April 25, 2012

Who'd have thunk it?

Predicting how a player is going to perform has always been a tricky business

Did you pick them first time? Did you recognise how good they were at first glance? Or did you conveniently revise your opinion much later, when the results started to come in?

I've been asking myself that question as I've followed the career of Vernon Philander. He now has 51 wickets in just seven Tests. Only the Australian seamer CBT Turner, who reached the milestone in 1888, has reached 50 wickets faster than South Africa's new bowling sensation. I don't mean any disrespect to the legends of the past, but I think it's safe to say that Test cricket has moved on a bit since the days of Turner. So Philander has had statistically the best start to any Test bowling career in modern history.

Who saw that coming? I can claim only half-prescience, and I sadly lacked the courage to go on the record. I first encountered Philander when I was captain of Middlesex in 2008 and he joined the club as our overseas pro. I didn't know much about him beyond what I'd been told - "Allrounder, hard-hitting batter, maybe a bit more of a bowler." Armed with no more information than that, I found myself batting in the nets against our new signing just a couple of minutes after I'd met him.

After the usual pleasantries, it was down to the serious business of Philander bowling at me on a green net surface with a new ball in his hand. So what did I think? Honestly? I thought: "Hmm, I thought they said he was a 'useful allrounder'? Looks more like a genuine opening bowler to me. But I'd better keep it to myself - maybe I've just lost it a bit?"

Philander was just as impressive in matches as he was in the nets. He quickly went from bowling first-change to opening the bowling, then to being our strike bowler. Was he just having a great run of form or was he always this good? Looking back on it, I wish I'd said to everyone - "Forget the fact he can also bat, this bloke is a serious bowler."

When we form judgments of players, we tend to be conditioned by the labels that are already attached to them - "bowling allrounder", "wicketkeeper-batsman", "promising youngster". Once a player has been put in the wrong box, our opinions tend to be conditioned by what everyone else has said. We are clouded by the conventional wisdom that surrounds us.

Look at Andrew Flintoff. It took years for everyone to realise that he was one of the best fast bowlers in the world in the mid-2000s. That was partly because we were distracted by his swashbuckling batting. We were so busy judging him as an allrounder that we failed to notice that he was holding his own against the best in the world, purely as a bowler.

When I played against Matt Prior in his early days at Sussex I thought he was among their best batsmen. The fact that he also kept wicket led him to be underrated as a pure batsman. He could completely change a game in one session and was the often the player I was most happy to see dismissed.

The dressing room is often too slow to acknowledge that a young player is already a serious performer. It cuts against the overstated notion of "He's still got a lot to learn." I have a strange sense of satisfaction at having helped propel the then little-known fast bowler Graham Onions into the England team. Other players weren't convinced he was the genuine article. But he knocked me over so often in 2006 that I had no choice but to become his greatest advocate. I haven't changed my mind: when he is fit, he is one of the best bowlers around.

I played against Tim Bresnan in one of his first matches for Yorkshire. He thudded a short ball into my chest in his first over. "Can't believe that hurt," one of my team-mates scoffed, "it was only bowled by that debutant bloke." True enough. But every top player has to start out as a debutant.

The dressing room is often too slow to acknowledge that a young player is already a serious performer. It cuts against the overstated notion of "He's still got a lot to learn"

The gravest errors of judgement, of course, make for the really good stories. When Aravinda de Silva played for Kent in 1995, he brought along a young Sri Lankan to have a bowl in the nets at Canterbury. What did the Kent players think of the young lad, Aravinda wondered? The general view was that he was promising but not worth a contract.

It was Muttiah Muralitharan.

Sometimes, of course, everyone fails to predict the trajectory of a career. Earlier this month, Alan Richardson was named one of the Wisden cricketers of the year. That is exalted company to keep: Kumar Sangakkara and Alastair Cook were among the other winners.

Richardson is a 36-year-old county professional who has played for Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Middlesex and now Worcestershire. For much of his career, Richardson has had to fight for every game he has played. He started out as a trialist, travelling around the country looking for 2nd team opportunities. It wasn't until he turned 30 that he became an automatic selection in first-class cricket.

Richardson was a captain's dream at Middlesex: honest, loyal, honourable, hard-working and warm-hearted. By their early 30s, most seamers are in decline and have to suffer the indignity of watching batsmen they once bullied smash them around the ground. Not Richardson. Aged 34, he taught himself the away-swinger - typical of his relentless hunger for self-improvement. In 2011, Richardson clocked up more first-class wickets than anyone.

About to turn 37, he says his chances of playing for England have gone. I hope he's wrong. No one could more richly deserve the right to play for his country. Watching Richardson pull on an England cap would be one of the finest sights in cricket - the perfect example of character rewarded. And it would be further proof that some cricketers will always be quiet achievers, inching towards excellence without vanity or fanfare. They deserve the limelight more than anyone.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here