May 21, 2014

The need for heroes

Can any modern player fill the gargantuan boots of Botham, Viv Richards or Harold Larwood? Glenn Maxwell is making a mighty fist of it

Glenn Maxwell: upper-cuts, reverses, and sometimes plain slogs to devastating effect © BCCI

In the wet weeks of April, that "cruellest month", as TS Eliot no doubt too waited for the season to begin, I sought cricketing comfort and ordered the ESPN Legends of Cricket DVD box set - 575 minutes of mainline nostalgia. From the sepia-toned stills of Grace and Hobbs, the grainy black-and-white footage of Hutton and Bradman, to the TV classics of my childhood featuring the helmetless Sirs Richards and Botham swatting to the boundary, it is pure indulgence. These bygone heroes still give me goosebumps, and where the archive film lacks quality, the Spidercam and the HD focus of bats bending in crystal-clear slow-mo, we have the reverence of the narrators.

Michael Holding recounts Rodney Hogg hitting Viv on the jaw with a bouncer, and Hogg's shock at watching him take guard again and carry on chewing his gum. Then Hogg makes the mistake of bouncing Viv again and, of course, "It went out of the ground," grins Holding. "And the MCG is a BIG ground."

I can watch replays of Botham and Headingley and relive the awe. Botham hooking into the crowd. Botham ripping through the Aussies then ripping up the stump as a souvenir. And I don't even need to have seen the player in action to idolise the man. As the son of a father from the Nottinghamshire coalfields, I grew up believing Harold Larwood could walk on water. Duncan Hamilton's superlative biography of the miner-cum fast bowler is a Greek tragedy. The warrior Larwood, brave and victorious, hoisted onto the shoulders of a nation and then cast aside by the gods of the MCC. Sir Geoffrey Boycott laments that Larwood's life is "one of the saddest stories in cricket".

But these are champions of distant eras. And my nostalgia, a medical condition first recorded by a doctor treating Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home in the 17th century, needs relieving with the present. Yet is it true about English cricket, as The Stranglers recorded in 1977, that there are "No More Heroes Any More"?

The 2005 Ashes gave England supporters a troupe of match-winners, with Flintoff and KP carrying the flame. Freddie, it seemed, burned as bright and brief as a shooting star. As much as I admire KP, the theatrics and flair at the crease, the character failings of a man who texts the opposition about his captain and sulks at fine leg in a Test match is not what I sought - nor Bonnie Tyler, when she sang "I Need a Hero", looking for a man who's "gotta be strong, and he's gotta to be fast, and he's gotta be fresh from the fight".

Alex Hales' unbeaten 116 against Sri Lanka in the World T20 was no doubt a heroic innings. After watching two wickets fall from the non-striker's end he took the initiative and saved the game - with a little help from another budding hero of this fledgling England, Eoin Morgan. The 25 runs Hales stole from an Ajantha Mendis over turned the game, and his third six, a sweep-slog flat-batted over midwicket after he stepped outside the off stump, was as majestic and strutting as anything Beefy or Viv did. But Hales still has to prove he's not a one-format (even one-innings) hero, and hit the red ball as well as he does the white.

Beyond Hales, and Carberry's stoic resistance against the Mitchell Johnson bombardment over the winter, I'm still waiting for a modern hero, a player to fill the gargantuan boots of Ian Botham, Malcolm Marshall, Viv Richards or Harold Larwood. England certainly have some rising stars - Stokes, Buttler and Morgan are surely prospects. However, the man I most admire in the modern game doesn't wear the three lions.

I confess I've become a Glenn Maxwell acolyte. I don't know much about him beyond the IPL fireworks I watch on YouTube, or the stories of him turning up red-eyed and half-drunk for Hampshire. There is the danger that the more I do find out, the less I'll idolise him. What modern athlete can keep their hero status after paparazzi scrutiny and Twitter pitfalls?

But I do know that when he bats I watch. In his most recent blitzkrieg - there may well have been another by the time I finish this article - he hit 90 off 38 deliveries against Chennai Super Kings, including two ridiculous reverse dinks for six off the bewildered Dwayne Smith. With the jump-cut editing of the highlights package, you'd believe that every ball he ever faces clears the ropes. And I love the fact he's not the textbook model, and that he upper-cuts, reverses, cross-bat slaps, and sometimes plain slogs, to devastating effect. According to the IPL channel, he is indestructible. In that 90 off 38 clip, the action ends before he is out, and the viewer is left with Maxwell forever at the crease, launching mortars into the crowd.

And this is the myth of the hero. That we airbrush the human flaws. Larwood was a mortal, but the Bodyline series is the stuff of legend. I was a boy when I watched Botham, the bearded Hercules muscling back the Ashes. Yet the times I watched him at Grace Road, when Somerset played Leicestershire, have been forgotten. Was he out cheaply? Probably. So I erased the average and replay the epic.

Until Maxwell appears human, and he fails, and I watch him fail, there is another YouTube fantasy innings to watch, where the god of batsmen is never out, and cricket balls rain from heaven.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award