Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: Both cricket and life involve a series of apprenticeships

Learning from each other is what makes a great team
February 28, 2024

In September 1960, before going to university, I got three weeks of work experience as a (so-called) carpenter’s mate through one of the players in my father’s cricket club, who worked as a manager on the job. The site was exceptional—Marlborough House in St James’s, where the Queen Mother had lived until her death in 1953. It was being renovated in preparation for a lease to the Commonwealth Secretariat, as is still the arrangement today. 

The carpenters who worked on the house were of two types. The older, trade-union craftsmen did delicate work, slowly, steadily and skilfully repairing the sash windows in the grand reception rooms. They were conscious of hard-won rights and requirements—long apprenticeships, tea breaks, lunch breaks, pay rates that recognised seniority. They moaned as steadily as they worked, in drab London accents, much of it sotto voce. The other group were young men from Barbados, animated, energetic, patois-speaking. Predictably, the trade unionists had little time for them, contemptuous of their having, they intoned, recently arrived off a boat “untrained, with a hammer and a saw in a paper bag”. The Bajans were given minor, routine jobs. I remember standing around “helping” them put up a false ceiling in a side-room; they swarmed over the ceiling, animatedly talking in what was to me an incomprehensible accent. They were fun. Both sets of carpenters were in their own ways kind to, or at least tolerant of, me. 

The composition of the England cricket touring party to India this winter, and the selection of the teams for the first two tests, takes me back to this situation. The point of comparison is not about attitudes to race, but apprenticeships and seniority. The ultimate craftsman, Jimmy Anderson, has moments when he is not averse to a good moan, while the rest of the bowling attack has been raw and inexperienced. Tom Hartley, Rehan Ahmed and Shoaib Bashir have more than a saw and a hammer, but they don’t have much more experience than the Bajan carpenters. Hartley and Bashir were each playing in their first tests, with 20 and six first-class matches behind them: Ahmed had played in one test, over a year before, in Pakistan, but only 13 first-class matches.

I wonder what the bowlers of my playing days would have muttered had they witnessed such selections. Raymond Illingworth, say, or Fred Titmus—I could name many more—had played six days a week for at least five months every year, in long, two-innings-a side matches, enduring a wide range of conditions, over several seasons, before being selected for England. I would have agreed with them that it takes time to learn the difficult trade of slow bowling. A test team, I would have thought, could barely accommodate one such inexperienced bowler, let alone two or three.

Contrast the Indian team for the same matches. Two of their three spinners at Hyderabad—Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja—had taken 500 test wickets between them in matches they had played together; in India, they had been especially dominant. The third, Axar Patel, had played in 13 tests and 53 other first-class matches. When Jadeja was ruled out for the second match, at Visakhapatnam, because of injury, they had Kuldeep Yadav to call on; he had already played in eight tests and 34 four-day matches. 

I wonder what the bowlers of my playing days would have muttered had they witnessed such selections.

And yet, and yet… the young England bowlers bravely stuck to their task. At Hyderabad, where England won an extraordinary match by 28 runs, it was the Indian spinners, with their vast experience, whose accuracy was challenged by bold, innovative batting. Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope and Joe Root were versatile and daring, but also skilful in the ways they employed both more-or-less orthodox sweep strokes and reverse sweeps. Apparently perfect deliveries were dispatched in unusual directions. Fielders had to be placed to guard these boundaries, which meant that other positions were vacant. And the bowlers’ lengths were disrupted, resulting in more half-volleys and short balls than usual being bowled.

When the turn of England’s spinners came, they didn’t face nearly as many unorthodox shots from India’s batsmen. Nor were they fazed by their own occasional errors, a number of full tosses and long-hops. There were no signs of the “yips”—the panic that can sometimes set in and upset a bowler’s consistency.

Stokes’s attitude was a major factor in the young England spinners’ resilience. He gave debutant Hartley the new ball and kept him on for a long spell despite an early pummelling from the talented Indian opener Yashavsi Jaismal. Later, he persisted with Ahmed. In the second match, debutant Bashir got a long spell in the first innings. 

These bowlers are clearly both talented and confident. Hartley and Bashir are well over six feet tall—an advantage when it comes to getting bounce and bowling above average speed. What’s more, neither seems to have lost the capacity that many shorter bowlers have—releasing the ball so that it goes up out of the hand, above the batsman’s eyeline. 

For his part, Ahmed has strong shoulders and a bustling action—a reminder of Shane Warne, the greatest leg-spinner ever. He puts energy into his deliveries. 

A last word about Hartley. He reminds me of the great Hedley Verity, Yorkshire and England bowler of the 1930s. He has an easy, high action, unforced and reliable. In two matches he has taken 14 wickets. He bats and fields well too—his batting average is higher than his bowling average. He has a good temperament. He is learning fast.  

Athena, the Greek goddess, was born fully formed from the head of Zeus. Maybe Hartley can already repair sash windows.