Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Tim Bresnan by Len, the Yorkshire County Kit Man

In our continuing series inviting the world's best cricket writers and bloggers to contribute thoughts on "My Favourite Cricketer", Len the Yorkshire County Kit Man of Last of the Summer Whine explains why his favourite is Tim Bresnan.

(c) Reuters
These are giddy, exhilarating times to be an England supporter. In the space of nine months we’ve seen the Ashes retained and the cream of Australian cricket rendered impotent by a series of emasculating batting collapses, uncoordinated Mitchell Johnson bowling spells and a succession of faceless, wicketless spin options who stood as much chance of stemming the relentless tide of Cook & Trott’s run-scoring as King Canute.

Three crushing innings victories were the result. A tsunami of sporting destruction that left even the most jingoistic Australian fan curled up in the corner of their living room, shielding their eyes from Channel Nine’s coverage and admitting through gritted teeth that county cricket wasn’t quite as crap as they’d always made out.

Five months later, India arrived on England’s shores. A team of big name reputations, confident in their number one status, expected to provide the toughest of competition. Yet within weeks, bodies that had strength for the sprint of 20/20 were revealed to lack stamina for the marathon of test cricket. India’s bowling attack crumbled quicker than a Kolkata pitch and it’s batting line-up, trumpeted as the strongest in world cricket, was reduced to showing all the resistance of Imelda Marcos in a branch of Clarks.

(c) Getty Images
Two more innings victories were added to the three from the previous winter. A whitewash was achieved. And after the final match at the Oval, England was crowned the new top ranked test nation. A triumph signified by the sight of Andrew Strauss holding aloft the ICC’s effortlessly camp test championship mace. A trophy so tacky it made England’s captain look more like Lithuania’s entry for Eurovision than joint architect of one of the most successful teams in world sport.

Joining in the celebrations that day was my favourite cricketer, Tim Bresnan. A player who wasn’t perhaps the catalyst for England’s success, but one who’d become an increasingly integral part of it.

Bresnan’s path to the England side has been a long one. Certainly the slim shouldered sixteen year old who made his first team debut for Yorkshire back in 2001, bowling RP Singh-like mid-seventies seamers, has made quite a transformation to become the England bowler most likely to smash the ball into an opposition batsmen’s fingers.

(c) BBC
Back then, looking on from the stands, I wasn’t entirely convinced he’d even make it as a first-class cricketer. He looked so young; frail almost. A boy in a man’s world. I’d seen Paul Jarvis (who also played for Yorkshire at sixteen) develop into a test cricketer, but at a similar age Jarvis appeared to have more pace and more promise. The chubby-cheeked eighteen year old Darren Gough didn’t give the impression of a future test cricketer either but, even in his first season for Yorkshire, he’d looked equipped to survive the county circuit. But Bresnan? I wasn’t so sure.

The next few years saw a change in body shape, a filling out towards the second row forward physique that seems appropriate for someone raised in the Rugby league hotbed around Pontefract and Castleford. Performances improved year on year. Bresnan proved my doubts ill founded and in the process undertook an apprenticeship in county cricket that was to prepare him for his subsequent international career.
(c) ECB
Clearly England saw his value, with a call up to the one day side coming against Sri Lanka in 2006. I thought at the time it might be a premature move, and the combination of flat pitches, a losing side and experienced international batsmen in prime form saw Bresnan’s bowling being flailed to all corners. Others – Saj Mahmood, Liam Plunkett, Kabir Ali – fared just as badly, if not worse, but the selectors decided that Bresnan wasn’t ready, with some in the press happy to write him off completely.

A return to the county scene saw more improvement. These were the years when his were often the only young pair of legs in an aging, if experienced, Yorkshire attack. These the years of putting in the hard yards; of never getting to open the attack; of only coming on after twenty, sometimes thirty overs had gone. Years of learning to bowl with the old ball; learning to bowl reverse swing; learning when to bowl the yorker, when to bowl the surprise bouncer. Years of learning from Gillespie, Gough and Hoggard.

There was improvement too with the bat. I was there at the Oval in 2007 as the ball rebounded off the sightscreen at the Pavilion End and Bresnan raised his bat to acknowledge a maiden first-class century. I was there at Chelmsford later the same year as he powered his way to a second, this time for England Lions against the touring Indians.

It was partly those performances for England Lions, both home and away, that led him back into the selector’s thoughts. And this time he was better prepared for the step up to international cricket.

(c) Dave Morton
Having one of your players in the England set-up can be a bitter-sweet experience for the county fan. On the one hand you’re delighted for the player, and proud your club has produced him. On the other there’s the knowledge that they’ll either become a success at international level, and therefore unlikely to play much more domestic cricket, or if they fail to make the grade there’s the chance confidence will be adversely affected followed by a slump in form.

Bresnan took another route, becoming a squad player for England who’s often found himself twelfth man and having to make a mad rush on the motorway to join up with a county game already underway. For a player used to bowling regular, long spells, it’s at times affected his rhythm.

Despite that there’s definitely been an improvement in his bowling since the England tour of Bangladesh eighteen months ago. It’s not due to a great technical change – beyond perhaps a slight tightening of his delivery point to closer into the stumps – nor a sudden increase in pace. It’s more that he’s bowling with added confidence. Bowling like a man who’d been told his worth by the England set-up. Bowling like a man who feels he fits into international cricket.

And fit in he does. At the time of writing his test record reads ten wins out of ten, with a batting average of 45.42, a bowling average of 23.60. There are plenty of critics who’ll point to an overall first-class record seemingly at odds with that success. But these are people who watch stats more closely than they do matches. Regular Yorkshire supporters, opposition players and teammates understand the truth. That Bresnan has improved markedly from the teenager first trust onto the county circuit. More importantly, he’s a player motivated by the match situation; one who plays for his team, rather than his average. The success he’s having now is built on the selflessness and hard work of the past.

(c) Tom Shaw/Getty Images
That some people fail to understand that is perhaps part of his appeal. Because Bresnan remains a much misunderstood cricketer. His bowling is generally quicker than he’s given credit for; his batting more considered than the image of the lower order biffer some create in their minds as he walks to the middle. He’s pigeon-holed as ‘stocky’, when he’s actually strong, reliably injury free and full of stamina.

Even England supporters make the mistake of identifying with him for the wrong reasons. Seeing in him a club player wrote large. Feeling that he could be them, as if that was some kind of compliment. The reality is no one watching from the stands could angle the ball into Rahul Dravid then make it hold its line to hit the top of off. Just as they could ever cream Brett Lee through the covers for four in a Champions Trophy semi-final.
Instead we should celebrate what Bresnan actually is. Strong, honest, hard working, selfless, self depreciating and above all skilful. A player appearing to lack pretence. One with no front, no PR, no arrogance.  Just a ready smile backed by the confidence of a man who knows he belongs at the top of his craft.

That’s why he’s my favourite cricketer.

You can find Len's work at Last of the Summer Whine, or follow him on Twitter at @CountyKitMan.

Back to My Favourite Cricketer series homepage.

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