Monday, November 22, 2010

India v New Zealand: Once More into the Valley of Death

And it was all going so well. After two Test matches in the current series in India, New Zealand supporters, exiled for so long in the dark vale of batting collapse and follow ons, found themselves transported to the sunny uplands of centuries, wickets and—no, not victory, that would be more excitement than was good for us—of honourable draws. What’s more, New Zealand were well-placed to win had either game gone into a sixth day.

But, as we all expected, it’s all gone wrong at Nagpur, venue for the deciding third Test. As I write India lead by 250 with five wickets standing, wondering when they’ll have enough to declare and not have to bat again, while everybody here thinks they passed that mark fifty runs ago. Rahul Dravid (once of Kent) is batting like cream being poured over fresh strawberries.

Let us walk away from the scene of the crash and reflect on what went right at Ahmedabad and Hyderabad before we become convinced that it was all a dream.

The success of the batting was particularly pleasing. For a couple of years that’s where the real talent of the team has lain, but it has rarely delivered. So far in this series there have been four centuries by different batsmen.

In the second Test the odd couple, Tim McIntosh and Brendon McCullum, put on the first century partnership for the first wicket for New Zealand for more than six years, a measure of how bad things have been. McIntosh bagged a pair in the first Test, and might have been dropped. He has the happy knack of scoring runs in these circumstances, and produced his best Test innings, with a sound rearguard 49 to follow. He kept the score ticking over better than he has done in the past, though having McCullum at the other end reduces the pressure in this respect.

Ever since I saw McCullum score a fine hundred for New Zealand under-19s against South Africa at Pukekura Park, New Plymouth almost ten years ago (it was his third in successive games)...
...I have felt that he would become a successful top-order Test batsman (ODIs are another matter; I still think he may be more valuable in the finisher role at six or seven). He was praised for curbing his attacking instincts during his match-saving double century at Hyderabad, yet still moved along with a strike rate of 75 (four-and-a-half an over in old money), which is hardly laggardly. He passed 200 with a T20 scoop shot, probably a first for Test cricket.

Kane Williamson’s debut hundred was all efficiency and temperament. He bats like a mathematician solving a complicated equation and the pleasure of watching him rests as much in the knowledge of the runs that he will score in the years to come as in those that he is scoring now.

But it is Jesse Ryder that most pleases the eye. He reminds me of Colin Cowdrey, at the crease at least, and that is high praise from this source. So much time, and a large form moving with such grace. It becomes clear why New Zealand cricket has been so patient with him. He’s not in great shape (I know this because he’s much the same shape as me) and batted with a runner for some of his century in the first Test, which put me in mind of Guardian football writer David Lacey’s comment on the selection of a half-fit Paul Gascoigne: “the manager clearly took the view that half an oaf was better than none”.

Less is expected of the bowling, so taking 20 wickets on Ahmedabad’s flat track was the best of all these achievements, Chris Martin a revelation. Martin is one of those bowlers who always appears to be bowling into the wind, and at the age of 36 there are times when it has seemed to have risen to a force ten gale. Yet in the second innings he produced an opening spell that was pure Glenn McGrath, 135kph bowling that troubled the batsman as if it were 15 kph faster, probing lines and steep bounce. India were 15 for five at one point.

New Zealand’s undoing has come in the improbable form of the batting of Harbajan Singh, who has registered his three highest Test scores during the series, including two hundreds. He is the Errol Flynn of the crease, taking on all comers fearlessly, erasing the invisible line that separates bravery from stupidity, the outcome pre-determined. Exciting, yes, but also (and I hope that this does not come across as ungracious) staggeringly lucky. Mark Richardson pointed on TV that New Zealand has form in the matter of allowing lower-order batsmen to rise above their station. In support he cited Warne, McGrath, Gillespie, Jerome Taylor, and Geraint Jones, which is a bit harsh on Kent’s current No 3.

In coming weeks I shall be writing on the Ashes, as there are only three million Ashes blogs and the world deserves another one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

"The Best Loved Game" and the "Wisden Cricketer" 50 best books

A few editions ago the Wisden Cricketer announced its list of the 50 best cricket books, as chosen by a panel consisting of most of the world’s best cricket writers, plus a few better known in other fields, such as Michael Parkinson, Michael Billington and Simon Heffer. The choice of any edition of the Wisden Almanack was forbidden, like Shakespeare and the Bible on Desert Island Discs.

The earliest choice is John Nyren’s The Cricketers of My Time (32nd: 1833), the most recent Harold Larwood by Duncan Hamilton (18th: 2009). The Australian writer Gideon Haigh is the most popular author, with four books on the list.

I’ve read about half of those that made the final cut, but not the book chosen as the best: The Willow Wand by Derek Birley (1979), a revisionist history of the game that took on every establishment figure from Lord Harris to EW Swanton (who was very nice when I got his autograph at the Oval in 1970). Of course, I’m a sucker for lists and have determined to read all those that I’ve missed so far, as well as reminding myself of some of the best that I haven’t read for a few years.

So I was pleased to have the opportunity to fill one of these gaps when I spotted a copy of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s The Best Loved Game (8th) in a second-hand bookshop in Wellington a few weeks ago. It is an episodic account of the 1978 season, with Moorhouse travelling around England watching cricket from the village green to a Lord’s Test Match, which was where my path crossed with his for the only time, on the Saturday of the Test versus Pakistan. This is surprising, as he visited Canterbury during cricket week, but, seduced by the old lie that travel broadens the mind, I found myself in the Ruhrland at that time (actually, it’s only travel to cricket matches that achieves the desired effect).

The memory is a curious thing. Moorhouse describes Haroon Rashid hitting a six onto the top deck of the old Grandstand that Saturday, and I have it in HD in my mind as if it were happening now. Yet I have no recall of a tenth-wicket stand of 40 between Bob Willis and Phil Edmonds in the same session, which is odd as I regard myself as a connoisseur of late-order partnerships (should you find yourself in the company of my Blean Correspondent and myself, on no account ask us about the Willis/Hendrick stand at the Oval in ’77; you will never get away and will end up wishing yourself dead).

Moorhouse’s strengths are his powers of description and imagery. He describes Ian Botham, scoring 108 in only his eighth Test, like this:

He bats the way small boys dream of batting.
And contrasting Gower with Botham:

The one excites the mind and shyly discloses grace; the other makes the heart leap and truculently has his way.
Even in later years when they were famous, the difference between the two was never more sharply put. Nor could a sentence sum up how easy Viv Richards could make batting look better than the following:

Off Imran’s third ball he drives four runs to the long-on ropes so lazily that I almost expect him to finish the stroke with hand to mouth, stifling a yawn.
But the book is a disappointment, because the prose is all there is. There are no profound insights, no astute observations, no original ideas. Cricket was in turmoil in 1978 because most of the leading players had joined Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. Moorhouse’s views on this issue are mainstream and mundane , nothing more than could be read in the papers every day that summer, and all discredited by hindsight. Like many others at that time, he allows his antipathy to Packer to cloud his judgment on other matters. He tells us that Tony Greig, Packer’s chief recruiting officer,

...wouldn’t now be able to get into the side even if he were in a position to try.
What nonsense. Greig would have walked in, for Roope, for the supposed off-spinner Miller (Greig won a Test in the West Indies bowling slower off-cutters), or even for Chris Old, leaving Botham to open the bowling with Willis.

His condemnation of the wearing of helmets, the new thing for batsmen and fielders that year, makes as much sense as if he were advocating the return of the man with the red flag to walk in front of motor cars, and they were offered in the knowledge that at least two cricketers—Roger Davis of Glamorgan and Ewen Chatfield of New Zealand—had recently come within a whisker of death for the want of cranial protection.

Alan Gibson’s Journal of the Season in The Cricketer stands as a superior account of cricket in England in 1978. The Best Loved Game has other faults too, such as the absence of an index, for which points are always deducted. Moorhouse might just cling on to a place on the list on the back of his quality as a writer, but the top ten? Never.

Which books not on the top 50 list should be? Of those mentioned on My Life In Cricket Scorecards previously, two recently published books should be there: John Major’s More Than a Game because of the hole it fills in cricket scholarship, and Alan Gibson’s Of Didcot and the Demon, near the top, of course. I’d suggest two more, just because both authors should be represented on a list of the best.

Some writers are wise, some brilliant with words. Matthew Engel has consistently been both. He is represented, but only as an editor, of The Guardian Book of Cricket (22nd, 1986). Engel is a victim of his own virtuosity. Though he has never stopped writing about cricket, the Guardian was smart enough to recognise that his talent could be deployed to other areas, including serving as the paper’s Washington correspondent. Editing twelve editions of Wisden took up time too. What little time he could spare to writing books he has devoted mostly to non-cricketing subjects, such as popular journalism and the British railway system. However, there is Ashes ’85, a collection of his reports on that series, and it should be on the list.

The other unrepresented writer is Martin “Scoop” Johnson, the inaugural cricket correspondent of The Independent, now of the Sunday Times, his output secreted behind Mr Murdoch’s paywall. Had Groucho Marx taken up cricket writing, he’d have written like Martin Johnson, a limitless stream of one-liners, all making a point and the reader laugh. Here’s part of a piece written during the 1993 Ashes series, from Can’t Bat, Can’t Bowl, Can’t Field (the only three things that, according to Johnson, were wrong with the 1986/7 England team), a collection of his cricket writing:

England’s Test team might be a waste of space, but as far as English Test cricket is concerned there is barely enough space to accommodate all those who want to watch it. England do not so much attract crowds these days as mourners at a funeral...Only in Yorkshire and Lancashire, where Venus would have to be aligned to Macclesfield and Pudsey before they stumped up in advance of the weather forecast, are there seats to be had at short notice...[England’s] domestic system generates less small change than a Saturday morning harmonica player outside Woolworth’s...
How could they leave him out?

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...