Today I’d like to introduce a new TFT guest writer. His name is James Wilson. He’s a cricket author and former lawyer. I enjoyed this, and I think you will too …
Peter Jackson Eastwood’s entertaining feature on dibbly dobbler medium pacers is a reminder that cricket fans, especially English ones, have always had a soft spot for a decent cricketer who isn’t any more (or less) than that. The sort of chap who is chosen for international duties, but who turns out to be just below test standard – or, in the uncharitable parlance of the terraces, slightly crap.
Of course, how good or bad any cricketer is rather depends on one’s expectations. Averaging mid-40s with the bat would do for most, but not for someone being hailed as ‘the new Tendulkar’.
Over the years, a few players have been lumped with expectations that even genuine greats would struggle to meet, never mind an ordinary player. Australia for a time was mad enough to wonder if someone might be the ‘new Bradman’ (Doug Walters suffered that label for a short time). New Zealanders were realistic enough to know there wasn’t going to be a ‘new Hadlee’, and instead lowered their hopes to wanting ‘a partner for Hadlee’ – a new ball bowler who wouldn’t get treated like one of Mr Eastwood’s spare parts trundlers. (Sadly, even that reduced expectation never really happened in RJH’s career.)
England, however, takes no lessons from anyone when it comes to putting unfair expectations on its players. And for two decades, the cruellest expectation was the label applied to anyone who could sort of bat and sort of bowl – the ‘new Botham’.
After Andrew Flintoff’s glorious summers of 2004 and 2005, Peter Hayter in Wisden announced that the search had finally ended. In retrospect, we can see that while Fred in 2004 and 2005 played at least as well as Botham ever did, the selectors had experienced much and learned nothing. Not long afterwards, Fred was made captain and had no more joy in the role than Beefy – worse, in fact, since he suffered the bowling captain’s curse of never knowing when to take himself off.
Flintoff, then, was the exception that proved the rule. Among his predecessors, Hayter singled out David Capel, Derek Pringle, Craig White, Phil DeFreitas, Chris Lewis, Dominic Cork and Alex Tudor, whose collective stats were 198 tests, 5,253 runs at 18.49 and 542 wickets at 34.79. (In comparison, Flintoff had 79 tests, 3,845 runs at 31.77 and 226 wickets at 32.78, while Beefy managed 102 tests, 5,200 runs at 33.54 and 383 wickets at 28.40).
So, with a nod to that 2005 article, here is a team of the New Bothams, with just a slight tweak or two to incorporate a wicket keeper and a batsman who redefined the concept of unfair expectations:
1. Alex Tudor. Not exactly an opener, but nor was Beefy save for the odd ODI, so we have to make do, especially since most pseudo-Bothams were bowlers who batted a bit rather than the other way around. Besides, he scored 99 not out as a nightwatchman, so is clearly adaptable to the top order (will be pleased Graham Thorpe won’t be his partner next time he gets into the 90s).
2. David Capel. No? Well, he batted at no. 6 in 9 tests for England, which is more than most, so he therefore takes one for the team by opening. Capel told Hayter about the press following his debut in 1987: ‘If they asked, I did say, in my naivety, that I wanted to play like Botham. And somehow that would get twisted into criticism of him.’ No surprise – anything Botham himself said usually got twisted into criticism of Botham as well.
3. Graeme Hick. Some explanation here is required. Hick was not, of course, hailed as a new Botham. It was worse – he was hailed as the one and only Graeme Hick. The more county runs he scored while waiting for qualification for England, the more absurd the predictions became. In his early international days, he received too little faith, and in his later years he received too much perseverance. Hick can explain to everyone else on the team what it really means to have unfair pressure.
4. Adam Hollioke. A mixed martial artist as well as an allrounder, who will therefore handle himself in any fisticuffs with Australians or commentators. His test bowling average is actually better than his first class one, and he was a Wisden cricketer of the year in 2003. Only four tests, so another classic English 1990s career.
5. Dominic Cork. Such a glorious debut, such ridiculous expectations afterwards. I mostly remember him with genuine admiration for seizing the moment against West Indies at Lords in 2000 – Beefy would have loved that situation, and could not have done better than Cork that day even in his pomp.
6. Andrew Flintoff. Has to be included as the man who finally put a stop to all the new Botham nonsense by being the one and only Freddie Flintoff. He will also be captain, because that’s exactly what no Beefy – or Fred – should ever be. Let’s hope he uses all the bowlers at his disposal rather than overdoing it himself, and let’s hope even more that he doesn’t declare with Hick on 98.
7. Chris Lewis. Could have done so much more – the one player whose ability seems to have been of a piece with Flintoff and Botham; instead he was a prisoner of his own demons on the pitch – and ended up a prisoner of Her Majesty off it.
8. Phil DeFreitas. Probably wasn’t far wrong when he described himself as the most recalled player in history, though in fairness it is a struggle to work out how he played 44 tests with a batting average below 15 and a bowling average over 33. Always a popular chap, to add compliment to insult.
9. Geriant Jones. A few keepers have been chosen in the hope that they could bat, but if they weren’t Matt Prior or Alec Stewart (chosen as a batsman in the hope he could keep) they usually disappointed. The recall of Jones over Chris Read for the 2006/7 Ashes was not one of Duncan Fletcher’s finest moments.
10. Derek Pringle. England’s answer to Gary Sobers, except possibly in cricketing terms. Plus he was picked for the wobblers’ XI. Is there any all-time XI he wouldn’t be selected for? Opened the bowling in a World Cup and does so here as well.
11. Darren Gough. Hard to remember, but on his explosive debut (sound familiar?) he bashed a half century against the Australians, thus giving rise to hopes which swiftly vanished on the batting front, but his endless ebullience on and off the pitch always reminded one of Beefy’s attitude to life and cricket. Sharing the new ball with Pringle ensures the latter won’t get all the honours. On the subcontinent in 2000/01 he was genuinely special; shame the Australians chopped him down to size later that English summer.
12th man: A tough call here as there were so many middling players who didn’t often get the nod – Craig White for a start, or Dermot Reeve. Instead, let us choose the anti-Botham, a county journeyman who, a bit like Dave Pod, was always in with a shout of getting a sniff of a nod, Robin Martin Jenkins. He batted a bit, bowled a bit, and was nearly considered for selection. Hence as far as new Beefys are concerned, he could have been a contender to be a contender to be someone else.
And there we have it: a team which promised much once upon a time, but most of whom won’t survive the selectorial axe for long. Their best legacy (probably thanks to Flintoff) is that today’s match-winning big hitting/fast bowling all-rounder who is prone to some public vicissitudes off the pitch is never called a new Botham or a new Flintoff, but instead gets by under his own name of Ben Stokes.
© James Wilson 2018