Archive for November, 2009

The Ultimate Driving Machine

Monday, November 16th, 2009

When his side is reeling from the loss of early wickets and Rahul Dravid steps into the breach, watching him is something akin to the comforting thunk of the central locking on an expensive saloon as you’re driving through a particularly dodgy part of town. Danger is averted; the sense of panic passes; the blood pressure settles down because you know things will be okay.

There hasn’t been that reassurance from Dravid for a while in international cricket. He’s looked uneasy at the crease; a man struggling with the weight of all those runs already scored for India and with the expectation of their continuation, and while young guns like Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina have been snapping at his heels you get the feeling it’s not been the age so much as the mileage. Unceremoniously dumped from the ODI side in October, his domestic form recently has been superb, averaging 77 for Karnataka in the Ranji Trophy, so perhaps it was only ever going to be a matter of time before he gave notice to these pretenders that the Wall was not for shifting.

And so it was today. He finished Day One of this first Test against Sri Lanka on 177 not out, out of a total of 385. Marshalling India from a potentially-catastrophic 32-4, his innings comprised 26 free-flowing fours and a six slapped imperiously off Rangana Herath over long-on. He shared in two 100-partnerships with Yuvraj Singh and MS Dhoni, and reached the milestone of 11000 Test runs, passing Steve Waugh in the process. Cuts, drives, pulls, flicks off the pad; this Dravid was a re-tuned, fuel-injected version of the model that scored runs in New Zealand back in March but never looked entirely convincing. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen him play with such confidence and exuberance; his timing was perfect, his placement impeccable. This was not the immovable object so much as the unstoppable force.

“I’ve been playing for a long time. I’ve been around the scene for a long time,” he said afterwards. “It’s nice. I guess it is something about my longevity. I’ve been able to be consistent over pretty decent periods of time which has helped me stack up these numbers. It’s a nice thing.”

Yes. Yes it is. Even if he gets out first ball tomorrow morning it doesn’t matter, because this has been one of the great Test innings.

Morgan Makes His Mark

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

On the wall above my television hangs a photograph of Victor Trumper, crown prince of cricket’s Golden Age and arguably the greatest batsman in the history of the game. He’s playing a yorker to the square-leg boundary.

Think about that for a minute. Fast bowlers would send a toe-crushing missile down the line of leg stump and go up for lbw only to find that Trumper had lifted his foot, got bat on ball and sent it racing away to the boundary. Orthodoxy didn’t matter that much to the great man when circumstances demanded it. “Cricket,” wrote Monty Noble, “at that time was languishing under the spell of orthodoxy and passive resistance… Victor’s wonderful demonstrations shocked old ideas and brought light out of semi-darkness. With his coming the old order passed for ever.”

Trumper was ahead of his time and there will never be another like him. Sadly though, it seems orthodoxy and passive resistance still have a place in modern cricket, and nowhere has this been more infuriatingly obvious than in the England team’s approach to the limited overs formats. “One has to be very sure of oneself to go against the ordinary view of things; and if one isn’t, perhaps it’s better not to run any risks, but just to walk along the same secure old road as the common herd. It’s not exhilarating, it’s not brave, and it’s rather dull; but it’s eminently safe.” Somerset Maugham never played cricket for England, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine this gem from Mrs Craddock included in a current England batting manual.

So imagine my surprise when Eoin Morgan’s flick back over the head of the umpire for six in last night’s first Pro20 game against South Africa wasn’t greeted with angry villagers brandishing flaming torches and pitchforks. Advancing down the pitch to the quicks; a towering straight six; the ball deposited on top of a three-storey building; reverse sweeps for 4… who the hell is this heretic and how did he get into the England team? 85 off 45 balls, 188.88 strike rate: look, just do yourself a favour and look at the scorecard, and marvel.

The match fizzled out when the deluge set in and England won by a D/L-assisted 1 run, but it’s the new fearlessness of the batting that’s the real story here. Of course England have been here before and with another buccaneering batsman of Irish heritage no less, in the form of Mal Loye in the Commonwealth Bank series of 2006-7. Loye was only ever a stand-in for the injured Michael Vaughan, a fact made plain to him by the then Chairman of Selectors David Graveney when he was subsequently left out of the World Cup squad: shoddy treatment meted out to a man who many argued should have been in the England squad years before on the back of scintillating form for Northants.

Loye’s brief appearance on the international stage was memorable for his utter disdain for orthodoxy in attacking the bowling. That’s not to say he couldn’t play outstanding orthodox cricket shots; those big booming drives were as satisfying in their way as him getting down on one knee and slog-sweeping Brett Lee (and Glenn McGrath, Shane Bond, Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Bracken) into the stands for six. Because it’s for those slog-sweeps England fans will always remember him: even when his foot slipped in the 10th ODI and a thunderbolt from McGrath hit him in the mouth necessitating the need for a visit to the hospital and three stitches, he was back at it again in the 2nd final, carting McGrath over the square-leg boundary rope from a ball pitched wide of off-stump.

The trouble is that one always felt that Loye’s idiosyncratic (but effective) approach was considered a little outré by those that run English cricket. One gets the feeling they’d never seen the like of a batsman rampaging down the wicket to a fast bowler and risking teeth and limb to throw him off his length, and they found it all rather overly flamboyant with a bit too much risk involved. It’s as if the board of selectors feared this orgy of slog-sweeping might usher in an apocalypse of flicks, scoops and a maelstrom of fast-paced hitting, and there was something a bit, well, not quite English about all of this.

Eoin Morgan isn’t Mal Loye – there’s less of the eccentrically-intense maverick about him – and he’s certainly not Victor Trumper, but by god it did the heart good to see him taking the attack to South Africa. And yes, as in the case of Loye, his offence-before-defence approach may not always come off. There will be times he’ll get out cheaply to a shot falling the wrong side of the line separating genius from rash impulsiveness. But this type of batting should be encouraged – hell, it should be celebrated, even in the event of failure – and not stifled. Morgan, showing a commendably level head, isn’t taking anything for granted as far his place in the team goes but his performance last night suggests he will be there for some time, and that’s as it should be.

After plumbing the depths of a post-Ashes 6-1 ODI drubbing at the hands of Australia, England showed signs of their brave new intent in the Champions Trophy with victories over Sri Lanka and South Africa, two of the finest limited overs sides in world cricket. When asked where this new intent – some might say recklessness – had come from, Andrew Strauss responded: “I think one of the things we’ve done since coming here is to go out and show people what we can do and not die wondering. That’s come out in both the games we’ve played.”

When I look at my photo of Trumper, that lifted left foot and bat jammed down sending the ball on its way for four, I wonder sometimes what he would have thought of this limited overs malarkey, and Twenty20 in particular. I’m thinking his eyes would have lit up at the batsman-friendly wickets, his blood would have fired at the thought of imposing himself on the bowling, and the challenge of hitting as many sixes into the crowd as possible would have been like the bray of a trumpet to a battle-charger. Perhaps, on the evidence of their showing in the Champions Trophy, and the Pro20 last night, England are taking a leaf out of Trumper’s book at last and exploring the possibilities that they’ve never before seriously considered. What this heralds for a team currently languishing 6th in the ODI rankings and 9th in the Twenty20 wins-percentage table is anyone’s guess, but at least they – and we – won’t die wondering.