Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Art of Centuries by Steve James

What do we know, we who sit and watch?

When I have occasionally joined end-of-play conversations between those who had played and umpired in a game that I have watched, I have usually been struck by how different their perceptions of it were from mine, by how much I had missed. I thought that I’d been watching Hamlet, but they had been performing a French farce (or sometimes, vice versa). When I was reporting New Zealand domestic cricket for CricInfo, the highest praise was to told by a coach or player that my account of play was on the button. It only happened a couple of times, but when it did it was as if I had broken the secret code, for a day at least.

Reading Steve James’ The Art of Centuries reinforced my feeling of helpless ignorance. Fifty years’ watching and I didn’t know that? The shame. The book is a treatise on batting that will educate the aspiring player and the casual spectator alike.

James played first-class cricket from 1985 to 2003, mostly for Glamorgan, but also for Cambridge University, Mashonaland, and, twice, for England. He was unfortunate to catch the end of the period where players often had only one game in the test side instead of being given a run, the only fair measure of whether they are up to it. James made almost 16,000 first-class runs at 40 in first-class cricket, with a highest score of 309 not out, which remains the Glamorgan record. He is now a member of a brotherhood that is regarded with as much suspicion here in New Zealand as the most subversive political group: he is a British rugby writer. The border is already being fortified pending their arrival with the British Lions next year.

You’ll notice that the book is called The Art of Centuries, not The Art of Batting. This is because James regards the making of centuries as the true measure of batsmen. He made 47 of them in first-class cricket with seven more in the one-day game, so writes with authority. His view is that you have to understand how centuries are made to understand batting.

Steve James takes us not only into the dressing room, but also into the minds of batsmen. More often than not, we find a location that is cluttered with all manner of rubbish. The successful batsman sends most of it to the tip.

Before he comes to technique, James has a chapter on luck and another on superstition. He has come to regard luck as being more significant than he thought it while he was playing. He is talking about things like dropped catches, which could be called bad cricket rather than luck, but which the batsman has no control over, which is what James means by luck.

He had an interesting response to the luck going his way: he became a walker, which when started his career in the 80s was going out of fashion quicker than flares and platform shoes. This arose not out of sportsmanship or (dread phrase) the spirit of the game, but because in his mind his innings had become tarnished if he was allowed to remain at the crease when he knew he was out. He couldn’t come to terms with its imperfection, or, to put it another way, cope with his good luck.

James is intolerant of the hypocrisy around walking and describes how failure to walk attracts the vocal ire of players who would never walk themselves, and of bowlers who have no compunction in appealing for the most unlikely causes. He does not like sledging in general, dismissing the idea that it is a stream of Wildean wit rather than the boorish, boring verbiage that it more often is.

Other myths are exposed, including one that confirms a long-held suspicion, I am pleased to say. Batsmen who have made centuries in a losing cause often trot out the line that the three figures don’t mean as much in these circumstances. Six of Steve James’ hundreds were made in lost games. He goes through each of them, concluding in each case with the words “Happy? Yep”.

The insecurity that bedevils cricketers is explored in the chapter on superstition, which runs through the game like nits in a nursery school, including some who one would have hoped more of. For example, Ed Smith—Mike Brearley’s heir as cricket’s foremost intellectual—bought Lucozade and The Times on his way to the ground on first-class debut. He scored a hundred, so made the same purchase every morning for the rest of his career. Steve James himself—also the beneficiary of a Cambridge education—did not allow his children to play with plastic ducks in their baths until he retired, presumably in fear of the fates playing word association.

It is good to hear that cricket’s most renowned reader of the auspices, Neil McKenzie of bats-taped-to-the-ceiling fame, went cold turkey on the whole business, recognising that if he didn’t it would get in the way of family life.

Jack Russell convincingly explains that most of his eccentricities were founded in science rather than superstition, but that doesn’t explain the hat. When Lord Maclaurin (the Giles Clarke of the late twentieth century for those who have never heard of, or mercifully forgotten, him) became head honcho of English cricket he insisted that Russell abandoned the battered white floppy for a smart blue cap, apparently mistaking the best wicketkeeper in England for a schoolkid doing an evening shift in a Tesco Express. The result was a rare bad day behind the stumps from Russell, which to James shows that however silly some of us might think it, superstition has to be respected.

A friend of mine knows the mother of the Wellington and New Zealand ODI all-rounder Luke Woodcock. He reports her view that of her four cricket-mad sons, Luke had the least natural talent, but was the only one with the determination (or you could call it character) to make it to first-class level. He probably got there by practising much of what Steve James writes about here. There is an emphasis on practice and preparation, in the long, medium and short-term. We know about Bradman’s stump, golf ball and water tank, but it was news to me that the young Brian Lara used to place flower pots in fielding positions, bounce a marble off a wall and aim to hit it with a ruler through the gaps between the pots. He became one of the greatest placers of shots that the game has seen.

Alastair Cook’s talent looks so natural. From James we learn that as a young teen he badgered his teachers to join them for an early-morning swim so as to improve his fitness. On other days he would get his cricket coach—none other than Derek Randall—out of bed for an early hour with the bowling machine. Similar stories are told here in New Zealand about the young Kane Williamson.

Anybody doubting the appropriateness of a fitness regime for cricketers should be persuaded by this book. James makes a strong link between physical and mental fitness, though admits that there was widespread ignorance when he was a young player about what constituted effective exercise, and how it had to be combined with a good diet. Graham Gooch now sees his commitment to endless running as “madness” though in the drive to improve his strength and fitness he was ahead of his time.

Gooch is one of a number of players interviewed for the book, the results being used to excellent effect. Gooch is recognised as one of England’s best batsmen, but perhaps has not been given correct recognition as one of modern cricket’s thinkers and innovators, which on this evidence he clearly is.

Among the wealth of clear thinking that characterises the book, this passage from page 198 about English domestic one-day cricket is worth quoting:

But often in early season...the formula fell down, with a clatter of early wickets on seaming pitches leading to low scores. It summed up the problems of playing one-day cricket in England. In early season it really has to be played to a different set of rules...It is one reason why England have been so poor at international one-day cricket, and have never won a global one-day trophy.

And yet, from 2017 the 50-over competition will be concentrated in April and May.

Anybody who wants to understand cricket a bit better will learn more from an afternoon spent reading The Art of Centuries than they will at any boundary’s edge. It has the depth of a textbook but is written with a light touch that makes it a most entertaining read. It will have a place in the My Life in Cricket Scorecards Library next to Brearley’s similarly entitled The Art of Captaincy.

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