July 29, 2009

Johnson, Hughes and the ordeal of cricket

Often the game becomes a curse, as two Australians struggling in the Ashes can testify

Every cricketer knows the feeling. The game has become impossible, a curse, a blight, a torment, a tease, a provocation, a creation of the devil; goodness only knows why it was ever invented, or why poets write so richly about it or children take it up. Academies? Fie on them! Umpires? Blind and deaf! Reporters? Are they watching the same game? Captains? Blithering idiots! Wives? Ripe for rejection. Children? What was wrong with workhouses? Cars? Unreliable. Governments? Inept. Averages? Overrated.

Luck? And what pray is luck? In these periods everything goes wrong that rests in human hands. Every mistake is punished. Before long it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Batsmen poke around without conviction, bowlers endure dropped catches. Everyone around them can scent blood.

Of course it can only happen in the stretched areas, where the batsman or bowler is taken to his limits. As man inevitably rises to the level of his incompetence so cricketers keep rising till the game starts to find them out. After that they live on their nerves, constantly worried about impending doom, aware of their frailties, relieved by their successes. Some, it is true, dare to look failure in the eye, defy it to do its worst, realise they can live with it and then turn away towards the bright lights of achievement. Kevin Pietersen belongs to this school. More than most, he decided to succeed. And he knew how, understood that success was in part a gamble and a bluff, watched people whose very careers told him that, surrounded himself with them.

But Pietersen is an uncommon man, a fellow who did not retreat or cut his losses or take the safe course. He learnt not from failure but from success. It is an unusual mindset, one that makes Roger Federer say how well he has been playing without sounding arrogant, merely sincere. Most of us live in constant fear of failure and the humiliation it supposedly heralds: the low score in the papers, the lowering of reputation, the disdain of peers, and most of all the shattering of hope. And, of course, the worst of it is that cricketers know how closely failure and glory sit together, plotting and planning. Denis Compton once failed for a month, was clean bowled first ball in his next innings, watched amazed as the bails fell back onto the stumps and promptly scored 200. The gods kill us for their sport.

Cricket is an isolating and yet public game. Soccer players suffer when they miss a penalty. Cricketers risk that collapse every time they go out to bat. It is not a sport at all, it's an execution. Watching a man walking smartly to the crease, looking impervious, sometimes imperious (did you ever see Viv Richards' regal saunter to the middle?) is to see a man feeling not joy at the prospect of scattering the bowling to the corners of the field but a doomed dreamer, a desperate craftsman hoping that the gap between his going and coming back might be long enough to permit fruitful activity.

Only batsmen of spectacular incompetence and vivid imaginations can write lightly about batting. They can waffle all they like about Ranji's leg glance, Walter Hammond's cover drive, Frank Worrell's late cut, David Gower's caress, but it's all warm talk

Batting is an ordeal. The rapturous cannot have held a willow, cannot actually have gone to the crease to face the massed ranks of hostile forces waiting with wicked intent, cannot have felt the dismay that comes with ducks (no right-thinking batsman ever ordered duck a l'orange in a restaurant). Only batsmen of spectacular incompetence and vivid imaginations can write lightly about the activity. They can waffle all they like about Ranji's leg glance, Walter Hammond's cover drive, Frank Worrell's late cut, David Gower's caress, but it's all warm talk. None of these blokes cared about prettiness; they just wanted to score runs, to please their dads or wives or selves, or even, occasionally, captains and colleagues.

Batting takes courage. Certainly the physical aspect of the game has declined, but that is true of life itself. Covered wickets, helmets, thick gloves, chest guards and so forth have reduced the game's rawness. Not the least value of Andrew Flintoff's burst at Lord's was the way it reminded the crusty of the abandoned ferocity that appeared periodically last century and reached its peaks in the 1970s and 1980s.

But it still takes psychological courage to take batting seriously. Admittedly it's much easier for tailenders with low expectations and allrounders, a breed that (it belatedly emerged) can lay about themselves with intent, and when everything goes wrong can grab the ball and redeem themselves. Most allrounders burst a gasket as soon as they are forced to focus.

Specialist batsmen, and bowlers as well, take an enormous risk every time they take guard or mark out their run. It's a nerve-wracking game. I've seen professional batsmen be sick as they wait their turn in the pavilion, seen bowlers unable to land the ball on the cut strip once the nets have been removed. David Gurr and Fred Swarbrook count among fine bowlers broken by the yips. Sportsmen know it can happen to anyone. No proper cricketer condemned them, or those enduring depression. In 1978, Swarbrook, a previously reliable left-arm spinner of generous girth, suddenly started sending down head-high deliveries and triple bouncers. County batsmen patted them back.

Only the masters of the genre can relax, and not for long because the game can easily elude even their grasp. Cricket is a game of cold facts and figures. A soccer or rugby player can recover from a mistake, might even emerge as Man of the Match. A tennis player can drop a set and still prevail. Everyone forgets about the early mishaps. Did not Retief Goosen recently fluff a drive at the first hole and still shoot 67? Cricket permits no such luxury. A fellow might get another chance, it is true, but he cannot depend on it; that is the point. He walks into the unknown, and does so willingly.

And it can all go wrong. Phil Hughes and Mitchell Johnson could confirm the point. Every article written about every top player ought to begin with "This chap is a terrific cricketer". Instead it is taken as read. Not long ago Brad Haddin was asked about criticism of his glovework in his first few Test matches and replied that he was happy with it as it proved that he was now judged by higher standards. It was a mature response that ought to be pinned in every dressing room. Johnson and Hughes are superb cricketers and have proved as much on the game's greatest stages.

Just for now, though, these young Australians are feeling as vulnerable as elephants on ice. Neither has performed to raised expectations in the fist two Tests of the Ashes series. At first sight it can be put down to the sort of bad patch sooner or later endured by all cricketers as the game temporarily (as it usually turns out) forsakes them. But these cases are a little different. Bad patches befall players with completed games that develop little weaknesses that cause internal panic and eventually prove instructive as the player reminds himself never to get lazy and always to keep a close eye on his game. Hughes and Johnson are not that far down the track. They are not suffering from bad luck so much as technical flaws. In short, they are not yet the finished product.

Hitherto Hughes' habit of sliding his back foot to leg had been observed but was not regarded as fatal to his prospects. Every bowler in Australia and South Africa had tried to exploit it, only to find the left-hander cutting gleefully. Hereabouts it appeared that he might be able to work things out as he went along, as did Virender Sehwag, Navjot Sidhu and other dashing openers blessed with wonderful eyes and bold spirits. Now Hughes has been forced to confront and correct in the middle of an Ashes campaign. He is a remarkable young man and has the determination needed to score runs in any company. Most likely these struggles will be his making not his breaking.

Nor is Johnson enduring a genuine bad patch. His problems run deeper than that. Instead his action has been found wanting. Twelve months ago the Australians realised that their bowling needed a pick up. Most of the established flingers were injured or aged. Among those still standing, Johnson was the best hope because he offered pace, bounce, stamina, athleticism and angle, but he could only cut the ball away from the bat, an approach that might work on hard pitches in Australia but has seldom been effective in England.

Accordingly bowler and coaches worked hard to add an inswinger to his repertoire, a delivery unleashed in the first Test in South Africa, and sporadically later in the series, and subsequently misplaced. Previously he had seemed to be lucky to take so many wickets, as batsmen repeatedly nibbled at wide deliveries. Now he was formidable. Adding the inswinger, though, meant changing his action, at least for that delivery. Perhaps it was more than he could absorb. Now he is in the worst of both worlds.

Hughes is young and deeply committed to the game and will learn as he goes along. Johnson is a genial, sensitive fellow, who hardly played for a few years, between his discovery and rediscovery, a sportsman with less to fall back on than most internationals. Experience teaches a man how to reduce the impact of bad spells. Having missed some of his formative cricketing years, itself an attempt to avoid pain, Johnson lacks the depth of knowledge needed to identify faults. And a man needs to be comfortable with his game before taking to these fields. Hopefully this splendid cricketer will bounce back, but for now he has to embark on the second of a cricketer's three stages.

The path is the same and it depends where a man stops. It begins with natural ability that takes a fellow as far as it can. Then comes a period of introspection in which the complications of the game are encountered and, to a greater or lesser degree, resolved. Finally the player reaches the final stage of a hazardous journey, beyond complexity, towards full understanding. This third stage is called simplicity, but it is profundity.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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