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Not Bad for a Club Cricketer – Marcus Trescothick tames the Proteas

Marcus Trescothick
Marcus Trescothick

When most England cricket fans think of 2005, their thoughts turn immediately to the great Ashes series which took place during the British summer of that year. However, in the preceding South African summer, Marcus Trescothick gave us a taste of things to come in Johannesburg. In Masterly Batting, author James Mettyear recalled the events leading to what the editors of that book determined to be the seventh best Test century of all time, and in tribute to the recent retiree CricketWeb is proud to feature that essay in its entirety.

When Marcus Trescothick took guard at the start of England’s second innings of the fourth Test at The Wanderers, he did so amid muttered disquiet from within the ranks of the travelling press corps. He had failed in the first innings, launching himself at a full delivery from Dale Steyn with his front foot some way from the ball and edging to Mark Boucher for 16. Caught behind: a not unfamiliar mode of dismissal. His form had been patchy throughout the series and what with the Ashes in the coming English summer and his record found wanting against Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie in particular, there were calls from some to drop him down the order and so ‘protect him from the moving ball’.

It was not for the first time. Even when he was blasting the quickest and most skilful of fast men or the most skilful of spinners with an exhilarating dominance perhaps not seen in an England opener since Colin Milburn briefly flared, there remained among many English cricket followers, persistent doubts about Tressie.

It was not that they mistrusted the man. This cricketing son of Somerset with a name as if chiselled from a Cornish tin mine; the apple-cheeked yeoman whose natural affability hid a staunch dependability as sure as his bucket hands in the slips, was a stalwart, plain and simple. Self-effacing, loyal, the archetypal good egg. As Michael Vaughan put it in his 2005 autobiography: ‘He is the ultimate team player…just about as dependable a guy as there is in the dressing room’.

No, it was not the man we worried about. At least, not then, not before he had told us, with such brave candour, of his illness. It was not the man. It was the technique. The technique, honed though we knew it to have been, that triggered the unease. The feet were the problem. Despite the honing, they didn’t seem to want to move and were thus heretical to the long held orthodoxy that they must. Small wonder the likes of Christopher Martin-Jenkins remained ever unconvinced.

But it wasn’t just the purists. We all, as England followers, couldn’t help but fret in the early stages of a Tresco knock. Even if he’d biffed his way to a quick-fire 30 odd, it could still be akin to watching a man on a tightrope. When the mechanism clicked and the rhythm was right, then the coming together of all the workings – head and body held guardsman still and straight; the reflex to gorge outside off stump held in check; outstanding eye, consummate timing and effortless power – all held him in perfect balance and never looking down, he seemed to glide fearlessly, in a bubble of sustained concentration high above the context of the game, of the attack, of the world outside his immediate gaze.

But then, at other times, as in the first innings of this game, as if dulled by doubt, he would prod or lunge, stiff-legged, leaden-footed and then topple and fall. And when he fell, he would plummet, dropping like a stone through all the strata of the game to land without safety net amongst the knowing refrain of pundit and public alike: ‘Great eye. Awesome power. Doesn’t move his feet. Club cricketer.’

It was a reluctant chorus for the most part, in deference as it was to his palpable decency and in recognition of all the times it went right, but it was there nonetheless. And, it has to be said, even among his most ardent admirers, not without reason. Throughout Trescothick’s career, periods of serene dominance had been punctuated by alarming slumps in form. As a youth he had blazed his way into the record books. His diet of sausages and fizzy pop and a resultant frame he himself would later describe as ‘on the portly side of chubby’ no impediment to his summary dismissal of age group, senior club and junior international attacks. Leaving his comprehensive school with a single GCSE, he joined the Somerset staff in 1992 at just 16-years-old. His baptism in the first team came the following year and began with so dismal a run of scores – 1, 3, 6, 28, 0, 4, 0, 0, 7, 2 – that the candle lit as schoolboy prodigy was not just guttering but on the point of being permanently snuffed out.

But then the following first full year in the first team, the runs flowed again. He scored 2.500 of them in all forms of cricket, including 924 at 48.63 in the County Championship. Pretty impressive for an 18-year-old. It was to be a year of plenty, however, that presaged nigh on seven of famine. These were the wilderness years when things fell into place only occasionally; his greatest strength, his unquenchable appetite for tucking into balls outside his off stump, also time and time again his undoing. Unfulfilled early promise drifting toward a premature exit from the higher levels of the game. Club cricketer.

In the winter of 1998-99, in a last ditch effort to turn the tide, he battled the homesickness and travelled to Australia to work with Peter Carlstein, the world-renowned South African batting coach, and play grade cricket. And it was there that he had the epiphany that would bring him back from the edge of likely professional oblivion. He describes the moment in his 2008 autobiography Coming Back to Me:

‘And finally, one bright clear day in Perth…one ball in particular told me I was going to be all right. I saw it leave the bowler’s hand, and I recall watching it so closely that the rest of what followed happened in super slow-motion even though it was travelling around mid-80s mph. I saw it pitch about two yards from me and slightly to my offside and realized I had all the time in the world to make a clear choice whether to play it or not. And in the instant I made my decision to leave it, a small happy bomb went off inside my head. I’d got it. By George, I’d got it.’

And he had. Later that summer, on a fast pitch at Taunton under the discerning gaze of the then Glamorgan coach, Duncan Fletcher and carrying with him the new knowledge that he could leave the ball if he wished, he elected not to and hit the then decidedly quick Jaques Kallis repeatedly out of the ground. He reached 167 with 25 fours and five sixes. The next highest score was 50 and he had caught the future England coach’s eye.

Opening his England account with 79 for the one-day side in July 2000 against Zimbabwe, his five-day debut followed the same year in the third Test against the West Indies. He began well, scoring 66 in the first innings and 38 not out to finish with 190 runs at 47.5 in his three games. From that point on, after a lean second series away to Pakistan, Trescothick would remain at the forefront of the Fletcher/Hussain England resurrection that followed the nadir of their home defeat to New Zealand the previous summer. On his first tour, he was asked to join the management committee with an express remit from Nasser Hussain to keep a check on banter drifting into bullying; on the 2002-03 tour to Australia he was appointed vice captain.

By the time of the Johannesburg Test at the start of 2005 he had scored 4,207 Test runs at 42.49, including nine centuries. That the first two of these were in losing causes, served as testament to his ability to hold his head still and clear when those around him were losing theirs. Innings of 122 at Galle against Chaminda Vaas and Mutiah Muralitharan (no other Englishman made 50) and a second innings 117 against Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram at Manchester (again where only one other batsmen reached 50) gave the lie to C M-J’s rather dismissive description of him in the Times before the Wanderers’ Test as one who ‘where the ball is moving through the air or off the pitch is fodder for a thorough-bred bowler.’

And yet, even then there had been wild fluctuations in form. Calmly assured highs, followed by, at the time, baffling lows most, but not all, coinciding with time spent away from Taunton. Times when we’d watch him edge to the cordon yet again, turn and with his knock-kneed stride walk swiftly from the crease, his rounder-shouldered form somehow already softening into the lurking tubbiness he’d fought against since youth. In the 18 months before the 2004-05 tour to South Africa, there’d been an unfulfilling home series against the Proteas until the final match at The Oval where, with a game-moulding 219 in the first innings and an unbeaten 69 in the second, he provided the platform for England to draw the series. There was then an autumn away to Bangladesh (202 runs at 68.66) followed by a scratchy pre-Christmas Sri Lanka tour (167 runs at 27.8); then a bleak spring in the Caribbean (166 at 23.71) before a run-rich home summer in 2004 against New Zealand and the West Indies (641 runs at 53.4). The first six innings in South Africa had seen him register oscillating scores of 47, 0, 18, 132, 28 and 0. Not by any means disastrous but enough to put his us all on edge.

The first three games of the series had ebbed and flowed with the lurching movement of a spring tide. A confident England, ranked number two in the world and unbeaten in 2004, won the first by seven wickets. They stuttered badly in the first innings of the second and then ultimately failed to drive home their advantage allowing the home side to secure a slightly lucky draw. In the third, they emphatically hit the dirt losing to a resurgent South Africa by 196 runs. Level pegging and two to play.

The first three days of the fourth Test followed the same template. England won the toss and on a Wanderers’ pitch of uncharacteristic low bounce, an imperious Andrew Strauss with 147 supported by Robert Key dominated the first two sessions taking the visitors to 227-2 before Key fell for 83. After tea though, a previously sluggish Makhaya Ntini, reinvigorated by an enforced ice bath and the second new ball, took the two late wickets of Strauss and Graham Thorpe just before the close. England stumbled to 263 for 4 at the end of an ultimately disappointing day.

On the second morning, under lowering skies and with Ntini and Shaun Pollock making the most of damp conditions, the England middle order folded before a grafting Vaughan, struggling with timing and confidence and supported first by the lively Ashley Giles and then a free-hitting Steve Harmison, took the tourists to 411-8 at the end of a day shortened by bad light.

With further rain forecast, England declared overnight only to wake to sunny skies and a growing Wanderers’ crowd who saw the hosts, let off the hook by woeful English bowling and dropped catches, take their score to 306-6 at stumps on the third day, Herschelle Gibbs unbeaten for a brilliant hundred. At the start of the fourth day, a weary England failed to polish off the hosts who edged past the visitors total to reach 419.

The tourists began their second innings with just two overs to face before lunch and the rollercoaster game still precariously balanced. With Harmison, Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles all carrying injuries, the predicted course was for England to dig in and make the game safe. Losing the match, and with it all chance of winning the series and with that the spectre of embarking on the long-awaited sold-out Ashes summer with wings clipped, meant that pushing for victory was surely freighted with too great a risk. They would have to bat well to secure the draw.

If that was their plan, they couldn’t have got off to a worse start with Strauss, England’s in-form banker, wafting loosely at Ntini at the start of the second over and falling for a duck. Whichever way they were going to play it, there was much now resting on Strauss’s opening partner.

Trescothick began quietly, struggling a little with his timing. At the end of the seventh over he had scored just six from 19 balls, allowing Key to take the lead. But then in the eighth, leaning forward he clipped Ntini off his legs in front of mid-wicket for his first boundary. In the next over, with Pollock attacking him from round the wicket he repeated the stroke, this time waiting a fraction longer and with his head still and body perfectly balanced, the ball eased backward of square and to the rope. The next delivery, Pollock overcompensated and changed his line to further outside off stump to be met with a firm-footed, arms-free lash to the extra-cover boundary. A Tresco trademark. The next ball, just outside off stump was cut hard, a certain four saved by a sprawling Gibbs in the gully. The fifth, again too straight, was picked up from just outside off stump and flicked between mid-wicket and mid-on. This was perhaps the pivot-point over for Trescothick. Fourteen off it, with three fours and each ball played with a controlled intent that made clear ‘Banger’ was not planning to allow the innings to suffer from a lack of momentum.

He lost Key in the following over to Ntini and at 52-2 a period of retrenchment might have been the order of the day. Rather than a drawing in of the horns, however, what followed was a period of play described even by the lugubrious Bob Willis on commentary as ‘scintillating’. Together with Vaughan, who by the end of his first innings had finally played himself into some sort of form, Trescothick put the South African attack to the sword. By the time his skipper fell to Pollock for 54, he had reached 88 off 141 balls with 13 fours and in a partnership of 124 captain and vice captain had taken their side to 175-3 from 47 overs.

This was Trescothick at his stand and deliver best. There were broadsword drives through extra-cover, slashing cuts backward of point as well as brutal pull shots. One of these, to a quick ball from Kallis pitched just short of a length outside off stump with the upper body swivelling swiftly from a rooted base, sent the ball scudding to the mid-wicket fence before the bowler had completed his follow-through. A crunching exemplar of his awesome power and timing. But there were also rapier thrusts: a deft soft-handed dab through gully off Ntini; a leg glance off Pollock and a late cut off Nicky Boje all instances redolent as much of David Gower as the ‘left-handed Gooch’ Nasser Hussain later dubbed him.

But by the end of the fourth day in a match that often seemed, as Wisden editor Mathew Engel put it, ‘four-sided’, the pendulum had swung yet again. Vaughan’s dismissal was followed swiftly by the wickets of Thorpe for one and Andrew Flintoff for seven and it was no surprise when, unbeaten on 101, Trescothick and an out of touch Geraint Jones took the offer of the light.

With England closing the truncated day on 197-5, just 189 runs ahead, it was the home side who finished the day in the more buoyant mood. Five quick wickets in the morning and then, with Harmison’s calf meaning he was unlikely to bowl and Jimmy Anderson still searching for his radar, a post-lunch run chase was how Boje, South Africa’s stand-in captain after Graeme Smith’s concussion in practice, saw things at the end of play. England’s undefeated centurion viewed it differently insisting that, with the Wanderers’ pitch prone to unreliable bounce on the final day, an England win was still on the cards. In fact, with a 30 per cent chance of rain signalled by the forecasters, the draw was firm favourite.

The fifth day began badly for the visitors with Jones caught behind off Pollock in the sixth over of the day for 13: England 222-6. Trescothick, mindful of the need to husband the tail, batted carefully at first but then, with Giles as foil, he dispensed with the sword, brought out the bludgeon and proceeded to pulverise the South African attack with a controlled brutality that belied his ever-benign mien. It was heady stuff. When Giles fell for a quickfire 31 with the score at 272 and Matthew Hoggard was out two runs later, ‘Banger’ upped the pace still further and put on a further 58 with Harmison whose contribution was just three. Particularly unforgiving of Boje, who he hit for two sixes and three fours in the space of two overs, he was finally out, caught Boucher, bowled Ntini for 180 off 248 balls with 24 fours and four sixes.

It was a masterly innings. In a match that mattered, in the unpredictable conditions of the Highveld summer on a pitch which though fundamentally solid was never entirely straightforward, it was played out against an attack which held the threat of four bowlers – Ntini, Kallis, Pollock and a young Dale Steyn – who would all take more than 250 Test wickets. It was also chanceless. Indeed, save for an inside edged four from an Ntini delivery that lifted from a length early in his innings, it contained scarcely a false shot. ‘Fodder to the thoroughbred bowler’? Hardly.

Throughout the heart of two days of pulsating Test cricket, Trescothick played, as he later described it, as if batting in The Matrix: ‘I experienced that super slow-motion effect almost from the first ball I faced and…just felt the ball that had not yet been invented that could actually get me out.’

It was the pace of the innings as much as its size that allowed Michael Vaughan to declare on 332 at the fall of Trescothick’s wicket and leave South Africa to score 325 in little more than two sessions. From there, despite Smith coming in at number 8 still groggy from his concussion and battling his way to a brave unbeaten 67, an inspirational spell of bowling from Mathew Hoggard with a Test best spell of 7-61 off 18 overs (including Kallis, caught Trescothick first ball) carried England to an unlikely 77-run triumph.

In the afterglow of Hoggard’s heroics, Trescothick’s masterpiece was almost forgotten. No matter. For the man who Nasser Hussain, described as ‘almost too nice for the top job’, and who always put the team before self, the fact that Hoggard garnered the primary plaudits would have bothered Tressie not a jot.

Unsung or otherwise, however, it was the yeoman with the heart of willow who formed the platform for the victory that, after a rain-affected drawn fifth Test in which 130 overs were lost, proved to have launched his side, first to a series victory and from there perhaps to that unforgettable Ashes summer. As Geoff Boycott wrote at the time: ‘Marcus Trescothick played so well…It was his innings that gave Hoggard the opportunity of winning the match. He’ll find it difficult to play a better and more important innings in his career.’

Doesn’t move his feet? Who cares? Neither did Graeme Pollock. Trescothick would finish the series with 448 runs at 44.80. In April, he would be named as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year. By the end of the summer he was an Ashes hero.

Not bad for a club cricketer.

 

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