A breath of fresh air
For some unknown reason, I had never had the chance to watch Johnnie Bairstow bat for any length of time on TV - until the first innings against Sri Lanka at Headingley. Wow! What an eye opener. What a throw back to the past. What a pleasure to watch. What a key to much thrilling batting in the future.
What hit me straightaway was how still he was and how late he moved to the ball. Then came a sideways view showing him to be getting well out of his crease to narrow the angles - a highly positive move in itself.
For all the huge success of Smith and de Villiers and Amla, all shuffling across the crease before the ball is bowled, there was a simplicity about Bairstow’s style which had me thinking of Tendulkar, Gavaskar, Sangakara, Sehwag and even back to Jack Hobbs.
Of course, the most pronounced “keep still and move late” example was Gary Sobers. There is slow motion film of him playing Denis Lillee in his pomp, at Melbourne when he made 200. As Lillee gathers himself to bowl, Gary makes just one tap of his bat on the ground, NOW HE IS SETTLED, ABSOLUTELY STILL.
Whoosh! Over comes the arm and the ball is launched at perhaps 85 miles per hour. At half way down the pitch there is still not a twitch of movement from Gary. At last the left foot moves across to the line of the ball and the bat is picked up.
And what a pick-up. The toe of the bat is pointing vertically upward and the ball looks certain to scatter his stumps - until the last split second, when it comes down, absolutely perpendicular, to defend or, more often than not, to send it skimming to the boundary.
I am left wondering whether Bairstow's current skill is recently acquired or has just been a matter of growing confidence.
Thinking back to the days when there was no Video evidence, it was common practice in the nets, to run up to bowl and hang on to the ball. It is often a real eye-opener to the batsman who may be making all sorts of unnecessary moves. I certainly recommend the idea to school coaches.
There is ample evidence that an “out of form” batsman, anxious to get bat to ball, is usually guilty of moving too early. In fact you can actually practise keeping still as long as possible. It is amazing that you are very seldom “late” on the ball. Keep it up Johnnie B. There are not many of your kind about.
You may be forgiven for thinking that I am approaching this delicate subject as a device for ignoring the Stokes 4 ball disaster which ended the England challenge for the 20/20 World Cup. Suffice to say that this amazing episode was no more extraordinary than his record breaking double hundred at CapeTown earlier in the year. So back to the womens' tennis pay packet issue.
During the recent Tournament in Indian Wells, at the mere mention of a certain imbalance between the entertainment value of female tennis compared with the men, it was no surprise to me that the sh-t hit the fan in a big way. The lady players are entitled to protect their equal pay status with every known argument and if that meant the resignation of an Indian Wells official and a cringing retraction of any such allusion by Mr Jokavich - well, tough.
I remember when a brilliantly constructed argument spearheaded by the formidable Billie-Jean King forced the hand of the Wimbledon administration and achieved the previously inconceivable goal of equal status with the men. Never mind that the ladies only played 3 set matches in the Grandslams. Never mind if a majority of females preferred to watch the men’s game. Never mind if the vast majority of men preferred to watch the men’s game. Never mind that the strength in depth of the women’s game was not nearly equivalent to the men’s. Never mind that the mixed doubles were possibly the least interesting of all that tournaments have to offer. One way or another the women gained equal status and good luck to them.
The extraordinary situation that strikes me is that all these years later, exactly the same set of circumstances obtain. Still 3 set matches. Still the same television viewing habits, Still a number of early round matches which are played at a very modest skill level.
Where the imbalance really shows through the smokescreen is when it comes to off court earnings. Serena Williams apart, normal market forces apply so that commercial endorsements of the men simply dwarf those of the women and, of course, the elephant in the room remains i.e. where on earth will the women’s game be when the amazing Serena retires?
As a sidelight on this intriguing matter I checked on the relative prize money enjoyed by lady golfers compared with the men. My figures are not claimed to be even nearly accurate but I did find that a certain Hana Jany had amassed $581.752 while a rather better known Adam Scott earned $ 4.850.649.
Speaking for myself, I enjoy watching ladies’ golf and ladies’ tennis in equal, though modest measure. What they get paid is of absolutely no importance. Except to the very shrewd group of ladies who have never had it so good.
Talk about gravitational waves. They are largely beyond our ken. But the Sunami of runs at Centurion Park earlier this week was nearly as hard to fathom.
When England posted a score of 328 it seemed to be better than par for the ground and conditions. No team with a first innings score over 300 had ever been on the losing side. England lost momentum a little in the last few overs but credit is due to the South African bowlers for that. That they were beaten by 7 wickets with overs to spare is scarcely credible.
Had this deluge of South African runs come from a frenzy of hitting with large slices of luck it would have been easier to understand. But the star performance of Amla and especially deKock owed very little to chance. They were both calculating and respectful of the England attack but the range and power of their batting was beyond anything I have ever seen before.
Amazingly, if you had never seen either of them bat before, it would have been deKock that caught your eye. He stands relatively still, has a precise pick up of the bat and hardly ever plays a totally defensive stroke, so smooth are his movements and so sweet his timing. It is hard to believe that South Africa started the Test Series without him. His trademark shots are the "pick up" over square leg and best of all a back foot, straight bat pull wide of mid-on, often for six. There is none of the brutality we have seen from Stokes.
It is true that there were favourable elements. A smallish ground with a quick outfield helped a bit and the high altitude meant that even "mishits" still cleared the boundary. Of course one has to redefine a mishit these days with modern bats. The super slow motion photography reveals the bat twisting considerably when the hit is not precisely middled but there appears to be very little difference to the way the ball travels.
Amla is more a manoeuverer of the ball but with very quick hands. He walks about the crease a lot giving bowlers choices to try to catch him out, but having to change your line at the last split second is no easy matter.
It would be nice to tell the grand-children that I was actually there to see this incredible episode in the history of batting but I watched every ball on TV and I will never forget it.
England has just lost the 4th Test in Pretoria by a country mile. As usual, the commentators avoid the obvious conclusion, which is that it was a win the toss, win the match pitch.
Understandably there is jubilation in the South African camp and they have indeed uncovered two rare talents in Rambada and Bavuma. But to suggest that this can be a sure sign of recovery in their team may be premature.
Rambada apart, their bowling resources remain stretched. Anno Domini has caught up with Steyn and Morkell is not the force he was. Both are nudging 34 years of age. Nobody has mentioned what has happened to the superb Philander but, there again, he is no Spring chicken.
Going back to the match, once they had nearly 500 runs on the board in the first innings, the result was never in doubt. Lending substance to the notion of very easy pitch conditions is the fact that there were TWO maiden hundreds – an extremely rare occurrence.
I can pay the diminutive Bavuma no greater compliment than to compare him with the great Tendulkar. Look how still he remains as the ball is bowled. His bat is geometrically vertical in defence. When he drives there is a good stride forward but he forces off the back foot and pulls the short ball with equal aplomb. I will be surprised if he does not continue in the same vein for a while to come.
Rambada is an interesting case because his action is not particularly impressive. But what happens the other end certainly is. Despite a quite gentle run-up (none of the rushing in which is so much part of Steyn’s armoury) and despite not much of a “gather”, he rotates his body smoothly and powerfully giving him plenty of pace. He was as much the best South African bowler as was Finn for England before his injury.
England’s upper order remains a real problem. It is extraordinary that no opening partner for Cook has been able to establish himself in all the years since Strauss retired. Compton has the right attitude but his technique will still get him into trouble.
He stands bolt upright with his bat raised when facing the quicker bowlers – not against the spinners – so now has to bend forward to allow room for the bat to come down straight. While this alteration is taking place the bat wavers off a true line.
Throughout our batting line up, there is a ridiculous habit that has creaped in i.e. making a practise stroke after every ball. The only signal that it sends to me is that they are trying to learn the job as they go along. Then there is the abiding problem of not getting the front or back foot across close to the line of the ball. Which is almost impossible to do from a square – rather than sideways- position.
We can only thank heaven for the marvellous example set by Joe Root who is largely blameless in these two respects. Perhaps he should be the batting coach. Mind you, how I would love to have half an hour with some of them in the nets. I doubt I would do them any harm.
It is not often that you find batsmen pleading the case of bowlers in the eternal struggle between bat and ball. But there has to be first and this is it.
I must be a bit slow because it has taken me a long time to reconcile the pluses and minuses of the Decision Review System, despite being basically a supporter. But a "not out" umpiring lbw decision on appeal from Ben Stokes against Amla got me thinking.
England asked for a review which showed a good 45% of the ball hitting the top of the stumps. But in these cases anything less than a full 50% of the ball hitting, means that
the decision remains with the original judgement. Which is unfair in one major sense.
Were the umpire to sense it was a marginal call but give it OUT, then that would give a just and proper reward to the bowler. If the review showed that the ball was missing, then no harm done - the batsman is reprieved and the game continues without incident.
By favouring the "NOT OUT" option there was indeed harm done. Harm to the bowler's figures and harm to the proper progress of the game. The only possible harm of giving a completely incorrect decision would be to the umpire's reputation. But he is already in the dock for giving a not out decision for a ball which would have sent the bails flying.
My message to umpires must therefore be to give the "marginals" OUT in the best interests of the game.
Oh! And another thing from yesterday's first day of the Test Match at the Wanderers - or is the Joburg ground called something else these days? No matter.
The Bazuma run out. Commentators deliberated on whether it was too short a single. Only one of them, the thoughtful and reliable Michael Atherton, mentioned the tell-tale matter of " ball watching" by the non striker. The otherwise admirable Mr Bazuma was brazenly guilty of turning his head to follow the ball instead of trusting the batsman and responding instantly to the call. Had he done so, he would have been home with yards to spare. The only good and decent thing he did was to try to complete the run. I can think of one Yorkshire opening bat of my time ( who ran me out the first time I batted with him) who would have taken the precaution of saving himself!