ODIs

The third man

Barring any major disasters, at some point in the next couple of months Hashim Amla will shatter Viv Richards’ record of – no, wait. ‘Shatter’ is too violent a word for Amla, a player who seems to embody the lightest and silkiest delights of the batting arts. Let us say, rather, that at some point fairly soon Amla is going to glide past the Antiguan as the fastest man to 5 000 runs in One-Day Internationals. A record set 27 years ago by the epitome of square-jawed, up-yours batting is going to be blown away like dandelion seeds on a breeze by the most unassuming of artists.

As Amla reaches the milestone of 100 ODIs and gets ready to usurp the Caribbean king, it seems appropriate to pause and have a little gush over South Africa’s unflappable superstar. But this isn’t a puff piece. Oh, hell no. Because if we’re going to be honest about Amla’s ODI career, we can’t hide from the fact that he’s pretty rubbish at four things.

The first of those things goes by the name of Mohammad Irfan and bowls pace out of his left hand for Pakistan. You will recall that Irfan is exceptionally tall, but exactly how tall he is remains a mystery: apparently Pakistani measuring tapes are as flexible as Pakistani birth certificates used to be, with the result that Irfan has been measured at 6ft 8in, 6ft 10in and 7ft 1in. But one man who hasn’t got the measure of him is Amla. Perhaps it’s the height (the ball is delivered from somewhere between the top of the sight-screen and the upper atmosphere, and comes down like a leather-covered meteorite), or perhaps it’s that pesky angle, sending the ball across Amla’s outside edge or turning him slightly chest-on. But whatever the reason, Amla seems to fall to Irfan uncommonly often. Indeed, as the giant seamer turns at the top of his run-up one might be forgiven for quoting another giant: ‘Fee fi fo fum, he smells the blood of a South African. Be Hash defending or on the attack, Irfan will soon be sending him back …’

The second problem Amla has is with run chases. I’m not saying he’s rotten at them, but at the time of writing he’d made 16 ODI hundreds and just three of them had been during chases. We know he doesn’t have a problem with pressure, so perhaps this is simply some unconscious petulance creeping into his game – the result of having the terms of his innings dictated to him by the game situation rather than walking out with 50 beautiful overs dangling in front of him, ripe for the plucking.

Thirdly, he’s not great against Australia. South African ODI stars of the mid-1990s would have killed to average 34 against the old foes, but by the somewhat bloated standards of the modern game, it’s a weak average.

OK. I admit it. Those first three flaws aren’t exactly fatal. After all, Irfan’s dominance over Amla might have just coincided with a wobble in the South African’s form. As for the weakness in chasing, well, the part I didn’t tell you was that he still averages 40 when chasing. Sure, it’s less than the 60 he manages setting a total, but you’d still take a guaranteed 40 most days. And the insipid record against Australia? That’s just a South African tradition.With the exception of Graeme Smith, South Africans have always saved their most hesitant cricket for series against Australia. So business as usual there …

The fourth weakness, however, can’t be glossed over. It is glaring, and involves something Amla seems completely incapable of doing. What is it? Taking credit. Stepping into the spotlight. Acknowledging our collective applause as he takes his place as the best ODI batsman since Sachin Tendulkar. For years it was Viv and Sachin. Now it’s Viv, Sachin and Hashim.

If you think I’m gilding the lily, consider the following: after 98 ODIs (Amla’s tally at the time of writing) he had scored 700 runs more than anyone else at the same point in their careers. Richards lay a distant second, Virat Kohli a close third, and then, almost 1 000 runs behind, Brian Lara. Tendulkar was nowhere, not yet having perfected his method at the top of the order. I know statistics are deceptive. I know ODIs in Viv Richards’ time were unrecognisably different from those played today. But you can’t get around the fact that, after 100 ODIs, Amla has scored at a rate unparallelled in the history of the game. It’s not as if he’s just squeaked past the likes of Richards and Lara. There’s Amla, then daylight, then everyone else.

What cements Amla’s class for me is the striking similarity between his method and that of Tendulkar. Like the Indian, Amla is an unflappable master with soft hands who would rather drive through mid-on than flick aerially over midwicket, and whose technique is tight without being restrictive. Like Tendulkar, he has been freed of the anxieties of the middle order where a soft ball and strategic complexities can muddy the waters. Opening the innings, he knows his only job is to use all his skill to guide a hard ball through a restricted field; and the results are spectacular. Tendulkar averaged 50 against the best ODI teams of his day (Australia, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka). Against the current top four (Australia, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), Amla averages – you guessed it – 50.

So if Amla is cutting a swathe through the record books and creating a legacy that can comfortably stand alongside two of the all-time greats, where are the banner headlines? Where are the awkward but good-natured cameos on television ads for hamburgers or cars or life insurance? Hell, even Jonty Rhodes managed to flog a line of chinos back in the mid-90s, with billboards featuring the fielding legend in a rather awkward horizontal pose, dressed in a shirt and slacks, as if he was running out Inzamam-ul-Haq near the office water-cooler. (Somehow red-blooded sports fans failed to realise that they were clamouring to get into Jonty’s pants. It was a simpler time …)

Perhaps Amla’s faith (or at least his well-defined principles) has persuaded him to avoid the earthly demands of publicity. He seems a genuinely modest and self-contained man, blessed with the kind of piety that manifests as humility rather than preachiness. He is the anti-Pietersen: a cricketer with a clear picture of the world he inhabits, at peace with his relatively small place in that world, with no demons in his head demanding that he turn the spotlight on himself again and again.

Then again, there have been other modest men who have been cricketing megastars. Many pundits are still trying to figure out how Tendulkar, a global sporting megastar, managed to keep his private life entirely out of the public eye and how he maintained his serene demeanour through two decades of spectacular success and unimaginable pressure. So perhaps modesty alone is no guarantee of a relatively low-key career.

One explanation might be Amla’s style of play. Had he debuted 20 years ago he might have got the same adulation Tendulkar did, lauded for the silkiness of his strokes and his astonishing ability to score quickly without ever seeming to hit the ball particularly hard. But the aesthetics of cricket have changed, and while sophisticated hedonists and Test aficionados still savour Amla’s artistry, most fans of the shorter formats want to see balls flying through the night sky, soaring over jets of flame and high-kicking cheerleaders.

Here I must confess that even I, a stodgy traditionalist who believes cricket reached an apex in the early-2000s and has been somewhat drab since then, sometimes catch myself thinking of Amla as sedate. It shocked me to discover that Amla’s ODI strike rate was almost identical to Lance Klusener’s and forced me to concede that even I might have an unconscious preference for aerial sloggery over all-along-the-carpet class.

Charisma and aesthetics, however, are just footnotes in the larger explanation of why we have responded to Amla’s ODI heroics with a collective ‘meh’. The sad truth is that he could be twice as charming and hit the ball in the air twice as often and we’d still smile and nod politely. Why? Because ODIs are dead. Sure, we watch them, and we crank out a drop of adrenaline come World Cup time; but the truth, which we all feel in our cricketing marrow, is that the 50-over format was dead the moment T20 was from the ICC’s womb untimely ripp’d. We can watch Amla open an ODI innings for the Proteas and take pleasure in his mastery, but we cannot quite convince ourselves that it means anything, or at least anything relevant to modernity. Deep down we have to concede that being the third-best ODI batsman of all time is a little like being the third-best harpsichord-maker of all time. It takes vast skill and concentration, but it’s still, you know, a harpsichord.

Still, third-best-ever isn’t exactly chopped liver, and it’s tempting to look at that holy trinity of Viv, Sachin and Hashim and to dream of the heights Amla’s ODI career will still scale. How quickly will he reach 10 000 runs? Will he get to 15 000? Which apparently unattainable records will tumble to his educated blade? But these, unfortunately, must remain dreams.

In 2007 the World Cup in the Caribbean took an already stodgy format and turned it into a spectacle so tedious, so profoundly unwatchable, that for a few weeks it seemed that ODIs might be summarily executed. The 50-over game survived, but never fully recovered: 2007 was the high-water mark, with more ODIs played around the world than ever before; and then the slide began, with fewer and fewer high-profile teams playing fewer and fewer ODIs.

Even if the format survives, kept on life support by the World Cup, the numbers will continue to decline. Once, players could bank on 30 ODIs a year. No longer. The days of being able to rack up 10 000 runs in a limited-overs career are ending. Amla has at least four more years of ODI glory in him; perhaps another 3 000 runs. But when he calls time on his career he won’t be anywhere near the top of the all-time lists. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

The 50-over game was killed by quantity supplanting quality so maybe it’s fitting that its greatest post-Tendulkar exponent doesn’t end his career among the run-gluttons of the early-2000s, those players who endlessly gorged on meaningless cricket.

Soon our focus will turn to the World Conference of Harpsichord-Makers in Australia and New Zealand. We will watch the world’s ODI teams plane, hammer, screw, and tune their harpsichords, and, despite being intrigued now and then, we might struggle to take it all very seriously. Still, it would be nice if we could pause for a moment and rise to applaud the third-best harpsichord-maker of all time. Thank you, Mr Amla, for your beautiful craft. And here’s to a little more sweet music.

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First published in Business Day/Sunday Times Sports Monthly and sacricketmag.co.za
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Quinton de Kock: a licence to thrill

Kingsmead2009

’Twas the week before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, mainly because they were all glued to the cricket.

And what Scrooge-like stuff it was too. In Durban and in Sydney the cottonwool snow and fibreglass reindeer were out in force but at Kingsmead and the SCG the spirit of giving was as dead as a doornail. South Africans witnessed the Ghost of Cricket Past courtesy of a Kepler Wessels half-century and two masterclasses in strangulation courtesy of Kapil Dev (3-23 off 10) and Allan Donald (1-19 off 9). But few at Kingsmead would have known that earlier that day, on the other side of the planet, Australians had witnessed the most miserly performance in the history of the game as Phil Simmons took 4 for 3 in 10 overs against Pakistan and made Kapil and Donald look like profligate pie-chuckers of the lowest order.

Yes, on 17 December 1992, it seemed that One-Day International cricket was still firmly rooted in the 1980s with their rampant seamers and the sort of run rates that would make Geoff Boycott blush. The likes of Dean Jones and Desmond Haynes could shred the odd attack now and then but received knowledge was still pretty clear that no human being could survive speeds of over six runs an over. And it was into that world, on that day, that Quinton de Kock was born.

There’s an old Chinese proverb: ‘May you quote an old Chinese proverb about interesting times whenever you want to sound erudite.’ But the fact is that Baby de Kock was born in interesting times, at least in cricketing terms. Having shown the first signs of middle-aged stodginess, ODIs were about to be reinvented and reinvigorated. De Kock had only just turned three, and perhaps just started slog-sweeping his soft toys over the deep midwicket couch, when Sri Lanka won the World Cup with their revolutionary tactic of ultra-aggressive batting against the new ball. He hadn’t started school yet when Donald and Lance Klusener … well, you know the rest.

In other words, De Kock’s cricketing brain was formed in a world in which nothing was impossible. He probably knows the history and had his childhood heroes but he does not have any real concept of a universe in which a strike rate of 70 is considered a crowd-puller. It no doubt seems normal to him that he and his opening partner, Hashim Amla, score faster than Klusener. After all, Klusener was, like, from the olden days. To him, the excitement of South African fans watching Hansie Cronje or Dave Callaghan score at almost a run a ball must feel like the excitement of prehistoric fish watching their peers slowly crawl up on to dry land.

De Kock’s extreme youth and a sense of him being an entirely new species make me feel terribly old: I clearly remember the rollercoaster thrill of watching the Proteas bat at 4.5 runs an over in two consecutive ODIs. But it also makes him exceptionally pleasing to watch. Standing at the crease like a schoolboy, looking slightly like a young Paul McCartney in his dad’s crash helmet en route to a Beatles practice in a basement, he seems a pleasing anomaly in the professional, high-stakes, high-pressure era: a dopy dominator, a natural, an aw-shucks kid who doesn’t quite know what he does but does it superbly anyway.

By his own admission, he’s not a big fan of i-dotting and t-crossing. Homework, like watching videos of the opposition, isn’t really his bag. He prefers to show up and hit the ball. All of which makes it intriguing that he should have found himself in a four-way tie with Viv Richards, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott for the title of the fastest man to reach 1 000 runs in ODIs. Not that I doubt his ability or his drive: he’s got more flair than Trott, and the same audacity as Pietersen, albeit with less overt machismo. But those other three were all driven by an almost luminous passion to prove themselves. For Richards, batting was gladiatorial and his enemy was a white, Anglocentric establishment that didn’t believe black men could whip it at its own game. Pietersen and Trott wanted to make a huge pile of runs to rub in the faces of their English and South African critics. Alongside those three passionate, almost zealous, men on a mission, De Kock seems somewhat out of place. And yet there he is. The shared record speaks for itself.

It speaks, but what does it say? Does it tell us that De Kock is a talent for the ages? Perhaps not. One purple season against moderate attacks doesn’t make him Richards Redux. But there is something about De Kock that hints at more, that makes one want to believe he might turn into something extraordinary. And for me it’s not about how many runs he makes or against who he makes them. It’s about how he makes them. Yes, he can look horrible. That skied slog-sweep in Harare, an attempt to go over cow corner, ended up as pure cow dung. But when he’s on song against pace bowlers there is an arc to his bat – a great scything curve that is languid and vicious – that looks familiar. It’s the same scything, slightly angled bat we’ve seen in black-and-white footage of Graeme Pollock and Garry Sobers; that we saw live from Brian Lara and Adam Gilchrist. And it’s enough to make me wonder if De Kock might, in fact, be that most rare and wondrous of batting phenomena: a true left-handed expressionist.

I’ve always thought there are four kinds of batsmen: right-handers, left-handers, right-handed expressionists, and left-handed expressionists. The first two comprise the great majority of batsmen, and play orthodox cricket for orthodox reasons. Some of them have high hands and elbows, some lead with the bottom hand and hit across the line. Some have quick feet, some are rooted in the crease. Some are elegant, others awkward. These are the batsmen who make the bulk of the runs that keep the game ticking along. Right-handed expressionists are a much rarer beast. Some are technically sound, others are all hands and eyes, but all of them exude a passion, a desire to perform, to be adored. Their ambitions are as much about aesthetics as they are about scoring runs. But they cannot escape the fundamental angles of the game – that corridor created by right-arm bowlers delivering over the wicket. They might want to plaster the ball in all directions but they are often forced by basic anatomy to obey the angles given to them; to play straight, to stay side-on.

But no such limitations are imposed on the rarest of them all, the left-handed expressionist. The ball angling across him presents some danger, but with greater risk comes much greater reward: the off-side is peeled upon like a kingdom ripe for conquest. Perhaps because he knows the nick will ultimately come, he is free to express himself in a way that no other batsman is. And along with the freedom that comes with wider angles and a ball freeing his arms rather than cramping them, is the knowledge that he looks fantastic doing what he does. This is no craftsman doing a job. This is a showman creating a spectacle. And the more the crowd loves him, the more potent he feels and the more scything that great sweep becomes. Sobers, Pollock, Lara,  Gilchrist: names that resonate not only with weight of runs but with eye-watering elegance and savagery.

Perhaps this is all projection. Lara was the reason I fell in love with cricket, and his retirement was the beginning of a period of cooling affections in me. But I do think left-handers are just a little bit different, not just physically but also psychologically. As a left-hander I know how we are treated by a right-handed world. There is very little unkindness or prejudice any more but from the first time you pick up a pair of scissors and cut a skew line you are made to feel subtly different; and that difference starts to feel like freedom. You feel you don’t have to cut straight. You don’t have to write neatly. It’s OK if they can’t find a baseball mitt for you: you’ll just improvise. From an early age the left-hander feels subtly, comfortably different; and perhaps for batsmen that translates into a sense of being able to play more on their terms, play the game they want to play rather than the MCC-endorsed right-handed game everyone else is playing; to express themselves.

South Africa produced Pollock but he was an anomaly. For the rest I would suggest that our cricketing culture chokes the passion that is the life energy of the left-handed expressionist. The cricket nurseries that produce our best batsmen, and the corporate world that runs their adult careers, are conservative, self-policing patriarchies, drawn to orthodoxy over individual flair. We favour carthorses over racehorses. Gary Kirsten and Graeme Smith were lauded as ‘bankers’, while the dashing Ashwell Prince was made to believe he’d only have a Test career if he calmed down and exchanged style for substance. In his case it was true, but one can’t help feeling that JP Duminy is having the last flickers of priceless expressionism squeezed out of him by the local set-up, exiled down at No 7 with a licence to do nothing but endlessly play for his place in the team.

So why do I have hope that De Kock might be given a chance to develop into something a little bit special? Surely, at some point, the powers that be will start making him watch videos and doing his homework? It’s possible. But I also think that the passion-killing instinct in our cricket culture might have a blind spot when it comes to all-rounders (which include wicketkeeper-batsmen). I think we are ideologically so locked into prescribed roles that we can only get our head around one talent at a time. Duminy is not a true all-rounder – he is a ‘proper’ batsman who bowls – and so he is being sat on. But De Kock, like Klusener before him, has two distinct jobs as a cricketer, and that means the establishment considers him to be something slightly other, slightly alien. For now, he is free to roam beyond the fence. Amla recently joked that De Kock doesn’t listen to any advice from him when they are batting together. It might have been said in jest but it sounds like truth and suggests that De Kock is playing free from the constraints of a top-down patriarchal structure. Long may it last.

That scything drive, those startlingly quick pulls, make me greedy. They encourage me to ignore what I see – a very young wicketkeeper-batsman playing with the freedom of youth, mixing astonishing successes with some very amateurish failures – and seduce me into seeing what I want to see: a maestro starting to come into his talent. They make me want to see De Kock coming in at five in Tests in the near future. I want to see, even for just a part of a session, what it was like to watch Sobers or Pollock in the flesh. He’s got the eyes, the hands and the attitude. Unfortunately for me, though, he might not have the technique yet: he’s been dismissed by spin in all seven of his Test innings to date, suggesting there are wrinkles that need to be ironed out. Bloody reality …

So for now I’ll be content to watch him in ODIs, a bright young thing who believes the ball is there to be hit, and whose ferocity and grace make me remember the beautiful greats, and remember just how magnificent cricket can be.

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First published in Business Day Sport Monthly and sacricketmag.co.za