Police 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!
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?
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.
Picking players in form is one of the national selectors’ least important duties. Far more significant to identify the player with the talent and technique to thrive at international level, than to pluck the name from the top of the county (state, province, etc) averages.
Sometimes, though, with a cricketer who might, just might, have the right stuff for the international game, the timing of their selection can have a long-lasting impact. Jonny Bairstow, in mid-summer 2015, is in the form of his life. He has a three-figure average in the County Championship with hundreds scored in three of his last fiur innings. In the last but one match, he was joined in the middle by Tim Bresnan, with the score 191-6. The pair added 366 together (the third highest partnership for the seventh wicket in first class history), with Bairstow 219* at the declaration. The week before, replacing Jos Butler in the England limited overs squad, his innings of 83* won the deciding match in the series against New Zealand.
Bairstow isn’t in the England squad for the first Ashes Test and is playing again for Yorkshire this week at Edgbaston.
The highlight of his 14 Test matches came at Lord’s in 2012 with two belligerent and brave innings against South Africa, which took England close to a victory against the team that replaced them as the number 1 ranked Test team. The stronger impression created by Bairstow’s Test batting career to date is of a player hampered by technical flaws. Initially, during his debut series against the West Indies, it was his ability to play the short-ball that concerned. Dismissals (bowled, lbw and caught off a leading edge) playing across the line of full, straight deliveries became the focus of doubts about Bairstow’s suitability for Test cricket. 28 was Bairstow’s highest score in his last 8 Test innings (preceded by 64), the most recent of which was in the final Test of the 2013/14 Ashes whitewash.
How should the England selectors weigh up Jonny Bairstow’s current run of good form with the evidence of his early experiences of Test cricket? In one sense, the existence of clear flaws in his batting in 2012-14 clarifies the matter as the selectors should be looking for assurance that those issues have been resolved. That, however, assumes that problems exposed at Test level would be apparent in the county game, where the bowling subjects techniques to less strict examination.
That Bairstow favoured the legside was well known when he made his England debut and is far from a unique preference – witness Cook, Trott, etc. But was he falling to straight deliveries in Test cricket because, starved of balls directed at his pads, Bairstow was forced to find runs somewhere? Playing for Yorkshire, Bairstow may have defended those balls safely, knowing that juicier morsels would arrive soon.
It seems probable that, facing Australia’s strong and deep pace bowling attack, England’s middle order will need reinforcement with new players, by the second half of the Ashes series. If Jonny Bairstow remains in the form he has shown for the past six weeks, his case will be persuasive. It will come though with some unease about frailties that division one county championship attacks lack the expertise to probe. The selectors will, I believe, have to accept that we won’t know if Bairstow is ready for the rigours of Test cricket, without trying him out there again. Weighing on their minds may be a similar calculation, albeit featuring different variables, that was made when Jonathan Trott was reintroduced to Test cricket in April.