July 22, 2013

Notes arising from Lord's

The shelf life of an opener, the curious anomalies in Hot Spot, and why we miss Kevin Pietersen

"Hey Joe, where do you see yourself ten years from now?" © Getty Images

It's hard to think of batsmen as different from each other as Graeme Smith and Joe Root, yet they do share something. Smith began opening the batting for South Africa in his third Test match, at the age of 21. Root has moved to the top of the order in his seventh game and is 22. Smith's career has, in part, been an epic of pressure and endurance. He seems to have been around forever, yet is still only 32 years old.

It's a position shared by Alastair Cook, who was also 22 when he began opening for England. He is only 28, has played 94 Tests and has already made more centuries for his country than anyone else. He is perhaps halfway down his road.

One of the few considerations England might not have made when moving Root up was about exactly how long they would be asking him to do the job for. If he retains his place in the side until he's 35, he will still be opening for England in 2026. If he is as cussed and in love with his profession as another son of the White Rose, Geoffrey Boycott, he'll be walking out to bat at the age of 41 in 2032. WG played for England for the last time at 50, which would mean Root would still be there in season 2051.

There is a more serious point. The careers of bowlers are limited by their bodies. The careers of batsmen are limited by the mind. The accrual of scar tissue, the endless pressure of dismissal by a single mistake, wear away at the psyche. Opening the batting is the sharpest place of all for that. To do it for more than a decade is a huge ask.

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When Hot Spot was first introduced, a mischievous rumour began that it could be beaten by rubbing Vaseline into the edge of the bat, thus reducing the friction made by the ball and eliminating the white mark of guilt. It was a theory quickly rubbished by the tech nerds, but more Machiavellian minds - like mine - turned towards it again after a couple of Ashes Tests in which some thin outside edges have left barely visible or no marks for the Hot Spot technology but have nonetheless shown up well on Snicko, stump mikes and super slo-mo replays.

It's more than likely that some very fine edges have contributed to the general DRS angst, but it would be interesting to hear something from the Hot Spot makers as to why it is happening. Taking an even more arch view, it's not a problem that has extended to the inside edge of the bat, where it is, of course, often in the batsman's interest for the mark to show up, or when flicking the pad.

There's a temptation to think of technology as unchanging and infallible, and yet it is neither. Who knows what equipment will be available to umpires and broadcasters in five years' time? There may be sensors in bat or ball for all we know. Until then, it's a fair question to ask. What are the margins for error in Hot Spot?

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England could probably replace Kevin Pietersen with Geoffrey Boycott's mother and her stick of rhubarb and still win the series from here, but if KP is missing with his sore calf, he leaves a lacuna that we cannot fill.

The truth is, without him, England's batting is exemplary and dull. Nothing becomes him more than his absence, because with him departs the x-factor, the knowledge that among all of the ruthless competence sits something extraordinary.

There's nothing wrong with James Taylor or Ravi Bopara or Nick Compton, but they are more of the same when what's needed is the thrill of something unique.

For sheer batting talent only one player comes close, and that is Eoin Morgan. He may be underprepared and just back from injury and all the rest of it, but he is a player that makes the heart beat faster, whose intelligence, invention and modernity suggest the future. He's also a better player than Jonny Bairstow. England shouldn't let him slip away to the white ball.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here

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