Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Chris Tavare by Gideon Haigh

In our continuing series My Favourite Cricketer, we invite cricket writers and bloggers to pay tribute to the players they remember most fondly.  This week respected journalist Gideon Haigh encouraged us to post the following excerpt by way of his entry.

Some years ago, I adjourned with a friend to a nearby schoolyard net for a recreational hit. On the way, we exchanged philosophies of cricket, and a few personal partialities. What, my friend asked, did I consider my favourite shot? ‘Easy,’ I replied ingenuously. ‘Back foot defensive stroke.’

My friend did a double take and demanded a serious response. When I informed him he’d had one, he scoffed: ‘You’ll be telling me that Chris Tavare’s your favourite player next.’ My guilty hesitation gave me away. ‘You poms!’ he protested. ‘You all stick together!’

Twenty years since his only tour here, mention of Tavare still occasions winces and groans. Despite its continental lilt, his name translates into Australian as a very British brand of obduracy, that Trevor Baileyesque quality of making every ditch a last one. He’s an unconventional adoption as a favourite cricketer, I’ll admit – yet all the more reason to make him a personal choice.

Tavare played thirty Tests for England between 1980 and 1984, adding a final cap five years later. He filled for much of that period the role of opening batsman, even though the bulk of his first-class career was spent at number three and four. He was, in that sense, a typical selection in a period of chronic English indecision and improvisation, filling a hole rather than commanding a place. But he tried – how he tried. Ranji once spoke of players who ‘went grey in the service of the game’; Tavare, slim, round-shouldered, with a feint moustache, looked careworn and world-weary from the moment he graduated to international cricket.

In his second Test, he existed almost five hours for 42; in his third, his 69 and 78 spanned twelve hours. At the other end for not quite an hour and a half of the last was Ian Botham, who ransacked 118 while Tavare pickpocketed 28. As an ersatz opening batsman, he did not so much score runs as smuggle them out by stealth. In the Chennai Test at the start of 1982, he eked out 35 in nearly a day; in the Perth Test at the end of 1982, he endured almost eight hours for 89.  At one stage of the latter innings, he did not score for more than an hour. Watching on my television in the east of Australia, I was simultaneously aching for his next run and spellbound by Tavare’s trance-like absorption in his task. First came his pad, gingerly, hesitantly; then came the bat, laid alongside it, almost as furtively; with the completion of each prod would commence a circular perambulation to leg to marshal his thoughts and his strength for the next challenge.

That tour, I learned later, had been a peculiarly tough one for Tavare. An uxorious man, he had brought to Australia his wife Vanessa, despite her phobia about flying. Captain Bob Willis, his captain, wrote in his diary: ‘He clearly lives every moment with her on a plane and comes off the flight exhausted. Add to that the fact that he finds Test cricket a great mental strain and his state of mind can be readily imagined.’ You didn’t have to imagine it; you could watch him bat it out of his system.

Tavare could probably have done with a psychiatrist that summer; so could I. Our parallels were obvious in a cricket sense: I was a dour opening batsman, willing enough, but who also thought longingly of the freedoms available down the list. But I – born in England, growing up in Australia, and destined to not feel quite at home in either place – also felt a curious personal kinship. I saw us both as aliens – maligned, misunderstood – doing our best in a harsh and sometimes hostile environment. The disdain my peers expressed for ‘the boring Pommie’ only toughened my alleigiance; it hardened to unbreakability after his 89 in Melbourne.

Batting, for once, in his accustomed slot at number three, Tavare took his usual session to get settled, but then after lunch opened out boldly. He manhandled Bruce Yardley, who’d hitherto bowled his off -breaks with impunity. He coolly asserted himself against the pace bowlers who’d elsewhere given him such hurry. I’ve often hoped for cricketers, though never with such intensity as that day, and never afterwards have felt so validated. Even his failure to reach a hundred was somehow right: life, I was learning, never quite delivered all the goods. But occasionally – just occasionally – it offered something to keep you interested.

You can find Gideon Haigh's books on Amazon.

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