We wrote this title in the hope that we’d have some really funny thoughts to share once we started staring at the great expanse of whiteness where the body of the article’s supposed to go.
Nothing happened, so we checked Twitter and apparently Graeme Smith’s going to retire. Let this be a lesson to everyone that sometimes all you have to do is make a half-hearted effort to do something, allow yourself to become distracted, and then everything will just sort of work itself out.
In his retirement statement, Graeme Smith confessed to having left everything out on the field over the course of his career. ‘Everything’ by definition includes poo. We don’t know why he would have done that, but he’s admitted to it now.
There’s an outside chance this isn’t the most mature, insightful retirement article we’ve ever written.27 Appeals
Before we begin, let us just say that we don’t believe in comparing players or ranking them. We’re now going to do precisely that as a kind of academic exercise, primarily to piss off a load of people who will always hold Jacques Kallis in somewhat lower regard than many other cricketers and who will continue to do so regardless of what we say here.
Batsmen v all-rounders
We always find ourself disproportionately annoyed when Michael Vaughan or Andrew Strauss or someone refers to Kevin Pietersen as being ‘England’s best player’.
Hardly. He can’t bowl for shit.
An example we’ve given in the past involved pitting 11 Don Bradmans against 11 Garry Sobers. The rather obvious point this made was that cricket does actually involve bowling and so the best cricketers are those that can both bat and bowl.
Jacques Kallis fits that description better than most.
It’s odd, but Jacques Kallis’ batting is probably underrated. His Test batting average of 55.37 is currently the 15th highest of all time, above contemporaries such as Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. However, it masks the fact that very few of his 45 Test hundreds were ‘daddies’.
Only twice did Kallis bolster his average by passing 200. Compare this to Virender Sehwag who passed 200 six times and 300 twice out of just(?) 23 Test hundreds. Jacques didn’t really do biggies, so he had to score more consistently.
Okay, those 40 red-inkers had a hell of an impact, but it’s also true that South Africa have gone through phases where they’ve produced seam-friendly pitches so he’s been up against that as well.
They always call Kallis a reluctant bowler, but he’s averaged 24 overs a Test match over the course of his career. That’s a lot of work for a man who spent at least a couple of those years as a fat bastard.
You don’t pick up 292 Test wickets without being half-decent either. He may have benefited from being asked to bowl more when conditions have suited him, but you could also say that he’s sometimes not been needed when conditions have been most helpful.
Plus he was quick when the mood took him. Someone (we forget whom and aren’t in the mood for research, but it was someone you’d expect to be a decent judge of these things) once told a story about Kallis getting pissed off about something and bowling far quicker than Allan Donald at the other end. He had it in him.
Short format cricket
The main foundation of the case in favour of Kallis being considered the best of the lot is simply the fact that he’s the finest all-rounder to have played in the modern three-format era.
One-day cricket and then Twenty20 cricket beneath that make different demands on a player and although Kallis appeared almost entirely unsuited to these formats with his careful batting approach, he revealed himself to be if not exceptional at these shorter formats, then certainly well worth his place.
Many boxes ticked
Look, we’re not really saying that Jacques Kallis is the greatest player of all time. We’re just pointing out that where even a half-arsed case can be made, you’re talking about someone who’s moving in those circles.
His exceptional career is too often dismissed with a terse: “Yeah, but he was just a blocker” – or words to that effect. But this was a guy who had to bat pragmatically because for many years the rest of his team’s batting wasn’t all that and if he didn’t score, they lost.
He managed this despite shouldering a workload few have matched – hours of batting and hours of bowling in three different formats. How he didn’t buckle long ago is freakish in itself.
We’ll genuinely miss him. Flaws there may be, but such comprehensive mastery of a sport is a very rare thing indeed.26 Appeals
Graeme Swann’s retirement seems somehow emblematic of England’s current state. It sounds like he’s been aware of reduced efficacy for a while now, but could put it to the back of his mind so long as England were winning. Now they’re losing and the ensuing clarity has shunted a memorable bloke out of the game.
The four-man attack
Reacting to Swann’s retirement, Darren Lehmann said:
“He’s a big player when they’ve only got four bowlers – or now they’ve got five with Stokes in their side – and you have to try and take one or two of them out of the equation and make their quicks bowl more.”
That’s a pretty good explanation of why Swann has been so important for England. It really is more than the wickets. We wrote about this back in 2009 and used the word ‘linchpin’. That word’s both overused and misused, but it’s entirely appropriate here. England’s entire strategy revolved around Swann and it was also he who ensured the wheels didn’t come off.
Swann simply couldn’t afford to have a bad day. Batsmen get ducks and pace bowlers shoulder a lighter workload when measured in overs. Swann’s performances were therefore disporportionately influential. Even when he wasn’t taking wickets, he had to be able to eat time on unfriendly pitches so that each of the three seamers could rest.
Even without the wickets, runs and catches, Swann was a facilitator. He allowed the pace bowlers to perform at their best and he allowed England to pick a sixth specialist batsman.
The plan outlined by Lehmann is pretty much the same one everyone’s gone with against England for the last five years. It’s the obvious thing to do, and yet England managed to stick with a four-man attack until two Tests ago. In other words, Swann’s been good enough to withstand these assaults until now. Read his retirement statement and it’s clear that will and body have waned in harness and that’s why it’s the right time to go.
Breadth of skills
You need to be a very adaptable player to fulfil the role of spin bowler in a four-man attack and Swann was most definitely that. He had the accuracy and intelligence to constrain on seaming wickets and he could also do the thing that defined him as a Test bowler.
Graeme Swann was not a spinner who gradually eased into a spell. He dismissed Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in his first over in Test cricket and this was in no way aberrative. His first over was always worth watching and this was especially the case when bowling to a left-handed batsman.
One ball to size them up and then a second to dismiss them.
Plus he could catch, plus he could bat – okay, maybe he couldn’t bat, but he could hit fours – and perhaps most importantly of all, he has the priceless and rare ability to cut through the shit.
Ask a stupid question, get a decent answer
Swann’s not a comedian, but he can certainly make you laugh – you know, like normal people do and like sportsmen conspicuously don’t. Interviews were like actual conversations rather than strange set-pieces played out according to constrictive regulations. If he saw an opportunity to say something that might amuse him, he would take it.
For example, how did he break it to Alastair Cook that he would be retiring?
“He is one of my best mates so it should have been a very easy conversation but it actually made it doubly hard, just to sit down over a coffee and blurt it out. It was like one of his team talks – it didn’t make any sense. But I got it out in the end.”
Graeme, you will be missed more than most.19 Appeals
Considering he’s been the highest profile player for pretty much the whole time we’ve been following cricket, we’ve missed an awful lot of Sachin Tendulkar’s career.
We went to the match in which he scored his first Test century, but we didn’t see him bat. Then, for a long time afterwards, his innings were broadcast elsewhere and we’d only check in with him once every few years when there was a World Cup or India toured England. Each time this happened, we’d wonder how the hell he managed to average over 50 – not because we didn’t think he was good, but because back then that sort of average meant something.
In more recent years, we’ve seen more of him, but that isn’t to say we’ve always watched closely. Sachin Tendulkar is so massive, such a fixture in cricket, that it never felt vital to watch any particular innings. There would always be another.
He’s never been one for the Brian Lara innings anyway. Not for him extraordinary peaks and troughs. For a man who’s hit more boundaries than anyone, his career is actually defined by accumulation. He’s had dryish spells, certainly, but he’s been playing international cricket for 25 years – that’ll happen. In general, he’s picked up a mid-sized hundred every few innings, regardless of age, opposition or location.
We’ve written before about how Tendulkar’s career is just too much to take in and evaluate. This is the true mark of his genius; that we can have missed the vast majority of his 780 international innings and still be overwhelmed by the information. You can’t boil it all down to a jus and taste it. It is something which can only possibly be consumed over many sittings.
Summing him up
Some career obituaries you read will point to something in particular as summing him up – a particular shot or a particular innings. No. That is entirely missing the point. The point is the sheer breadth of what he’s achieved.
Hardly anyone has been Test standard at 16. Hardly anyone has been Test standard at 40. Tendulkar has been both and more. Between those two already freakish extremes, lies the most freakish achievement of all. He’s excelled at all forms of batting near-constantly against a backdrop of insane expectation.
There are almost infinite scenarios in cricket. Different goals, different formats, different pitches, different bowlers, different fields, different circumstances. You can always find something that needs ticking off, but by any rational measure, Tendulkar has done the job.
This was why we once said that he has been better than Bradman. It was mischievous because we didn’t really mean it as a comparison. It’s just that there’s a temptation to flatter players from the past when imagining what they did or what they would have done had they been around today, whereas Sachin Tendulkar can’t really benefit from this. He’s a known quantity. In 25 years and three formats, he’s come up against a wider variety of challenges than anyone. Mostly, he’s done okay.44 Appeals
Odd that it should be Simon Jones who’s last man standing from that 2005 Ashes-winning bowling attack. Ashley Giles retired so long ago we wrote about it on a different web domain, Matthew Hoggard retired last month and while we saw Andrew Flintoff in Didsbury yesterday looking fitter than he ever did as a cricketer, he called it a day back in 2010.
The 2005 Ashes
Let’s hang everything off that, because that’s what these five players will always be associated with. However, if that series was the focal point, you can best appreciate Harmison’s significance by looking at the build-up – and when we talk about the build-up, we don’t just mean the one-dayers; we mean the years of England improvement leading up to that series.
Harmison made his Test debut against India in 2002. In that match the new ball was taken by Matthew Hoggard and Dominic Cork. These were top bowlers, but they were definitely fast-medium. This was always the way with England. Darren Gough could top 90mph, but it required back-breaking effort and the ball still passed the batsman at a fairly predictable height. Harmison, however, was legitimately terrifying.
His appeal is that simple. Scary England fast bowlers are few and far between. That infamous delivery to second slip means nothing to us, because the letdowns are entirely outweighed by the fact that Harmison could take 7-12 in the Windies. If a bowler can do that, he can do anything and that idea in itself is enough to sustain a cricket fan when times are tough. It keeps you watching and hoping when you’d otherwise have given up on a match.
That last section was entitled ‘the 2005 Ashes’
Yeah, we know. Sometimes it takes a while to get where you’re going. Be patient.
Harmison was at the absolute centre of that 2005 Ashes win. Statistically, that makes no sense because he only took 17 wickets at 32, but cricket is about more than what happens right in front of your eyes on a given day.
More than any other series, that Ashes was defined by the crowd and the crowd’s impact on the players. The people in the stands didn’t know what was going to happen; they only knew what had happened. Steve Harmison was the man who gave them most hope and their hope is what fuelled all of the England players.
If you don’t believe us or your memory’s failing you, look no further than this match from June 2005. This was England’s first one-day international against Australia that summer; against an Australia team which had brushed them aside with consummate ease for as long as anyone cared to remember to be precise. And what did Harmison do?
In his first spell, he dismissed Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn and Matthew Hayden – the first three all in the same over – to reduce Australia to 63-4. He then returned to clean bowl Mike Hussey by way of an encore.
Then there was the Lord’s Test. England bowled and Harmison took five wickets in the first innings, but of far more significance was the hope imbued in a nation by his first spell. Justin Langer was hit on the arm and Hayden took one on the badge of his helmet before Ponting literally shed blood. That mattered. That really, really mattered.
Speaking of blood
Steve Harmison is a man of contrasts who the media never really got to grips with. They said he hated touring and emphasised how much he loved football, giving the impression that he was a reluctant cricketer whose heart wasn’t in it. But yet this is a man who has played on for Durham until he was omitted from the team.
One-time Durham team-mate, Shivnarine Chanderpaul actually uses Harmison as the example when he talks about commitment.
“You see young guys these days get a little hit or a niggle and they stay off the field. I’ve seen Steve Harmison bowling for Durham and then have his socks full of blood when he took them off. I’ve seen him play with a broken hand to win us the Championship.”
But at the same time, this was a man who a bowling coach once said was ‘scared’ while playing for England. It just goes to show that courage and self-doubt are not mutually exclusive.
We sometimes wonder whether Harmison’s lack of confidence stemmed from how he was selected in the first place. Duncan Fletcher was looking for height and pace and Harmison had those qualities. He may have felt like he took a shortcut into the Test team and hadn’t earned his place through hard work. Perhaps he still felt like flavour of the month even after a couple of hundred Test wickets.
Flavour of the month? It was a pretty damn good flavour. He deserves these upcoming clean sock years.5 Appeals
Have you ever been at a funeral where they’ve skipped through the first 80 years of the person’s life before really dwelling on recent history? Half a century of adult life is summed up by counting progeny and then all the eulogy goes on about is how you liked a pint of mild and a game of dominoes.
People can struggle to think of a person in terms of anything other than what happened most recently. Perhaps that’s the way people are conditioned to think about life – like it’s one long progression. From this point of view, you’ve really cracked it near the end. Everything’s fallen into place.
Just to confirm, Matthew Hoggard’s not dead
We get a slight sense of this when reading about Matthew Hoggard now that he’s announced that he will retire at the end of the season. Sporting life moves on frighteningly quickly and even those of us for whom he was such a vital figure may struggle to muster fitting emotions. It’s not like he’s dead. It’s not like he’s even retired yet. He’s still there at Leicestershire, a sort of wishy-washy copy of an outstanding opening bowler with whom we are very familiar; a dilute methadone for an addiction we no longer have.
But this is to miss the point. Sport is primarily about the present with the future a secondary concern, but it’s also worth looking back on the past from time to time to keep yourself honest when you look at what’s happening now.
We are absolutely not going to use the word ‘yeoman’
Even though we just did and even though the word will provide the framework for what we’re about to say.
The perception of Matthew Hoggard was always of a toiler; the kind of cricketer who made the most of his talent (like that’s a crime, rather than part of the job). This always grated with us, even if Hoggard himself tended to play up to it, saying he just whanged the ball down.
That kind of assessment devalues not just Hoggard, but the complexities of cricket itself. He may have bowled about 10mph slower than Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison, but he took more Test wickets at a lower average and with a better strike rate. In fact, in the very earliest days of our cricket writing, we did a short piece about how he was actually a strike bowler.
How did Matthew Hoggard take his wickets?
It wasn’t just by whanging it. It was by whanging it in an obscenely skilful manner. As a conventional English swing bowler, he was a kind of proto-Anderson, but he also developed cutters and reverse swing so that he could take wickets basically anywhere. 6-57 in Nagpur, 7-63 in Christchurch and 7-61 in Johannesburg.
We also wonder whether his achievements have been partly devalued by the fact that he played his cricket in an era when terrible flat pitches were infuriatingly common. His average was forever being compared to those of the previous generation, but now we’ve all kind of come to terms with the fact that a bowling average of around 30 is actually pretty handy (even considering that pitch quality has since improved a bit).
So is that how he should be remembered?
As a hugely skilful bowler who was a vital component in the best England side seen in decades? Yeah, partly, but you need to tack onto that the fact that he had a great attitude.
An example is his batting, which was really bloody ordinary even at the point at which he retired from Test cricket. However, it took extraordinary effort for him to improve it to ‘really bloody ordinary’ and it takes a special kind of character to put in the hours with such minimal obvious reward.
Vindication came with a jarringly dreamy cover drive as England stuttered towards a win in the 2005 Trent Bridge Test. That moment summed him up for us. Without knowing the background, it was just a tail-ender hitting a four. But if you’d followed his career and the painfully slow development of his batting, you’d see it as the low key culmination of something special.14 Appeals
What happens to Mike Hussey’s nickname now? Can you call someone Mr Cricket if their job is to inspect construction projects to confirm they comply with building regulations? We’re assuming that’s the kind of thing Mike Hussey will do after retiring – something dull that will allow him to be irritatingly officious.
He’s been a surprisingly good international cricketer though – he’ll always have that. People don’t generally remark on Hussey’s record that much because there’s always been a feeling that he was going to have a brief, statistically freakish Test career after only being capped at the age of 30. However, he’s actually hung about to the point where he’s played 78 Tests (it’ll be 79 if he doesn’t contract pleurisy or something before the New Year Test).
To put his career in perspective, only eight Englishmen have ever scored more than his 19 Test hundreds and he’s managed to average over 50 in a side that has frequently been utterly toss. He should probably get extra points for that. Unlike some of his predecessors, he’s actually had to do some bloody work rather than just mincing his way towards declarations.
Hussey also carved himself a highly unlikely short format career as a ‘finisher’. It’s quite a CV. Hopefully that will count for something when he’s job hunting next month. Bet he’s picked out his interview tie already.12 Appeals
Take a look at this face. Tell us you don’t instantly hate that face. You could pretty accurately track the progress of Ricky Ponting’s career by our opinion of his face at various points in time.
It started badly. He made his first Test hundred in his first Ashes innings after Australia had been 50-4, so basically there was a strong desire for smug smile removal from the outset. However, it wasn’t until around 2005 or 2006 that we wanted to plant our fist in his face with the most force.
Was the 2005 Ashes the turning point?
We can’t quite work it out. He’d hit six hundreds in 18 innings in 2003, en route to a higher plane of obnoxiousness and he arrived in England in 2005 with us feeling much the same about him. Looking back, we’re aware that the more Ponting’s Australia lost, the more we warmed to him, but we’re not entirely convinced this phenomenon was really all that noticeable following this series.
Maybe the first intimations of likeable qualities had been identified, but it can’t have meant much as it was only a year later that England were mullered in Australia. This was also when Ponting’s batting average reached its peak of 59.99 after scoring 142 in that bloody Adelaide Test.
Ricky Ponting’s batting average
Let’s try and forget just how fantastically irritating Ricky Ponting could be for a minute and instead consider that average. He retires with an average of 52.21, which is amazing, but leaves him immediately behind Mohammad Yousuf and with a fair few others above him. Had he retired in 2006, he would have been fifth. Crucially, he would also have played 53 Tests more than the most capped player above him.
That speaks of astonishingly prolonged consistency. That Adelaide hundred was his seventh of 2006 in eight Tests up until that point. Make no mistake, Ricky Ponting is a driven and extremely talented man.
Then he went downhill a bit. Like many great batsmen, he probably had more confidence in himself than was actually warranted. That protective delusion is what gets them through the tough times, but it’s also what can keep them hanging around, oblivious to the fact that everyone’s enthusiastically clouding the vicinity with liberal quantities of Febreze.
This is when he won us over a bit though. He was a captain and a player who’d never really encountered tough times before, cricket-wise, and it was admirable to see that he wasn’t a shirker.
His limitations as a captain were being exposed and his batting was deteriorating, but in a way this highlighted other qualities. The man is resilient and he feels a sense of duty. He’s also fairly plain-speaking and honest and he loves cricket.
So, it turns out Ricky Ponting isn’t a complete tool. It’s just that he managed to keep this fact concealed from us for the first 14 years of his career.
Some more stuff about Ricky Ponting
Here are some links that we can’t be bothered working into the main text. Don’t feel you have to read them, but they might be welcome if you’re avoiding doing work.
- Something about him whinging at umpires
- Something about his stint as captain
- More about why we admire his batting
Andrew Strauss retires from cricket. If Nasser Hussain was ‘do as I say’ and Michael Vaughan was ‘relax and play how you want’ then Strauss was ‘for Christ’s sake, don’t do anything silly’.
He was a bit establishment for our tastes and his interviews were even more bland and predictable than his on-field decisions, but people involved with the England team rate him highly and they know him better than we do. There’s also the simple fact that England won a great many matches under his captaincy and that is, after all, the entire point.
The Ashes victory in Australia was clearly the high point, but he also ensured England were all but unbeatable at home during his tenure. That changed this summer and this is significant. It’s hard to avoid the sense that everything’s kind of falling to pieces at the minute. Many have pointed out that few captains leave on a high, but there have been smoother handovers. Cook finds himself with a great deal of work to do.
In many ways this is a further test of Strauss’s captaincy. The on-field stuff’s finished, but the long-term planning for which he is so well-regarded will continue to come under scrutiny. The succession-planning has already given England their next captain, so that bit’s better than usual. However, set against that is the fact that the team are losing and have lost a major player because they couldn’t find a way of getting on with him.
This isn’t to nitpick. It’s just to point out that long-term planning isn’t a matter of aiming for an Ashes series and clapping yourself on the back if you win it. If you’re an England captain, it also involves ensuring the house isn’t a complete shit-tip for the next tenant.
We’re disappointed at the nature of his exit, because the drama and goodwill that ensues masks failings and means he doesn’t have to answer for the side’s deterioration over the last year. However, overall, we are very happy with Andrew Strauss’s performance as England captain. We’ll give him a B+44 Appeals
Test bowling average v England: 40.61 – what’s not to like?
Yes, it’s one of those weird statistics, but Brett Lee actually wasn’t all that destructive in the Ashes. There was theatre and tension every time he came onto bowl, but all that happened was that the batsman thought: “Ooh, something’s happening here. Better sharpen up.” Maybe the adrenaline helped them cope.
Because there was adrenaline for all of us. That was Brett Lee’s main attribute: he was undeniably a fast bowler. He was skilful, yes, but pace was his defining quality. Not the half-arsed, fly-by-night, four-over pace of a Shaun Tait, either. This wasn’t gym muscles pace. It was sustained pace borne of athleticism and that weird mentality found in only true fast bowlers.
Fast bowling isn’t just about speed. It’s about scaring people. It’s about looking like you’re genuinely trying to hurt them and sometimes succeeding. It’s also about sacrificing your own body to achieve that aim. Fast bowlers have a primal blood lust that monopolises their minds and all other thoughts and considerations cease to exist when they run in to bowl.
Fast bowling is amazing. Simply handing the ball to someone like Brett Lee in the middle of a sleepy afternoon session is enough for people to put the newspaper down and start watching. Fast bowlers bring corners and U-turns to predictable narrative, so you HAVE to pay attention.
If you can be a fast bowler, provide all of that and yet not actually do all that much to help Australia win the Ashes, you are absolute gold.14 Appeals