Watching Andy Coulson answer the Leveson inquiry’s questions with a dead bat yesterday, the likes of Robert Shrimsley and Tim Montgomerie tweeted that viewing Coulson testify was akin to watching Chris Tavaré bat. Those of you who remember Tavaré will appreciate that this was not meant altogether kindly.
This will not do. I concede that as a child no cricketer infuriated me more than Tavaré. He seemed to me, then, to be some kind of anti-cricketer, forever forgetting that scoring runs – preferably with style – was a batsman’s chief objective. I fear I disliked poor Tavaré as keenly as ever any gum-chewing Australian did. There was, after all, so much to dislike.
He appeared to bat under the impression that there was something mildly distasteful about scoring runs. His hangdog countenance contrived, unusually, to seem both lugubrious and mildly prissy. Then he had this habit – vexing in the extreme – of sauntering halfway to square leg between deliveries, ensuring that, in every bleedin’ respect, the game would proceed at a sub-funeral pace for as long as Tavaré was at the wicket. And that, my friends, could often be a long time indeed. God, I hated him.
Time passes and attitudes change. Sometimes it becomes necessary to re-evaluate people and reconsider past prejudices. Chris Tavaré is one of those cases. The first intimation I might have been mistaken about Tavaré came when he left Kent (the county my brother favours) for Somerset (my own county). Clearly Mr Tavaré was worth a second look. Indeed, at the county level he was, as 24,906 first-class runs demonstrate, a more than useful performer.
(Should you desire a pleasing demonstration of cricketing yin and yang consider the fact that Tavaré’s first-class career record is almost identical to David Gower’s. Gower, of course, was a vastly better player who struggled to motivate himself in county cricket. Nevertheless, their final career figures are starlingly alike in runs, average and centuries scored: Gower passed 50 every 3.846 innings; Tavare did so every 3.854 times he trudged in to bat.)
Most of all, however, age has helped me to appreciate Tavaré. Following a 15 year hiatus, I returned to organised cricket the other year and, my, it’s been a pretty grim experience. One by one the strokes wither away; experience eventually persuades even the stubbornest brain that it’s time to put the cover-drive away for good. All flash and pomp fades until all that is left is a basic, limited repertoire of shunts and prods and nurdles supplemented by the occasional, surprising, perfect leg glance to conjure memories of what it was like when batting was free and easy a quarter of a century ago.
We may bat like Gower in our dreams but Tavaré is the better role model. And so it becomes important to rescue him from my own youthful scorn. Older and perhaps a little wiser now, I can see that a batsman who annoyed Australians so completely must have some merit. Better still, Tavaré pursued his style of batting to almost absurd, magnificently, doggedly English lengths.
He announced himself in just his second test, scoring 42 in five hours against the West Indies in the 1980 Lords Test. Since that Caribbean attack featured Holding, Roberts, Garner and Croft there’s a mad bloody-mindedness to exposing yourself to terror for so long for so few runs. At Manchester the following year he batted for 13 hours against the Australians to make 69 and 78 respectively but these were sprints compared to the epic defensive stuggles to come.
The 1981-82 tour of India was Tavaré in excelsis. He warmed-up with a five-hour, 239 ball 56 in Bombay which included several hours of scarcely-scoring in the compay of Sir Geoffrey Boycott as the pair added 92 in just 59 overs. In Bangalore he did even better, taking three hours to scratch out a measly 22 runs. There was an aberration in Delhi as he rattled off 149 at a scoring rate of 49 runs per 100 balls before happier service was resumed in Calcutta (25 in two hours) and then, most especially, Madras.
This was where Tavaré built a monument to inactivity. He and Gooch put on 155 runs for the first wicket. Gooch scored 127 of them. Tavaré, bless him, spent five and a half hours chiselling out 35 runs. It took him 240 deliveries – three of which he hit to the boundary – to get that far, a scoring rate of 14 runs per hundred balls. Do you know how diffilcult it is to bat like that? In six Indian tests that winter Tavaré scored 349 runs and it only took him 1,601 minutes to get them.
They don’t play test cricket like that anymore and while it would be a shame if everyone played as Tavaré did the game loses something if it’s all about attacking all the time. If no-one bats as a barnacle the game is diminished. Boredom has its uses and value too. Perhaps this is why Shivnarine Chanderpaul has become such a perversely attractive batsman to watch.
Looking back on Tavaré’s career one can discern an almost zen purity to his approach. If the bowlers’ aim was to dismiss the batsman it follows that the batsman’s aim must be to avoid being dimissed. In this zero sum game this guarantees a kind of victory. By which I mean it ensures defeat will be avoided. If the opposition cannot take your wicket they cannot defeat you. Runs are a secondary objective; desirable for sure but not necessarily necessary. As Gideon Haigh, who, it is pleasing to discover, considers Tavaré among his favourite players, observes Tavaré was the kind of Englishman who, like Trevor Bailey, had the ability to "make every ditch a last one". Again, there is something admirable about this.
In his greatest innings – which included an eight-hour 89 in Perth during which he went an entire hour without scoring – I like to think of Tavaré viewing run-scoring opportunities as a disagreeable, even vulgar, distraction from the pure task of surviving. If other batsmen could be as cunning, knowledgable and flexible as foxes, Tavaré was the hedgehog’s hedgehog. He made an epic of his epidemic of not scoring. Runs were for other people as he made just standing there, stranded and runless, a minor art form.
As we grow older we encounter and must learn to nurture our own inner-Tavaré, retreating into a batting carapace and venturing out only to attempt the occasional prod or shovel. There can be glory in dying trying but there’s no need to be a damn fool about these things and, as Tavaré demonstrated, there’s a quiet, mad brilliance in this Beckettesque approach to not-scoring too. Enduring may not always be enough but sometimes it’s all there is.