“If Vince manages to score the runs that allow him to keep his place in England’s top order many of us will be grateful. The England top order batsman adds something to the game, something more than mere runs. He makes the game better”.
Considering his recent performance in Australia, England batsman James Vince is rather fortunate to have been selected for the tour of New Zealand. Selected for the Ashes series, an opportunity some believe he didn’t deserve, he managed only 242 runs in ten innings at an average of 26.88.
But while his level of production did not impress, he had one quality that did. James Vince, whether he makes many or few, is a most charming batsman. It is this appearance of elegance and ease at the crease that has convinced many of his class, and that is also why some think selectors were hoodwinked into keeping faith with him.
Armed with a bat, Vince becomes an artist. He puts on a show. And, especially since he has spent nowhere near enough time in the middle, leaves the audience yearning for more. He adds something outside the ordinary to the sport, something more than the sheer numbers, just like Gower did, or VVS or Rohit Sharma does.
Is sport all about winning or does attractive play matter? “Winning isn’t everything,” said famed American football coach Vince Lombardi, “it’s the only thing.” But isn’t aesthetics a vital part of sports too?
Famed Uruguayan football writer, Eduardo Galeano, spoke of his craving for beautiful football. “…I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums, I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
Most of us who love cricket not only want to see runs scored and wickets are taken, we rejoice also in invention and elegance. Productivity is vital. But so too is artistry.
Michael Holding’s long approach to the wicket was smooth, silent, and it culminated in a picture-perfect side-on action that propelled a bullet of a delivery to the other end. Not for nothing was he called “Whispering Death.” He was always compelling viewing, whether he captured five for few or none for plenty.
Dale Steyn’s late away movement and Jimmy Anderson’s discernment of the mysteries of swing are not just displays of skill that batsmen find testing, they are also instances of exquisite beauty to those who love the game and deeply appreciate the work of its masters.
But, one need not be a world beater to possess an artistic flair. And a highly pleasing performance need not be one of great magnitude.
One very memorable innings that comes to memory was one by Ian Bell during England’s 2008-09 tour of the West Indies. He made four. Totally undermined by Jerome Taylor’s 5/11, England crumbled for 51 in the second innings to lose by an innings and 23 runs. Bell fell before lunch before the mayhem unfolded. Yet his brief 22-ball knock is difficult to forget because of the ease and skill with which he played. Taylor had already begun shifting the ball this way and that, but Bell comfortably met everything with the very middle of his bat.
No English batsman really distinguished himself in that debacle. Bell’s innings, however, was like finding something of worth in a mountain of rubble.
The sheer weight of an athlete’s record says a lot about his value to his sport. Still, it doesn’t give the total picture. Bradman’s numbers are unmatched in cricket and he had a huge following in his time. And yet many Australians would unapologetically voice their preference for Victor Trumper, who came a few years before Bradman and had nothing like the stats of the great man. “…So often have I listened to stories of him,” wrote Bradman teammate Jack Fingleton, referring to Trumper, “so often have I seen a new light come into the eyes of people at the mention of his name.”
Jamaican batting marvel of the seventies and eighties, Lawrence Rowe, had a similar effect on many who saw him play. Even today, you notice the reverential tone that comes to the fore whenever his name comes up in any conversation on batting.
To some degree, names like Gower, Zaheer Abbas, Hooper, Ramprakash, and Jayawardene, among others, evoke a similar kind of reaction. They don’t all have stellar records, some are often dubbed underachievers, but what they had in large quantities were methods of play that were massively appealing.
In many ways, the vulnerability added to the allure. Since you never knew what you’d get you remained expectant. If you got nothing you’d go away disappointed. If you got a grand performance you’d feel satisfied and privileged. Either way, you’d be eagerly awaiting the next occasion because of the possibility of witnessing something out of the ordinary.
If you were a huge fan of Carl Hooper you’d have had to endure more than your fair share of frustration. He undoubtedly had it in him to perform great feats. All too often, however, he’d whet your appetite with a few enchanting strokes, only to get out soon afterwards leaving you unsatisfied. But then on a few rare occasions, he’d play like he did in Antigua in May 1993 when he made 178 beguiling runs against the might of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Those moments of plenty kind of made up for the long periods of famine. You endured the hardship because you knew the reward, when it came, would be substantial.
If Vince manages to score the runs that allow him to keep his place in England’s top order many of us will be grateful. The England top order batsman adds something to the game, something more than mere runs. He makes the game better.
“Cricket,” said CLR James, “is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and dance.” Nobody seeing Brian Lara or Mark Waugh at their best, or Malcolm Marshall or Dennis Lillee in full flight, could possibly disagree. They and the other aristocrats of the game offered the viewer something beyond mere runs or wickets. In their hands, a bat or a ball became a paintbrush and cricket became high art.