LEADING EDGE: In praise of the inconsistent

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

JIMMY Cook was among the finest players of his generation, a man who won or saved many a match for his team, who no doubt would have had a fine test career had the real world and all that not got in the way, who remains among the straightest talkers in the game and a voice sought by this reporter – who used to dread watching him bat.

The man simply stood there and scored runs, runs and more runs, week in and week out.

Too many times in too many summers you would look up to see an unhurried Cook select from his array of finely tuned strokes to sublimely time another boundary with, apparently, no more effort than it would have taken him to twitch his moustache.

He was his teammates’, coaches’ and captains’ dream and he could do no wrong in the eyes of Transvaal and Somerset supporters. Because he did just that: no wrong.

It took him a year, or 21 innings, to register a duck in first-class cricket.

His next duck was 32 innings and more than two years in the making, by which time he had scored two centuries and eight 50s.

For more than 23 years, from December 1972 to February 1995, Cook went to the crease 475 times in first-class matches. How many ducks? A sweet 16, or 3.368421052632% of his career innings.

Watch him bat? Why? Couldn’t we just assign him his average at the toss and move on?

Cook was infuriatingly consistent. And therefore nothing like Wayne Parnell, who quite likely has not hit the same patch of pitch twice in the 8736 deliveries he has sent down in first-class cricket.

“In terms of consistency and swinging the ball and this and that, everyone’s got their own opinion of how I should play my cricket,” Parnell told reporters last week.

In private, players like Parnell probably say Oscar Wilde was right: “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

But only when they are well out of earshot of teammates, captains, coaches and supporters. Because, in sport, unpredictability is the stuff of alchemy and suspicion, a blight on the way things are supposed to work, the trait that dare not speak its name.

It wins unwinnable games, and loses games that seem won for all money.

It is ungoverned and ungovernable, and in that sense not at all suited to the conservatism without which team sports would not exist.

But, most importantly from this side of the boundary, unpredictability is what makes players watchable.

And watchability matters way more than winning, losing and money.

Pakistan have made a team culture out of unpredictability, and cricket itself has realised that unpredictability is precious in the cultural and financial senses. That’s why T20 exists.

So Parnell and others of his mercurial ilk will always snag the attention of a certain type of cricket watcher – who will be prepared for disappointments like last week’s, when he was ruled out for up to three weeks with a rib injury.

That’s part of this deal, just another unknowable on a career path strewn with uncertainty.

And that, mind, after last Sunday, when Parnell dismissed George Bailey and Mitchell Marsh in his haul of 3/40 at the Wanderers.

So it goes with those blessed with too much inconsistency for their own good.

They play by a set of rules neither they nor us fully understand.

Whether Parnell appreciates all that is doubtful.

But then he’s no doubt had the importance of consistency drilled into him since he was as tall as a pair of pads.

Players like Cook don’t need to be told why it’s important to keep performing. They get it, and they do it.

And players like Parnell? What should we tell them?

Nothing. Just watch them.

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