The best, simply

Talent is an asset (Sparks)

A few years ago I was in a hostelry watching a football League Two play-off final with a friend. After about 30 minutes of this frenetic, route-one free-for-all, he made an interesting observation. “The laws are the same, the shirts are similar and there are 22 players on the pitch. But this is not the same game of football that is played in the Premier League.”

In an earlier posting I highlighted some of the talent challenged players to be found wandering around the lower leagues and how becoming a panel umpire presented me with an opportunity to officiate among – in the main – very good cricketers. Overnight, two decent balls an over in the lower leagues became a minimum of four decent balls an over; fielding became spectacularly better and batters understood how to build an innings.

And on occasions, the match fee which covers petrol and around 10 hours duty is worth a lot more than the actual amount when I have had the pleasure of witnessing a special innings from a class batter or a match-winning spell of fast bowling from a young lad who can maybe make a name for himself. It is not the towering sixes and bludgeoning fours that stick in the mind, rather it is the leg-side nudges, the beautifully balanced cover drives, the shot selection (including leaves outside off stump) and a perfect judgement of runs that enhance the watching experience.

These nuances separate the bish-bash spear-carrying Romans from the few Charlton Hestons on the league circuit. Yes, cricket is certainly a hand-eye co-ordination sport and there are plenty of village blacksmiths who can clear a sight screen before getting caught (literally) with their hands in the Pick ‘n Mix trying to pinch a few more sweets. You can’t display hand-eye natural talent from the pavilion, but you can get to three figures if you know how to manipulate the strike to avoid the sassy leggie who is giving you a hard time knowing your partner has worked him out.

One such player immediately springs to mind. I have umpired two of his centuries, both of which were model innings. An opening bat, from the first over he took charge with a trademark ‘yes, one’ or ‘yes, two’, easing his way to 50 before pushing up the run-rate. I’ve also seen him get out early (on one occasion he got a ball that kept very low and played over it). His reaction was to walk off without the toys coming out of the cot, understanding that this type of incident is statistically rare and that next week his day may come, again. I have never seen him get out to a false shot – the guy is sheer class.

The same nuances apply to bowlers, particularly the opening variety who fancy themselves as the new Sir Wesley Hall. A five-over spell that has brought three wickets might look good in the scorebook but if 20 of those 30 deliveries failed to make the batter play the ball (not to mention the wides that pushed the count up to 35 balls) then the raw talent lottery win is not going to be a jackpot.

The key component that separates good from mediocre is time. I have seen former Premier League footballers in their last hurrahs playing in the lower leagues and despite carrying a few extra pounds of weight (not salary) they still orchestrate the game with closed eyes. A talented batter who reaches a half century will continue annoying the fielding side with deft touches here, a controlled drive for two there and an occasional smack to the boundary to one of the two badly bowled balls in an over. Time itself has nuances – the lethal batting cocktail to reach a century  includes waiting for the ball to come to bat and waiting for the ball that will get you four, or even six.

Good bowlers are also good waiters. If the usual run-up is not working, they try a different angle. If the nagging length outside off stump is keeping the run rate down but not getting rid of the batter who is now on 70, they bring something else out of the locker. And of course, any fielder, however much talent he has, can change the course of a 600-ball game with one throw at the stumps.

And yes, captaincy is also a talent, but that’s an article in itself.