balls pummelled over midwicket alternated with full balls launched straight. It was humiliating, but futile, so great was the target. Twenty minutes later, the flood untrammeled, the commentators began to consider an England defeat. Then, with the suddenness of all wickets, it was over. Astle out for 222 from 168 balls; a ‘tainted’ victory, I felt, so badly caned were England’s bowlers. Heart-racing, my night’s sleep was over.
Anxiety about my own play has from time-to-time cost me sleep. Only once have I been not out over night. Even with a fifty to rest my head on, I
slept poorly that night (uneasy lies the head that wears the lid – except I didn’t and never have worn one). The next day, my timing had gone and I slapped my way to a (still) personal best 90.
I have had an even more intimate case of cricket-induced sleeplessness. As a teenager, I played whole-hearted Sunday village cricket with the flotsam and jetsam of my Chiltern Hills village. One Bank Holiday weekend, the club steward chucking us out, we decided on some night-time japes. A visit to the churchyard was mooted, but rejected in favour of sleeping on the square, protecting the pitch for the Bank Holiday Monday’s fixture. The skipper, his girlfriend and three players headed for the middle. There we spread duvets and bedded down. I have endured some scratchy, almost painful innings, but I have never been so uncomfortable in the middle. The joking ceased, somone slept, the skipper and his girlfriend began rolling the pitch and I borrowed some car keys and tried sleeping in a VW Beetle’s passenger seat.
There is one occasion in my career when cricket and sleep fed upon one another. On tour in the south-west with my college old boys team in the early 1990s, our two fixtures were split by a rest day. While the bulk of the team opted for a round of golf, the captain and I (protecting our batting techniques from golf’s seductions) set out on a walk that took us along the south coast to Lyme Regis. In a churchyard above the harbour we found a bench and sat soaking up the late summer sun. Important context is that the day before, I had batted through most of our innings to help secure a draw against the much stronger team from Axminster, keeping out a young quick bowler seeking his hundredth wicket of the season. As relevant is that I had undiagnosed sleep apnoea. So, like a retiree at a county out-ground, I dropped off, almost mid-conversation. When, twenty minutes later, I blinked awake, the captain was eyeing me warily. I apologised. He asked if I knew what I had been doing. I braced for embarassment. He laughed and said I had been mumbling over and over again, “Get forward, get on the front foot, get forward…”