The late Jonathan Rendall wrote wonderfully about a certain type of sportsman. The boxer Colin "Sweet C" McMillan, who Rendall managed to a version of the world featherweight title, was one. Herol "Bomber" Graham was another, a fighter so elusive and brilliant that his party trick was to put both hands behind his back and invite anyone to try and hit him: no one could. Jimmy White, the snooker player considered the greatest never to win the world title - he lost in the final six times - was one of his favourite subjects: "It doesn't really matter what people like Jimmy do," he wrote, "it's how they express it. They have 'it', whatever 'it' is."
But whatever is "it"? And what is it that they do? Ed Smith wrestled with the high end of the debate in his recent piece about sport and genius. "Genius" is certainly too weighty a label for all but a handful of people in any strata. "It", in this case, is instead a kind of X-factor - itself a quality now inextricably surrendered to the soul-crushing reality TV show in which, ironically, no one ever has it.
Nonetheless the notion of the X-factor cricketer is valid. The mysterious "it" won't be found in their statistics. It doesn't often manifest itself through consistency and it can sometimes go missing for lengthy periods. It's an aesthetic, an impression that what they are doing is innate to them, a form of expression that flows naturally. A coach can no more put it in than they could take it out again. "It" just is. It also exists in the eyes of the beholder, an undeniable electric shiver that lets the observer know, "okay, here is something worth watching…"
"Maxwell clearly has "it". His brilliance frustrates in its unpredictability but he didn't get the nickname "Big Show" for nothing, even if he hates it. That electric shiver comes whenever he plays and whatever he does"
This natural affinity with cricket is manifest in Glenn Maxwell: in the way he strikes the ball, in his catching and his throwing, in his movement and in the broad swing of his bowling arm. Maxwell clearly has "it". His brilliance frustrates in its unpredictability but he didn't get the nickname "Big Show" for nothing, even if he hates it. That electric shiver comes whenever he plays and whatever he does.
England fans feel a little of it in the arrival of David Willey. He is, superficially, just another allrounder of the kind that is beginning to proliferate: he hits big, fields hard, bowls mid-eighties. Yet then comes the left-handedness; the ability to swing the new ball late into the right-hander; the wide-legged stance reminiscent of Chris Gayle. Willey's numbers are pretty standard but they don't tell his story. He specialises in moments, often big ones: a hat-trick to win T20 finals day in 2013; the eighth-fastest short-form century of all time in this year's quarter-final; a wicket with his second ball as England reset their ODI clock Year Zero-style against New Zealand in early summer, and so on. The pure aesthetic, the electric shiver…
Strangely, the X-factor can be hardest on the players who don't appear to have it. Chris Woakes also hits big, fields hard and bowls mid-eighties - often faster. His figures suggest he is at least the equal of Willey, but he somehow lacks the ineffable pizzazz, the sense of occasion that Willey can whisk up. Is it confidence? Is it luck? Is it some odd freak of destiny? And what is the answer to its absence? Is there one? Woakes may be forgiven for wondering.
England have often been distrustful of such immeasurable concepts, especially during the Flower years. Their new era, helmed by Ben Stokes, attended by Alex Hales, Jason Roy, Willey and the ethereally magical Moeen Ali, has left some electricity in the air. It's an expression of something that is hard to name but lies present in the best of the game. You know it when you see it, don't you…