Tag Archives: C.L.R. James

Magical Realism in Cricket Part IV – Great Expectations

“There you have it, Gentlemen,” says the old Essex and England warrior, Graham Gooch taking the stage, weathered, stooped and coiled by tendon-tightening age like the veteran of many a campaign that he is.

“What your beautiful mother told you on her bended knee, Cookie; what your father bowling endlessly to you on the Cape repeated time and again, Trotters; what your teacher drummed into you in that posh school Skip; what your coaches yelled at you during all those throw downs, Belly … was wrong!”

“From now on it’s not ‘watch the ball’, gentlemen, it’s ‘expect the ball’.”

At this point Andy Flower takes up the theme. “It’s increasingly clear to us that the Indians have been perfecting predictive techniques for years, imagining the ball so intensely that they’re able to cheat time a little; learning to opening their minds to let the future in.” 

“Blessed if I know how else we can explain Sunil’s mastery of West Indian pace all those years ago?” interupts Gooch.

“Very good, Goochie. For every long hour that Sachin spent in the nets, we think Achrekar had him spending two more sharpening his ability to read those visual cues and make the right predictions.  What moving ball hitters have been doing instinctively for centuries, what according to C.L.R. James a batsman like George Headley did through the night before each innings, the Indians have begun to do deliberatively, scientifically, systematically.”

In what is obviously a choreographed presentation, Strauss seamlessly takes the floor.  “We are fairly certain that the Aussies have been using their time in India this winter to work up their own knowledge and put into effect drills to enhance the predictive capacity of their batting.”

“Looks to be doing them a lot of good, Skip,” interrupts the iconoclast, Bresnan.

“It may not appear to be working well, but we should expect a period of transition, is that right Doctor?”

“What’s the evidence base for this?” asks the team boffin, Collingwood.

“Dr Kuhn here is pretty sure that they have their own magician and illusionist working with them.”

“Yes,” adds Kuhn.  “I feel sure that they have been using the rather controversial work of  Mark Changizi.  We’ve been looking through all the recordings for any glimpse of him but we’ve drawn a blank so far, although, there are indications from peeps through to the back of their dressing room that various practices are being used.”

“Have we tried to get anyone into their camp?” asks Morgan.

“I’m sure you know why I can’t answer that, Eoin.” “We do, however, have someone keeping an eye on their Centre for Excellence for us, but I’m not at liberty to reveal any names at present.”

“Right then, enough of this idle speculation,” concludess the old Essex warrior. “I want all you batsmen down stairs, full equipment, in five minutes.  We have some new tricks to show you don’t we, Dr Kuhn?”

“And remember what Nelson flagged at Trafalgar, ‘England Expects …’”

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A Life in Dentristy or A Life in Cricket – You Decide

George Headley was born in Panama in 1909.  He was taken to Jamaica as a Spanish speaking ten year old.  There he fell in love with cricket.  At 15 and still in the then customary short trousers, he saw Earnest Tyldesley make over three hundred runs in a pre-season match. 

It was as if he had learned all he needed to know about batting on that day suggests our old friend C.L.R. James.  (An urgent but unanswerable question arises; did Tyldesley use the Circle Line back lift?)

Destined to go to American to study dentistry George was saved for a future in cricket when he was chosen to play against a visiting English side captained by Lionel Tennyson.  He scored 79 in the first match and 211 in the second.

Two reasons to be thankful George Headley never got to handle a dentist's drill or our first clue that there is something very odd going on with the grip.

Headley played 22 times for the West Indians and often had to carry the rest of the batting.  This led to his nickname;  ‘Atlas’.  He scored 2,190 runs, ten centuries, eight against England, and averaged 60.83.

Aged only thirty, war intervened cruelly in his career surely taking away his best years as a batsman.  By then he had scored 9,532 first class runs.  He added only 391 runs when cricket resumed after the war, finishing with a first class average of 69.86.

Like David Gower,  Headley was light framed and had a well trained eye, quick feet and good timing.

The first shot we see him play in Part One of the ESCN Legends video at Cricinfo is a sumptuous on-drive played on the walk in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Vivian Richards batting forty years later.

(If you have only two minutes to spare, Third Man urges you to watch that one shot rather than to read on here)

The quality of this on drive is even more significant because, on Headley’s first tour to Australia it is said he was ‘worked out’ as an off-side player and the bowlers attacked leg stump with some success.  George went into the nets and fixed the problem so effectively that, by the end of the tour, Clarrie Grimmett  was saying that George was the best leg-side player he’d ever bowled to.

But the comparison Third Man wishes to explore is that between Headley and Bradman’s grip pictured below and their rather circular back lifts.

Aplogies for the blurred photo of George but TM has found it hard to find anything but a very small photograph of his stance. Note the way the bat faces inwards which means that the hands are further around the back of the bat with the thumbs of their bottom hands facing in the same direction as the face.

Now is the time to get that old bat out from under the stairs or the kit bag out of the car and see how you get on holding at bat like these two remarkable batsmen.

And tomorrow, all things permitting, let’s see whether we can work out what it meant for the way they played so well.

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“Gary, just come in short at cover, please. Lance, plenty of air.”

When Frank Worrell led the West Indies to Australia in 1960 he took with him the three spinners Alf ValentineSonny Ramadhin  and the relatively unknown Lancelot Richard Gibbs.  Alf was left arm, the justly celebrated Sonny bowled off-breaks and leg breaks in the Barnes finger-flicking tradition of disguise highlighted before.  

The first test in Brisbane was famously tied with the opening bowlers Wes Hall taking nine wickets in the match and Davidson eleven for Australia.  Together Ramadhin and Valentine took three for 226.  Australia went on to win the New Year’s test by seven wickets.  In the home side’s first innings of 348, Ramadhin was given just five overs, taking one for 21.

Our old friend C.L.R. James in Cricket – the Great Captains cites what happened next as evidence of Worrell’s great captaincy skills and provides a measure of the man.  For the third test he dropped Ramadhin and brought in Lance Gibbs who had done little on the tour that far but had taken four for 29 in the second innings of the warm up match in Tasmania.

The decision seemed inspired when Gibbs, brought on before Valentine, took three for 46 which along with Valentine’s four for 67 gave the West Indies a first innings lead of 137.  The West Indies took their lead to 463 before Valentine with four for 86 and Gibbs with five for 66 won the match for the visitors by 222 runs.

Gibbs on the last morning took four wickets for two runs in a spell of 27 balls.  Not for the first time the scorer would have benefited from a rubber stamp with c. Sobers b Gibbs imprinted on it.

It had not been plain sailing because in their mammoth task of chasing 464 to win Harvey and O’Neil for the third wicket had taken the score from 83 to 200 and looked well set and threatening.

But Worrell had noticed that Harvey was having trouble with a pulled leg muscle. Knowing that this would restrict his movements, especially against spin, the West Indian captain brought Sobers in close at cover and told the inexperienced Gibbs to give the ball plenty of flight to Harvey.

This YouTube film of Gibbs bowling to England in 1973 shows that he had a now very modern javelin-style delivery action. 

The front (left) foot lands outside the line made by his back (right) foot presenting his chest to the batsman.  His bowling arm whips over with great speed and he rises on this the ball of his left foot pivoting over this with tremendous force as our Compare the Drives image demonstrated yesterday.    This gives helps him to find considerable dip and therefore bounce. 

Facing Gibbs, a batsman would see a ball inviting him forward to drive, but the steeply descending ball is never quite as in-reach as the batsman thinks.  Straining forward Harvey would realise this and, in trying to compensate, lift the ball towards the waiting Sobers just as Worrell had foreseen.

The scorebook reveals R.N. Harvey caught Sobers bowled Gibbs for 85, N.C. O’Neil caught Sobers bowled Gibbs 70. After their dismissal only one batsman reached double figures.

In the first innings of the fourth Test Gibbs did the hat-trick – the first hat-trick against the Australians in the twentieth century – and took five for 97. In the last Test he took four for 74 and two for 68 in 41 overs, 19 of them maidens.  He ended the tour topping the averages with 19 wickets for an average of 22 runs.

Indeed, this was inspirational leadership by Worrell and fully justified what must have seemed an inexplicable and hugely controversial selection decision.

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“They Tame Lions in That League”

Yesterday, our time contraption piloted by C.L.R. James took us to 1932 and a Nelson v Accrington match in the Lancashire League. 

The Nelson professional, Learie Constantine,  is facing the late in-swing and perfect control of Accrington’s pro Ted MacDonald.  Ted’s bowling has been nothing short of spell binding.  The Nelson crowd sense that at any moment, their professional will explode.

A length ball straightens, pops and the ball flies from the shoulder of Constantine’s bat looping towards slip who perhaps overawed by the opportunity ‘muffs’ the chance.  The spell is broken.  MacDonald senses the change too.  But no-one on the ground knows exactly what is to come.

‘When it does happen no mortal could have foretold it,’ writes James.

‘Constantine takes a long stride with his left foot across the wicket and leaning forward glances MacDonald from outside the off-stump to long leg for four. Pandemonium.’

The same intoxicating uninhibited joy was induced by the batting of Surresh Raina  at Dharamsala this Sunday when, after  Ramish Powar’s pure and extreme off-breaks had placed the Superkings under the cosh and in danger of being shunted out of the tournament, Raina began to chase down the Kings XI Punjab’s total; not with slogs but with pure stoke play that rivaled Powar’s deliveries for purity of form.

Back in 1932, MacDonald, the experienced campaigner does not lose his rag but comes in again with that ‘machine-like run’.  Nor does Constantine repeat the stroke immediately.  He waits a few balls before leaning forward and again putting the bowler away to fine leg from outside the off-stump.

Classical Jazz - is this the shot whose development James describes taken back into First Class Cricket?

‘In these two stokes,’ writes James, ‘there was not the slightest recklessness or chanciness.  The unorthodoxy was carried out with a precision and care fully equal to the orthodoxy of Mac’s classical action and perfect length.’

James reaches for the work of Sir Donald Tovey to explain what was happening.  ‘The control, the mastery, the balance between means and ends which we call classical, these Tovey attributed to the fact that the material that the classical artist handles is traditional.  The Romantic was faced with material outside of the traditional. This necessitated new methods but not romantic methods.’

Just as Tovey believed that the great Romantics invented new means that were perfectly adapted to their new ends, that the only applicable word was classical, so James believes that Constantine’s new leg glance from outside off-stump was a classical shot.

‘Batting will handle new material (if it is new) with classical perfection but only if it is compelled to do so.’  This was the challenge that League cricket provided Constantine.  It was not his West Indian flare (a romantic notion) but his West Indian brain that worked out a new and safe way of countering new demands set by the bowler.

James asserts that Constantine took these new classical strokes back to Test cricket. He passed his legacy to Weeks and Worrell and Walcott and they to Sobers and he to Richards and Richards to that other Richards.

Third Man can remember to this day the first time he saw Barry Richards in a limited overs match calmly break the spell that had pinned every batsmen he’d ever watched before to a leg or middle and leg guard, and, well before the delivery was bowled, step across to a new position outside off-stump and guide the ball for four to long leg.

TM thought he’d seen a revolution.  Instead, he’d seen the classical tradition developed by Constantine forty years before.

‘Swimming in the caves of league cricket between the wars, to this day dark and unfathomed, Constantine strengthened and flexed his strategic muscles,’ concludes James.

As far as Third Man is concerned, you can keep the powerful batsmen whose edges and mistimed shots carry the fence.  You can keep your Haydens and Symonds.  Just give him the chance to see Sachin Tendulka and Raina, their brains working out new and safe strategies, chasing down the runs.  

Because Tendulka and Raina among a few others are the heirs to the classical tradition.  May their legacy enrich all cricket.

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Constantine and MacDonald go head to head

In 1965, Third Man played at Old Trafford.  We took eight hours to journey north from Hampshire.  We schoolboys arrived in a world as alien to someone from the south coast, then, as Mumbai would be now to someone from Morton in the Marsh. 

Every building was coated in soot.  The over whelming memory is of dankness and darkness.  Third Man does not recall being struct by an economic divide so much as a cultural divide. 

One of the small things that amazed us was a pink sports newspaper that contained not just every county score but also the scores of all the league matches.  In fact these results were given greater prominence than the scores from the county championship.

The Portsmouth Evening News or the Southampton Echo had their county features concentrating on Hampshire and a full set of county scores but there was no mention at all of local club cricket.

That cricket was still ‘timed’ and ‘friendly’.  There were no leagues anywhere along the South Coast even though TM’s club played from Bournemouth to Brighton and from Basingstoke to Bognor Regis.  Play began at 2.30 and finished at 7.30.  Enforcing twenty overs in the last hour, TM can remember as an innovation.  A result in the match required the side bowling second to bowl out the side batting second or the side batting second to knock off the runs notched up by the side batting first.  Victories  suggested an unevenness of match more than anything else.

TM’s was a touring club, without its own ground, which therefore depended on being good guests to keep its fixtures.  A good guest played good cricket (now Premier League Standard), with much humour and familiarity expressed on the field and a generous contribution to bar profits after the match and sometimes before.  Sociability was as important as cricketing skills.

C.L.R. James in Wherefore are these things hid? Chapter 10 of Beyond a Boundary, is more than a little irritated by this.  ‘The neglect of league cricket, and particularly in the South, passes comprehension.  The only reason that makes sense to me is that it is wilful – the South does not want to know.’

C.L.R. James

James was endeavouring to put the case that it was through playing in the Lancashire League, playing with matches that provided a result in an afternoon, that Learie Constantine became a finer Test cricketer.

“By 1932 when I saw the league, he was no longer a Test cricketer who played in the league.  He was a league player who played in Tests.  It was after he became a finished league player that he found his finest form in Tests and big cricket,” writes James.

Our old friend S.F. Barnes would no doubt have agreed. 

This assertion is important if we substitute IPL for league in the sentence above.  Constantine would have been a top pick for T20.  Would it have been the tournament in which he found the key to the expression of his highest talents?  Is it where today’s supreme cricketers will find their finest form for Tests and big cricket?  A Test bed for all cricket?

James’ argument is highly sophisticated as we shall see.  He quotes Bradman in the Don’s biography as saying that he can understand why Constantine is so much in demand in the Leagues. ‘… where matches are decided in an afternoon, I cannot envisage a player with better qualifications.  In a quarter of an hour of terrific speed bowling or unorthodox hitting he could swing the fortunes of a match.’

At first thought we might agree, but James does not.  Bradman’s view annoys  him.  He is embarrassed for Bradman.  He believes it is an example of stereotypical thinking about West Indians and West Indian cricket – “We are still in the flower garden of the gay, the spontaneous, tropical West Indians.  We need some astringent spray.”  A fierce accusation.

‘Speed bowling and quarters of an hour of unorthodox hitting do not win first place in a league competition sevens years out of nine.’

With Learie Constantine as their 'paid man' Nelson dominated the Lancashire League between 1928 and 1937.

What does win first place over a championship, then?  James relies on descriptions of just two shots played by Constantine against the bowling of Ted MacDonald playing for Accrington in the 1932 season.  Mac Donald had retired from Lancashire but was putting his all into the half-day form of cricket. 

‘Mac had never lost his machine like run and his perfect action’ nor his ‘slight but late inswing’ and ‘periodically the one that straightens.  ‘All this on the basis of an impeccable length.  Constantine has this effect on most bowlers.’

Constantine in his turn knows that he cannot afford to get out cheaply; ‘still more for the sake of the morale of his side, as a professional, he cannot afford to let the opposing professional get him out cheaply.’

One can sense the same motivation behind Tendulkha’s monumental achievements in this year’s IPL.  One can see these duals everywhere in league cricket today.  It is still what brings the crowd on to the ground, this prospect of pro v pro.

James would argue that at Nelson in 1932 or at the DY Patil Stadium in 2010 the drama is identical to that of ancient Greek theatre, inspiring and demanding an intense communal engagement from those watching.  The crowd of probably 10,000 in Nelson (1932) and 55,000 in Navi Mumbai (2010) sense the battle and are monetarily quietened as the protagonists strut and fret upon their green stage.

James captures the expectancy that energizes all human drama.  ‘This is a big match with far more spectators and more tension than two-thirds of the first-class county matches played in a season.  For an over or two this sparing continues.  The crowd is silent but patient.  It knows from long experience that sooner or later Constantine will explode.’

(Continued tomorrow – well it is theatre and the sales of ice-cream and beer are important sources of revenue to cover the pro’s wages.  Think of it as the tea interval, stretch your legs and maybe wander over and inspect the wicket.)

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