Mark Nicholas

Bend the rules and bring AB back for the World Cup? Why not?

Our commentator-columnist gets starry-eyed around two batting greats and wades into the de Villiers debate (while also getting in a round of golf in between)

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
June 5, Southampton
Just briefly today I was in the same room as my two favourite batsmen. Barry Richards came by the commentary box in a break from the attention he was receiving in the Robin Smith Executive Suite on the other side of the ground. A little later, I found myself alongside Sachin Tendulkar, who was a guest with the Hindi commentary team for Star Sports. When it comes to batting, I'm one for orthodoxy and symmetry - high elbows, straight lines and straight drives. Thus, it's Tendulkar marginally over Brian Lara for me, and Richards, with his purity and style, over Graeme Pollock. Agreed, I'm splitting hairs. To bat for my life? Well, that might be, though not necessarily, a different thing. Right now, I'm talking aesthetic.
While star-struck me was all eyes on heroes, out in the middle the elite among moderns, Virat Kohli, was ticking both boxes - aesthetic and pragmatic. It's always a bit of a surprise when he gets out, though the flying catch by Quinton de Kock was an all-timer, a Channel Nine "Classic Catch" if ever there was one. Kohli is in my all-time top ten, along with AB de Villiers, who annoyingly is not here at the World Cup.
June 6, Trent Bridge
Er, sorry Quinton, Sheldon Cottrell just nicked your prize. The big fella sprinted round the square-leg boundary and, at full stretch, stuck out his left mitt, into which the ball popped. But that was only the half of it. Avoiding the boundary was a problem for Cottrell, so, moving at top pace, he underarmed the ball into the air, hopped over the rope and somehow steadied himself before hopping back into play and catching the damn thing. It was brilliant. As brilliant in its way as the Stokes catch the previous week.
Steven Smith was the unlucky victim and his look of resignation was a picture in itself. Smith had crafted the innings that kept Australia in the match; Nathan Coulter-Nile played the innings that transported his team from outsiders at 70 odd for 5 to favourites with 288 on the board. Australian cricketers make a habit of this; must be infuriating to play against. Just when you think you've got them...
Meanwhile, at Sunningdale Golf Club, a few cricketing pals were having a fine day out. Ted Dexter was round the Old Course in 83 shots, to beat his age by one - wonderful! Except that he and his partner, Andrew Strauss, were undone on the 18th hole by James Taylor and Jeremy Cowdrey, middle son of Colin. The South African contingent was strong: led by Graeme Smith and including Mike Procter and the aforementioned Richards.
Forty years ago in June, West Indies beat England in the 1979 World Cup final. This prompted debate about whether anyone could have beaten Clive Lloyd's superb team and the conclusion was that the South African side of that moment was the most likely. The years of isolation hid many a fine cricketer from view; our verdict was that Barry Richards, Jimmy Cook, Peter Kirsten , Graeme Pollock, Allan Lamb, Clive Rice, Mike Procter, Garth Le Roux, Ray Jennings, Vince Van der Bijl and either Alan Kourie or Denys Hobson would have provided the sternest test for Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Viv Richards, Alvin Kallicharran, Lloyd, Collis King, Deryck Murray, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Colin Croft.
Thoughts of which made South Africa's underwhelming performance against India all the more disappointing. In fact, the gap between the sides - and most specifically the lack of any magic in a South Africa shirt - awoke the ABV sleeper. Rumour has it that late in the piece de Villiers made himself available for the tournament but the selectors knocked him back. It seems Faf du Plessis and Ottis Gibson, captain and coach, had first been alerted of AB's interest during the home one-day series against Sri Lanka in March and then again while both de Villiers and du Plessis were at the IPL. The odd photograph flags the fact they spoke but not, of course, what was said.
Rumours that's all, and they always come along when you least need them. South Africa have now lost three in a row - ouch! Four years ago, under de Villiers' leadership, they made the semi-final against New Zealand, but the night before the game were forced by the selectors into changing the team, an incident that festers to this day.
Like it or not, and whatever the validity of the reason, de Villiers chose to retire from international cricket little more than a year ago. To bring him back at short notice would have been awkward, but, and here's the thing, he's a one-off. To bring him back would have been worthwhile and immensely exciting. Cricket is not so popular as to ignore the entertainers. Fawn to them - no; bend the rules - well, yes. Successful cricket teams do not knit together on the basis of unconditional friendships but rather on the ability of each talent to perform in the common cause.
India look terrific. Fire with Jasprit Bumrah, mystery with two legspinners, flexibility with allrounders, and enviable batting gifts within Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni and Kohli. There is magic there, all right. Hard as Kagiso Rabada tried, and try he did, he couldn't take them all on by himself.
June 8, Taunton
A first look at Afghanistan. Maybe the honeymoon is over. Before the tournament, the long-standing captain, Asghar Afgan, was inexplicably removed from office and replaced by Gulbadin Naib. Yesterday we heard that Mohammad Shahzad, a talisman in the role of wicketkeeper-batsman, was on his way home. Unfit apparently, although he denies it himself.
One of the things not taken into account as any team or player evolves is the collateral damage - injury and fatigue, obviously; jealousies, mistrust and clashes of character and personality, less obviously. Nor would England be a place for Afghan cricketers. Not a cool, damp England, anyway. Ideally, three spinners make up the bulk of their attack but three spinners on a pitch as true as Taunton and with boundaries best suited to the batting buccaneers of the day... well, it's a hard gig.
New Zealand put them in, bowled them out for 172 (albeit from 66 for no wicket) and knocked 'em off. There was a dreadful inevitability about the whole thing.
Still, there is still something tremendously optimistic about Afghanistan's rise and rise. Sure, the Kiwis used them as a punching bag on this occasion but the story is so much bigger than the odd defeat by a high-class team. The story is one of humanity and hope; of dreams, and of sport's remarkable ability to transcend even oppression and a tyrannical regime.
We called the game from the Church-of-St-James end of the ground, where once, years ago in a Sunday League game, a partnership between Ian Botham and Viv Richards demolished the Hampshire attack. Botham was eventually caught on the boundary by John Rice, who had the safest hands. So high did the ball go that Rice had all the time in the world to position himself and then listen to the crowd's ear-splitting insistence that he drop it. With his fingers in front of his face and pointing to the sky, he bravely held on, but the sheer velocity of the ball's downward path knocked him flat on his back. I was a wide-eyed lad, just starting out with Hampshire. Imagine it, a full house at Taunton against Botham, Viv Richards and Garner in the days of miracle and wonder. It is good to see the county flying high again this summer.
June 9, The Oval
Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts were in attendance as India did an impressive job on Australia. Jagger has long been known as a fan, but Watts is forensic in his appreciation of a game and its people that he finds endlessly fascinating.
Before the Stones concert in Cardiff last year, Justin Langer, Brad Haddin and Graeme Hick (then the Aussie batting coach) were in his dressing room, talking shop. Langer had fixed Watts with a tour of the WACA a while back, a smart move if ever there was one, JL. No satisfaction for Australia on this warm and bright Sunday, however; in fact when Aaron Finch was run out after a small but fatal hesitation at David Warner's call, the look of him was more streetfighting man. One or two famed pundits think the Australians will fall short of the semi-finals. Not my view. But we're barely out of the blocks. The real fun starts in a couple weeks when some famed players begin to feel the squeeze on their ambitions.
June 10, Southampton
Bloody cold, grey and very wet... I'm afraid, it's June in England, so you never quite know. Last year's June was so hot that the glitterati at Ascot race course wilted; this year, they'll be layered up in cashmere.
Surprisingly, play began on time amidst ongoing whispers about the rights and wrongs of the ABV debate. Disappointingly, the match was abandoned after just seven overs' play. At the post-match press conference du Plessis confirmed de Villiers had spoken with him on the phone the night before the World Cup party was announced. By then it was thought too late to change direction. The truth is that South Africa have a good collection of cricketers but they have played pretty badly.
Today was make or break and du Plessis losing the toss was a bad start. Jason Holder put them in to bat and then ran to twice high-five Cottrell, who spoilt the occasion for both Hashim Amla and Aiden Markram within a few overs of the start. Initially, I didn't think much of his showy salute upon taking a wicket but I've come to quite enjoy it.
His victims won't agree, of course, but the game looks very different from outside the dressing room, an unarguable fact that has been the case since Alfred Shaw first bowled to Charlie Bannerman in Melbourne in March 1877. In many ways cricket has changed so much; in others it just the same: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. For the dreamers, and for those who stay in, bowl straight and catch their catches, the World Cup remains in reach.
Witness Pakistan, the team that won so gloriously in 1992; the team that after five games had won just one, lost three and, having been bowled out for 74 by England, were saved by the rain. Should the South Africans beat Afghanistan on Saturday, their tally of three points from five matches will be exactly the same. See, it's about the dreamers.

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