Sunday, March 6, 2016

Vintage Summer 2015

John Arlott’s Vintage Summer 1947 was one of the first cricket books I owned. Written 20 years after the event, it is the great commentator’s memoire of the second post-war season, his first as a full-time commentator and reporter. By the time he wrote the book Arlott was established as one of Britain’s best wine writers; “vintage” was his highest bestowment of approval.

Arlott had spent most of the Second World War as a policeman in Southampton, dodging the bombs and dealing with the detritus that war washes up on civilised shores. Two years after peace, he spent the summer watching cricket and counting it as work. His pleasure at this personal liberation suffuses the pages and there is a sense that the country as a whole was breathing out, at last.

Cricket grounds were packed: 14,500 wedged into the College Ground at Cheltenham for the Championship decider between Gloucestershire and Middlesex. A third of that today and the ground would be thought full. Forty-six thousand paid at the gate to join the members during the five days of Canterbury Week.

There was some wonderful cricket, much of it from the Middlesex pair of Denis Compton and Bill Edrich, both of whom scored an unprecedented 3,000 runs, carefree, and dashing, and including six centuries between them in the tests against South Africa.

I went to a talk by Compton at the County Ground in Bristol in the early 90s, and saw boyhood adoration in the rheumy eyes of those who had seen him play, though some had the decency to be as appalled as I was at their hero’s shameful racism.

Which have been my vintage summers?

The sun-drenched salad days of the mid-seventies are certainly among them. In 1975 I saw hundreds for Clive Lloyd in the first World Cup Final, and Colin Cowdrey against the Australians in the same week.

In 1976 I was there for double and single hundreds, both of pure silk, by Zaheer Abbas in Canterbury Week; Holding’s demolition of England on an Oval featherbed; a Lord’s final win for Kent, all but denied by a one-legged D’Oliveira fifty; and a helicopter bringing the Sunday League trophy to Maidstone as rivals faltered in the last moments of the season. The early years of the new century are there too, when I was CricInfo's man in the North Island. Like John Arlott, I could barely believe that I was being paid to watch cricket and report on it.

But 2015 topped them all. It presented as pure a distillation of remarkable cricket as it would be possible to conceive or hope for; cricket that was better than any that I have seen before or, unless I am very lucky, will see again.

Here are some of the features that made it an unmatched vintage.

The summer of Sangakkara
The great Sri Lankan batsman Kumar Sangakkara said farewell to Wellington with a test double hundred and two one-day hundreds. The double century was a masterpiece of technique and restraint. The second half of the innings was made with the tail for company, but he farmed the strike as efficiently as a Dutch tulip farmer and still scored at four an over.  

At the Cake Tin during the pre-World Cup one day series, he peeled off a hundred with the nonchalance of a high roller taking a thousand dollars from his stash. Made at just over a run a ball, it set New Zealand a target that was too much on the day.

Best of all was his 70-ball century against England in the World Cup. Poor England. In their old-fashioned way, they thought that 309 offered maximum security, but it turned out to be an open prison out of which Sri Lanka could saunter at will. Sangakkara’s century was his fastest in ODIs, one of four consecutive hundreds he made in the World Cup, but he was no more than toying with the England attack. Victory came in the 48th over, but it could have been ten overs earlier if he had felt like it.

To see one of the greatest batsmen in the history of cricket displaying his full brilliance would be enough to make any summer a vintage one.

Williamson and Watling’s world record
Kane Williamson’s batting in 2015 gave us an inkling of what watching Bradman must have been like.

Please understand that I am not being so foolish as to say that Williamson is the new Bradman. That would need a touch of the sun well beyond what is available here in Wellington. But the relentless rationality that Williamson brought to the crease in 2015 (it produced a test average of 90 or so for the year; Bradmanesque, some might say) must have been about the closest we have seen to the Don’s human algorithm for a long time: a run-scoring answer to almost every ball, but usually low-risk, rarely flashy and never extravagant (except when driving a six to win a game against Australia with one wicket to fall); timing and placement rather than power and effort. Of course, Bradman kept it up for twenty years, that’s the difference.

He began at the Basin during the test against Sri Lanka during the first week of the year. After a first-innings 69—it was a surprise when he was out, as it always is these days—in the second innings Williamson was established again, but with wickets falling around him. Soon, only five remained, the lead a mere 24.

Williamson addressed the situation by ignoring it. As the finest batsmen do, he responded to each ball by assessing its merit and acting accordingly. As commentators have noted, he does this no matter what form of the game he is playing. It sounds straightforward, but only a very good player bring it off.

Williamson and BJ Watling put on an unbroken 365 for the sixth wicket, a new test record. Remarkably, the existing record was created at the Basin less than a year before, by Brendon McCullum and Watling against India. So Watling joined Bradman, Hammond and Ames as the only players to break their own world partnership record (at least since the early days of test cricket when it must have happened more often).

The earlier stand had saved the game; this one won it, establishing BJ Watling as the lost Tracy brother in terms of rescuing impossible situations. In this era of batsmen-keepers, he is as good as anybody behind the stumps. Yet when the journalists and websites picked their end-of-year World XIs only the Australian writer Chloe Saltau (of those I have seen) picked Watling as wicketkeeper. He is the forgotten hero of New Zealand cricket.

In fifty years’ time people will look at the scorecard of the Basin Reserve test of 2015 and will say “A win from a deficit of 135 on first innings, a world record and double hundreds by two of the finest batsmen ever to play the game. Anybody who saw that game was pretty lucky”. So we were.

A great day at the Cake Tin (1)
The World Cup group match between New Zealand and England was among the best days I have spent at the cricket, and certainly the most astonishing. I have watched the highlights every few weeks since and it enthralls every time.

With England 107 for three batting first, the game had fewer than 20 overs to run, that’s how astonishing it was. This came about because of two extraordinary performances.

Tim Southee’s seven for 33 was the best one-day bowling I have seen. I have thought about this and looked through Wisden for alternatives. The Yorkshire slow left-armer Don Wilson’s six for 18 at Canterbury in the first year of the Sunday League was the previous best, statistically at least (it was one of the great Kent collapses: 70 for one becomes 105 all out). Joel Garner at the ’79 World Cup final? Derek Underwood most Sundays? Not as good as Southee at the Cake Tin this day.

The ball in Southee’s hands was an obedient shepherd’s dog. Four of the seven were bowled, each with the ball no more than grazing the off stump.

I’m not one for atmosphere at the cricket, generally speaking. I’d choose the quiet hum of the Mote or Pukekura Park a quarter full over a throbbing stadium almost any day, but it was great to be at the Cake Tin to hear Southee’s name sang out just as Richard Hadlee’s was thirty years ago.

Southee’s performance would have been enough to put that day on this list. What followed ranks it as a contender for the day, of all the days over the past fifty years, that I would most like to watch again.

Brendon McCullum went about the pursuit of the modest target of 124 as if it were a silent film heroine tied to the train tracks awaiting urgent rescue. For Anderson, Broad and Finn having an opening batsmen charging towards them like a pocket Trumper was utterly disconcerting. A run rate of 15 an over in a 50 over match. It was magnificent in its temerity.

A wonderful day.

A great day at the Cake Tin (2)
Martin Guptill caressed the first ball of the match to the straight boundary and the World Cup quarter-final between New Zealand and the West Indies was under way. In its way, Guptill’s innings was even more remarkable than McCullum’s, not just for its prolificacy.

It was paced quite beautifully and there was hardly a shot that the MCC coaching book wouldn’t be proud of. Guptill’s century came up in 111 balls with 12 fours but no sixes. Only then did he put the foot down, roaring out of sight leaving behind a dust cloud of extraordinary numbers: 137 in 52 balls with 12 more fours…and 11 sixes.

And all with lovely, pure cricket strokes. I have been trying to decide who Guptill reminded me of that day, without reaching a convincing answer. Cowdrey? Too much power. Not the brutality of Viv Richards. Not as rugged as Gooch. Then yesterday I read this:

…cricket of elegant classicism, of economy of movement, of touch and precision rather than brawn. But then I also remembered how he pervaded a crease rather than simply occupying it, and how he obtained such power from such a minuscule backlift, barely a flex of the wrists.

That’s it. Apart from the bit about the miniscule backlift, that could be a description of Martin Guptill in the World Cup quarter-final. In fact, it is Gideon Haigh on Martin Crowe, whose death has inspired some fine writing. There is no finer compliment for a New Zealand batsman than to say that he reminds the spectator of Crowe, especially Guptill, whose mentor Crowe was.

At the Basin test a couple of weeks ago I sat next to someone who dismissed Guptill’s innings as being made against poor bowling. Well, up to a point, but let us give Guptill some credit for making them bowl badly. It was a World Cup quarter final and there was immense pressure on the batsman to which he responded magnificently (the same man reckoned the McCullum’s triple hundred was made against bent bowling, so perhaps I am paying him too much attention).

More McCullum
Only once during that great day against England did I actually gasp at what was occurring out there. Not at a Southee wicket, a McCullum six or even Adam Milne’s brilliant boundary catch. It was when McCullum placed the sixth close catcher for Morgan.

Six close catchers in a 50-over game; something I have not seen before and am unlikely to see again, unless McCullum’s disregard for the conventions of captaincy becomes contagious. Who else would have bowled his lead bowler out as McCullum did that day? It won the game.

Nor would many captains have declared as early as he did at the Basin test, giving Sri Lanka, Sangakkara and all, a glimpse of victory, staking the series lead on a greater chance of winning the test.

McCullum’s compulsion to audaciousness was one of the defining features of 2015. Batting with resilience, style, panache, and charged with TNT. Bowling that was perfect. And leadership that sailed over the horizon to confound the flat Earth sceptics. A vintage summer indeed, the best in half a century.

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 ...