The sheer unlikeliness of CB Fry

‘His party trick was to jump backwards onto a mantelpiece from a standing position’. Jon Hotten salutes the incomparable sporting Renaissance man, CB Fry…

John Arlott called him ‘the most variously gifted Englishman of any age,’ and Arlott, conjuring his musty magic from an old typewriter set next a glass of something good and red, was probably right. The sheer unlikeliness of CB Fry continues to astonish, more than half a century after his death.

Had he confined himself to the cricket field, his 30,000 first class runs, made from 1892 to 1921, would still have secured his legend. On the bombshell pitches of the Victorian era, Fry averaged 50.22, a mark that today would make him a high-class player but back then, as the modern game was beginning to appear, made him a genius. Only his great friend Ranjitsinhji averaged more, and he was a Prince. England did not lose under Fry’s captaincy, and the six consecutive first class hundreds that he hit in 1901 has never been surpassed – The Don and Mike Proctor have equalled it, but it is a feat of batsmanship that has eluded everyone else from Boycott to Tendulkar.

Yet cricket was a sidebar to the rest of his life, which reads as if it was invented by Monty Python. He was a golden god long before the phrase was thought of, and in his golden youth he was known not just by his initials, which were as recognisable as WG’s, but as ‘Charles III’ (after a cartoon of him that appeared in Vanity Fair in 1894), ‘Lord Oxford’ and simply ‘Almighty’. He was physically beautiful enough to be described as ‘the handsomest man in England’ and academically gifted too – his ‘gentleman’s fourth’ in Classics from Wadham College Oxford came only after his first mental breakdown. And then there was everything else: He equalled the world long jump record, appeared in the 1902 FA Cup Final, played rugby for the Barbarians, stood as an MP, became an advisor to the League of Nations (where he may or may not have been offered the throne of Albania), launched and edited two magazines, invented the concept of the sporting star’s newspaper column, was the fifth person to appear on This Is Your Life (when his guests included Jack Hobbs and SF Barnes), taught at Charterhouse and became a captain in the navy reserve.

His party trick was to jump backwards onto a mantelpiece from a standing position.

He engaged in a bizarre marriage, probably for money, to a terrifying woman named Beatrice who was 10 years older than him and who’d had a lover called Charles Hoare since the age of 15. Mental illness shadowed his limitless gifts. He first endured it at university, but the real horrors descended later in life, when he fell in thrall to Hitler. He tried to persuade von Ribbontrop that Germany would produce ‘a blond Grace’ should the Reich take up cricket, and developed an irrational fear of Indians despite his lifelong friendship with Ranji. He dressed eccentrically, suffered paranoid episodes and was once found running naked on Brighton beach.

It was an epic life with a great sad sweep to it. A long time ago, my dad and I found a copy of Ranjitsinhji’s Jubilee Book Of Cricket in a junk shop. It’s a beautiful thing, one of those childhood objects that, when I pick it up, immediately transports me. It was only a few years back that I discovered that Fry probably wrote most of it. CB seems almost as distant as that book now. Life and sport have become atomised, and you just can’t do everything any more.

Fry died in Hampstead in 1956. In his obituary, Neville Cardus had these last words:

‘Fry must be counted among the most fully developed and representative Englishmen of his period; and the question arises whether, had fortune allowed him to concentrate on the things of the mind, not distracted by the lure of cricket, a lure intensified by his increasing mastery over the game, he would not have reached a high altitude in politics or critical literature. But he belonged – and it was his glory – to an age not obsessed by specialism; he was one of the last of the English tradition of the amateur, the connoisseur, and, in the most delightful sense of the word, the dilettante.’

Jon is the author of Muscle and The Years of the Locust and also has a fine cricket blog called The Old Batsman.

David Ivon Gower – Gifted Dilettante, or English Great?

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With his lazy, effortless elegance, few would dispute that David Gower was the most stylish batsman English cricket has produced. But does he count as a great?…

In a recent post on my blog The Old Batsman, I argued that the last indisputably great batsmen that England had managed to produce were Graham Gooch (debut 1975) and Geoff Boycott (debut 1964).

My reasoning went as follows:

Who was the last great batsman that England produced? The simple answer would be Kevin Pietersen, except that England didn’t produce him. So if not KP, then who? Ian Bell has a technique comparable to Virat Kohli or AB de Villiers, but not that extra gear that gives them such edge, such life. Michael Vaughan was a classicist too, and touched the heights until his knee gave way and the captaincy came along. Alastair Cook’s volume of runs will brook little argument once his Test career is complete, and yet his batting doesn’t reach across formats.

England produced great teams under Fletcher and Flower, but, Pietersen aside, there was no dominant player in the way that Australia had Ponting, India Sachin, South Africa Kallis, West Indies Lara, Pakistan Inzamam and so on. The fractured 90s gave us men of grit cast against overwhelming odds: Atherton, Stewart and Thorpe played great innings but it’s hard to set them amongst the gods.

For all of their faith and investment, England may have to go back to Graham Gooch and to Geoff Boycott to find batsmen of unequivocal, home-grown greatness.

There were some tremendous tweets and comments in response and one name came up repeatedly: that of David Ivon Gower.

To digress briefly, the point of a blog (to me at least) is that it’s written quickly, a sort of instant repository for a passing thought. Admittedly, the lack of research is a good get-out for whatever glaring omissions come along but when I wrote the post in question I’d thought of Gower, and had an undeniable flicker as I went to type his name alongside those of Geoffrey Boycott and Graham Gooch – and then didn’t.

I’ve had to question why. Statistically, Gower’s Test match average of 44.25 sits perfectly between those of Gooch and Boycott, as does his total of  8,231 runs. Many England fans, perhaps a majority, would pick Gower ahead of both in a heartbeat, and it’s easy to understand that. His languid, trippy batting was hardly difficult to love.

Gower’s Test career (1978-1992) was the first that I saw from start to end. I can clearly recall watching his first delivery, a pirouette pull for four from Liaqat Ali, a seamer who bowled left-arm over. It remains the one thing anyone remembers Liaqat for: from the beginning Gower was sprinkling stardust from his hem.

His batting lives in the memory as something shimmering and ephemeral. He used a wafer of a bat, the Gray-Nicolls GN400, a four-scoop version of the legendary GN100, and he hardly seemed to swing it, yet the ball whispered to the boundary. Watching him live, his pick-up and follow-through both felt late: the gods had given him time, and he understood how to use it. He was a dream.

This drives at the heart of the arguments about him. I’ve always been fascinated by the role that aesthetics play in sport. Who can objectively know whether Gower found the game easier than Boycott? It’s like trying to discover whether we all see colours the same. What’s possible to perceive is that Gower made it appear easier. By physiological fluke, through the notions of art and beauty, he looked better.

Once this was established a whole series of prejudices begin to apply. Gower’s public persona as the gifted dilettante was set. Like Kevin Pietersen, he didn’t seem overly bothered by getting out. Like generations of gentry, he appeared to regard cricket as a diverting way to pass the time, rather than an all-consuming obsession. Last in the nets and first out, that was David.

His county career pales when compared to Boycott’s or Gooch’s. He was apparently dropped from his school rugby team for ‘lack of effort’. In his long-standing role as a TV presenter, he conveys the impression that the gig is another extension of an enviable lifestyle. As with his batting, charm is persuasive.

And yet… You don’t score all of those runs without wanting to. No-one goes 119 Test innings without a duck by not being switched on from ball one.

Gower faced some fearsome attacks. His average and hundred count against Australia compares well with Boycott and Gooch, but against West Indies he made just one century and averaged 32, compared to Gooch’s 44.83 and five hundreds, and Boycott’s 45.93 and five tons. They both opened, too. It’s here, against the best of all, that perhaps Gower falls short.

What is greatness anyway? It’s easy to grasp when a player is considerably superior in terms of stats and longevity and success, less so when they play for a weaker side or burn bright and short. Ultimately, Gower’s batting spread joy and grew a love for the game in those who watched, and that is an enduring legacy.

It’s the best answer I’ve got, too…

Jon is the author of The Years of the Locust and Muscle, and is also the proprietor of the web’s finest cricket blog.

Ghost grounds

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Jon Hotten on memory, dreams and cricket pitches…

It’s hard to write about a feeling as elusive as this one, yet it’s that elusiveness that makes it both rare and worthwhile. It happened the other day, for the first time in a couple of years. I was driving through a town somewhere when the road became familiar in a way that might have been real or imagined. On one side was a high wooden fence with another chain-linked one behind it, reaching even higher. Ivy was growing up through its gaps. The traffic slowed, caught by a set of pedestrian lights just ahead. Through a couple of fence panels that had warped and come apart from one another I caught sight of a blade-width of green field and a fragment of a two-story pavilion, then, in the next gap, a section of scoreboard.

It felt right away like I had played there. I could even recall a fragment of the game, fielding second while their opening bat, a big lad with black hair and a Gray-Nicolls, started belting the bowling indiscriminately over mid-on and midwicket, not slogging exactly but swinging, the ball falling just out of reach of the fielders who, in true club style, were being carefully positioned to stop the delivery just gone. I don’t remember much more: he hit quite a few, but got out eventually. They probably won. What really came back was the cast of the ground – its shape, its size – and the weather, which was warm but overcast, the sky full of darkening summer clouds with no wind to move them.

The traffic eased, and the ground was gone. There was an old painted sign with the name of the club on it, but I couldn’t quite read it in the rear-view mirror. It probably wouldn’t have helped. The feeling was almost dream-like in the way it refused to become clearer or more solid in the memory. It certainly happened, but did it happen there?

I’ve played a lot of cricket in a lot of places, and lots of it was a long time ago now. Where do they go, those games and those places… If I had to sit down with a piece of paper, I’m not sure how many I’d remember. It seems to take something more than just effort to bring them back; it needs a sense memory or a chance encounter that trips some kind of synapse. It’s the odd and ethereal familiarity that you have been somewhere before.

Sometimes I dream about playing on unknown grounds too, so perhaps a place occasionally makes something imaginary seem slightly more real.

It’s a strange sensation, and it’s not one that needs a definite answer even if that answer existed. These are the ghost grounds of half-remembered games, and it’s good when they appear.

Jon is the author of The Years of the Locust and Muscle, and is also the proprietor of the web’s finest cricket blog.

Wasted Talent? An Elegy for Kevin Pietersen

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The England Cricket Board recently terminated the career of its star player. The relationship was doomed from the start, says Jon Hotten…

Last year a writer I liked very much died. Jonathan Rendall published three books, one of which, Twelve Grand, is among my favourites by any author. He was a boozy, melancholic soul with a low-lit style and his obituaries didn’t hold back on his dissolute, sometimes chaotic life. His writing was admired by Tom Stoppard and he won a Somerset Maugham prize but almost every piece on him noted his ‘wasted talent’, partly because he had died so painfully young. Well he didn’t seem to have wasted it to me.

It’s the nature of talent, when it manifests itself as apparently effortless brilliance, for it to appear both ephemeral and carelessly used by the characters who possess it. Yet the life is inseparable from the art, indeed the art is art because it is informed by the life. Jonathan Rendall couldn’t have written the way he did without being the person that he was, and it’s analogous that Kevin Pietersen could not bat in the way that he does without being the man that he is. The talent might appear different because those of us with lesser ability imagine ourselves guarding it jealously, rationing it out, tending it like a secret garden.

In 2004 I had become distant from cricket. I’d lived in Australia for a while, hadn’t played much, just about kept up with it in the papers. It had receded in my interior life. I was in my lounge one morning in the winter, the sun was out, I was struggling to write something or other and I realised that England were about to play South Africa. The area had cable and I had a bit of money, and before I really thought about it, I was on the phone getting Sky Sports turned on. In the couple of hours that it took, I realised that I felt more excited and happy than for a while. The game was back. I didn’t know why, but I could feel it.

That was the series when Pietersen played his three extraordinary one-day innings, centuries struck at an emotional pitch as true as a tuning fork. At the time, and right through until the following summer, he was talked about as a one-day player with a technique too iconoclastic for Tests but I knew with a rare certainty that it wasn’t true. He hit 92 in a game at Bristol and the wave he was making became irresistible. The story was that he was picked over Graham Thorpe, but really the choice was between Thorpe and Bell. After Bristol, Pietersen was playing either way.

Lord’s was extraordinary. England were hammered but on the first morning the bowlers roughed Australia up and each time Pietersen batted he murdered Shane Warne. It was obvious from the way he walked out how much he wanted it.

From that game on, I was more invested in his batting than in anyone else’s. Something was happening, not just to England, but to the way the game was played. There were some batsmen more skilled and better than Pietersen in that phase, but he had this innate imagination and feel. His game was an act of creativity and it’s no exaggeration to say that he broadened the horizons of batsmanship.

He wasn’t playing in isolation of course. The game was changing – he arrived, essentially, at the same time as T20 – and Virender Sehwag was pushing at the limits too, along with Chris Gayle and Adam Gilchrist and then lots of others. There was a kind of kinship between them. They were not formal heroes like Tendulkar or Dravid or Ponting, and their effect on the future would be different.

But KP was English, or at least he was playing for England, and the English psyche, deeply conservative, deeply repressed, is a challenging place for the non-conformist. It was doomed from the start and I knew it. In a way, it’s amazing that he lasted as long as he did.

It’s fair to say he was part of the reason for starting my cricket blog. Once he had commanded the imagination, it was hard to resist writing about him, because in working out what he was doing, I was often working out what I felt I knew about cricket, or what it meant to me.

When a player like Pietersen or a writer like Jonathan Rendall comes along, it’s easy to develop a relationship with their work that leads you to think that you know more about them than you do. All you really know is that their talent speaks to you in some way.

Twelve Grand seems like an effortless book, and yet Rendall worked so hard on it he was briefly hospitalised. As Kevin Mitchell wrote about him, his love affair with writing ‘ebbed away’ after that.  Pietersen trained and practiced harder than anyone: the imagination demanded it. Nothing good can be effortless at that level.

I’ve found it quite hard to care about the arguments over who’s done what and what went wrong with KP. Four men sat in a room and brought things to an end, and I think in years to come it will be a burden on them, maybe not publicly but when they have to be alone and remember it. If Pietersen hadn’t been reintegrated, then we would not have had Mumbai, perhaps his greatest innings and one of the best of the modern era. So what will we not have now?

Overwhelming talent wants us to think it’s wasted because, along with being apparently effortless, it seems somehow endless, inexhaustible. It works on the imagination. Pietersen’s career will never be seen as complete, and he will have to live with hearing about it. His talent has not been wasted though. It’s better to write three good books and leave ‘em wanting more. Pietersen’s legacy is not one of numbers, but what his batting has meant to those who have watched it.

For a while now I’ve wondered if he’ll be remembered as a great player or a player of great innings. It doesn’t matter. He will be remembered. He will live.

Jon is the author of The Years of the Locust and Muscle, and is also the proprietor of the web’s finest cricket blog.

The Spinner’s Web

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Amongst the most shocking moments of England’s shocking Ashes series this winter was the sudden mid-tour retirement of Graeme Swann, one of the country’s greatest ever spin bowlers. Here, Jon Hotten examines the mysteries of the spinner’s art, and what Swanny leaves behind…

Decades ago on a Saturday afternoon in winter at Alf Gover’s cricket school, a kid came to bowl in one of the nets. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15; he looked younger than that. To right handers, he came left arm around the wicket, which at Alf’s was no mean feat in itself because the run ups weren’t exactly what you’d call extensive.

He was a wrist spinner. His stock ball turned into the right-hander, and it turned miles. With the angle he was creating and the loop, balls pitching outside off would have cleared leg stump. He dropped a lot of deliveries short, and he got hit hard and often but every now and again he bowled something completely unplayable, a ball that dipped alarmingly and then ripped upwards off the seam and through the gate or onto the gloves.

For the next few years, I half-expected to see him debuting for a county, or at least hear about him. He had something remarkable. Perhaps he didn’t make it through the most important stage for a kid like him, when he’d get slogged everywhere by bigger, older players and he’d need a captain and a coach who could tell him how to handle it.

The reason I remember him is because spin bowling, unlike pace or swing, has the properties to be unique. The very best spinners can’t be directly compared to one another; it is the loosest of generic terms. Warne, Murali, Ajmal, Harbhajan, Saqlain, Afridi, Kumble, McGill… they can be bracketed only in the broadest sense. When one comes along, they shift the imaginative framework of the game.

Graeme Swann emerged when conventional off-spin was consigned to the dustbin of history, sent there by the mystery of the Doosra; the twist imparted on its traditions by Murali’s mad-ass wrist; by flat pitches and giant bats. In his way, Swann reinterpreted a dying thing. From the new age he took revs, imparting them in huge number on every ball except his slider. And from the ages he brought back the off-spinner’s classic line, that drew the drive and opened the gate. Around the wicket to the left-hander he bowled at the stumps, and as soon as DRS began to show that he was almost always hitting them, old-style off-spin was back in the big time.

The magic of spin is in its distorting effect. The spinner has nothing to defend himself except the intrinsic deceit of what he does. Everything rests on the casting of doubt. When someone does it well it seems obvious, like a magician revealing the inner mechanisms of a trick, and yet they must have imagined it first.

Graeme Swann brought off-spin back from somewhere. It has had a distorting effect on England’s thinking. His ability to rip revs onto the ball has led the spin department at Loughborough to center their development pathways on bowlers who can get above a certain number. They may be right too – another Swann would be welcome anytime.

Spin, though, resists rigid thinking. It’s about imagination. Saeed Ajmal and Sunil Narine, for example, rely on moving the ball by the width of the bat just as Warne and Murali spun it across the crease. The next great spinner may do something else entirely. He might be a left arm wrist merchant, or he could be the new Jack Iverson. The one thing he’s not likely to do is come up a pathway and knock on the door.

Swann’s legacy will be the kid who has sat at home and watched the ball drift and dip and turn and has figured out a way to do something like it themselves. It’s why all of the innovation in spin has come from outside of coaching centres, from someone who’s stared down those 22 yards and let their imagination rip.

The All Time Top One Hundred Best Lists in History

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Our cricket correspondent Jon Hotten reveals why magazines – and readers – are obsessed with lists…

Back in the mad, bad old days when I worked on magazines for a company that seemed invincible but no longer exists, I had a theory, probably rubbish, that most mags had a maximum of about six people at any one time that they could put on the cover and get a guaranteed sale. It was based on the notion that in any specialist area – musical genres, blockbuster movies, football – that was about the number of acts that the entire readership would have an interest in. It was a rolling cast and as some dropped out, others arrived, but six was roughly the number.

If you strayed outside of the six, you were taking a risk with a commercial property. Yet the frequency of most magazines meant there were more covers than there were guaranteed bankers to put on them without resorting to the kind of trivial repetition that you see so often now (token bitchy comment, but nonetheless true).

One way around it was to come up with a ‘list feature’ – the hundred best this, the twenty sexiest that and so on. It was particularly popular at Christmas when there was nothing else going on, and if you gave it enough of a spin, it was pretty failsafe, especially if it was compiled by some sort of reader vote on the winner.

This week has proven the concept retains its catnip qualities, with Wisden announcing an ‘All-Time Text XI’ and Patrick Ferriday publishing Masterly Batting, a book that ranks the best Test hundreds ever made.

Admit it, if you’re at all into cricket then you need to know who’s there, don’t you… I did, and there’s something about human nature that wants to see a list and then disagree with it (the first thing you learn about the list feature is that it is made to be disagreed with – it’s the only way that it will achieve any sort of traction with the reader).

The point is, it’s a trick, it’s a trap… you’re joining in a zero-sum game when you take up the argument. The Wisden All-Time Test team picks eleven from more than 2,600 people to have appeared in a Test match across 150 years of the Almanack’s life. Masterly Batting selects 100 centuries from 3,649 scored by 697 players. The mathematical chances of agreeing with them are approaching those of winning the lottery, and that’s before the emotional arena is approached.

Even the act of typing out the Test XI – Hobbs, Grace, Bradman (c), Tendulkar, Richards, Sobers, Knott (wk), Akram, Warne, Marshall, Barnes – has the fingers creeping towards other keys… (Hobbs – really? and Bradman, well he was no captain was he, and it’s great that Richards is in but for me it’s the wrong one because my love for B.A. is irrational, and does anyone still think Sobers was a better all-rounder than Kallis, and where are all the South Africans and New Zealanders and Sri Lankans, because surely Hadlee’s a good shout isn’t he and old Murali took a wicket or two, and what sort of conditions are these teams playing in anyway? Are Wisden seriously trying to contend that any judge worth their salt would pick Alan Knott over Adam Gilchrist, and as for Barnes with his dibbly dobblers on a modern track – cannon fodder, and even if he bowled on a greentop, well everyone on earth would rather face him than Thomson or Holding wouldn’t they? And who was it that left out the man who made both the highest Test and first-class scores?) and so on, ad infinitum.

In Masterly Batting, Patrick Ferriday measures each hundred in ten categories: size, percentage of team score, speed, bowlers faced, the pitch, chances offered, match impact, series impact, compatibility of attack and conditions, and finally intangibles (a get out of jail card if ever there was one), and these are worthy measures. It’s just that my favourite hundreds have little to do with any of those criteria, or at least they’re tangential and not at the core of their appeal.

Would I have enjoyed Boycott’s hundredth hundred any less if England hadn’t won (at least I think they won – it doesn’t matter now), or KP’s 158 in 2005 any more had it been less manic and flukey and chanceless? What about all of those Steve Waugh tons when I loved him and hated him at the same time, and why did I get a lump in my throat when he hit that boundary from the last ball of the day at the SCG?

And yet none of those thoughts really detract from the nature of the Test XI or the best centuries, because they brought them back to me. I felt them once again, and that’s a nice thing. In Masterly Batting, choosing the hundreds is actually secondary to the chance to write well about cricket and stand out a little on the shelves. Wisden had a couple of days’ worth of headlines and they’re always useful if the noble name is to survive and prosper for another century and a half.

But c’mon, really, did they even consider the fall-out if Bradman tried telling Grace where to stand…

The end of the season

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Cricket is a cruel game, and then you get too old to play it. So why do old cricketers keep going, despite it all? Jon Hotten explains…

The end of the season is almost here, with its rain and with its retirements, with its shadows that fall longways across the ground and the inevitable melancholy that it brings. It is a cliche of sorts to acknowledge the feeling, yet it’s always there and always the same, a kind of longing that cannot be fulfilled. It’s always worse before the last game too. Afterwards it seems to run away quite quickly.

As the seasons tick by, it’s heightened by the realisation that they too are finite. One of the geniuses of the game is that it is complex enough to offer a different face to each age of the player.

Once you pass the point at which professionals retire, it takes on a new hue. Before that moment, however delusionally, you can convince yourself you’re playing the same game that you always have. You’re not yet entirely divorced from the young kids who come in to thrash their 60-ball hundreds or mark out their 20-yard runs. Soon though, there’s something different in the way that they look at you, and you realise that they are occupying a psychological terrain that you have surrendered.

It’s not the death of ambition, more the adaptation of ambition to circumstance. You still play because you want to do well. What’s changed is your definition of ‘well’. The elements of the game that you take pleasure from have shifted.

Matthew Hoggard is pulling off the bowling boots for the final time in a week or so. When he was dropped by England in the brutal way that sometimes happens, Hoggy, understandably, had a difficult time accepting it. The cruelest thing, though, was that it was fair. The real bad guy was sport, where one day you are at your peak, and the next the slow descent has begun.

Yet there are some sunlit uplands here, too, on this plateau of the old fart. If you carry on putting yourself into the game, it sometimes gives you something back. Cricket can seem like a capricious sport, especially for batsmen, but in reality it’s just implacable, neither for you or against.

My friend and team-mate Tony has, like most of us, had his moments. He played a lot of his early cricket in the unforgiving North, and, back in ’86, once made 99 in a league game somewhere in the shadow of the Satanic Mills. He thought that maybe the chance of a hundred had passed him by forever on that day.

In one of our last games of the season, on a golden afternoon at a wonderful ground, he got himself in and past fifty. The runs kept coming, and he had 80-odd by the time I went in to join him. He hit a couple more boundaries away and came down the wicket.

‘Eleven more,’ he said.

‘It’s just a number mate,’ I replied, but we both knew it wasn’t.

We batted on. He went to 95 and then got a long hop, which he pulled for four.

For once in my life, I was genuinely prepared to make any run he called, even if it ran me out, but I didn’t have to. The next ball was a full toss that he hit hard to boundary. In a little speech he made in the bar afterwards, he admitted that he’d thought of that 99 almost every night before he went to sleep. Well he doesn’t have to think of it any more.

That is what the game sometimes gives you. It’s why we miss it as it slips away for another year.

“I know the plan. Kill him…” – Jeff Thomson’s luncheon anecdote

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Jon Hotten discovers that Australian cricket legend Jeff Thomson – one of the most dangerous fast bowlers of all time – still knows the right way to tell a story…

It was a few hours after David Warner had taken a swing at Joe Root in a Birmingham bar, and Jeff Thomson was standing in a marquee full of people with a microphone in his hand. We were there to play six a side cricket, but the rain was coming down and the buffet was excellent, so Thommo had a full house.

He was wearing the hooray uniform of red jeans and a blue blazer; set upon his broad shoulders and pipecleaner legs it made him look like the kind of guy who joins a soap opera and makes off with the unsuspecting widow’s money.

Next to Thommo was David Steele, the bank clerk who went to war and spent consecutive summers defying the pace attacks of Australia and West Indies. They fell quickly into type. Thommo stood with one hand in the pocket of his red jeans looking out across the room, while Steele managed to turn off two microphones as he was talking; interrupting his own gentle anecdotes about getting lost in the Lord’s Pavilion, and being paid in lamb chops for every run he scored by a local butcher.

Thommo by contrast told a single story (‘I haven’t done this one for a while…’ ) which was about the dismissal of Keith Fletcher at Sydney in 1975.

‘Me and Dennis had a plan,’ he began, ‘which was to kill the pricks. A couple of them had already gone to the hospital. A wicket goes down and out comes this little prick Fletcher (‘prick’, it quickly became apparent, was a term of some endearment to Thommo, and he used it gently, almost with fondness). ‘Now the Pavilion at Sydney is at square leg and Dennis is fielding at third man. I’m at the end of my run and I’m ready to kill the prick you know. But Dennis comes running over from third man all the way to square leg and starts abusing Fletcher. I’m getting mad with Dennis because I’m ready you know. I’m warm and it’s coming out well….’

‘Then Dennis comes running over to me. ‘I’m like, yeah Dennis, I know the plan. Kill him…’

‘Yeah,’ says Dennis. ‘But I really want you to kill this little prick…’ Then he ran back down to third man. Anyway, first ball, too high. Next ball, adjust the radar… bang… hits him right in the middle of the forehead. Absolutely smack in the middle. I go down to have a look at him and he’s got the most perfect six stitch-marks…’

Thommo pointed to the spot on his own forehead, and paused for a second, a faraway look in his eyes. He was transporting himself. ‘The physio comes on, Bernie Thomas he was called. Fletcher’s staggering all over the place, he can’t see straight. Someone says, ‘He’ll have to go off…’ and Bernie says, ‘he can’t we’ve already got two in the hospital…’ So Bernie pushes him back to the crease…’

He mimed Bernie Thomas positioning Fletcher into his stance. By now, Thommo was wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. Everyone in the tent was enjoying the story, and more than that, they were enjoying Thommo’s enjoyment of it. He paused.

‘So I go back…’ He wiped his eyes again. ‘I go back and you know next ball, BLAM, stumps all over the place. ‘Off you go you little prick…’ I’m saying, and then, here comes Dennis, all the way back up from third man, just to abuse him again as he goes off…’

By now, Thommo was rocking back on his heels and dabbing at his eyes. ‘Ah bloody hell…’ he said. ‘That’s what happened, straight up. I haven’t told that one for a while, I really haven’t.’

He and Steele were applauded warmly as they returned to their seats, and Thommo was an equitable presence for the rest of the afternoon. Once the rain had blown through, he stood on the boundary holding a bottle of beer, talking to his mates and having his picture taken. During the talk, David Steele had said: ‘I liked facing fast bowling, I liked the challenge of it. Let me tell you, I faced them all, and this man Jeff Thomson was the quickest.’

I thought about that as I watched Thommo. He represented something: a game and a country now gone but sweet in the memory. Had the incident with Fletcher happened that day on the ground right in front of us, it would have been impossible to describe it as he had done. It was only funny now, all of this time later, when the blood and the battle had receded.

I wanted to find out how true Thommo’s story was, so I looked up the game on cricinfo. There it was, Test match number 751, Australia versus England at the SCG, fourth Test, 4-9 January 1975. Australia won by 175 runs, JR Thomson 4-74 and then, coincidentally, 2-74 in the second innings.

The Almanack reported: ‘On the last day the demoralising effect of Thomson and Lillee was never more apparent. From 68 for no wicket in the 16th over, the score became 74 for three in the 22nd with Edrich on his way to hospital after being hit below the rib-cage first ball by a Lillee skidder…’

Yet the pitch was slow, and batting easy enough for Bob Willis to survive for 88 minutes, and Geoff Arnold 35; the Almanack left its readers in no doubt that more application was required from England’s batsmen.

Then there was this: ‘Only Amiss, caught off his gloves off a bouncer that cut back, and Fletcher, shaken by a deflection on to his forehead two balls before his dismissal by Thomson, were exempt from blame.’

Fletcher had made 11, and rather than being bowled, he’d been caught be Ian Redpath. Maybe Thommo had forgotten that detail, and maybe he hadn’t. He remembered the story, though, and he knew how he should tell it: as it was in his head rather than in the record books.

Thommo exists in both places, as cricketer and as myth. His era has settled in the collective mind as a raw and unforgiving time when the game was wild, on and off the field. David Warner’s half-hearted swing at Joe Root and the endless round of media statements and public apologies later, confirmed the distance between here and there. Maybe one day Warner will be telling the story and everyone will be laughing and living and thinking of the years that have passed.

Chess, Cricket, and Man versus the Machines

chess robot

Machines are already better than humans at chess, and now computers are increasingly important in sports like cricket and baseball. Author Jon Hotten ponders the implications…

Writing about the 1986 world championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, Martin Amis said of chess: ‘[They are playing] the foremost game of pure skill yet devised by the human mind, a game that is in fact beyond the scope of the human mind, well beyond it, an unmasterable game’.

Eleven years later, Kasparov was defeated by a computer called Deep Blue. The match and its aftermath were conducted in an atmosphere of paranoia and intrigue, of fear and loathing. Kasparov claimed to have detected a ‘deep intelligence and creativity’ in the machine, his suggestion being that there had been some human intervention in its play. By 2006, a software programme called Deep Fritz was beating another world champ, Vladimir Kramnik, and now the various machines even play each other and gain their own rankings.

Ultimately, the machines beat the humans through sheer grunt: they could calculate more outcomes more quickly. They never got tired or paranoid, they didn’t suffer from the anxiety that Kasparov felt while representing the entire human race against them. The only achievement ahead of the machines is whether they can actually ‘solve’ chess; that is, calculate the perfect outcome of any game from any position.

There is no element of ‘chaos’ in chess: there are no bad bounces or freak weather, the board and the pieces don’t change. Its variables are perhaps finite. It might be a leap to suggest that sport is as vulnerable to computing power as a game, but there is no doubt that it will shape its future.

Some sports will be more resistant to numbers than others. Football generates a haze of meaningless TV stats because it exists in chaos, statistically speaking. It’s a fluid, random game that lacks the rigidity to support really conclusive analysis. Gridiron exists towards the other end of the ‘scale’ in that it’s quite rigorously positioned and patterned.

Michael Lewis, who wrote Moneyball, the book that represents a kind of year zero moment for modern sporting stattos, also wrote about Gridiron. Blindside was in part the story of the importance of a certain extremely rare physique playing in a particular position. Here, where biomechanics meet statistics, are the threads of cricket’s future.

At Loughborough University, where the England and Wales Cricket Board has its Performance Centre, almost every ball bowled in any form of international cricket is logged, its outcome added to an already vast database. It becomes a kind of anatomical chart of everyone playing the game. Broad and specific patterns in each format emerge, and from those come not just tactics, but the types of player needed to implement them.

You could call this the ‘known half’ of stats research, in that it’s open to anyone with the resources to do it. It’s also in its way unmediated and random. It’s produced by a wide base of playing skills, from guys that grew up playing tape-ball to players coached systematically from their early teens.

The other half, lesser known, comes where biomechanics meets with statistical analysis. England’s coaching teams believe that they have identified five common factors that all international fast bowlers have, and similarly, five possessed by all top-level spinners. There is specific work on six hitting, on revolutions on the ball in spin bowling and lots more.

This work creates paradigms into which suitable players are fitted and then driven up the elite coaching ‘pathways’ devised to produce players for the England team. There’s some brilliant and revelatory work going on, but it is in a way reminiscent of the way that Deep Blue began to ‘solve’ chess. It strips away mystery, and to a degree individuality.

England are a very good side, but they did not come up with reverse swing, they have never produced a mystery spinner. Their two really innovative players, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan, come from outside of their systems. What they do very well is refine technique in a ruthless way to produce the fine margins needed to win at the highest level. ‘Executing their skills’ as they call it. As such, they are already becoming the product of the research work done.

Martin Amis thought chess was an unmasterable game, but the machines are proving him wrong. Cricket, with all of its variations and oddities, its geographical sweep, its luck and its superstitions, its weather and its deadly psychology, actually might be. But some of its deeper mysteries are being revealed, and new kinds of machines are emerging to play it.

Ever Decreasing Circles, cricket and quiet English despair

Richard Briers died on Monday. By way of a tribute, here is a repeat of Jon Hotten’s post about an episode of Ever Decreasing Circles and its “quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair”, which features, naturally enough, a game of cricket…

You might remember Ever Decreasing Circles, a British – make that English, because it could only be English – sitcom of the early 1980s, the fading final years of a genre that quite often looked at notions of class and aspiration and then gently took the piss out of them.

Ever Decreasing Circles, like Terry and June, The Good Life, Brush Strokes, Keeping Up Appearances and several others, featured the nascent middle classes, dwellers in the cul-de-sacs of the 70s boom-burbs; commuters, middle managers, golf club members, with their dreams of conservatories and souffles and the company dinner-dance. These pretensions were easily speared, but not often as darkly as they were in Ever Decreasing Circles.

It’s contextual, of course: the show is a thing of its time, written by John Esmonde not Chris Morris, but there’s a quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair to it that in retrospect seems quite daring. Richard Briers plays Martin, a pedantic, obsessive-compulsive valve salesman with a photocopier in his garage and moral code as inflexible as a periodic table. In 2012, he would reside somewhere on the autism spectrum; back then he was just funny, and not unrepresentative. Most people knew someone like him.

His neighbours were Howard and Hilda, a couple that seem weirder now than they ever did then, a middle-aged, guileless pair who wore matching jumpers and thought the same thoughts at the same time. In 2012 they would have been hounded to death by Jeremy Kyle kids or under the care of social services. The jeopardy came from Paul, a new arrival in the close who was handsome, urbane, funny, good at everything, and – most shockingly of all – the owner of a successful hair salon. Martin loathed Paul of course, not just for who he was, but for what he represented. There was a darker subtext, too. Martin’s wife obviously fancied Paul, to which Martin was oblivious (thus making any hint of betrayal all the more devastating).

Ennui, boredom, acceptance, resentment, disillusionment, loyalty – it was all there, just alluded to rather than highlighted. The other day I stumbled on an episode, in three parts, on Youtube (above, and continued below). It’s a about a cricket match. The set-up is classic; like all sitcoms, it telegraphs its ending while allowing it to be savoured. Martin is the team’s skipper. He has run the side for Continue reading