“If Vince does not go on to have a satisfactory Test career he’ll be judged harshly. But to mark him harder than his less stylish colleague is unfair. The fact that we see him as more talented than most does not mean he is”.
Promises enough, but delivers little
Some of my favourite moments of the 2017-2018 Ashes series have involved the batting of James Vince. Laying eyes on him for the first time I was enthralled by the beauty of his strokeplay. Despite a very patchy record, it is a delight to watch him bat.
Yet it is often exasperating as well. Players, like Vince, who appear to be so much at ease at the crease, are always thought to be gifted with loads talent. We, therefore, expect them to do special things on the field and it is especially disappointing when they don’t.
He has been around for a while. He is 26 and made his first-class debut in 2009. His first-class average is just over 38 and in 11 Tests prior to Sydney he averages 22.83. Should you ask around, the consensus would be, that given his immense gifts, he has so far underachieved in his career.
If Vince batted like Steve Smith there is no way he’d have played for England. But attractive batting hides many ills, or it goads selectors into ignoring them. This is because we sometimes mistake elegance for aptitude when one really has nothing to do with the other. The gritty player, a Chanderpaul, say, could well be more gifted than a player as elegant as Carl Hooper. Yet ask any expert and it is overwhelmingly likely they’d pick Hooper as the more talented.
The nexus between talent and the appearance of ease is tenuous at best, non-existent at worst. One explanation of Hooper’s appeal as a batsman came from an Australian journalist whose name now escapes me. What Hooper then (and Vince now) possess, he argued, was simply “a gift of movement.” The elegance we all observe and treasure, rather than being any expressions of talent or potential, is more about the way the batsman was constructed or oriented to move.
During the early 1990s, there was a Jamaican cricketer who, while he remained at the crease, made batting look the easiest thing in the world. His name was Richard Staple. He was not productive enough to become a regular member of the Jamaican team. His first-class average is a meagre 18.25; his highest score is 79. But his batting was so effortless, so elegant that you never forgot him once you saw him play.
He was not a member of the 1991 West Indies tour to England, but being in the vicinity he was drafted to play a tour game against a World XI at Scarborough because, if memory serves, injury to a few squad members. He made 40 in the first innings, 56 in the second, and was so composed that West Indies captain Richie Richardson was moved to remark that he was impressed by the Jamaican, who, he gushed, was always “so easy.”
He made something like 10 in one innings for Jamaica against Trinidad at Sabina Park early in his career against. Yet despite the small score it was a memorable knock. There was a forward defensive stroke during his short stay, nothing more than a gentle push, yet the ball sped from the bat as if shot from a gun.
A well-known Jamaican commentator used to regularly say that Staple would one day cause pandemonium on a cricket ground because of the grandiosity of his strokeplay. That day never came. Staple played his last game for Jamaica in February 1995. He then migrated to the United States and played for them for a while. To sum up his cricket career succinctly: he promised much, delivered little.
In the first innings at Sydney, Vince fell to a short and wide delivery from Pat Cummins that he attempted to cut. Up to then, it all looked very easy for him. And so the dismissal came as if out of nowhere. He was in no trouble; the ball was begging to be cut for four; the shot was poorly executed. He had previously struck four boundaries, three of which were some of the most handsome strokes you could ever wish to see. But then, for no apparent reason, he lost his wicket attempting a shot that a schoolboy would be comfortable playing. It was exasperating.
The question that then arises is why, why would he have been so vulnerable, even as the bowling appeared to hold no terrors for him? Well, the simple and obvious answer is that it might not be as easy as it looks. “It’s hard work making batting look effortless,” David Gower is reported to have said, in a rejoinder to those who frequently labelled him carefree and careless, those who figured that batting came so easily to him that it was a travesty he wasn’t consistently more dominant.
If Vince does not go on to have a satisfactory Test career he’ll be judged harshly. But to mark him harder than his less stylish colleague is unfair. The fact that we see him as more talented than most does not mean he is. Moreover, talent is a multifaceted thing, involving qualities such as good eyesight, good coordination, quick reflexes, and an ability to “see” the ball quickly. But it also involves mental make-up, a quality much more difficult to ascertain.
There can be little doubt that he benefitted from the perception that he’s highly gifted. But that is on us, the fans who sing his praises for an attractive 30 and the selectors who are suckered into selecting him despite a lack of runs at the lower level. This is the fact we must all grapple with, especially those of us who take pride in our ability to spot talent: those who look special are often not as special as we think.