Monday, March 28, 2011

Marcus Trescothick – Coming Back To Me

I usually avoid ghosted autobiographies but was intrigued by this one, which won the Sports Book of the Year Award in 2008 (the only only other ghost to win was the cyclist Lance Armstrong's).
For one thing, Marcus Trescothick is one of the best batsmen to have played for England in the past quarter century, with almost a thousand test runs a year over six years and 26 centuries almost evenly divided between tests and ODIs. What's more, they were scored in style, using a straightforward, attacking technique like a left-handed Graham Gooch.

For another, he's a Bristol boy, Keynsham born but raised in the city's eastern fringe. He went to the Sir Bernard Lovell School in Oldland Common when I was, with what I now see was undue optimism, trying to foster an understanding of Gladstone's domestic reforms just down the road in Kingswood. Indeed, the staffs of the two schools used to play cricket against each other, and he may have been one of the kids on the boundary, laughing at my field placings.

He was pointed out to me in the clubrooms of Keynsham CC in 1991. Half the people in the room were telling the other half that the tall, podgy kid at the bar would play for England one day.

Some of the book is much like any of the genre, a plod through the tests and tours, with plenty of anecdote, and a little insight. The impression that comes across confirms what I've heard about Marcus from those who know him and his family: that he is a decent, gentle person who is a credit to the game. He even asterisks out the swear words, which is rather sweet.

Of course, it is difficult, given the self-effacing conventions of the sportsman's autobiography, to do justice to the big moments. So the most disappointing part of the book is the rather rushed account of the 2005 Ashes series, the greatest of our time. In particular, there is no sense of how uplifting his opening partnership with Andrew Strauss was on the first day of the Edgbaston test, its commitment to attack a statement that, at last, England were not going to roll over after one defeat.

But there is enough to understand why the shy lad from the West Country was asked to join the tour committee on his first trip away as an England player, and we share his joy at those times when he is so confident and in command of himself and the bowlers that he can't see how he can get out.

But the reason why this is an exceptional book is not the story of the runs and the catches. It is the brutally frank account of how he was brought down by several waves of severe depression, which, to the great regret of cricket lovers everywhere, ended his international career many years prematurely.

The book opens with Trescothick sitting on the floor of a Heathrow Airport shop, sobbing with dread as the darkness catches up with him again as he prepares to leave for a pre-season jaunt to the UAE with Somerset in 2008. As his story is told, he spots portents of what is to come. Extreme homesickness on his first trip away from home, and feeling out of it at the start of every cricket tour (of which there were many from an early age). In New Zealand in 2002, the oddness was particularly sharp. I ran across him again at this time as CricInfo's man at the opening game of the tour, when he led England against Northern Districts:

As the press pack broke up I approached him to pass on greetings from a mutual acquaintance. I noted at the time that he seemed a bit empty behind the eyes, but put it down to jetlag and frustration at being asked dim questions by amateur journalists, and perhaps it was, but it was a look consistent with the emotions he describes having at that time.

It was in Pakistan in late 2005 that it first sunk its teeth deep into him. The trigger was a serious accident sustained by his father-in-law, who fell off a ladder while maintaining the Trescothicks' house. Marcus had to watch the accident, replayed from security cameras, on his laptop in a hotel room in Pakistan so that the details could be passed on to doctors in Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, an experience that would test anybody's resilience. He speculates that things might have been different had he gone home straight away, as he would have done had Michael Vaughan not talked him out of it (Vaughan was injured, and Trescothick was stand-in captain).

Hurried retreats from India and Australia followed over the next twelve months. That he is able to describe so clearly the hopelessness, the desperation, the confusion, the helplessness, the torment, the brief contemplation of the unthinkable, is cheering as it means that he has reached some understanding of what has happened to him. It will be grimly familiar to anybody who has stood by helplessly as a loved one is taken down by depression, and has done a great deal to help understanding of the illness.

Moved as I was, a reservation nagged away. Some of the writing, actually quite a lot of the writing, isn't very good. Peter Hayter of the Mail on Sunday is more a poltergeist than a ghost at times, though the chapters on the depression are better. But there's much too much like this, taken at random from a paragraph on the 2005 series:

And now Glenn McGrath didn't so much let the air out of the balloon as stamp all over it...he made Straussy and me look like camels in clogs.
This isn't Trescothick's voice. It isn't anybody's voice. I couldn't help thinking what a good job David Foot would have done here. Could such leaden prose really merit the Sports Book of the Year Award, however gripping and important its story?

Then, as I started to make notes for this piece, the news broke that England all-rounder Michael Yardy was leaving the World Cup because he is suffering from depression.

Like most sufferers, Marcus had to hide his condition and pretend that it was something else for a long time, which is exhausting and makes things worse. Yardy feels able to be straightforward about how he is, and does not have to increase his agony by pretending that it is otherwise. The cricket world (apart from the odious Boycott, who has passed his sell-by date going in the other direction), has reacted supportively and with some understanding.

That's because Marcus Trescothick told his story. This book, in a small way, has made the world a better place for others to live in, and how many sports books in any year have done that?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Chokers Wild

So the fishbone of fate lodges once more in the throat of South African cricket. I made it through to the early overs of the South African innings, around 2 am New Zealand time, propping the eyelids open long enough to see Hashim Amla out unluckily, caught by Vettori at slip (yes, at slip) off Brendon McCullum's boot.

I awoke a couple of hours later as Jacob Oram took an athletic catch on the mid-wicket boundary to dismiss Jacques Kallis (the feline abilty to wake just as something interesting is about to take place is something that you evolve when you have watched as much cricket as I have; happens all the time). Even then, surely not even South Africa could mangle this one, not with only 114 needed from 25 overs with seven wickets left.

But they could, and Mirpur becomes the next in the comi-tragic sequence that began in the rain at Sydney in 1992 (I watched that one in the Hammond Room at the County Ground in Bristol), and continued thus: Karachi in 1996 where seven wickets fell for 59; Allan Donald forgetting to run at Edgbaston in 1999; the failure to read a Duckworth-Lewis table properly at Durban in 2003; and gutless batting in St Lucia in 2007.

Today's debacle most closely resembled that at Karachi. Kallis' was the first of six wickets to fall for 38. No getting back from there.

Public acts of penance should be performed in the streets of Wellington by those who booed Jake Oram during the ODI against Pakistan at the Cake Tin in January. He has vindicated the selectors, who picked him because, episode of Casualty in human form though he is, he is one of the few players who can turn a game in the later stages of the World Cup, and that's what he did in Mirpur with four for 39 and two catches.

The influence of John Wright, the recently appointed coach, was apparent earlier in the day as New Zealand struggled to 221, the keystone partnership one of 114 between Ryder and Taylor. Both were subdued, suppressing their natural aggression to a large extent, having heeded Wright's call for patience. This was vital on a pitch which did not appreciate batsmen taking liberties. It resulted in a total that, though not what was hoped-for, was at least something. Kane Williamson's bright unbeaten 38 should also be noted. What a fine signing he is for Gloucestershire.

It was a good day for New Zealand's leadership altogether. Vettori handled his attack outstandingly, despite a gammy knee (hence the fielding at slip). He kept the pressure up well, and was prepared to keep effective bowlers going. Since one-day cricket began, captains have been too inclined to take bowlers off when they are at their most dangerous so that they have overs saved for later in the innings. Vettori was prepared to risk key bowlers not having overs left at the death, and it paid off handsomely.

As for South Africa...well, if they transferred the intelligence levels shown in the second half of their innings to everyday life, they wouldn't be safe crossing the road on their own. There were silly shots and poor decisions. The batting powerplay was a case in point. New Zealand rightly ignored their powerplay until the end of the innings, correctly diagnosing that it in the prevailing conditions the risk of losing wickets was greater than the opportunity to increase the scoring rate. South Africa, on the other hand, blundered into their powerplay when the eighth wicket fell, making it more difficult for Morne Morkel to score, with frustration the result.

This match provided the tension that the tournament has been lacking so far, as did the India v Australia game. There were some good contests earlier on (mostly involving England), but none that were must-win for both teams. The difference that makes showed in the eyes of Ricky Ponting on Wednesday and the later South African batsmen on Friday.

New Zealand have issues with World Cup semi-finals, having played in five, but in no finals.We are hoping that the old country comes through against Sri Lanka in the last quarter-final, as we reckon they would provide the lesser obstacle to further progress.

Update: some hope. It is hard to foresee an improvement by England in ODIs while 50-over cricket is not part of the domestic programme.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The first World Cup Final: Australia v West Indies, 60 overs, Lord's, 21 June 1975

If ever there was a day on which all was right with the world, it was 21 June 1975. There was not a cloud in the sky, literally or metaphorically. I was almost 16 and off to London on my own for the first time to watch the first World Cup final. If I could live again through just one of the hundreds of days' cricket that I have seen, it would be this one.

I took my place in the bottom deck of the old grandstand, square on to the pitch, the last time I ever sat there. In later years I joined the rest of the cognescenti behind behind the arm at the Nursery End. I've no idea how much the ticket cost, but it wasn't much.

I bore a substantial bag containing the following:
  • binoculars
  • radio and earpiece
  • cricket reference library (Wisden, Playfair, Kent cricket annual)
  • latest cricket magazine
  • newspaper, probably The Guardian (for John Arlott rather than ideological reasons)
  • Russian textbook (O level exams in this subject and the equally impenetrable Additional Mathematics the following week)
  • writing material
  • salad, big
  • sandwiches, numerous
  • Scotch eggs, infinite
  • crisps, large bag of (almost certainly Marks & Spencer's prawn cocktail flavour)
  • cakes, Jaffa
  • orange squash, large bottle of
It has taken me 35 years to whittle this down to a more convenient quantity that can, with a degree of effort, be forced into a smallish rucksack.

The crowd around me consisted largely of West Indians, mostly first generation immigrants to whom cricket was heritage and the match a chance to spend a day back in the Caribbean, in their minds at least. They drank a lot of rum, but displayed none of the boorish aggression that is characteristic of many English cricket crowds these days, and, unlike the fancy dressers, they were wonderfully knowledgeable about the game.

Starting with Roland Butcher, the sons of these immigrants began to appear for England in the eighties. It was assumed that this presaged a never-ending supply of British-born players from that community but this did not occur, and it is rare to see an Afro-Caribbean face at a test match in England, even when the West Indies are playing. That this is so, when most county sides take the field with at least one British Asian player, is an act of neglect.

Their West Indians were not yet the mighty team they were soon to become. Of the dynasty of great fast bowlers that was to rule the game for the next fifteen years or more, only Andy Roberts played here. The rest of the attack consisted of the proficient Keith Boyce, the steady Vanburn Holder, and Kent's Bernard Julien, full of unfulfilled promise (Kent's first mistake was to billet him in a pub). Of the batsmen, only Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharran and Roy Fredericks were at their peak, though both Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards were just twelve months away from slaughtering England. This team was to lose five-one to Australia in a test series the following winter.

The West Indians were all familiar to the English spectators; all eleven had played in county cricket, whereas only Greg Chappell of the Australians had done so (for two seasons with Somerset, in the late sixties). The fast-bowling partnership of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson that had blown the England batting away the previous winter was the big draw; it was the first time that I had seen either of them, not having attended the 1972 tests in which Lillee played (he did not appear against Kent). It's difficult to convey in the satellite age, when all sport is ubiqitous, how exciting it was to watch these two great bowlers for real, Lillee with his perfect, beautiful action, and Thomson generating such pace as a human catapult (and why has nobody ever tried to copy him?).

The West Indies batted first and the left-handed opener Fredericks soon started the dancing, hooking Lillee high into the Tavern Stand. The whooping soon descended into puzzlement, as it was realised that Fredericks was on his way back to the pavilion. This was my moment. From my square-on vantage point, binoculars deployed, I had seen what few others had, that, as he played the shot, Fredericks had slipped, his foot nudging a stump and dislodging a bail. A small crowd gathered round as I re-enacted events, excluding no detail.

At 50 for three Australia were ahead, but in came Clive Lloyd to take the game away from them, with the innings of his life, one of the finest ever played at Lord's, or anywhere else. Lloyd was the nearest to a superhero cricket has produced. See him arrive at the ground, or walk onto the field, and it would seem improbable that this gangly, bespectacled, plodding figure could be significant in the game. But when the ball left the bowler's hand a magical transformation occurred and he was invested with powers that allowed him as a fielder to stop and any ball hit between mid-off and point and throw down the stumps with it, and to bat with an unmatched combination of strength and grace. And that day he did it against two of the finest bowlers the game has seen at the peak of their powers, with first-rate support. 102 from 85 balls with no powerplays and no fielding restrictions.

One shot shines clear in the memory through the years. Lillee, from the Nursery End, unleashed a bouncer of the kind that had reduced England's finest to a shambles a few months before. It reared up towards Lloyd's unhelmeted head. He moved inside the line and hooked. I followed the ball's progress up and over the Tavern Stand as it disappeared into the traffic of the St John's Wood Road. On the radio John Arlott described it as “the shot of a man knocking off the top of a thistle with a walking stick”.

Lloyd was supported perfectly by Rohan Kanhai, who scored 55 in their 149-run fourth-wicket partnership. Just two years before I had sat in almost the same place to see Kanhai score a wonderful century against England. He was elegant, resourceful and not mentioned enough when great batsmen are being talked about, Wisden reminds me that he went 11 overs without scoring at one point, but, grey-haired and wise, he knew that what was happening at the other end rendered that unimportant.

West Indies finished with 291, an immense score for the time, even from the 60 overs over which the first three World Cups were played. At 81 for one Australia were well-placed, Ian Chappell in, Greg Chappell to follow. Viv Richards chose this moment to draw the spotlight to him for the first time at a Lord's final. It followed him ever after.

Ian Chappell turned the ball to the onside, Alan Turner hesitated briefly, and Richards ran him out with a direct hit. Moments later, more hesitation, another direct hit by Richards, this time to dismiss Greg Chappell. Ian Chappell became his third victim, this time with a Lloyd assist. That was as good as that.

Australia meandered to 233 when the ninth wicket fell, with 59 still required. Lillee and Thomson, having failed to take the World Cup with the ball now attempted to do so with the bat, and they came closer than anybody expected. At one point it was thought that a wicket had fallen, and half the crowd came on to the playing area. Nobody knew where the ball was, so the batsmen kept running. Order was restored and they were awarded three. Thomson fell 18 short of the target with eight balls remaining. It was 8.50 pm.

I watched the Duke of Edinburgh hand over the trophy to Clive Lloyd, and headed back to Victoria Station. I (just) passed Russian and Additional Mathematics, then forgot what little I knew about both for ever. Why they taught us Russian, I never knew. Maybe it was so that we could better plead for our lives when the red hordes swept into Kent. After the last exam it was down to the St Lawrence Ground for the last couple of hours of the first day of Kent versus the Australians. Later that evening Dennis Lillee stole my shoe. But that's for another day.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Wellington XI v a Canterbury XI, T20, the Basin Reserve, 13 March 2011

A pleasant afternoon at a full Basin Reserve for a game between two XIs of old players in aid of the victims of the Christchurch earthquake, the sadness of which has pervaded every corner of these islands since it visited the crowded lunchtime streets almost three weeks ago.

All in the 9,000 crowd were there for the cause, but a fair number were also present to roll back the years, to see the heroes of their youth once more. The ground was full of middle-aged men looking wistful. The longer the time that has elapsed since retirement, the greater the nostalgia quotient. So the welcome for Ewen Chatfield, Bruce Edgar, Martin Crowe and Sir Richard Hadlee was especially warm.

But the big draw was Shane Warne, who changed plans at short notice to cross the Tasman in a good cause. He signed autographs all day, fielded on the boundary, choosing a different child each delivery to stand with him on the field, bowled an over at the Prime Minister during the interval, bore endless texting jokes with good grace, and impressed everybody.

A full complement of celebrities had turned out as well. Sir Ian McKellan, last seen in Wellington last July starring in a wonderful production of Waiting for Godot (by the first-class cricketer Samuel Beckett), was match referee. He is filming The Hobbit here in Wellington at the moment, and was joined by other members of the cast, including James Nesbitt and Martin Freeman. There were All Blacks, past and present, aplenty. Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith umpired, while Tana Umaga was a popular ringer for Wellington.

Martin Crowe's cousin, the actor Russell Crowe, was there, today embraced as a New Zealander, one of our own, just as he is when he wins Oscars. When he throws telephones at hotel staff, he is an Australian.

Over the years, I've seen a number of games such as these, the Old England v Old Australia match that preceeded the Centenary Test of 1980 being particularly memorable:

Then, and today, the batsmen found it easier to give a flavour of what they once were than did the bowlers, whose arms and stomachs find gravity stronger than of yore. So in 1980 Cowdrey was elegant, d'Oliveira powerful, Simpson commanding. Barrington off-drove a six high into the stand next to the pavilion in the last game he ever played; he died while serving as England's assistant manager in the Caribbean little more than six months later. The keeping of Godfrey Evans, just turned sixty, was particularly striking. His stumping of Simpson was so fast that it was announced as bowled.

Here, Bruce Edgar was resolute and well-organised, Mark Greatbatch was as forthright as he was as the first of the pinch-hitters in 1992, and Nathan Astle looked as if he could walk back into the national team today. The bowlers all operated off short runs, though Ewen Chatfield was nagging enough to remind us of how important a foil he was to Hadlee. But it was fours and sixes that the crowd wanted, and the bowlers were happy to conspire to provide them.

Canterbury won, as if it mattered, more than half a million dollars was raised, and a good time was had by all. Why, I even set aside my customary lack of community empathy to participate in a Mexican wave (there are witnesses, but no photos).

Before play started, people went around the ground throwing chocolate bars into the crowd. Save for the presence of Helena Bonham Carter, or one of the former members of Pan's People, how could a day be more perfect?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

How the ICC ruined the World Cup

If the ICC had been in charge of the Last Supper, 47 associate apostles would have been invited. The bread and wine would have been provided by an official supplier, with centurions on the doors to keep out non-approved brands. The painting rights would have been sold to a manga outfit, who would have offered their images of the occasion to subscribers only. It would have surprised nobody if the catering had been franchised to a bacon sandwich company.
This is an organisation with a talent for removing the joy from life unmatched since Oliver Cromwell was in charge.
It has followed the test of fortitude that was the 2007 World Cup – endless matches in empty stadia, culminating in the finalists being sent out to finish the final in the dark when the assembled suits failed to interpret the playing conditions correctly – with a misconceived structure that consigns the first month of the 2011 tournament to irrelevance, and threatens once again to make mockery of the entire event.

For the benefit of those who don't follow these matters closely, this is how they've managed it: 
  • 14 teams are competing, at least four of which have no hope of seriously challenging the top eight (Ireland's wonderfully improbable win against England is no justification for this policy), resulting in a series of dire, one-sided games
  • four teams from each group of seven qualify for the quarter-finals so most cricket fans could pick seven of the eight before the tournament started, and even games between the big teams are largely meaningless as both begin these matches certain to progress; going straight to semi-finals would have made almost every game in the group stage important
  • two of the quarter-finals are under lights in Dacca, Bangladesh, where the side batting second has a huge advantage because of the dew that comes down at dusk
  • the schedule is unnecessarily elongated, with one game on most days and two on some; on Monday 7 March, for example, the sole attraction is Canada v Kenya, a game without any interest whatsoever
  • the rules said that the squads had to be be named a month in advance, while there was much ODI cricket to be played around the world; New Zealand, for example, are stuck with the out-of-form Jamie How instead of Rob Nicol, who was red hot in domestic cricket, and most teams are in a similar position (the reason for this was the need to print programmes – there's this thing called the internet...).
So for now I will ignore events in south Asia, and instead will post memories of the first three World Cup finals, all of which I had the pleasure of attending.

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 ...