I guess that most people would agree with Michael Vaughan, who stated in a recent newspaper article that Ben Stokes is capable of turning himself into top-notch Test batsman. He has the technique, he has all the strokes, he has the temperament….he just has to rein himself in a little bit when the situation demands, and he could easily haul his average up into the 40s (generally regarded as the gold standard of a very good Test batsman). Sooner or later, his dodgy knee is going to prevent him from bowling as much as he would like, so why not throw away the ball and take his bat with him to bed every night?
As it happened, I thought the same about Ian Botham, when successive back injuries started to take their toll on his effectiveness as a bowler. Never let it be said that Botham was a slogger. He could slog but he was possessed a perfect technique and was capable of playing any type of innings on any type of pitch against any type of bowling. It’s just that he was never a Roundhead; he much preferred to play the part of the Cavalier. I thought the same about Andrew Flintoff, too. People remember his inspirational bursts of fast bowling but in addition to his 226 wickets, he scored 3,845 runs in Tests and could, and perhaps should, have averaged more than his 31.77. Of the four recognised great all-rounders of the 1980s, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee and Botham himself, perhaps only two – Botham and Imran – could have been described as Test batsmen in their own right. Kapil and Hadlee would be classified as bowlers who could bat – and often did, very effectively. And let us not forget another imperious all-rounder operating only a few years earlier. Mike Procter played only seven Tests because of Apartheid South Africa’s isolation, but he scored 48 first-class centuries (another fact often overlooked because of his bowling feats).
But perhaps I and like-minded thinkers are barking up the wrong tree. The question should not be why but more to the point, why ever not? We are misunderstanding the psychology of the all-rounder. Why should he not go hell-for-leather with a bat in his hand? If he holes out or is bowled having a go, so what? He can still turn a game with the ball in his hand. And vice-versa. It may be a day when his bowling is carted all round the park, but he can still play a match-winning innings. You see, they are not beset by the same fear of failure as specialised batsmen or bowlers. Would you want Stokes to turn himself into a pusher and prodder? I pity the coach who tries to instil a safety-first attituded in him. Fortunately, the current England set-up have no such plans in mind. Likewise, Flintoff and Botham had similar maverick instincts. It goes with the territory.
I was not an all-rounder, not really, though I made myself into one. I rarely bowled at school or at university and it was as a batsman that I was employed by Hampshire. Then two catalysts coalesced, with happy consequences. Hours at practice in the nets forced me – all of us, really, apart from the wicket-keepers – to learn how to bowl properly. And two seasons playing in South Africa, where I found the Kookaburra ball, the proximity to the sea and hard, bouncypitches conducive to swing. In my case it was the Swinging Seventies. A genuine all-rounder, you might say.
Except I wasn’t really. I was a bit of an imposter, a batsman masquerading as a bowler, with none of the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care, gung-ho attitude of the true all-rounder. It’s all a question of mindset, attitude, self-belief. All-rounders seem to play with a smile on their face, apparently without a care in the world. They cheerfully accept failure as part of the deal, for on the next day, they can go out and do something else that’s just as much fun, sometimes more so. Seize the occasion, take the opportunity, smell the roses, live for the day. Carpe diem. Eat, drink, be merry and play your shots, for tomorrow we may….well, have a bowl.
Garry Sobers, whose reputation as the greatest all-rounder the world has ever seen is undisputed, was similarly temperamentally disposed. He was a gambler but had a gambler’s instinct for the main chance. (What is his success ratio on the gaming tables I do not know but he was – and remains – fond of a flutter or two.) His greatest gamble – on the cricket field, at any rate – famously backfired. On England’s tour of the West Indies in 1968-69, the cricket was noted for its turgid and defensively-minded play (most of it by England, it has to be said). The 4th Test in Trinidad was similarly heading for a stalemate before Sobers, the captain, got fed up with how things were (not) progressing and called his batsmen in, setting England a target of 216 runs in 53 overs to win. Nowadays, that target would probably be knocked off comfortably in 40 overs but there had been nothing hitherto in the England batting that suggested they were capable of such a run chase. Colin Cowdrey, England’s captain, was dubious they could manage it, but he waspersuaded otherwise by his team-mates and in the end, England prevailed, amidst scenes of almost unbearable tension, with three balls to spare. Sobers was excoriated by the West Indian press and public. That night, his effigy was hanged and burned in Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain and his reputation as a captain never recovered. “That declaration and result followed me for the remainder of my career,” he said.
Notwithstanding this setback to his captaincy, Soberscontinued to play his cricket in a positive and attacking vein, with one triumph following another, rarely taking a backward step. His skills were sublime, and nothing impinged on his cheerful disposition with bat or ball in his hand, modest in victory and generous in defeat (though there were not many of those). He epitomised the spirit and the disposition of the all-rounder par excellence. Ben Stokes might not approach him in consistency of levels of performance at the very highest level but my goodness, like Sobers, he empties bars and galvanises his team and spectators with dreams of the impossible. “Sheer box office,” as my old team-mate, Barry Richards, proclaimed.
As my concluding exemplar of the mentality of the all-rounder, let me go back a further generation than that of Sobers’. Keith Miller is remembered as one of that famous Australian fast-bowling partnership together with Ray Lindwall. What is often overlooked is that Miller started out on his cricket career as a batsman and indeed batted as high as No.5 in his early Test matches. It was Bradman who encouraged, nay insisted, that he bowl fast, instructions that he, a mercurial individualist, did not always carry out. He was his own man and played the game with a chivalrous disregard for the win-at-all-costs attitude of his puritanical captain. He embodied the philosophy that there was more to life than cricket, an attitude that can be fully understood when his wartime experiences as a pilot in the Royal Australian Airforce during the Second World War is brought to mind. “Pressure?” he growled when asked about the tension of playing in an Ashes Test match, “Pressure is when you have a Messerschmidt up your arse!”
All-rounders? They’re a different breed.