Marcus Trescothick: At the Heart of England

So much has been written about Marcus Trescothick since he stopped playing international cricket that it’s hard to say anything original about him.

As will be obvious, this piece was written in October 2006, just before the Australian tour which he had to abandon almost immediately because of the recurrence of the illness which had led to his early return from India in the spring of that year.

He never played for England again, but I, and a good many others, have continued to have the pleasure of watching him at his spiritual home, the County Ground at Taunton, ever since.

Regardless of the early curtailment of his top-level career, he continues to stand tall as one of the finest batsmen the English game has produced in the last forty years.

I like The Oval.  Things happen there.  Viv Richards scoring 291 and Michael Holding taking fourteen wickets, 1976; Phil Tufnell running through the West Indies, 1991; Devon Malcolm taking nine South African wickets, 1994; England coming from behind to beat another South African side with Marcus Trescothick making 219, 2003.

And, in September 2005, I was lucky enough to be there on the day England regained the Ashes, marking the glorious end of the initial phase of their journey from the darkness of 1999 into the light of 2005.

In the aftermath of England’s triumph, plaudits for those deemed responsible for the team’s transformation were freely cast around by the media.  To Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher, Michael Vaughan and Troy Cooley, Stephen Harmison and Andrew Flintoff.  Others though, while just as influential, often seemed to be overlooked.  Marcus Trescothick, an almost permanent fixture as an opener in the England side since his debut in the summer of 2000, is one such figure.  While the reception accorded his magnificent but ultimately fruitless 193 at Multan in the first Test of England’s series in Pakistan in November 2005 redressed the balance a little, he remains a somewhat marginal figure among the ranks of England’s modern cricket heroes.  This uneasy status was confirmed by the mysterious manner in which he abruptly left England’s Indian tour in early 2006, returning to his Taunton home with many questions about his departure unanswered.

While Trescothick’s reserved manner doesn’t stimulate the type of public affection accorded to his more extrovert colleagues, there has always seemed to me to be a certain snobbery about his batting technique.  In short, at least until Multan, many in the media persisted in believing that because Trescothick has a natural tendency to rely on a minimal amount of footwork, he couldn’t possibly be as good as his excellent Test record suggested.

For example, in the summer of 2004, when Trescothick failed twice at Old Trafford against the West Indies, an immediate debate began in certain quarters of the media over whether he – and the England team – would benefit from his relinquishing the opener’s role and moving down the batting order.  The fact that, in the previous Test match at Edgbaston some two weeks earlier, Trescothick had made a century in each innings while opening the batting was either forgotten or deliberately ignored with depressing speed.

Also, when in the spring of 2005 Trescothick filled his boots against a weak Bangladesh attack to the tune of 194 at Lord’s and 151 off 148 balls at Chester-le-Street, Andrew Miller, in The Wisden Cricketer, wrote of Trescothick’s ‘leaden-footed teeing-off’ and implied that he would stand little chance of succeeding against Australia.

Of course, as we now know, Trescothick’s assured demolition of the Bangladesh bowling was the prelude to the most successful of his three full series against the Australians.  Heading the order throughout England’s Ashes victory, he made 431 runs at 43, statistics which indicate a worthy contribution to the cause but do not reflect the significance of his overall contribution. Trescothick’s highest score of the series – and his highest score against Australia to date – 90, came on the first day of the Edgbaston Test and was vital in setting the tone of England’s fightback after their abject capitulation at Lord’s.  This was typical Marcus: belligerent, versatile, powerful and uncomplicated.  When, on that Birmingham morning, he hit Warne back over his head for six and then repeatedly creamed Brett Lee through the covers for four, he was re-defining the parameters of England’s hopes in the series.  Many, including me, felt that the inevitable consequence of Lord’s would be a further series of lost matches and an inexorable slide towards a ninth successive Ashes series defeat.  For England to avoid such a fate it was always going to be essential for them to start well at Edgbaston.  And, when they did, to the tune of 407 on the opening day after being put in, no-one did more than Trescothick to establish in the minds of the British public and the Australian team that England were a side who could brush off the memories of Lord’s in the blink of an eyelid and stand toe-to-toe with their opponents until the conclusion of the series.

For those of us who have been watching Marcus for a long time, doubts about his technical abilities are nothing new.  Indeed, I spent much of his early career harbouring them myself. When, in the summer of 2000, after an excellent start to his One-Day International career, he was chosen to open the England innings in the Third Test against the West Indies at Old Trafford, I remember e-mailing a friend to express my doubts about his suitability to open the innings in Test cricket.  Goodness knows, he’d spent long enough scratching around the fringes of the Somerset team, repeatedly getting himself out when set, for virtually anyone who had regularly visited Taunton in the hope of seeing him fulfil his potential to be dubious about his future.  That he has surmounted those doubts and answered virtually all of the questions put to him and stands in 2006 as the most experienced and prolific batsman in the best England side for many a long year is a rare and wonderful thing.

Trescothick is a child of the west of England, born in Keynsham, a small town between Bath and Bristol, on Christmas Day, 1975.  He came from a local cricket family – his father Martyn was captain and chairman of Keynsham Cricket Club – and, in cricket terms, he was a prodigy.  I first remember coming across his name in the pages of The Cricketer in the summer of 1991, during which he scored more than 4000 runs, with a highest score of 200*. The figures seemed remarkable at the time – and they were – but it’s not unusual to come across statistics that indicate that a young player somewhere is uncommonly gifted.  If you keep an eye on representative youth cricket it happens all the time.  It is less usual for the player to progress in the way Trescothick has and reach the very highest rung on the ladder of international batsmanship.  However, as I have mentioned, that progression was far from smooth, certainly once he had arrived in the first-class game.  But that’s not unusual either.

Until he found himself in county cricket as a seventeen year-old a couple of years later, the curve’s upward progress continued, and, even though his introduction to the first-class game was traumatic – 14 runs in six innings – he continued to pass successfully through the England age group sides, making his debut for the Under-19s against the West Indies in the same season and India under the captaincy of Michael Vaughan in 1994. In the Indian series he made his first international century, 140, at Headingley, and followed it with 206 at Edgbaston, and, in the meantime, began to find his feet in county cricket with his first half-century, against Hampshire at Taunton.  My first sight of him in the flesh came at the Bath Festival, when he made his maiden century, a second innings 121 against Surrey.  He was then eighteen years old and he has hardly changed at all in the intervening years – tall (and a bit bulky then), muscular and unpretentious, with a wide range of shots.  The attack was nothing to write home about, but I recall Marcus easing them to most parts of the Recreation Ground and then walking off as if nothing special had happened.  To him, nothing had.  He’d been churning out centuries for years already and this was how it was always going to be.  Except it wasn’t.  Between that warm afternoon at Bath as England struggled against a Dion Nash-inspired New Zealand and TMS drifted across the ground from the beer tent, and the day over six years later when he was self-possessed enough to bat for eleven overs in his maiden Test innings before getting off the mark, times were hard.  Although he captained England Under-19s again in 1995, when I saw him lay waste to South Africa on his home ground in the company of McGrath, Solanki, Sales, Flintoff and Tudor, county cricket proved to be a much more difficult proposition.  In racing parlance, he didn’t ‘train on’.

These were difficult times for Somerset.  The glories of the late seventies and early eighties were far behind and the side which Trescothick came into was an uneasy mix of talented youngsters such as himself and his opening partner on that day at Bath, Mark Lathwell, mature pros like Graham Rose, England’s Andy Caddick, old stagers like the captain Andy Hayhurst and Neil Mallender, and a range of tyros who would flatter to deceive before drifting into obscurity, such as Harvey Trump and Iain Fletcher.  With what’s happened over the last few years it’s easy to forget that for several years in the late nineties it seemed as though Trescothick might end up as one of those, working somewhere outside the game and dreaming of what might have been.  Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it would be all too easy to say that I always knew that his talent would blossom and he would do what he has done.  As late as 1999, I was having severe doubts that he ever would.

Between 1995 and 1999 he failed to fully establish himself in the Somerset side.  The club was drifting in a miasma of self-doubt and Marcus often gave the same impression.  I was watching them on a fairly regular basis throughout this period and innings, games and even whole seasons came and went leaving the same resonant impression of unfulfillment.  And, with Marcus, it was even worse.  He was usually there, to be sure, that large lad who was once in all the magazines, but, whatever his position in the order, the final product was usually the same.  A few good shots off the seamers if he was going in first, 25 or 30 on the board with few concerns.  Little footwork, but power and timing to spare.  And then it would happen.  A county journeyman, like Matthew Fleming or Paul Taylor, or a skilled practitioner of the moving ball, like Dominic Cork or Mike Smith or Angus Fraser, would induce him to fiddle outside off stump, give a catch to the keeper or slips and trudge glumly off, head bowed, in much the same way as he still does for England on the days when the world’s best bowlers get the better of him.  Sure, there were glimpses of sunshine amid the twilight – when he did get going he tended to make big scores, including innings of 151 against the Championship-chasing Northants side, bolstered by Anil Kumble, in 1995, and a match-winning knock of 178 against Hampshire at Taunton a year later.  But, in between, there was very little, with the result that he was shifted around the order from his preferred opener’s position, spent time in the seconds and went back to play for Keynsham.  These were frustrating times, since he was obviously capable of so much more. In 1997, aged twenty-one, he set an individual record for the Western League with an innings of 230 for Keynsham against Chippenham and also made 322 for Somerset seconds against Warwickshire at Taunton, taking his team to within seven runs of victory chasing 612 to win in the fourth innings of the match.

Performances such as these showed that Trescothick’s talent was still as fecund as it ever was, and, looking back, it seems clear that he never lost the self-belief that he needed to develop into the type of dominant international player which everyone associated with him at the time knew he could become.  If he – and others – had lost the faith he would probably have ended up on county cricket’s crowded scrapheap with many other nameless and faceless compatriots. But he didn’t.

Things ticked over in 1998, with a slight rise in his County Championship average to the high twenties but no centuries, and, in 1999, in addition to playing an important role providing impetus from the middle order in Somerset’s march to the NatWest Trophy Final, he started once again to make big scores in first-class cricket.  He began with 190 against Middlesex in mid-July, but the innings which served to shape his future more than any other was what Wisden described as ‘a stirring 167, which he later acknowledged as his best innings so far’, against Glamorgan at Taunton in early September.  The real significance of this knock lay not in the number of balls which sailed into St.James’s Churchyard, but the fact that Duncan Fletcher, the Glamorgan coach, had just been appointed the new coach of England.  It’s now so well-known as to seem trite that Fletcher liked what he saw and insisted on Trescothick’s inclusion in the England A party to tour Bangladesh and New Zealand in the early months of 2000. Trescothick, having started young in the county game, was still deceptively youthful at just twenty-three, and he was finally, after all the uncertainties of his early career as a professional, on his way.

He had a relatively unimpressive tour but clearly remained in Fletcher’s mind, and, once the incumbent left-handed opener, Nick Knight, was injured, he was called into the England side for the inaugural NatWest triangular one-day series against the West Indies and Zimbabwe in July 2000.

What stood out right from the start of his time in the England side was how seamlessly Trescothick managed to move from the low-key world of county cricket to the more pressurised environment of the international game.  I well remember watching him take the field for his debut innings against Zimbabwe (who were still a reasonable side then) at The Oval, feeling nervous for him and willing him to do well.  I need not have worried – he simply played as though it was a Thursday afternoon at Taunton and the bowlers were there to service his mighty drives and pulls.  He made 79, and, just a week later, destroyed the fading West Indian attack in company with Alec Stewart in a ten wicket win at Chester-le-Street.  He was on his way and life for him – and us – would never quite be the same again.  The fallow days at Taunton were over for good.

The Test debut came the following month against the West Indies at Old Trafford.  Once more, it was a time for apprehension at Taunton (where I was watching Yorkshire’s Darren Lehmann play one of the most consummate short innings I’ve ever seen), as Marcus took an age to score his first run against the probing of Ambrose and Walsh before going on to score 66 as an effective foil to Alec Stewart, who was playing probably his finest innings for England in his 100thTest.  Having established himself, Trescothick has since become one of the pivots of an increasingly successful team; an opening batsman of unimpeachable class and also one of the world game’s most reliable specialist slip fielders.

While some of his finest innings have seemed to go unnoticed, a number of highlights stand out. His maiden Test century, in typically taxing Sri Lankan conditions at Galle, February 2001, the Oval double-hundred which sat at the heart of England’s memorable comeback to draw the 2003 home series against South Africa, and his dreadnought 180 to set up a push for victory in Johannesburg in early 2005.  From his raft of devastating knocks in the one-day arena, my personal favourite is the coruscating 86, with 16 fours and 2 sixes, with which he set England on the way to a successful run chase against Pakistan at The Oval in June 2003.  That and his century against South Africa at the same venue a week later, again in partnership with Vikram Solanki and once again giving a potent bowling attack the runaround with a battery of power-laden shots to bring the Taunton clubhouse bar to its feet.

Trescothick’s career is fascinating on a number of levels.  As an illustration of how a gifted player of relative underachievement can, through self-belief, persistence and the confidence of an outstanding coach, succeed with aplomb in the game’s most rarefied arena, but also as a welcome and enjoyable antithesis to the unfulfilled careers of so many other English prodigies. It has sometimes seemed customary for young English batsmen – the classic recent examples being Mark Ramprakash and John Crawley – to make thousands of stylish runs on the county circuit before (and indeed after) repeatedly failing to make the most of their abilities at the highest level of the game.  Trescothick has done things differently – stuttering, unworthy beginnings in county cricket followed by a Test career of resounding achievement.  Why?

They’re all over-used words in the stereotyped lexicon of contemporary sporting analysis, but it is nevertheless true to say that in order to succeed regularly in Test cricket, a player must possess generous helpings of three discrete qualities: talent, technique and temperament. Marcus always had plenty of the first, some of the second, and, it is now clear, an unusual amount of the third.  Indeed, it is his understated strength of character which has been the most important factor in enabling him to rise above the widespread critical indifference with which he has had to contend.  The tedious jibes about his lack of footwork are of no matter to Marcus, who trusts his technique (it’s the only one he has, after all) and goes on batting in the simple way he always has – keep out the good balls and wait for the bad ones.  And, when they come along, punish them hard.  Which brings us to another of his chief strengths, the breadth of his range of strokes.

Watch a Trescothick innings of any duration and you’ll see all the strokes you would hope to see from a batsman of quality – drives off front and back foot (although he prefers the front), straight and cross-batted shots on both sides of the wicket against pace and spin.  He also has the ability to play spinners with a rare touch of subtlety; although he’s happiest hitting them back over their heads and lofting them over midwicket, he’s not averse to the odd late cut either, which, with his customary delicious timing, invariably sends the ball for four through third man.  Because of this, when comparing him with other England batsmen of the recent past, the strongest parallel is with Graham Gooch, and the same adjectives can be applied to both men with equal accuracy – solid, uncompromising, courageous, powerful.  While, despite some limited success in the role, there are no signs that Trescothick has any ambitions to become England captain, in every other area he has appeared to be a worthy inheritor of the England standard-bearer’s mantle worn with conviction by Gooch for so many years.

Now, writing in the middle of October 2006 with England’s Champions Trophy campaign beginning in India without him, Trescothick’s future in the international arena looks dubious for the first time.  After his premature return from India in the spring he resumed his familiar place at the top of the England order for the first Test against Sri Lanka at Lord’s, making a worthy but unremarkable century.  This, however, was a false dawn, and he went on to endure a summer of uncertainty and early dismissals in both Test and one-day cricket.  In early September it was announced that he was suffering from an unspecified ‘stress-related illness’ and his wife from post-natal depression.  This tends to indicate that there was more truth in the explanation given by the ECB for his early return from India than was assumed at the time by most people, and it is clear that more than six years of almost constant travelling and playing has taken a major toll on Trescothick’s health.  He has not travelled to India but will be a member of the England squad which goes to Australia next month to defend the Ashes. Although it is impossible to judge the severity of his condition, I have my doubts about this, but I fervently hope that the right decision has been made.

As many media commentators have said, Trescothick is a humble, personable, consistent man who loves cricket and especially batting.  But it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s finding it harder and harder to cope with the amount of time he has to spend away from his family.

I think it’s probable that he will retire from One-Day Internationals sooner rather than later, perhaps after the World Cup, a move which would hopefully prolong his Test career.  He will, though, need to score some runs.

Brisbane wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

The Journal of the Cricket Society, Volume 23, Number 4, Spring 2008

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