How old is your boy, Dylan, now? I seem to recall on twitter that you gave a birthday party for him the other day. Maybe you bought a Dr Seuss book for him? My kids enjoyed ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ He’s a more philosophical writer than you might think, Dr Seuss.
You should have a look at ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go!’ It’s really quite profound. At a crossroads in their life, some people like to read Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ (‘two roads diverged in a yellow wood’ and all that) but I think Dr Seuss is better. It’s about the choices we make on a journey that is never straightforward. I don’t know whether Dr Seuss ever played sport but he sure had some profound insights into a sporting life.
Dr Seuss knows that when you start out, things seem ever so simple:
‘You have brains in your head You have feet in your shoes You can steer yourself any direction you choose You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.’
What What an impression you made in those early games, firstly in South Africa and then against Australia; forget the swagger, the tattoos and the bling, it was your batting that took the breath away. Every stroke was played with such certainty, such arrogance. I reckon you were at the peak of your powers in the summer after the Ashes series in 2005, when, coincidentally, the Sri Lankans last visited these shores. I don’t believe for a minute that you’ve forgotten that series, nor anybody who watched your hundreds at Lord’s and, especially, Edgbaston where you played sublimely.
There was one shot that is indelibly printed on my mind, and no doubt everyone else who was in Birmingham five years ago. Do you remember? You were toying with one of the greatest spinners to have ever played the game. Murali couldn’t contain you and he was forced to do what Shane Warne had to do a few months later in Adelaide. He packed the leg-side and bowled leg-stump to try to frustrate you. Basically, you reduced Murali, and later Warne, to hoisting the white flag; great attacking spinners battered onto the defensive. It didn’t work.
You can watch your response again any time you want on YouTube. It’s there, in all its glory. The way you casually turned your body around, so that you were facing him as a left-hander; the way you swapped your hands on the bat, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and then the way you clobbered him for six over point.
Your impudence sparked off some debate. What to call this new stroke? Technically it wasn’t a common-or-garden reverse sweep because you had swapped your hands on the bat, so most people settled on the baseball term, the switch hit. This then provoked more angst? Should it be allowed? If a bowler cannot change which hand he delivers the ball with without telling the umpire first, then why should a batsman be allowed to swap his guard? Eventually, the guardians of the Laws, the MCC, issued their verdict. All was ok. You had stirred things up though. This is how it used to be, remember?
Dr Seuss knows, though, that even the best players have difficult times:
‘Wherever you’ll fly you’ll be the best of the best Wherever you go, you’ll top all the rest Except when you don’t. Because sometimes you won’t. I’m sorry to say so, but sadly it’s true
That the bang-ups and hang-ups can happen to you……
And the chances are then that you’ll be in a slump
And when you’re in a slump, You’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.’
By normal standards you are not in a slump. By your previous standards, though, and by the standards set by the game’s greatest players, you have had a wobble. You haven’t scored a one-day international hundred since 2008- there have been just two hundreds in your last ninety innings for England- and your Test performances have been erratic, not helped by the injuries to your Achilles tendon and groin and the hurt you still feel over the way you were treated as captain.
And then there’s this problem- it is certainly more than a coincidence now- with these pesky left-arm spinners. Kind of irritating isn’t it when you know you have a weakness and, worse still, when everyone else knows it? That the moment you walk in this week, Rangana Herath will probably be brought into the attack, and everyone watching will be sniggering about it.
Everyone is still talking about you, but now not so much in terms of wonderment but puzzlement. The National Selector had to defend your inclusion the other day. You seem so much more an English player now, with all the attendant uncertainties and forced humility that involves. Andrew Strauss, your captain, recently said that you are desperate to be liked but don’t know the best way to go about it. Please don’t take this need too far. Assimilate culturally if you will; leave a little South African devil and arrogance in your batting.
Dr Seuss knows a little of your predicament in recent times:
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?
Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.
You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.
You have been in- are in?- the dreaded Waiting Place: into your fourth decade now, 71 Tests to your name, millions in the bank, happily married, doting father and a seemingly contented life in Chelsea, sparring on twitter with Piers Morgan and presenting BAFTAS. It is, of course, possible to combine both a contented private and successful public life but I’m damn sure that a sportsman cannot achieve greatness or fulfil his potential if he doesn’t commit to it. Commit, that is, every ounce of himself to his talent.
Am I implying that you are not committed? No because I’ve not seen many England players train and prepare as assiduously as you, although Andy Flower’s comments following your departure from the World Cup encouraged that suspicion. No, I’m saying that there is a difference between a commitment to training and practice and publicly made statements of devotion to the cause, to a real desire and hunger to make the best of yourself.
‘I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll play lonely games, too,’ says Dr Seuss, ‘games you can’t win, ‘cos you’ll play against you.’ This, really, is the battleground that will define the rest of your career. You are not playing against Sri Lanka this week but yourself: any part of you that wants to take an easy route; that is happy to reflect on what has been achieved and is happy to float around in a twitter-obsessed world. Do you want to be remembered when you finish as a great player?
You sounded on good form in the build up to this Test. Typically gushing. (Can anybody really be so ‘ecstatic’ to be in Cardiff- it’s hardly Paris in spring?) Still, you sounded hungry and ambitious. Ten thousand Test runs? Most Test centuries by an England batsman? Your talent demands that you get there.
Happily, in ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go!’ Dr Seuss finishes optimistically:
‘And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed, (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.) Kid, you’ll move mountains! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting So…… get on your way!’
Best of luck, Mike