December 10, 2014

Cricket's men of the year

Two courageous cricketers who, when faced with extreme tragedy, understood that the show must go on

Brendon McCullum brought joy with his batting on a day when no one could muster any joy in themselves © AFP

Could there be a better way of living
Better than the easy way
Could the wretched be forgiven
Are you man enough to pray?

- Lloyd Cole, "Man Enough"

It was, perhaps, one of the more revelatory coincidences. The day after Phillip Hughes' funeral, the report in the Times was immediately preceded by a story drawing on one of those modern journalistic standbys, the public survey: the top 50 signs of having "made it" in contemporary England, apparently, include shopping at Waitrose and owning a pair of "cricket whites".

This is, of course, palpable nonsense: the actual cost of a pair of flannels is about one-fifth the price of a replica Premier League f***ball shirt. Besides, if this Waitrose-shopping column has "made it", somebody forgot to inform its bank manager. Still, it's perceptions that count.

That a staunchly middle-class supermarket currently sponsors the England team says pretty much all you need to know about the game on these shores. As Mike Atherton observed, the grief that engulfed Australia in the wake of Hughes' "one in a billion" death is unimaginable here, much less the rise of a backwoods boy to national hero.

Yet between demise and burial came a shaft of light to obliterate all geographical barriers. For we cricket tragics, there are days you wish you were old enough, wise enough, or there enough to have witnessed first-hand. Days when even the extra dimensions afforded by 24 cameras and a zillion super-slo-mo replays cannot bring you as close as you need to be to savour the full flavour. That a near-empty ground in Arabia should have been the stage for the latest such regret in this column's life merely adds surreality to Brendon McCullum's personal tribute to Hughes.

As prone as one is to hyperbole while still basking in the glow of the unexpectedly wondrous, it is hard to think of a cricket match that could have done more to restore faith in the game than last month's third Test between Pakistan and New Zealand. True, other international fixtures were played in the immediate aftermath of Hughes' death, but this was the only major game to be interrupted by it.

Suddenly, the mindset had flipped. Suddenly, winning not only wasn't everything, it wasn't even the second most important thing. Try doing your job under those straitened conditions. Most of us would have grabbed a duvet day or dug up a grandparent for a second funeral.

Reported on this site by Devashish Fuloria, the prelude to the New Zealand captain's explosion inspired a sentence that may prove hard to forget: "With no chirping from the fielders, no celebrations on the fall of wickets, and muted reactions from batsmen on being dismissed, the eerie quiet had also descended to the middle." Then came McCullum.

To a degree, the ensuing assault was stirred, reportedly, by a burst of bouncers, yanking some of us back to The Oval in 1994, when Devon Malcolm reacted to being felled at the crease by telling the South Africans they were toast (all right, "history"). Did Brendon McCullum kid himself? Just because his own pacemen had maintained a scrupulously full length earlier that day, did he honestly not suspect, with a Test series at stake, that the opposition, having collapsed, might sense a weakness to be exploited? Whatever the motivation, the response could not have done more to resurrect spirits.

Mike Hesson's statement at the end of that electrifying second day deserves to be remembered too, even if the Black Caps' coach did appear to contradict the way the match had so drastically and terminally switched course. "Everybody in our team and management is affected. Some very deeply affected. Today wasn't about cricket. Today was about supporting one of our fellow players and the players really struggled… We weren't really conscious of performance today. We just were worried about looking after each other."

"Today wasn't about cricket." Chew that over. If that truly was the case, just about every pearl of alleged wisdom dispensed by a sports psychologist, team manager or coach would have to be wrong. To succeed without caring? That, surely, is the luxury of the unprofessional: the Sunday footballer, the tennis occasional, and the once-a-year runner who staggers around a marathon course in a silly outfit for charity.

As questions flewMcCullum said he felt empty. Yes, Hughes had been a soul brother, "one of our own", but you didn't have to look too hard to glimpse the joy, however restrained

On the other hand, Hesson did reassert the long-held proposition that sportsfolk perform better when fear of failure is banished. But did McCullum laugh in the face of such fear because the cricket didn't matter, or because Hesson was wrong? Surely, merely by dint of resuming play, here was a day that was entirely about cricket, a day like no other, a celebration of cricket like no other. Here, too, was the cricketer in excelsis, not just fearless but making a statement: the show must go on. In the initial flush of victory, as questions flew and cameras popped, McCullum said he felt empty. Yet those blue eyes twinkled and a soft smile hovered. Yes, Hughes had been a soul brother, "one of our own", but you didn't have to look too hard to glimpse the joy, however restrained.

If skippering a Test XI is the most searching examination set by the competitive arts, it almost goes without saying that this has been a so-so year for the coin-tossers, the struggles of the big boys, MS Dhoni, Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook, counter-balanced by the exemplars par excellence - McCullum, Angelo Mathews and Misbah-ul-Haq. Only the devil's most devilish advocate would make a strident case against McCullum as 2014's man of the year and joybringer-in-chief.

That knack for topping himself - in the positive, repeatable sense - has been nothing short of astounding. Entering the year with just one century in his 50 previous Test digs, he kicked off with a match-winning 224 against India in Auckland, then capped that a week later with a match-saving, series-securing 302 in Wellington. Neither knock will endure quite like his Sharjah shotfest.

Three innings of such magnitude in a single twelvemonth, from an opener additionally burdened by the responsibility of leading one of the weakest teams on the five-day circuit? Forget that trite, sexist phrase "manning up": human-ing up doesn't get much humanlier.

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Yet Sean Abbott is equally deserving of our admiration and gratitude, not to mention every ounce of sympathy we can muster. Walk a mile in his shoes? A foot would be too far.

"He'll be indicted for manslaughter, won't he?" assumed Evie, my younger daughter, now 16. It took some explaining, but at length she accepted that here was one instance where sport rightly overrides social norms. I'm still not entirely sure it makes absolute, unequivocal sense, given the implicit and sometimes explicit intention of the bouncer, but I know it makes the planet that tiny bit more just.

Compassion for the New South Welshman flowed, most reassuringly from Mehrab Hossain, whose pull killed Raman Lamba while the latter was fielding at short leg during a club game in Dhaka in 1998. Hossain's message was heartfelt: "Friend, I have gone through exactly what you are going through. What happened was an accident. Your family and friends, the cricket board, and cricketers from all over the world are in your support. We want you to come back to the game, but only when you are ready."

Hossain recovered thrillingly, becoming Bangladesh's first international centurion. Abbott may or may not draw further comfort from the only leather hurler to kill a top-flight baseballer.

Sean Abbott took the brave step of returning to Shield cricket a week after Hughes' death © Getty Images

On August 16, 1920, Ray Chapman, batting for the Cleveland Indians, confronted Carl Mays of the New York Yankees. A vicious, widely disliked pitcher, Mays' unorthodox "submariner" action (in essence underarm, but infinitely more fiendish than such a docile term might suggest) rendered his missiles difficult to pick up. He also thought nothing of targeting opponents' unprotected heads. The ball was grimy, the light grim. Chapman, leaning provocatively over the plate to reduce the target, found himself being followed by a fast, sharply rising delivery. His left temple bore the full brunt.

According to Grantland Rice, the ball "dribbled down the third base line where Aaron Ward, thinking it a bunt, pounced on it and rifled to third baseman Wally Pipp". Shades of Greg Chappell at the SCG in 1975 after Jeff Thomson hit the unhelmeted Keith Fletcher between the eyes. Chapman froze, then crumpled.

"Aided by two teammates, he began to walk toward the clubhouse in centre field," related Robert Creamer, a war reporter of great repute as well as Babe Ruth's most perceptive biographer. "As he reached the outfield grass he collapsed again and had to be carried the rest of the way." Chapman expired in hospital the next day.

The Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators and Detroit Tigers all threatened to strike if Mays was permitted to pitch again, but he was reprieved after others rallied behind him. In the long term, the upshots were positive. The spitball, of which Mays was just one of many enthusiastic exponents, was outlawed (not that this dissuaded some from concealing grease beneath their cap). Furthermore, any pitched ball that landed in the dirt thereafter would be changed for a new one. The sole downside was the expense: a single game today can get through 70 balls.

Abbott's legacy? An end to violent sledging, á la Michael Clarke and Jimmy Anderson, would seem the bare minimum, but the mere fact that he reported for duty for this week's Sheffield Shield fixture against Queensland is sufficient proof of heroism. The wickets were a bonus. This column is supremely confident that McCullum won't mind sharing its Man-of-the-Year award.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

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