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Mark Nicholas

Nerve-shredders, no-contests, and a night in Newcastle

This week at the World Cup, our correspondent has a few tense moments during the England v India match and stumbles on a bit of family history

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Don't look back in anger: Bairstow channelled the week's criticism into a statement hundred against India  •  AFP

Don't look back in anger: Bairstow channelled the week's criticism into a statement hundred against India  •  AFP

June 27, home
Jonny Bairstow's knee-jerk reaction to criticism of England has got Michael Vaughan pumping on Twitter. My guess is this all started with Kevin Pietersen's rather disingenuous comments about Eoin Morgan after the defeat by the Australians at Lord's. Pietersen said Morgan looked "scared" against Mitchell Starc. Bairstow said the country was turning against the team and wanted them to fail. Vaughan tweeted that he was worried about such a "negative, pathetic mindset", before effectively telling Bairstow to shut it, accept that England had disappointed and conserve his nervous energy for playing better and qualifying for the semi-finals. At least that seemed to be the thread of it. At a press conference the next day, Jos Buttler smiled and put out the fire.
Pietersen's attack on Morgan was odd; I thought they were mates. At that presser, Morgan smiled when the question began with "Kevin Pietersen...", turned serious as it continued with "has said on Twitter..." and then scowled at the punchline. He paused in thought for a second or two before answering with "Really? Excellent. No, no I didn't feel like that at all." And he was doubtless thinking, "Thanks Kev, this is such a help"; ye gods, like we haven't got other stuff to wade through! And probably he wanted to scream. But he never does. Morgan is such a dude.
Back to Bairstow, who called Pietersen and Vaughan "showbiz". "If they don't have an opinion, they get sacked", he added, which wasn't quite right because Twitter doesn't do sacking - sadly. By which time we were all bored stiff and gagging for some talk about bat and ball.
Overshadowed by this sledge and counter-sledge was the announcement from Marcus Trescothick that he will retire at the end of the season. At the end of a stellar career and at his age, it is no sort of a life to be treading the boards in the 2nd XI. Known universally across the great divides as Tres, this magnificent cricketer has touched hearts, souls and minds. He has played blistering innings; won in the Caribbean, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka; held aloft the urn; championed the West Country, and all the while, eaten industrial quantities of sausages. Of course, he suffered in the dark recesses of his own fragilities but from an honest and enlightening book came education and healing. How marvellous that he found peace.
Of all his innings, the first-day 90 against Australia at Edgbaston in 2005 is my favourite. Ricky Ponting had won the toss, remember, and reckoning Vaughan's men no stronger than those whose noses he had been rubbing deep into the dirt for so much of his cricketing life, put them in to bat. Big mistake, Ricky, huge! Tres fairly flayed 'em - inc Warney, if ex McGrath. It is history now, but England made more than 400 that day, a marker if ever there was one, before unleashing the hell that was Freddie Flintoff and levelling the series. Just. God bless Billy Bowden.
Tres hit 15 fours and two sixes in a mere 102 balls at the crease. It felt seismic, electric and utterly thrilling, as blow after blow reduced the Australians to damage limitation even in the period before lunch. Later, Pietersen and Flintoff had some fun at a good lick and the psychological high ground lost at Lord's was recovered. So Tres, rest easy in the knowledge that you may not have played international cricket since 2006, but far from forgotten, you are cheered by the night owls who still watch the videos, and celebrated by the rest of us who know a true one and a good one, whether up close or from afar.
June 28, Chester-Le-Street
This was a long way to come for a no-contest. The South Africans bowled out Sri Lanka for little more than 200 and then knocked them off at a canter. Hashim Amla looked his old self and Faf du Plessis smacked a couple out of the park. Their win served only to frustrate.
The journey's silver lining came in the form of a night's stay in Newcastle, a city I had not visited previously at any time of my life. Strolling along the quay in the late afternoon sunshine, past and beneath the magnificent bridges, was a joyously far cry from the travel-hotel-cricket-ground routine that overtakes us minstrels. I rang my 89-year-old mother to tell her about the old flour mill and new footbridge; the Tyne, about which Lindisfarne sang of the fog; Grey's monument and Sage Gateshead, a bulbous structure, if oddly appealing and unavoidably eye-catching.
She was surprised I hadn't been before and then stopped me in my tracks with a piece of family history I had never known. It was here in Newcastle that my mother accepted my father's proposal of marriage. Honestly, you'd think I'd lived my life under a stone. An actress in her late twenties, she was in repertory with a theatre company in Jesmond. Concerned, one supposes, that a Geordie might nab her, my father travelled by the night train during the second week of rehearsals and secured his catch the following evening. Bravo, old boy! Not that he was ever an old boy. He died at 41 from a congenital heart condition: I was ten, my sister eight and my brother just two.
June 29, Lord's
It was 35 degrees today. England, huh?
From side-on, Lockie Ferguson and Mitchell Starc looked seriously fast. The speed gun had them around the 153kph mark, which is seriously fast. Australia, batting first, made 243 and comfortably in the end beat New Zealand. The pitches this summer are weird. Who makes 243 and wins these days? Yes, I know, Australia.
June 30, Edgbaston
"Roy, Roy" is back, and belligerent. Jonny B shook off the week's media wars to make a statement hundred, and Ben Stokes toyed with all but Jasprit Bumrah during the latter part of his excellent innings. After which Chris Woakes bowled three maidens off the reel with the new ball, a performance that included the wicket of KL Rahul, and hung on to a blinder out at deep square-leg; Liam Plunkett showed a certain sort of fast bowler/slower ball mastery; and Eoin Morgan stayed alert and calm at the stage when Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli threatened to take hold of the game.
At this point, I must confess to a long-time-unfelt nervousness; to squirming on the sofa, and to yawns and stretches interspersed with television abuse, as unworthy thoughts about England's departure from the tournament gripped me.
When Joe Root missed Rohit at slip one couldn't help but wonder if it simply wasn't to be. Then Kohli batted ridiculously well, even by his standards, easing the ball around as if he were playing with his old mates on the maidan back home. Though Rohit was by no means at his most aesthetically pleasing, he too began to find the boundaries and a slow start became a slick-looking chase. As the pair of them upped the ante, so Morgan called them by upping his own. Rotation of the bowlers and ingenious field placements are his strongest hand, one that he applies with a poker face and the narrowed eyes of a high-stakes winner.
For all that, the England fan, squirming amongst his cushions before rising here and there to make tea or throw a toy for the dog, could see only the scoreboard ticking and the world's best one-day batsmen making a very difficult game appear easy. I am not, by nature, a nationalist - in the sense of fanaticism, that is - but I have found myself willing on England because, frankly, it is time. The naysayers get to me, chipping away at each failing as if man was perfect and teams were bulletproof. Bairstow's theme that bad news is easier to report than good news has some merit. It was just that Jonny doesn't do time and place (nor is he always crystal clear with facts!). In the widest context, I can say I love cricket and therefore celebrate off-drives by Rohit and Kohli every bit as much as those by Bairstow and Buttler. Except today.
At 146 for 1 in the 29th over, Kohli made his first and only mistake, pushing a full ball to backward point where the tumbling James Vince, subbing for Jason Roy, hung on. Vince caught Hardik Pandya out at wide long-on later too, just as Pandya was beginning to terrify every English cricket fan everywhere. These were smallish but relevant things that momentarily relieved Vince of the harping that surrounds his inconsistent batting. From little acorns....
Once Woakes had done for Rohit and miraculously caught Rishabh Pant, the sofa became more comfortable. Yes, Pandya traded blows like the brave boxer whose fight is all but lost, but no one, not even MS Dhoni, could swing with him. Thus, England moved in for the kill. Not for the first time, Dhoni played a curious innings that attracted much comment. Once Pandya left, it appeared as if he gave up. Perhaps he knew the script, perhaps he was smarting from the start when India managed just 28 off the first ten-over Powerplay, or perhaps he is simply not the all-conquering one-day batsman he once was. Let's face it, man is not perfect. The idea that he batted to deny Pakistan, or any such thing, is ludicrous.
I was most pleased for Morgan that it ended well. He has achieved great things over these past four years and now finds himself answering silly questions at press conferences. "Scared", I mean honestly!
July 2, Edgbaston
India cruised into the semi-finals, raising a sweat but never truly having to dash against the courageous Bangladeshis. Rohit was badly dropped on 9 at deep midwicket by Tamim Iqbal, after which he took Tamim's mates apart. A straight six off one of the seamers was sublime: a brushstroke really, of the sort that completes a masterpiece.
I have said it before and will say it again - Rohit has it all to be a marvellous Test match batsman. (Incidentally, he averages just one run fewer than Shikhar Dhawan in the format, and one point more than M Vijay, so is hardly a raging sore on the face of Indian cricket; rather, he has not fulfilled his great gift. There must be an evil little Dementor deep in that mind of his, which, at the mere mention of a five-day cricket match, starts to suck at the soul of his batting - an analogy specific to all Harry Potter fans and with apologies to everyone else.)
Anyway, back to the job at hand. This was Rohit's 26th one-day hundred and his fourth of this World Cup alone, matching Kumar Sangakkara four years ago in Australia, though Kumar's were on the bounce. Surprisingly, when asked about this achievement by Harsha Bhogle at the post-match presentation, he drew a blank. When Harsha further explained, the visibly worn-out Rohit grunted "Oh" and added that he never looked back, only forward. He said this utterly without ego, which was really rather charming.
The Dhoni thing wasn't quite put to bed. I had a brief chat with him and Ravi Shastri before play but we talked only IPL and English weather. He was relaxed, very much his natural and jokey self. Only occasionally, even as captain, have I seen him tight, and never that I recall, stressed. I guess he keeps it within. His batting today lacked the usual oomph, though a couple of cover drives were sweetly timed. He is among my favourite cricketers, so I am loath to look for fault, never mind find it. The flair, originality and smarts that Dhoni has brought to the game elevate him above most of the rest. The shot that won the 2011 World Cup was heard around the world - a signature to underline perhaps the greatest one-day innings.
They say you can tell the story of a war on the back of a cigarette packet, so you can certainly do the same for a game of cricket: India, looking a little tired after two such high-pressure games in three days, qualified for the semi-finals and Bangladesh now cannot. New Zealand, Pakistan and England have the two remaining places at stake and one of England and New Zealand will put their situation to bed by tomorrow night. My heart skips a beat as I write. I'd really rather not be nerve-shredded again.
July 3, Chester-Le-Street
Well, in the end I didn't watch. Not for long anyway, but in short periods of what appeared to be consummate play by England. Obviously enough, Bairstow was fuelled by Vaughan's comments; perhaps Michael should burst forth more often. I listened occasionally to the radio and heard Jeremy Coney ask Jonathan Agnew if Lumley Castle was Joanna's country home. At that, I laughed out loud.
England's win was pretty much secured when Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor were run out within a few minutes of one another. This I saw on the ESPNcricinfo site - numbers and names ticking by in the name of sport. There was no clue as to how or why, only that it had happened, and thus, Williamson's wretched luck did not register with me. Instead I sighed relief that he wasn't to play the sort of innings I saw live at Edgbaston when he carried his team over the line against South Africa.
Again, it is Morgan I am most pleased for... and Andrew Strauss, who took the jump to freedom in the first place when he was running the show. These are the best of men. But England are now merely where they should be. The real work is about to begin. How marvellous, the semi-final of the World Cup at home and in form! Perhaps the stars have aligned.

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