Sunday, April 22, 2012

Adult Book by Malcolm Knox

The cricket novel is in fashion, a genre, almost. There is Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, in which the game is a symbol of calm in post 9/11 New York. Today’s Guardian carries a favourable review of Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka. The recent history of Sri Lanka is contemplated through the story of a journalist making a documentary about a disappeared spin bowler.

Then there is 28 for 3 by “Jennie Walker” – a pen name for a writer called Charles Boyle (what if cricketers had game names?; another time, perhaps) – in which an eternal triangle is played out to the background of an England v India Test.
And I learn from the 2012 Wisden – received a couple of days ago – that Alan Gibson’s nemesis PJK Gibbs has a cricket novel, Settling the Score, on the way. Gibbs’ dogged approach to opening the batting for Derbyshire regularly prompted Gibson to scorn:

When Gibbs…was out for 40 scored in 223 minutes, he walked back to the pavilion in a silence which was eloquent and not, in the circumstances, churlish. 7 June 1968
After giving up the unequal struggle against the new ball Peter Gibbs became a successful writer, for stage, screen and radio, including more than 50 episodes of Heartbeat and several dramas with cricket themes or connections. Like several cricket players turned journalists (I mean you, Mark Nicholas), it is to be hoped that he is more entertaining to read than watch.

Any of these works might have been included in The Wisden Cricketer’s list of the top 50 cricket books had they been published a few years earlier. As it is, Adult Book by Malcolm Knox is the only fiction represented. Knox is in the tradition of Alan Ross as a writer whose work can be found in both the sport and literary sections of the paper. He was cricket correspondent, then deputy literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and still writes about the game, most recently as Greg Chappell’s ghost.
The story moves between two timelines, one before and one after a Sydney New Year early this century. The central characters are the Brand family. Dr John Brand, the father, is alive in the first timeline, dead in the second. His wife Margaret, and their three sons are the other major characters. Davis, the eldest has followed his father into medicine. Hammett, the youngest – estranged from the family as the story begins – is a significant figure behind the scenes in Sydney’s pornography industry (hence the title). The middle son, Chris, is the lynchpin of the Australian middle order. He is 34 and has played 91 Tests and 201 ODIs. To describe him as hard-bitten is an understatement. In comparison Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh are happy-go-lucky chancers.

The later timeline takes us through the New Year Test against South Africa at the SCG. As it begins Chris Brand is dealing with his father’s death and is fighting to save his career: his last six innings have accrued 0, 0, 0, 0, 1 and 1.
And there’s the thing. We would understand that the player was struggling to hold his place if a couple of low double-figure scores had been thrown in to that sequence, or the ducks halved in number. But Knox carries a heavy bat and wants to clear the ropes, when delicate shots played with a lighter blade would be more satisfying to the discriminating spectator. Throughout the book such points are underscored too heavily. For example, we have already got that John Brand is a porn-obsessed old man by the time Knox has him leave a family gathering to slather over more of the hard stuff on the internet.

The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the cricket, particularly Chris Brand’s redemptive innings. After –predictably – being dropped at third slip early on, he survives through to lunch, rediscovering form and confidence in the process.
…Chris’s mind is drained. There is no longer a need for solutions. There is only a ball, and his bat…His bat and the ball start arriving at the same place at the same time. The scratchiness, the hesitation, the undecided shotmaking of recent weeks seem to have fallen away like a snake’s skin, a decayed product of his last form cycle.

By close of play he has a century, and by tea the next day has a double, though only after being caught (you’ll never guess) off a no-ball. At the close he is 331 not out, three short of Bradman and Taylor’s joint landmark, and with Hayden’s 380 in sight (publication preceded Lara’s 400), but his despised skipper Tom Pritchard (not obviously based on any recent Aussie leader) declares overnight.
As it happened, I read Adult Book during this year’s Sydney Test, when Michael Clarke passed RE Foster’s 287, the individual record score at the SCG for 108 years, a few years after Chris Brand had done so in fiction. For a time as I read and watched they matched each other, run for run. Clarke declared when he was 329 not out, two short of Brand’s mark.

Off the field, Knox’s portrayal of life around the Australian Test team is less convincing. It must, of course, be acknowledged that any author’s obligation to present the world as it really is extends only as far as they themselves determine it should. Knox has spent plenty of time in the world of international cricket, but it would be disappointing if the reality closely resembled Chris Brand’s world, summed up thus:
No matter how individually talented, no matter how great they all think they are…the glue that holds them together is the lowest common denominator. They’re boys.

The glue is spread very thin. None of the Australian players appear to like or respect any of the others. Off the field their main form of entertainment is solitary surfing for internet porn, punctuated by trawling for groupies, wives and girlfriends kept away. Only a fool would imagine that there is not a strong element of truth about this, the Australian team consisting of rich, successful twenty-something males as it does. But few of them will be quite this one-dimensional and the majority will be more interesting and nicer people than their fictional counterparts.
Mind you, none of the spheres of life represented in Adult Book would be delighted with their portrayal in it, particularly the medical profession. It is not a book that makes it easy to sympathise with any of its characters. Like a ground-out 40 on a seaming pitch it is to be admired for its technical proficiency, but it is a relief to be able to turn to the newspaper for diversion while it proceeds. O’Neill’s Netherland is more deserving of fiction’s token place on in the top 50, even though the cricket is more tangential to its story.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

New Zealand v South Africa, Basin Reserve, Wellington, 3rd Test, 3rd day (25 March 2012)

The New Zealand season is over, just three days before the first-class season in England begins. The South Africans have gone home having impressed us greatly. That they took the Test series only one-nil was down to weather interference in the first and third matches. Given England’s ineptitude when faced with the turning ball, South Africa are the best team in the world. I was at the Basin for the third day of the final Test.  
Our Lord Lucan of a summer was finally apprehended today and there were blue skies at the Basin. This was a welcome contrast to the unremitting grey of the first two days, during which only 79 overs were bowled. South Africa began on 246 for two, achieved against an insipid New Zealand attack on a flat pitch.
The two wickets that fell were both down to third umpire Billy Doctrove’s eccentric interpretations of the DRS evidence. Graeme Smith had to go despite neither hotspot nor super slow motion supporting the view that his bat had made contact with the ball on its way through to the wicketkeeper. Hashim Amla was not reprieved after being caught from a top-edged hook even though the replay showed that Mark Gillespie’s heel had cut the return crease, in contravention of the no-ball rule.

Amla will take no further part in the match having sustained (and my eyes water as I type these words) blunt trauma to his groin region, which required surgery overnight. Unfortunately, Jacques Kallis is also missing, with a neck injury, a double blow for those of us who go to Test matches to see the best players first and our team do well second.
Alviro Petersen reached his hundred in the second over of the day, and went on to 156, the biggest of his three Test centuries. He deserves a break having served last year as captain of Glamorgan, a sentence that I was unaware a South African court could impose.

Petersen and  JP Duminy (in for Kallis and playing his first Test in a couple of years) attacked from the off, which was pleasing. For a long time after their return to international cricket the South Africans tended to bat with a fifties-style grimness, as if news of the acceleration that one-day cricket had brought to Test cricket had not reached the Cape. Of all the Tests I have attended, the session I would least care to re-live (and I do not exclude those throughout which it rained) is that between lunch and tea of the second day at Eden Park in 1999, during which South Africa – 352 for three at the resumption – prodded 64 from 35 overs for the loss of a single wicket. It was good now to see them going about things with an urgency that suggested that a win was still the primary goal.

New Zealand’s bowling in this first session was unimpressive, and Ross Taylor appeared flummoxed as to how to deploy the scarce resources at his disposal. It was surprising that Chris Martin took the new ball with the wind behind him, rather than Mark Gillespie, who is the fastest member of this attack, and in prime form. The state of Taylor’s mind was betrayed by his decision to seek a review of an lbw appeal against Petersen that was at the conspiracy-theory end of the continuum, being both too high and hitting the pad outside off. The reappearance of Vettori in the attack after just 11 overs with the new ball suggested that the strategy of picking an extra batsman was not a raging success.
JP Duminy cover drove three fours in one Doug Bracewell over. The Hero of Hobart’s fine first international season is tailing off, but he has earned a trip to the Caribbean in a couple of months. Duminy slowed down as he neared three figures, but reached the mark with a push to leg off Gillespie (who was switched to the northern end just as the breeze died down). The 200 partnership came up, but Duminy fell shortly thereafter, edging Gillespie to Taylor at slip. He has given the South African selectors the best of problems: more in-form batsmen than there are places available.

The first session was South Africa’s: 115 runs for the loss of Duminy.
As Chris Martin took up the attack after lunch I noted that this would probably be his last home Test. But I wrote to that effect last season, and the one before that, only to be proved wrong. Sure enough in the first over of the spell he dismissed Petersen lbw, playing across a straight one. It was disappointing that few joined me in standing as Petersen returned to the rooms, as an attractive 156 surely deserves such a courtesy.

Reinforcing his reputation as cricket’s Ol’ Man River, Martin followed with the wicket of de Villiers, who played on as he tried to work the ball to the leg side. On the radio Iain O’Brien (who has taken John Morrison’s summariser’s seat, so some prayers are answered) made the point that Martin still gets good batsmen out, which is true, even if they have scored 150 first.
Kruger van Wyk had the least impressive day of his short Test career behind the stumps. He conceded four byes when he failed to follow a turning ball down the leg side from Williamson, then bodged a run out when Taylor quickly flicked the ball back as Jacques Rudolph was stranded a couple of metres down the pitch, only for the keeper to dislodge the bails with his foot as he collected the ball.

Van Wyk made amends by collecting a low catch from the first ball of Gillespie’s new spell to dismiss Rudolph. Eyebrows were raised at the selection of Gillespie for the second Test, but a few days before I had seen him deliver as hostile a spell of fast bowling as I have seen for some time in domestic cricket, for Wellington against Northern Districts.
John Buchanan, the former Aussie coach who is now our Director of Cricket, appointed Kim Littlejohn as selection manager. Even by Buchanan’s unconventional standards, this is not so much left field as from a paddock in the next county, as Littlejohn’s previous post was as high performance manager for Australian bowls (the point should be made that coach John Wright has the final say in selection matters). They have not got everything right – the mysterious replacement of Boult by Arnel in Hamilton springs to mind – but they have brought in players at the peak of their form, the selection of Daniel Flynn here being another example.

Gillespie bowled with intelligence and determination and worked his way through the middle and lower order to finish with his best Test figures, six for 113. South Africa did declare, but with only one wicket remaining, and were not able to kick on in the middle session as they might have wished.
Daniel Vettori was a strong influence in this respect. For the first time since he made his debut fifteen years ago, there has been debate about whether Vettori should retain his place. I have strong reservations about his ability as an attacking spinner in the second innings, but criticism of his performance here fails to understand that his role in South Africa’s first innings was entirely defensive.
In bowling 42 overs for 98 runs (including a spell of ten overs for 11 runs in the morning when Petersen and Duminy were scoring for fun from the other end) he did precisely the job that Ross Taylor asked of him. Gillespie could never have taken six wickets without that control from the other end. Though he has not batted well in this series, Vettori’s record over the past four or five years means that New Zealand should be loath to dispense with him in that capacity either.
New Zealand faced 25 overs before the close, and it was wonderfully gripping, Test cricket at its best. Guptill and Flynn (in cracking form, but not an opener), saw it out to the end of the day against the best pace attack in the world, putting on the highest opening partnership of the series along the way.

They got the approach dead right by concentrating and defence, leaving alone what they could, but taking runs when available at low risk. At one point there were 21 consecutive scoreless deliveries, but they did not waiver. Vernon Philander’s opening spell was the first such in his short but devastating Test career in which he has not taken a wicket. There was one, hard, chance when Flynn inside-edged off Morkel, but the diving Boucher could not hold on.
I retain the view that Guptill would be better allowed to develop naturally in the middle order, but New Zealand do not have the resources to allow this. Again here he showed that he has the determination and concentration of a good Test batsman.
Martin Guptill, hurried up by Morne Morkel
Flynn’s innings was his first in Tests since 2009, and all the more impressive for being against type; he has been scoring at around a run a ball in domestic cricket.
It should not be thought that the South Africans bowled poorly; on another day they could have taken four or five wickets in this period of play with the same quality of bowling. But not today. The introduction of Duminy’s affable off spin near the end of the day was a moral victory for the home side, though with two days left and the weather forecast good, nobody the draw remained a port far distant.

The Basin was perfect today, pleasantly full, but not crowded, and the sun shining from first to last. There is no better venue for Test cricket anywhere. You get an educated crowd here too. According to CricInfo, the Wellington Grammar Police, in which I serve as a special constable, were present. Apparently, there was a sign at one end saying “when bowling from this end remain seated”, causing someone to shout to Gillespie as he ran in that he should be sitting down.
England are here next year, so we have something to look forward to over the southern winter.

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 ...