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Martin Johnson column – You don’t need style to make runs, just ask Colly!

I was watching a clip from an oldTest match the other day and was mildly surprised, given that the Government’s Health and Safety department works on the principle that every UK citizen is to be regarded as a congenital dimwit until proven otherwise, that the programme didn’t come with one of those we-know-what’s-best-for-you warnings. You know the sort: “The following programme contains scenes that some viewers may find distressing.”

You can’t even tune into the six o’clock news any more without some grim-faced announcer informing you that the “following item contains scenes of flash photography”, in which case it would appear that cricket has somehow managed to slip through the censor’s net.

Otherwise, the old footage that I was watching would have been prefaced by the message: “Viewers should be aware that the following item contains scenes of Paul Collingwood batting.”

Watching dear old Colly making a lot of runs in a style that belongs firmly on the other side of the nine o’clock watershed reminded me of how entertaining cricket might be if it got back into the Olympics – but only on the basis that it becomes one of those. Like dressage, diving and, most of all, ice skating.

It conjured up this image of Colly completing the ice skating equivalent of a century, before collecting several hundred bouquets of flowers, and retiring to a small booth clutching a teddy bear and blubbing uncontrollably in the arms of his coach. And then, up on the electronic scoreboard, came the marks for artistic impression. 0.1 – 0.0 – 0.0 – 0.0 – 0.1 – 0.0. Prompting the immediate suspicion that the two judges who generously awarded a 0.1 must have been bribed.

Cricket, though, has never been a game in which you need to be easy on the eye to be any good at it, and some of its most successful players have been, not to put too fine a point on it, ugly. Not in the sense that they walk out to bat looking like Charles Laughton in the Hunchback Of Notre Dame, but in scoring their runs in a way that prompts the viewer into less of a purring noise than an involuntary shudder.

For every David Gower, for example, there is a Shivnarine Chanderpaul, immediately scotching the age-old notion that all left-handers are elegant. I realised this from an early age, watching Jim Yardley batting for Northants in the Seventies. Jim had only one shot – the front foot drive – and only one scoring area – backward of square. I once saw Derbyshire post three gullies to Jim, and he still got it through three times an over.

Jim had a style that made Northamptonshire members turn to their next door deckchair neighbour and say: “Wake me up when he’s out,” but an equally uneasy-on-the-eye team-mate made it all the way to Test level. Peter Willey was a Clint Eastwood-type character, the kind of chap who looked you straight in the eye, but when he was batting, the only fielder Willey was actually able to look straight in the eye was standing somewhere between mid-on and midwicket.

The stance crept round season by season, like a sundial, and had old-age and retirement not arrived, he’d have ended up with his posterior pointing straight at cover point. And yet one of Willey’s trademark strokes was the cover drive. Pretty? Hardly. But if pretty was the benchmark for making a career out of batting, then Kepler Wessels, Javed Miandad and Ian Chappell would never have got a game.

Chappell’s inclusion in the ugly list is also a reminder that it’s not always a case of simply being in the genes. His younger brother Greg was all style and elegance, but while statistically Greg was the superior player (7,000-plus Test runs at 53 as opposed to 5,000 plus at 42) then Ian was the bloke you’d want for a crisis, and infinitely the superior captain. It’s just that, while Greg stood tall at the crease, and immaculately attired, Ian looked like Wurzel Gummidge and was forever fiddling with his box.

Ditto, the Waugh twins. Again it was the younger man (Mark) who was all languid grace and beauty, while the elder (Steve) of the two was the Indiana Jones character who finally got tired of watching his opponent go through his sword-twirling repertoire and pulled out his gun and shot him. They both had eyes that were as narrow as the slot in your car’s CD drive, but while Mark entertained, it was Steve who swung Ashes series with his relentless grinding.

However, it’s not always the case that siblings turn out to be opposites. Take the Steele brothers, David and John, who played for Northants and Leicestershire respectively in the 70s and 80s. Neither caused stampedes at the turnstiles (not to get in at any rate) but both were highly effective run-gatherers, one of whom made it to Test level (David), with the other (John) playing a significant role in his team’s trophy-winning era under Ray Illingworth.

When you think of ugly v handsome, it’s batsmen who mostly spring to mind, but bowlers have also, down the years, figured at both ends of the aesthetically pleasing scale. They don’t come much more graceful than Michael Holding, or John Snow, or Dennis Lillee, or more unco-ordinated than Bob Willis, Mike Procter or Colin Croft.

There were a few England Test matches when the new ball was shared between Snow and Ken Higgs, which in terms of style, was like watching a Ferrari at one end and a Trabant at the other. But Higgs was a formidable bowler in English conditions, and happily played in an era before some overpaid coach could get his hands on his waddling duck run-up and turn him into half the bowler.

It’s batsmen, though, who stand out in what has always been a game of extreme contrasts, and part of cricket’s charm is in watching a Pietersen batting at one end and a Collingwood at the other. The Hollywood film star and, with neither an ear stud nor a tattoo to be seen, the best supporting actor.

Watching Colly bat made me think of Mrs Colly back at home when the kids were playing up. Who needs corporal punishment when you have the ultimate deterrent up your sleeve? “Now then you lot. Cut it out. Your dad made a century today and if you don’t behave, I’ll make you stay up and watch the highlights.”

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, January 13 2017

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