June 13, Hampshire Bowl
Three hundred of us collected to celebrate the launch of Robin Smith's book The Judge, subtitled "More than a Game". It was an event staged primarily for Hampshire members, and to their delight, along with Smith himself came Barry Richards and Allan Lamb, ready and willing to do a turn on stage. Richards knew Robin first as a nine-year-old prodigy; Lamb was at the other end when he made his Test debut against West Indies. Both rave about him.
After a dinner of chicken breast and mashed potatoes (if it wasn't for cricket dinners, the country would be overrun with chickens) Robin was first up on stage with me. The years after a life in professional cricket had been hard, so, in search of a fresh start beneath bright blue skies, he emigrated 13 years ago to Perth in Western Australia with his wife, Kathy, their two children, Margaux and Harrison, and his Masuri cricket-helmet business.
The sunshine was there all right but not the rainbow he had hoped to find. Unable to come to terms with life beyond the boundary, Smith sank into depression and alcohol: the business lost its way, his marriage fell apart and the kids lost their respect for a father who did not, and does not, have a bad bone in his body. But that alcohol can be a terrible thing. In short, the Judge was falling, tumbling, careering off a cliff into darkness.
Thoughts, plans even, of suicide take the story as far as we need it to go here. The book reveals all, being at once confronting and entertaining. There is less of his sparkling sense of humour than we might have wanted, but documentation of a life in the game that both rewarded and tore apart in equal measure is a serious business. Rob Smyth, the author, does an excellent job in creating the sense of drama that came close enough to ending in tragedy. Matches and performances for Natal, Hampshire and England are occasionally dwelt upon, but in general, the ongoing sense of surprise that Smith is not quite the gung-ho fellow we supposed him to be is the theme of a story that will catch out the reader and keep him or her turning the pages.
On stage, he told us about two people: one, the Judge, a fearless batsman and party-loving team-mate; the other, Robin, a shy fellow and deeply insecure. The greatest burden, he said, was to please others - by whom he meant family, friends and colleagues - and the responsibility weighed heavy. At times the room gasped; mainly, you could have heard a pin drop; on occasions we belly-laughed at the animated stories of playing against Warne, Hughes, Marshall, Akram et al that he tells so wonderfully well.
The greatest news is that he is back among us and with bells on. The alcohol has long gone, the kids - grown up now - love him to bits, and though he is divorced from Kathy, there is a beautiful, almost spiritual, girl in his life who has done the most to light the candle of the future. He works for his brother, Chris, and runs successful coaching clinics of his own for talented young cricketers. All the while he looks after his parents, Joy and John, who have followed him to the ends of the earth.
We are close friends, and one of the joys of my life was to stand at the non-striker's end in our Hampshire days and watch him play innings that frequently beggared belief. He has travelled the hills and valleys since, but there is no longer a need to weep for him, only to rejoice at his courage and present state of mind. I wrote a foreword for the book and it ends thus:
I read somewhere that he was simply "too nice" to have had the international career he might have done. Nonsense, he's a great bloke, and there is no shame or sense of regret in that. This is the man with whom I would choose to go to the trenches but dare not lose in battle for the pain would be too great. I hope that when you have finished the pages to come, you are able to see why.
Get hold of a copy if you can. If nothing else, The Judge will explain the seduction of professional cricket and the pain of its rejection.
June 14, Hampshire Bowl
England both out-thought and outfought West Indies today. Billed as a fight between heavyweights it was anything but as West Indies collapsed in the face of England's relentless jabs and then knockout blows. Chris Woakes set the tone with a near perfect opening over and Joe Root closed the show with strokeplay that had the Judge purring in the main pavilion's executive suite that bears his name. It is hard to think of a better English batsman than Root - candidates include Ted Dexter, Ken Barrington, Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch and David Gower (I know, Pietersen, but, in the strictest sense he's not English). Anyway, let's leave the appreciations until this summer is done. Commentator's curse and all that.
Worryingly, both Jason Roy and Eoin Morgan left the field with what appeared to be serious injuries; serious enough for neither to have batted unless it became absolutely necessary. Not much has looked as if it will derail England but these might. Morgan's back strain is sure to clear up (famous last words?) but Roy's hamstring will depend on the grade of the tear. If a replacement is needed, I might go for Alex Hales. I know, 'tis a controversial shout but he has every inch of the required game and must surely now have learned his lesson. No? The players could have as big a say on that as the selectors.
June 15, The Oval
Aaron Finch made 153 against the hapless Sri Lankans today. Not since Sachin Tendulkar have I seen such pure straight-driving of the ball. (I probably have but can't immediately think of when.) To achieve this, he has racked up the hours. By nature Finch is a bit of a slugger, who through happenstance has recently had the chance to open for his country in Test cricket as well as in the short forms of the game. An old flaw haunts his batting but he is smart enough to recognise as much and work to eradicate it.
Most batsmen have periods when their head falls across to off stump and they play around their front pad; if not that, then a downward path of the bat that swings from first slip to mid-on. The result is the same. Finch largely gets away with this in T20 cricket but when the bowlers attack his stumps with more vigour, it leads to problems. The key is to set himself to hit the ball back from whence it came - head still and upright, eyes level. This way he keeps his front leg out of the way of the line of the ball and is able to play alongside it, rather than in front of it or around it. It's a practice-makes-perfect routine that was clear and present during a superb innings.
His captaincy was sharp too, particularly the rotation of his bowlers and some cunning field placements. The Australians look united and important players are in form. The only uncertainties come with the make-up of the team, and perhaps the batting order. Will they be as strong as their strongest links or their weakest? The answer may define their tournament.
June 16, Old Trafford
India have no such issue. Private jets filled by fans eager to see Pakistan put away left Mumbai for Manchester in numbers. They pretty much got what they wanted, even if the rain interruptions rather spoilt the clarity of it. Another tremendous Old Trafford pitch encouraged Rohit Sharma to play an innings that matched Finch's the day before. And Rohit is ever so easy on the eye.
How he has not mastered Test cricket is a mystery. He is technically sound, tactically smart and calm under the pressure of a one-day run chase. We can only assume that early failures in the five-day game have festered to the point where the dark side takes hold of his mind. If it were me selecting him, I'd say you're opening the batting for the next year of Test cricket whether you like it or not, so you might as well have some fun while you're at it.
Every shot played by Rohit made the sound of the gods; the punishing of a feeble full toss hit far into the stands was as much a statement as an eye-catching hook stroke and the various cuts and drives. He doesn't get the most-thrilling-shot-of-the day award, though. That goes to his captain, who flushed an off-drive at the top of the ball's bounce to an audible gasp, even from those in the stands who know him well and are in constant thrall of him.
ALSO READ: Rohit Sharma and the magic in his touch
Vastly improved as a leader, Virat Kohli skilfully used his bowlers, especially the wristspinners, who have it in them to win India the World Cup. Kuldeep Yadav found a beauty for Babar Azam, and Yuzi Chahal simply smiled on the couple of occasions when Pakistan batsmen planted his fizzers into the crowd. Talent and temperament, essential gifts for the twirlymen.
July 17, Taunton, 8pm
It's all go. I'm on the train back from the West Country - from the land that once belonged to Botham, Richards and Garner; which isn't in any way to diminish the achievements of Rose, Peter Denning, Ezra Moseley, Colin Dredge, Dennis Breakwell and other honest folk who ploughed the fields alongside them. But it is the first three who made the county most famous, and through them, its place on cricket's global map is assured for all time.
Taunton's place in Shakib Al Hasan's heart is assured too. I know it sounds daft but he batted every bit as brilliantly as Finch and Rohit. This was another superb pitch on which to display modern-day batting talents, and display them he damn well did. His unbeaten hundred was a masterclass of the cut shot and a lesson in scoring without apparent risk. Shakib is the No. 1-ranked allrounder in the world and has been for about as long as any of us can remember - how's that for a coup? Beneath his shyness is the strongest mind and biggest heart, both of which, for so long, have been applied without compromise in service of Bangladesh cricket. Were he English, a knighthood would not be far away.
Time was when West Indies teams would have terrified the life out of Bangladesh. Not anymore. In fact, the men christened tigers back home have now beaten West Indies in eight of their last ten encounters. Enough said.
June 18, Old Trafford
If there was any doubt about Morgan's place at the head of the England table, it was squashed today against Afghanistan. Taking the fifty-fifty call to come in ahead of Jos Buttler (his words not mine) he hit 17 sixes to break a world record for any innings played in the top flight of the game. Seventeen sixes! Soon enough we shall measure the distance of each six, add them up and whichever team goes the longest distance shall be declared the winner. Seventeen! Lined up, they were 1406 metres worth. And he's just a little munchkin really.