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Mark Nicholas

A summer of reconciliation and redemption

Yorkshire's outstanding success, Jimmy's tears, the fightback against India - it was an English season where you didn't really a miss a certain someone

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Alastair Cook leads England on their lap of honour, England v India, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 3rd day, August 17, 2014

Alastair Cook successfully kept the "enemy" at bay this summer  •  PA Photos

The mission, should you choose to accept it, said the editor, is a piece about the English summer that avoids making reference to Kevin Pietersen - whoops, there I go. Thus on occasions of necessity we shall refer to You-Know-Who, who is not Lord Voldemort (but might as well be as far as the ECB is concerned).
It was a summer of unforgettable moments. All of them, with the exception of Jos Buttler's eye-watering hundred in the one-day game at Lord's against Sri Lanka, relate to the longer form of the game, but that is no surprise. An appreciation and understanding of Test cricket, indeed first-class cricket at large, leads to a life-long love affair. The 50-over game is more like a three-month fling - promising, often exciting at the time but destined to disappoint in comparison. T20 is a one-night stand. The commercial ambition of administrators worldwide continues to suffocate the longer form of the game. Worse, as the power invested in India grows, so the power inherent in Test cricket will become diminished.
The cabal formed by India, Australia and England is already squeezing the game tighter than it has ever been squeezed before. If you need an index for this have a look at the map of future tours, the venues of imminent ICC events, and the desperate way in which potentially dissident countries such as South Africa and Sri Lanka fell into the lap of the Big Three. If only the cabal cared. If only its leaders would look into the crystal ball. The world they are creating will be as satisfying as a one-night stand.
The game in any form is dependent on the skills learned to play the long game. Without these skills batting will become a bottom-handed, hip-clearing thing, not without adventure, of course, but without beauty. Bowling will become limited exclusively to restriction. The mind games that make cricket a unique challenge are already simplified by the fact that the shorter the length of the game, the fewer the choices the player has to make.
The English summer began with some terrific county cricket. Yorkshire were the form horse but were beaten at Lord's by Middlesex's astounding chase. Their Australian captain, Chris Rogers, scored a double-hundred and called it his best innings. In the second division, Saeed Ajmal gave Worcestershire a mighty leg up but Hampshire hung on to their coat tails. There were results at every turn and matches that captured the attention of a following for county cricket that continues to exist beneath the surface of visible crowd figures.
In two Tests against Sri Lanka, England's fresh team played some interesting cricket but fell foul of their opponent's resilience. The first match at Lord's went to the final ball with Sri Lanka nine wickets down and Stuart Broad correctly denied an lbw appeal from the penultimate ball. The second, at Headingley, finished with the penultimate ball when James Anderson's brave resistance was ended by a well-directed short ball. It niggled that in this nail-biting denouement, Moeen Ali should have finessed the strike for himself but then the game is not a science and its human failings are part of the great attraction. Moeen played a wonderful innings, the kind of rearguard hundred that was once an integral part of any decent batsman's portfolio but is often lost on the one-night stand generation. Anderson shed tears in the post-match presentation with Michael Atherton. It was a side of him worth seeing, especially given what was to come.
England lost the short series because the batsmen played pretty poorly. There were whispers of You-Know-Who, but nothing serious. After all, the UEFA Champions League had barely concluded, David Moyes was being sacked and Roy Hodgson could not decide where Wayne Rooney would play in the World Cup. Did we miss him? You-Know-Who that is, not Rooney in the position of old-fashioned inside forward? Yes, I think we did but he was the subject of passing snigger, not a full-blown debate.
It was petty beyond belief that the ECB refused the Yorkshire captain the crowning moment of his summer. Understandably, his ugly behaviour warranted punishment but it was certainly not worthy of humiliation
Sri Lanka then outplayed England in the one-day games, though Buttler astonished Lord's with his attempt at chasing down 300. He made 121 in 74 balls, and though known for his power and invention, it was the perfection of his drives through and over mid-off and extra cover that will live with all who saw them. This was the match that also gave us a hundred by Kumar Sangakkara. Watching, one wondered if he had become Sri Lanka's greatest cricketer. The conclusion must be yes. The quality of his play and the standards by which he has conducted himself would make any cricketer, of any age, immensely proud.
Then, suddenly, England were back at Lord's, dressed in white and getting thumped by an Indian team inspired by the irresistible MS Dhoni. "Sachin who?" was one headline when Ajinkya Rahane added his name to the list of overseas batsmen on the honours board in the away dressing room. The ground was full every day, the sun shone, and cricket was on the lips of the proletariat. So was You-Know-Who. At Lord's itself, the landed gentry stayed firm with Alastair Cook but elsewhere, and certainly amongst those disgruntled with Rooney and co, the knives were out.
Many suggested Cook must go and be replaced by You-Know-Who himself. (For those readers who do not follow the journeys made by Harry Potter, Voldemort is his mortal enemy. In the first book, the Philosopher's Stone, Voldemort - or You-Know-Who, for even the witches and wizards dare not say his name - is thought to be dead but the gripping climax to the tale reveals him to be living in the skin of, or to be precise attached to the back of the head of, another character, Professor Quirrell.) One former England captain chose Eoin Morgan to replace Cook.
But Alastair Cook being Alastair Cook chose the path of redemption in situ. He fought on and did so to spectacular effect. During perhaps the hottest week of the year at the Ageas Bowl, just outside Southampton, England played a truly great match. Cook made runs in both innings. Ian Bell (who some, incidentally, thought might be Quirrell) fashioned a gloriously attractive 167, and Gary Ballance had the air of Ken Barrington about him as he collected 156 of his own. Then Moeen bowled like Graeme Swann and all the we-miss-Swanny-as-much-as-You-Know-Who squeals were quietened.
So convincing was this England performance that when Cook won the toss on a sultry Manchester morning a week later, India appeared to give up. Anderson and Broad swung the ball lavishly and while the Anderson fan club at his home ground gave India - and in particular Ravindra Jadeja, with whom the Burnley boy had had a set-to at Trent Bridge - a verbal shellacking, the England players revelled in their new-found confidence and favour.
The Oval was even better, the margin of victory a whopping innings and 244 runs. Cook had secured his job, five young English cricketers had proved themselves worthy of the jumper, and two Yorkshire cricketers - Ballance and Joe Root - had reminded us of the old adage that a strong Yorkshire is a strong England. You-Know-Who did next to nothing for Surrey in the T20 campaign and his memory seemed consigned to history. Until this week that is.
Yorkshire romped home in the County Championship, the performance of the summer for me. This is a very good Yorkshire team that will have to cope with further calls from England. The club is well-run and well-led. It was petty beyond belief that the ECB refused the captain, Andrew Gale, the crowning moment of his summer when it turned down Yorkshire's request that he receive the trophy. Understandably, his ugly behaviour in the Roses match warranted punishment but it was not racist and certainly not worthy of humiliation. The ban for two matches denied Gale an on-field presence at the climax of Yorkshire's season. It should not have denied him further. For some reason, the ECB has pursued Gale again. From the outside this appears a witch-hunt. Is there a darned good reason for the ban of another two matches that he has just received?
Hampshire won the second division, just. Without Ajmal, Worcestershire ran out of puff. Now Ajmal must sort his bowling action. Cricket is poorer without the magic and the smile that he brings, but he has pushed the law beyond its limit.
Essex had an impressive late run and seemed galvanised by Ravi Bopara, a cricketer who needed to take more responsibility for himself and his team.
Jimmy Adams captained Hampshire with typical dignity and the ongoing sense of possibility. The Ageas Bowl needed first division cricket and has now got it. The key is to sustain performance, not drift wistfully amongst the winds of the game.
In 1961, Hampshire, led by the irresistible Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, stole the County Championship from under Yorkshire noses. Through the 1950s, Surrey had been without compare but, in 1959, Yorkshire's dynamic and hugely professional team began their own period of domination. Championships were claimed in four years out of five and the names of those responsible rolled off the tongue - Trueman, Taylor, Close, Illingworth, Boycott, Binks, Padgett, Nicholson, Sharpe and so forth. Perhaps Gale, Lyth, Root, Brookes and Co will do the same down the tracks.
Hampshire's interruption was a thing of beauty, arranged as it was by Ingleby-Mackenzie's great sense of the impossible. For one brief summer, the Yorkies were outwitted by a good-time boy whose players were lifted from the humdrum to float through the days and nights as if in a dream. "We did it with wine, women and song," said Ingleby, "though, come to think of it, not that much singing!" Boom boom.
It was a 17-team championship back then, in which everyone played everybody else twice. There was no short-form cricket of any kind, just 32 three-day games that required stamina and concentration to complete successfully. Hampshire won 19 of them. It was not a better world but a different one. Elements of it are worth reference however, for the game is changing at an alarming pace.
There is no room for Adams to be an Ingleby-Mackenzie but there is room for manners, spirit and reconciliation. Anderson and Jadeja among others should come to appreciate that this is less of an old-fashioned sentiment than a call for life.
If one thing about the You-Know-Who saga really grates, it is that English cricket is portrayed as angry and in disrepute, never mind disarray. Understandably, KP has had his say. My guess is that many painful truths have been spoken on both sides of the fence. Sporting dressing rooms have long been places of hierarchy and jealousy, and have often, therefore, provided nests for bullying of a type. But listening to the accusation and counter-accusation is unattractive. For the sake of everyone, the ECB should suck it up and carry on. The board had made its choice and, for better or worse, that choice does not include Kevin Pietersen. This may be a shame but it is also a fact. (Damn, and we got right to the end.)

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK