Sunday, April 7, 2013

The fabled five to celebrate 150?

“…there are the Five Cricketers of the Year, the selection of whom has been the sole prerogative of the editor since 1889, give or take the occasional break for a world war”.
        Lawrence Booth, Mail Online, 11 April 2012

Since the diminutive John Wisden put pen to paper for the first Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack in 1864, Wisden has been a fixture for every cricket tragic. Since 1889*, the editor’s choice of his Cricketers of the Year sparks debate that often approaches physical confrontation, so impassioned are many readers in support of their choices.

Wisden’s five is the oldest individual award in cricket, one of the most prestigious honours in our great game. To grace the pages of the 150th edition is to secure one’s place in cricketing history, a chance to live in the collective memory of all who read cricket’s bible.

Whilst the qualifying deeds need not be at international level, they are in recognition of a player’s influence on the last English summer – phenomenal feats in far flung lands aren’t considered, only those on England’s “green and pleasant lands”. At least that’s been the criteria for all but four years at the turn of the century when Engel, Wright and de Lisle temporarily changed the focus to a player’s worldwide impact.

As an English institution, Wisden’s sesquicentennial should be heavy with English exploits, though the five will likely be bereft of players picked for their deeds under the three lions. It may be one of the traditions we tragics love, but that a player can be awarded a Cricketer of the Year honour but once will dim the celebration, if only slightly. As is his sole prerogative, Lawrence Booth may christen his second year as editor by changing the rules but it’s likely there will already be significant milestones to celebrate this historic birthday without the unnecessary distraction of meddling with an institution.   

The little yellow book is printed and the cricket writing aristocracy have their copies, but for the rest of us there’s a week or more (it’s a long journey from London to Auckland) to go. Every Wisden reader has a five they want to see – I’m no different. New Zealand would have to top the test rankings for my quintet to match those of the omnipotent Mr Booth, but they recently drew a series most scribes had surmised would be a whitewash so there remains a glimmer of hope…

Chris Wright (Warwickshire)
Every Cricketer of the Year list should recognise a county cricketer - the domestic game is the sport’s visible life blood, a level that whilst within the reach of weekend warriors, also provides a discernible stepping stone to the international pinnacle for those destined to become part of the glitterati. Without a strong domestic structure our great game’s shop window would fall flat, its marketing dollars lost to any number of other sporting pursuits. Domestic stalwarts lead the way forward, providing a backbone to sides now more than ever composed of young men with lofty ambitions cultivated in academies and age group sides without the years of hard graft at club level that once defined the domestic cricketer. Alan Richardson was bestowed the honour in 2012 – it falls to Wright in 2013, the very embodiment of our domestic game. 

Chris Wright is a tireless worker, a man for whom fitness isn’t simply built on roads and in gyms but through innumerable deliveries in the nets, his craft honed through repetition and consistency. The 27 year old lead a strong Warwickshire attack from April to glory – a County Championship in September, the final match against Nottinghamshire little more than a run in the park, the title already safe at Edgbaston. How fitting that Wright should claim the final wicket at New Road, dismissing Worcestershire’s Richardson to secure the crown for the Bears?    

The tall right-armer finished second to Graham Onions on the Championship wicket takers’ list, his 62 scalps costing just 24.06. That Wright took just two five-wicket hauls in 27 innings could be viewed as a lack of killer punch, though those whose views I value speak more of his consistency and the pressure he applied leading to scalps for those around him. 

That Wright was released by Essex in late 2011 shows the level of the turnaround in his fortunes, his ascension to the provisional 30 man ICC Champions Trophy squad last week has all the hallmarks of a soppy Hollywood script – life imitating art?

To keep track of the 2013 County Championship, have a read of ESPNcricinfo’s County blog, One Man and His Dog - a collection of fine writing from those who love their teams, and in many instances the next crop of quality cricketing scribes. 

Nick Compton (Somerset)
There is something inherently magical about the pursuit of 1,000 first class runs before the end of May – not since Graeme Hick flayed all before him in 1998 has the feat been achieved in the County Championship, and then only nine times in the game’s storied history.

Compton sat on 950 on the final day of May, when rain halted play against Worcestershire, though he showed his mettle to kick start June as he steadied his way to 108, his fourth century of the first class summer – the quickest to four figures in 24 years. While others bemoaned the difficult wickets, poor weather and bowler made conditions, Compton simply batted and batted.

In 18 County Championship innings Compton struck four centuries to exceed 50 in eleven of his eighteen knocks – his Bradmanesque average of 99.25 well clear of his nearest rival. He finished the full first class season on a staggering 1494 runs. 

It is a pity no English international will make the list for their deeds at the game’s elite level, though Compton’s inclusion is for a quintessentially English feat and a fine recognition of the strength and importance on the domestic game. His early season form has carried itself into the international arena, his recent efforts in India and New Zealand surely securing his spot for an Ashes clash at home and his first chance to don the three lions in his own country.

Compton will never surpass the deeds of his legendary grandfather, but it must have been a surreal time for the 28 year old to at least be spoken of without a reference to Denis at every turn. That he can join him on Wisden’s hallowed list is a fine tribute to both men.

Marlon Samuels (West Indies)   
Samuels has an attitude and swagger more befitting Floyd Mayweather than a young man donning the whites to lock horns in the gentleman's game, but so did the Master Blaster. He maintains an air of flamboyance, a cricketing embodiment of Caribbean Cool, but during the England series he added a solidity that was previously on hiatus.

He has an engrained confidence that few, beyond the man himself, can shake – the England series saw any suggestion of fragility cast aside. So, why bait a sleeping lion? Samuels relishes in the individual battles that define test cricket - teams would do well to leave him be, allow him to dig the hole that leads to his dismissal. To provide him the verbal ammunition to steel his resolve as Onions, Anderson and Finn did aids no-one but the opposition. Samuels will never be in the class of Brian Charles Lara but on the evidence of the England series, opponents would do well to apply the same rules Australia did to the diminutive left hander and let the ball do the talking – verbal sparring should be reserved for others of a weaker disposition.

Samuels’ previous brushes with the game’s authorities are well-documented – the same aloofness and arrogance shone through in his play in England’s “green and pleasant lands”. His sole “failure” was an opening 31, his only score under 50 in his five test knocks. The powerful right-hander was amongst the West Indies top three scorers in each innings - the rock around which the Windies’ totals were built, the antithesis of Samuels version 1.0.

His 386 runs, at a remarkable 96.50, were 60 clear of Andrew Strauss who lead the English charge, and an astonishing 151 more than the Windies’ Wall, Shivnarine Chanderpaul. With four scores in excess of fifty, including a fine 117 at Trent Bridge, Samuels was the very picture of the consistency lacking in his game for so long.

Samuels deserved better than a 2-0 series loss in recognition of his efforts, but so have Lara and Chanderpaul in the past – individual heroics don’t always translate to team success.

Dale Steyn (South Africa)
Andre Nel was a poster child for “white line fever” - a puppy dog off the cricket field; quietly spoken, genteel even, but give him a cricket ball and regardless of the wicket he transformed into another man. Dale Steyn operates in a similar manner, albeit with far more talent to deliver the killer blow.

The theatrical fist pump and bulging veins are evident whether he knocks over a top order talisman or a tail end bunny – it is not the victim or the circumstance but the delight of winning the battle that spews forth like a volcano, regularly erupting, for there is nothing dormant in Steyn.

Steyn topped the series’ wicket list with 15 at 29.20 but it’s the timing as much as the numbers that mark the character and value of the man – statistics seldom tell the full story. He dismantled Jonathan Trott, removing him on four of the five occasions he was dismissed, negating one of the measured links that hold an England innings together.

He was a shadow of himself on the first day of the series at The Oval, looking like a journeyman going through the motions. However, his opening spell on day two changed the direction of the series and sent tremors through an English dressing room that may have relaxed a little after a dominant opening stanza. Inside five overs England had gone from 3/267 to 5/272 – Steyn knocking over Cook for 114 before removing a hapless Bopara without scoring. They were his only scalps but the dye was cast. Steyn’s 5/56 in the second innings complemented the herculean efforts of Smith, Amla and Kallis, helping his side to a lead they’d never relinquish. 

Hashim Amla (South Africa)
A century to start any test series signals intent – to glide to an unbeaten triple hundred and be the first of your countrymen to achieve the feat tattoos it in the memory of a nation, not just the few tasked with getting a red ball past your defences.

Hashim Amla was a cricketer apart during the three test series in England, which ultimately saw the home team relinquish the Test Mace to the men from the Republic.  His 482 runs at an astonishing 120.5 was more than 200 clear of the series’ next best scorer, his dual centuries the only pair of the three tests.

While Amla may have struggled through his three middle innings the bookend knocks sealed England’s fate. His second ton at Lord’s assured his name remained part of honours board history – Amla’s 121 rounded out his efforts on a deck where all the batsmen struggled. So did Amla, but his class and ability came to the fore - he simply struggled less.

King Hash is a dominant force but in an era filled with outspoken bravado and brash overstatement, the bearded one’s only extroversion is the blade he wields so effortlessly. “I’m not even the second-best batsman in my team” – Amla’s self-deprecation demonstrates the complete lack of ego from a player who could rightly justify having one.

Elizabeth who? The King will ascend to the throne again – long live the King.

Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World
An award to recognise global achievements, introduced by editor Matthew Engel in 2004, the Leading Cricketer in the World is given to the game’s dominant force in the year preceding the Almanack’s publication. 2012 was without doubt the year of Michael Clarke. 1595 runs, five centuries (four in excess of 200) and an average in three figures is one occasion when statistics do justice to the dominance of the individual.

There is no plausible debate, at least not from me, and that from a Kiwi in support of a West Island native – a cold front is making its way to the depths of hell.

The official announcement of all Wisden’s awards is made on Wednesday, April 10 – I’ll be intrigued to see who Booth picks, there is bound to be at least one surprise. Let’s hope no-one breaks the embargo as has happened previously and as Scyld Berry (a former editor; 2008-2011) did in his Telegraph piece on the reinvention of County Cricket – a former editor should have more respect for the little yellow book and those who spend their “hard-earned” on cricket’s bible.

For a snapshot of my love of the little yellow book, read my other Wisden pieces including a detailed history of New Zealand’s contributions to the Cricketers of the Year. With the New Zealand side just named for the return series in May, McCullum, Williamson or Boult may even feature in the five in 2014 – happy days.

Who are your five for 2013? Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.

*The Five didn’t start in 1889 but it’s a long story to re-litigate here – have a read of an earlier post on New Zealand's Wisden Cricketers of the Year which provides a more detailed view of its storied history.  

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