In Praise of the Rain Delay

The recent sad passing of Bev Congdon caused the usual moment of reflection to note the loss of a cricketer who had graced the game in years past.  As is always the case, whether a player is familiar to the cricket follower depends on their age, and in my case I am too young to have remembered him playing.  And yet his is a name that’s familiar to me, from growing up and getting into the game of cricket.  Curiously, despite him being retired before I did so, I did see him play, but only through the medium of the series highlights played when it was raining.

Of course, in those days there was no internet, no immediate and obvious means of recognising what had happened in past series, and as much as anything else, the selection of a summer of cricket places on standby in case of rain, provided an education on the game and those who played it.  They tended to be from the 1970s, although occasionally they did go earlier, which I would initially object to, as it was transparently old to the intolerantly youthful.

To my young eyes, these were new players mostly – names introduced in small chunks across a particular Test series, and having no knowledge of the outcome, it was fascinating viewing.  Some elements were endlessly surprising, such as discovering that Dennis Lillee had been around for an awfully long time, some openly puzzling – Dale Hadlee can’t be Richard’s father surely? Oh, they’ve mentioned someone called Walter – ensuring much close attention to try and work out the strands of family relationships, or those who looked terribly young on these replays, and gnarled and grizzled in the live match currently suffering from wet weather.

Equally, some entire careers could be seen in fast forward, yet still without being able to place them in full context.  Graham Roope looked an exceptional cricketer to me in these highlight reels, and youthful confusion that no one ever talked about him wrestled with disappointment when his five minute long innings of about 70 would come to an end.

Occasionally, they went further back, and instead of 25 minute highlights of a given day, it would be the story of a series, invariably narrated by John Arlott – another mysterious name mentioned on occasion, but who I’d missed entirely.  From being grumpy at seeing black and white pictures, or film rather than video, those tones would draw me in.  Oblivious that it was a particular skill of his anyway, the storytelling of cricket was utterly beguiling, and the disappointment of an England defeat in a Test series long since finished was palpable.

If the highlights were memorable, so too were the studio discussions.  For the young nowadays, a David Gower or Ian Botham will be every much a part of the distant past to them as Jim Laker or Tom Graveney was to me – the longevity of Richie Benaud always placed him in a slightly different category – and the premature death of Laker in particular upset my young self significantly.  Those discussions around cricket, followed by a tape of some long forgotten Test match, meant that rain was only a mild irritation, certainly compared to the annoyance of my sister who was aghast at my fascination with watching someone called Edrich score runs from a decade earlier.

There is always the temptation to assign particularly fond childhood memories like this to nostalgia, but cricket does lend itself it to endless discussion more than some other sports; the long form of the game has its own cadences and rhythms that make even arcane enforced conversation feel a part of the process, rather than an interruption to the event.  And while the shift to pay TV has meant that satellite broadcasters either have no desire or no budget to buy in long gone highlights from 40 years ago, perhaps for this generation’s child watching the 2005 Ashes for the first time, the same emotions are stirred.

Certainly it isn’t purely a nostalgic thing anyway.  A few years ago in a series I can’t remember, between New Zealand and someone else, the morning rain inadvertently produced truly riveting late night television for the cricketing tragic.  If a line up in the studio of Charles Colville, Dominic Cork and Mark Butcher perhaps doesn’t press every button for many, then this would prove to be a joyful surprise.  Colville in particular is vastly better as a presenter than a commentator, with the rare and underappreciated skill of knowing when to shut up and let his guests talk.  And that’s what Cork and Butcher did – a wide ranging, sometimes serious and sometimes not debate on the game, memories and friends and colleagues.  As it went deep into the night, the viewing audience must have been miniscule, for Sky barely even bothered to go to an advertising break.  But for those who were watching and listening, it was a rare treat – two people chatting in depth about the game, with a skilled interviewer occasionally interjecting to ask a relevant question.  Want to know how wonderful that was?  The following night I tuned in, and was disappointed to learn the weather in New Zealand was sunny.

Equally, Sky now have a decent library of their Masterclass series, and it rarely gets dull to watch a special player demonstrate their skills – the skills of their minds as much as anything else; while listeners to TMS often actively look forward to hearing the rain fall given that radio is unsurpassed when it comes to the beauty of the unscheduled random conversation.

There can be few if any other sports where bad weather can prevent play, yet where aficionados are only mildly put out, taking the opportunity to drink in the game past and present.  It might even be said to be a formative experience, for it can sometimes most closely echo the experience of many a young cricketer sat listening to the old players in his (and now her) local club, absorbing everything that is said, and hoping they don’t notice him sat listening to every word.  They do of course, and they remember doing the same.

I can think of no other way I could have become so steeped in cricket history so quickly.  And the next generation have the same experience for those who to me were familiar.  It is a priceless introduction, and why above all else, cricket is a sport where sometimes it really doesn’t matter if the weather is bad.

Let it rain.

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From Vaughan to Cook – Compare and Contrast

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Hoggy at Joburg – 2005

The series win was clinched yesterday and it’s one to savour. Since readmission we’ve won one series at home and two away against South Africa, and while we can get the feeling that we are beating a side on the way down, it’s also a salient point to remember that in 2005 we were thinking much the same thing. A number of us on this blog remember that 2004/5 series win as probably one of the greatest away wins England had, and we aren’t wrong. But there were also some similarities as well.

Any victory, in fact any tour result, has an obvious series to compare it to. 2005 Ashes had 1981, the whitewash of 2013-14 had the whitewash of 2006-7, every dominant Aussie side will be compared to the number 1 team of the late 90s, early 2000s. England’s series win here will be compared to 2004/5, so let’s do some of that now. I’m going purely on memory of 2004/5, so any errors, please let me know.

Going into that tour England had had an amazing 2004 – they’d won all but one test match they played, and that was due to playing against Brian Lara on the Antiguan equivalent of Heathrow Airport’s main runway. Some of these wins came from blowing the oppo away, but many came from gritty batting displays chasing down some very itchy totals – I’m thinking New Zealand at Lord’s (the Nasser farewell), New Zealand at Trent Bridge (all hail Thorpe) and West Indies at a very gloomy Old Trafford (a grossly unfairly forgotten knock by Rob Key). During that spell we’d drafted a new opener (Strauss) who had settled in well, and a new keeper (Jones) who made a ton in his third test. The bowling was gelling as a unit, without Simon Jones, but with Hoggard, Harmison, Flintoff and Giles. The batting was solid, Strauss, Tres, Butcher/Key, Vaughan, Thorpe, with Ian Bell waiting in the wings. The focus was on 2005, and the Ashes. This was our chance. But in the way, and as it turned out, how great it was that it was, was a tour to South Africa.

Readers will know that I went to the Cape Town test, and also two days of the Jo’burg match on that tour. You may also know that by pure chance we booked into the Guest House run by the former manager of the South African cricket team who had just recently been reassigned when the Board sacked coach Eric Symons and installed Ray Jennings. This was also the time when the South Africans had a right downer on Mark Boucher. On our first full day in the country the hosts arranged for a friend to take us round the Cape Coast, and it turned out he was a retired sports journalist. We’ll always remember (I went with Sir Peter) his rationale for the exclusion of Boucher (“the board hate him. I hate him. He suffers from “little man syndrome”).

At this stage the home side were 1-0 down and had just narrowly avoided it being 2-0. The first test at Port Elizabeth was a triumph for Andrew Strauss, who made a ton in the first innings and an unbeaten 90-odd to see us home in the second innings. It was a top test match, as the game ebbed and flowed, and it also saw two reasonably decent players make their debuts, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn. I think it fair to say we were far more impressed by the latter at the time. That team looked unbalanced, with Tsolokile keeping wicket, new players, and confused selection. The coach had come over as some sort of boot camp sergeant (infamously pinging a ball of Smith’s head in catching practice in Joburg) lacking any degree of sophistication.

The second test in Durban was one of those “stake in the ground” matches for England which made you utterly proud of them. The first two days could hardly have gone worse. Put in on a helpful wicket, England were skittled in the first innings for 139 and then felt the brilliance of Kallis who made a brilliant 162 and put the hosts nearly 200 in front. Three days left and the situation looked bleak. England did not wilt. They erased the deficit for no loss, piled on 570 for 7 declared and gave themselves time to bowl South Africa out. The hosts were clinging on (just as Sir Peter and I were venturing out for a beer in Cape Town – we were successful in our pursuit) and arguably were saved by the bad light.

The third test, in Cape Town, was a wake up call. England conceded 400+ in the first innings, fell foul of Charl Langeveldt on debut by collapsing in the reply, with the hosts putting on the required runs in enough time to give them to bowl us out for a second time. The game was sealed mid-way through Day 5, giving us enough time to belt up Table Mountain before our flight out the following day.

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Herschelle Gibbs about to sweep and bring up his century – Joburg 2005   (c) DmitriPics

The Joburg test was one of those seminal moments for that team. A great first day (when we were driving down from Hluhluwe to catch our flight from Durban for Day 2) by England was eagerly taken in on the radio and the airport TV, but as we were in the air Strauss got out for his third hundred of the tour, Key was dismissed for 80 odd, and Thorpe a duck. It wasn’t so great. Nor was the weather in Joburg on Day 2, but there was enough play to see Vaughan regain some nick and he and Harmison put the hosts through the wringer before Bucknor took everyone off for bad light. England had over 400, declared overnight, and a lovely sunny Day 3, spent sitting next to Kevin Whateley while not uttering a word to him, saw Herschelle Gibbs make a century, and South Africa claw their way back into the game. We flew home that night. What followed was possibly Tres’s greatest knock for England, and then possibly Hoggy’s greatest spell of bowling. With time running out England knocked over the hosts and took a 2-1 lead.

Centurion was blighted by weather, saw AB make his first test hundred (having got out in the 90s in the first innings), Kallis make his third of the series in mystifyingly slow circumstances, and England wobbling in a nervy last session. There wasn’t really a doubt, but we’d suffered enough in the past to have it in our minds that it was. But even in that test there was confused thinking from the hosts. DeVilliers opened with Gibbs with Smith batting at 5! Seems odd to think that now, doesn’t it?

So, using this as a tenuous reference point, what are the similarities. Well, there was a feeling that England were on the up, with a team coming together. The batting had largely held up, but we knew Thorpe was nearing the end and the assumption was that Bell would come in. Butcher had played his last test, although we didn’t know that at the time, and I’m not sure Key ever played again, either. We know who came in for that slot, and we were a matter of days from hearing the name that partially dominated the newsline for the next decade. Our bowling was solid as a rock, even allowing for Jones not quite nailing it and Anderson having a bad time at Joburg.Harmison didn’t have a great tour, but then we won without our main bowler having an impact. Broad went into this series as Anderson’s oppo. Now he’s on top of the pile.

Jones was a concern at keeper as he had developed a habit of going for pretty much all that was heading for first slip and not nailing it. Bairstow finds himself a bit more advanced on the batting front but with still major keeping concerns.

We encountered a South Africa unsure of themselves and it permeated the team. Van Jaarsveld had a decent second test, playing a big role in saving the game, and was bunted out straight away and turned into the Surrey-killing Kolpak. Tsolokile was keeper for one test, then it was AB, then Boucher. Openers were changed. Pollock wasn’t long from the end of his career. South Africa had a Nathan Lyon complex over Nicky Boje. But they also had two gun young players in their midst – Steyn and AB and that meant hope sprung eternal. Also in that series we saw Amla. This Hashim Amla was a walking wicket, a man no-one feared. Stick with someone and you never know what you might have might be the mantra.

For AB and Steyn the hosts must be hoping Bavuma and Rabada are somewhere in the same zipcode. Can you rely on that and also, there are othere ageing players in that line-up too. But all the comments I’m seeing on the future for the South Africans are grim. When your not quite made it test players can go back to first class cricket and immediately dominate, it does not look great. A number subscribe to the “cyclical nature” of cricket but that’s not happened for the West Indies, is not looking likely for Sri Lanka, and who is to say Pakistan will continue to churn out talent? The noises around AB, that has inspired huge discomfort from the Saffers I come across on Twitter, have not eased anyone’s soul. There’s a lot of discontent that AB took his first captaincy press conference to pour cold water on the future spoke volumes. It may not be the cause, but the effect is that if you feel your leader’s heart isn’t 100% in it, then nor should your’s – even sub-consciously. South Africa have been under the leadership of two players who don’t really exude commitment to being the main man. The fish rots from the head.

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Leaving The Wanderers – 2005

For England this is a great win. Let’s not get churlish about this from the team’s standpoint. Durban was won due to important batting contributions from Compton and Taylor, not our usual old faithfuls. It was won without Anderson. Then there was Stokes and Bairstow at CT, and then two of our old reliables, Broad and Root in Joburg. The batting isn’t world number 1 class, it just isn’t making the runs across the board, the opening slot is a mess, the number 3 in flux, Taylor hasn’t nailed down five (nor is he letting us down) and it’s because the batting has depth down, arguably, to nine, that this is not as crucial. While 2-0 in South Africa is a tremendous result, it doesn’t, for example mean 2-0 in UAE should be ignored, not with the challenges of India this winter on the horizon. This is the World #1 opposition in name only, and a #1 in flux and down in the mouth. We did what we should do. Beat a team in that shape, and make it worse.

Just for laughs, I thought I’d pick a composite team of the two from those winning squads. I bet this will go down well.

  1. Trescothick
  2. Strauss
  3. Vaughan (c)
  4. Root
  5. Thorpe
  6. Flintoff
  7. Stokes
  8. Bairstow (Wk)
  9. Ali
  10. Broad
  11. Hoggard

Five from this team, six from 2005.

Have a great rest of the day.