I take it as a rough rule of thumb that the more distinguished a career a cricketer has enjoyed, the less interesting his autobiography is likely to be. Kevin Pietersen and Sachin Tendulkar’s literary efforts stand testament to that.
Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that every offering from a less famous player will be a gem, but the ingredients are often better. The more even mix of triumph and disaster and, as Kipling said, the ability to “treat those two impostors just the same” and learn from them often make for a compelling narrative.
Keeping Up by Michael Bates and Tom Huelin proves this point many times over.
Even reasonably keen cricket fans could be excused for struggling to place Michael Bates amongst the plethora of county cricketers who have made their mark and then vanished from the scene. So for those who might be tempted to read the book solely to find out the basic facts of his career, here is the spoiler alert.
Michael Bates was, during his short career, recognised as an excellent exponent of the art of wicket keeping. He played for England under-19s in 2010, for Hampshire from 2010 to 2014 and then briefly for Somerset in 2015. He was in the Hampshire team that won the T20 and 40 over competitions in 2012.
As a lower middle order batsman, he ended with a first-class average of just under 20, with one first-class century to his name. His playing career was over by the age of 24. He now works as a coach in both men’s and women’s cricket.
Although Bates tells his story in the first person, he has worked closely with his co-author Tom Huelin who conducted a number of the player interviews featured in the book. Tom has written about cricket for, amongst other publications, Deep Extra Cover– but readers should not hold that against him.
There are three intermingled strands to this book, each of which makes it a worthwhile read.
Strand one is the struggle of a young sportsman to make the grade, and the story is no less gripping because we know the outcome.
Michael Bates is someone who, as a wicket keeper, was not only supremely gifted but was well aware of those gifts. As he says: “My keeping always took care of itself; it was always of a high standard, no matter what level I played at.” He devotes a whole chapter to the 2012 Clydesdale Bank 40 Final at Lord’s, where his fine keeping performance culminated in a stunning final ball stumping that won the match.
The problem is that, as a batsman, Bates was always struggling both on the pitch and in his head. One of his captains at Hampshire, Jimmy Adams, gives his verdict: “I wonder whether perhaps Batesy worked so hard on his batting that he got into that horrible thing where he was almost trying too hard.”
It is clear that Bates himself concurs with that judgment, though he would probably delete the word “almost”.
Whilst there are plenty of highs and lows along the way, the final trajectory of Bates’s career is downwards.
Poignantly, he looks back to a match as a schoolboy against Millfield School and says: “If you could bottle that feeling of how you played sport as a kid, and found a way of re-creating it as an adult, you’d be laughing. You’d be so successful…..That’s what every cricketer is looking to capture, to play with that sheer enjoyment and complete freedom.”
By contrast, reflecting back on his playing career, he gives some sobering advice: “If you’re a young sportsperson reading this book, and you’re wondering whether to devote your life to your sport or not, I’d just say, think long and hard about it before you decide.” The implication is clear – if in doubt, don’t do it because those feelings of enjoyment and freedom are almost impossible to hold on to in the world of professional sport.
The second key strand in the book is the underlying issue of whether cricket teams are best served by picking the very best wicket keeper regardless of their batting skills, or by choosing a top level batsman who can do a competent but not outstanding job behind the stumps. Judgments on this are made more difficult by the fact that, whereas averages and strike rates demonstrate batting and bowling effectiveness, there is no agreed measure of a keeper’s overall impact on a game.
This is an issue that goes back further than perhaps the authors recognise. Half a century ago, as fine a keeper as J.T Murray had to give way in the England side to Jim Parks, an effective and entertaining batsman but little more than a fielder with gloves behind the stumps.
Even so, Bates is correct in saying that the career of Australian Adam Gilchrist shifted the argument more strongly in favour of the need for a keeper to score runs.
The interviewees in the book express varying opinions on the contribution that a specialist keeper can make in different forms of the game. Hampshire team mate Liam Dawson sees the value of having the best keeper, able to stand up to the stumps, in white ball cricket whereas in first-class cricket he feels that you need someone who will average 40 with the bat.
On the other hand, Bruce French, himself a specialist keeper, says of the need to employ the best man behind the stumps: “T20? Well, no, actually I would say Test cricket. It’s a longer game, there’s more skills needed. You’ve got to get 20 wickets.”
And so the debate will continue. The evidence in the book and in Bates’s own career is that the balance overall has shifted away from the specialist keeper towards the player who can contribute with both bat and gloves. Beyond just wicket keeping, there is an increasing need for players to be multi-dimensional. Bates’s contemporary Sam Billings even expresses the view that in the future, batsmen and bowlers may have to be able to perform as both left and right handers.
Surely, though, there remains the possibility that the pendulum may swing back towards the gifted specialist. As Nic Pothas, Bates’s predecessor as Hampshire’s keeper expresses it: “If you can’t fit your diamond into your jewellery setting, you don’t throw away the diamond.”
The final strand in the book will be of special interest to those players, young and old, at whatever level, seeking to become better wicket keepers.
Whilst there are hints and tips scattered throughout the book, two chapters specifically address this. One is headed “a wicketkeeping masterclass”, and is just that. And then there is transcript of a fascinating conversation between Bates and the aforementioned Adam Gilchrist.
Both chapters give a compelling insight into not just the technicalities of keeping, but also the mental side of it and the contrast between a batsman’s and a keeper’s mindset. A quote from Jos Buttler best illustrates this difference: “It’s the training of the brain into the wicketkeeping mentality; you’re expecting every ball, not having a batsman’s eye thinking, ‘oh this is a bad ball, he’s going to hit this’ – and then they miss it and you’ve completely switched off.”
In summary, then,Keeping Up is well worth a read if you are interested in what it means to be a professional sportsman trying to make it in a highly competitive environment. And if you are a wicketkeeper with any desire to improve, it is an absolutely essential piece of work.
The book is well written in clear, unpretentious language. Maybe there is a little repetition as Bates broods yet again about his failures as a batsman. But, if nothing else, this gives us an insight into his occasionally obsessive mind set.
Other than the front and back covers, there are no photographs, which is a shame. Even for a Warwickshire man such as myself, it would have been good to see a picture of that magical stumping at Lord’s in the 2012 Final.
As well as those already mentioned, Joe Root, Dimi Mascarenhas and Simon Katich make other notable contributions. George Dobell writes a typically perceptive Foreword.
Considering how his playing career ended prematurely, Michael Bates could be excused if he came across as somewhat bitter and twisted in his attitudes. But whilst he is occasionally critical of those who coached or captained him, overall he is amazingly lacking in negativity towards the decision makers who left him on the cricketing scrapheap.
And the final chapters of the book describing his budding coaching career offer the possibility that life begins, rather than ends at age 24.
Keeping Up. Michael Bates: The Story of a Specialist Wicketkeeper is independently published. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers.