There is something fascinating about Nick Compton, England's snazzily thoroughbred right-handed opening batsman, a player who looks, walks, takes guard and in fact does everything in the manner of a suave and stylish right-handed dasher, other than the minor fact of actually batting like one.
Compton, a late-blooming debutant, looked utterly unafraid in the first Test in Ahmedabad, almost prosaically at home, displaying not just fight and pluck but a kind of alluring tortoise braggadocio. And this seems to be the paradox of Compton, the disjunct between his punchy personality, his evident charisma, and his determination to bat with all the inflamed abandon of a man hiding from the trick-or-treaters behind his curtains. Compton may have the looks of boy-band survivor entering the knitwear-and-dignity phase but he is intent on batting in the manner of a taciturn and hunchbacked recluse.
This is an adopted slowness too. A batsman well capable of flaying a cover-driven six in his time, Compton has made a decision to be slow, adopting successfully the slow methodology. This in turn has its pitfalls. If you are going to be genuinely, overtly slow it pays to be right up there among the very best of the slow. Rahul Dravid, for example, was the apogee of slow, and became widely known as The Wall. Perhaps Compton, who is so far slow and simply quite good, may yet acquire his own nickname, suggestive of something also obstructive but not quite so insurmountable: The Bollard, maybe, or even The Speed Bump.
Of course there is a wider point here. With their current Test top three England have gone further than most would dare. In Alastair Cook (strike rate 47.89), Compton (25.41 but early days) and Jonathan Trott (47.47) England have gone triple slow, front-loading the top six with an anti-dynamite of unfettered cautious accumulation. It is a machismo of slowness, the natural variation of a slow left-handed opening batsman plus a slow right-handed opening batsman, with the added reassurance of a slow No3 to follow. What England are saying to the opposition is: we are unafraid to compete on these terms, bare-knuckle slowness of the rawest kind. You bring a good book and some earplugs – we'll bring a warm, milky drink.
I want to say that this new slowness is a good thing and the temptation here is to celebrate this orgy of temperance, if only because it feels like sticking up for the basic idea of Test cricket, that unique, still core. Slowness always has its seductive currents. Somehow a slow batsman seems more vivid in the memory, infused with kind of gently throbbing vegetable life. Already that Compton forward shove is hugely familiar and oddly more-ish.
Plus, slow batting is perfectly in tune with the rhythms of an overseas tour watched from home, the peculiar drowned world of night-time cricket. There is just something about the sight of those bleached out winter-summer colours in the glowing rectangle in the corner of your living room, the basic mid-winter restfulness of tanned, vigorously awake people doing something gently acquisitive on the far side of the world. On the other hand too much activity in the wee hours can be confusing. Michael Vaughan's wonderful attacking innings on the 2002 tour of Australia were disturbing at times, like having a dose of the flu, chattering and shivering while the ball was scattered about the place with all the clanging dissonance of a car alarm going off after midnight.
Sadly, though, this overt and strategic slowness is probably a bad thing. England are at a disadvantage here. South Africa's top three are rolling along at Smith 59.68, Peterson 51.32, Amla 51.37. India have Sehwag 82.45 (gah!), Gambhir 52.01 and Pujara 53.07.
These figures are of course no more than a barometer of the necessary batting intensity, an indication of a range of available moods (except in the case of Sehwag, who is a strike rate Bradman). But with England there is a feeling they have made a fetish of slow. The success of Trott, in particular, has not just legitimatised slow, but overly legitimised it. Slow is cool. Slow seems to confer a sense of assumed maturity, as though in liking slow it is natural to appear more grown up, more tactically nuanced, or even just more anti-Twenty20.
More than this, uniformly slow looks like a tactical faux pas. It does not matter how you get them, we are often told. But it does a bit. This is not to do with strike rates, a blunt tool, but the internal rhythms of a team innings, of being able to shift and respond, of having the necessary gears. There must at least be the threat of fast somewhere. Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss and Michael Vaughan chugged along but retained a greater impression of urgency, a sense that bad bowling would always be punished.
Perhaps in time Compton can add this, as Cook has and as Trott does in his best form, when his breezy forward-leans through the covers begin to assert themselves. For now Compton, the sultan of slow, will have to be something of a guilty pleasure, like an album of endlessly noodling jazz.
It may not be quite the future but if more evidence were required of the richness of Test cricket, it is perhaps to be found here, in the transgressive thrill of the late-night blocker.
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image: © SmithGreg