Thinking back to the English summer of cricket, I first remembered a conversation with Steven Finn after the second Test against Sri Lanka. I asked him about James Vince, whose selection had delighted anyone with Hampshire cricket in their veins and anyone else who appreciated batting in its purest form. I was worried that Vince was confused by the demands of the higher game and was therefore afraid to parade his gifts. Finn told me to rest easy. Vince, he said, was the real deal; so much so that the bowlers didn't much like lining up against him. He had time to play, said Finn, making a quick bowler feel as if he were letting it go at gentle medium. I wondered about saying this to Vince, but I don't know him well and decided not to meddle.
Had I been his captain or coach, I'd have told him to puff out his chest a bit. Batsmen need to create ownership, especially if they don't already have it. The Vince we love watching for Hampshire has a calm authority that is the envy of others. The one for England these past few months has been reticent. Sadly, at this first attempt, the Hampshire captain was unable to pass the ultimate test - the test that consumes us all.
I like chatting with Finn. His honesty is refreshing, he is engaging and generally wise. As Middlesex surged to the County Championship title on Friday afternoon last, he knocked over Yorkshire's Steve Patterson with a pearler of a full and fast outswinger. Watching his celebration, I figured all must be well with his world after a difficult period in an England shirt during the early part of the summer.
At the other end Toby Roland-Jones was bowling in a manner that surely impressed all the old fast-mediums tuned in. Fellows such as Ken Higgs, who passed away recently, Peter Lever, Geoff Arnold, Chris Old and Mike Hendrick, Neil Foster, Angus Fraser, Andy Caddick, Dominic Cork and Matthew Hoggard, to name but a few. It is old news now, but to win the Championship with a hat-trick is a history-maker of note. Roland-Jones is a big man and immensely strong. It appears that "Gus" Fraser has rubbed some of the old magic on the boy: "You miss, I hit" was very Fraser, and now it seems, is very Middlesex dressing-room. The coach there is Richard Scott, who plays his own part deliberately low-key. "Scotty" was with Hampshire till lack of opportunity drove him to Gloucestershire. He had a fantastic ball-striking ability, far greater than his record suggests. He would have prospered in the freer-spirited atmosphere of today's game.
Back to Vince. Correctly, he has been left out of the tour to Bangladesh. I'll bet he is mentally shot. I'll also bet that in the long term Finn is right, but we must wait the day. The spotlight caught Vince off guard. He is a shy soul, provincially so. After a few mistakes, the constant media examination and analysis are impossible to ignore. He cover-drives the ball close to perfectly but lost his chutzpah to do so. Half-heartedly, Test match after Test match, he fell on that very sword: the strength that betrays you as weakness. He is not the first, nor will he be the last. Even the best have to wade through the morass. David Gower was brilliant square of the wicket off either foot, but during a slump, the strokes that helped make his name cost him his place. Mind you, the analysts in his day didn't pick at the carcass as they do now.
"England are an enterprising and exciting side to watch, albeit one prone to a tumble. Rather that, though, than the meek surrender of days gone by"
The selectors picked the right man. The right man failed them. A shame indeed, but don't give up on him. We all develop at a different pace. The problem for the selectors is getting it right. Talent is easy enough to see, temperament is not. When Tony Greig was searching for a batsman to repel first Lillee and Thomson and then the West Indians, he took a poll among the umpires. The question was simple - who is the hardest man to dismiss on the county circuit? Geoff Boycott, they cried. But Geoff wasn't up for it. Who's next? asked Greig. David Steele, they whispered, not truly believing they would see it for themselves. When they turned on the telly, there was Steele - or Groucho Marx as Thommo called him - marching out to bat at Lord's. Nothing funny about it. Steele ended up as the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year. He would be the first to admit he didn't have Vince's sublime gift of timing, but he had a mountain of courage and temperament. Batting talent is mainly perceived as strokeplay but this is misleading. Talent is given in different forms and Steele, like Boycott, had plenty of his own.
Not truly satisfied with Alex Hales against the red ball, the selectors have made two riveting juxtaposition choices to battle for his spot alongside Alastair Cook. Ben Duckett plays with fearless abandon, Haseeb Hameed with more modest intent. Hameed had made his impact in the first division, however - a definite plus mark. Duckett has torn the second division to shreds, as Vince sort of did in 2014. We shall see. It may be easier to fly under the radar in Bangladesh. Whichever one of them gets first dibs will almost certainly be given the series. Duckett has an advantage there in that he will open in the one-day games first and could make an unanswerable case with an innings or two that matches those for Northamptonshire this summer. If not, Hameed is pencilled in anyway.
English batting is changing. Inherent fear - a reference to the glass being half-empty - has been replaced by a gratifying sense of adventure, as if cricket is for fun. This is the most encouraging thing to happen to the game across these green and pleasant fields in a long time. It has made England an enterprising and exciting side to watch, albeit one prone to a tumble. Rather that, though, than the meek surrender of days gone by.
The Test series against Pakistan was a belter and 2-2 was about the right result. It was no bad thing that England didn't win, for the team has a way to go. For much of the summer Cook alluded to the periods when concentration and/or metal stamina go absent without leave. This is both cockiness and laziness, and it is a legacy of all that T20 brings - among them a lack of care for defence of the wickets. It's too glib to say you cannot have both enterprise and discipline. You can. Joe Root proved it with his fabulous 254 at Old Trafford; Younis Khan with his double-hundred at the Oval. These were two innings of substance and style that matched any played by the legends of the past.
The only selection surprise that I could see was the omission of the Middlesex opener Nick Gubbins. What a gem he looks! We must assume Fraser, who is an England selector as well as the Middlesex director of cricket, knows best, for he has seen Gubbins from the starter's gun to his superb match at Lord's last week. It is no exaggeration to say that Middlesex would not have won without him.
This is a good time for cricket at the top level. The price is high because the players have earned the board the chance to up the ante. International cricket usually receives the focus of general attention, but that extraordinary climax to the Championship brought the very best of cricket's myriad attractions to the table in just four days of fascinating play across the land. There were winners and losers and saints and sinners, with teams caught the right side and the wrong side of the line. We should celebrate the fact that English cricket is not lagging behind. The advent of a new city-based T20 competition will allow it to become a market leader. But the Championship and the resulting Test match team are the soul of a game spawned every bit as much in the mining communities as within the estates of country houses. Cricket is no kind of a game without its soul.