Friday, 30 March 2018

So you've been publically shamed... By, er, me...

One Saturday afternoon in the long-off winter of 1979, an object of some interest arrived at the Gover Cricket School in Wandsworth. It was the aluminium ComBat, as recently used by Dennis Lillee in the Test match between Australia and England at the SCG: used and then hurled "fully forty yards" across the outfield when the umpires made him swap to a conventional blade after Mike Brearley, the England captain, complained that the ComBat had damaged the ball.

I'd seen the report on the news, Lillee, completing his futuristic cowboy look with a white helmet and perspex face guard (an object itself almost as alien then as a NASA space suit), struck one through mid off and then engaged in some finger-pointing with Brearley and the umpires before underarming the ComBat high into the air and out of view. It was in all of the papers, too, but they said that Lillee wasn't going to be banned or anything like that. The laws of the game didn't specify what a bat should be made of, so why couldn't he use an aluminium one...?

Alf Gover's school was housed in an old industrial shed, and when a ball struck one of the steel crossbeams that supported the roof it was like being inside a great bell. The air itself seemed to vibrate. The ComBat was a deeply strange thing. Aside from its colour and texture, like that of the flat side of a kitchen knife, it was thin even by the standards of the day, and the back had barely any spine, so it looked almost the same on both sides. When it made contact with the ball here in Alf's shed, it sounded unearthly, like one of those effects when cartoon characters hit one another with frying pans.

Reading up on the ComBat this week, the only real censure Lillee faced came from the Wisden Almanack, which Pootered: "The incident served only to blacken Lillee's reputation and damage the image of the game as well as, eventually, the Australian authorities because of their reluctance to take effective disciplinary action." The players realised right away that it was a stunt. The ComBat had been developed by Graham Monaghan, a friend of Lillee's, with the idea that it would be a cheap product for schools and juniors. When Lillee asked the England players to sign the one he'd thrown across the SCG, Brearley wrote "good luck with the sales".

It was an incident from another time, played out at another speed, and it exists now not as a cautionary tale, but as burnishment to Lillee's legend. Brearley was aghast that his carefully shined ball was flattened by the ComBat. Had AB de Villiers gone to the crease with one in Cape Town, he could have saved Cameron Bancroft a job (and Smith, Warner and Lehmann theirs). The Laws have been amended to ensure that bats are made of willow, yet they still mitigate to a degree against reverse swing, a thing of deadly and useful beauty.

Imagine, say, David Warner hurling his Kaboom forty yards across the field because it wouldn't pass through the bat gauge. The thought that he might not be banned is actually an unthinkable one: he'd be more likely to face criminal charges. This is not simply a function of changing mores and morals. It's clear, from the Ben Stokes case and now the Sandpaper Three (or four, if we count Darren Lehmann), that the essential substance of such issues are being affected by the surrounding culture, specifically social media. The shape of them, their actual outcomes, are distorted in and by real-time.

Stokes is not the first cricketer to get involved in a punch up. David Hookes died in one. Botham hit Chappell, Warner hit Root, Ponting copped a black eye in a bar in Sydney, Andrew Symonds had an altercation at a hotel in Brisbane, and so on. The difference with Stokes was that someone filmed the incident on a camera phone. Everything that followed, followed in the light of the footage. Stokes' suspension was inevitable once it was seen on social media. Regardless of whether or not that was the right course of action, it became the only one open. It left a tortured course ahead for everyone, from the CPS, the police and Stokes, who face a Crown Court trial in which some of the evidence will have been publically available for almost a year, to the ECB, with whom it's possible at last to have some sympathy (although their new thing is suing journalists, so you know, fuck them).

At least the Stokes case is now protected by sub judice. Its social media moment has come and gone. The sandpapering in Cape Town may be the Ur manifestation of the near-future. Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publically Shamed brilliantly framed the phenomenon, the dizzying and unstoppable speed at which events unfold online, the weight of comment acting like ballast, moving the story in different ways. It looks at the divorce between the unreal, virtual world, in which everything is permitted, and the real one, where the subjects of the storm, at first unknowing, cocky, secure, are suddenly, bewilderingly, upended and changed by its momentum. It is no longer comment but part of the story itself, integral to its outcome and demanding its price.

Its unpredictability - which event will it latch onto, which will gain no traction; which transgression is insignificant, which is instant fuel - makes it frightening and alien, too.

The best analogy I can think of is that being on Twitter this week was a bit like driving your car. Inside it, you are both part of the world and sealed safely away. You can say anything you like to the other cars and their occupants because it has no effect, or at least it has a false effect: one that makes you feel omnipotent in your tiny, 2015 Vauxhall Corsa. You are never the one doing anything wrong.

I'm a writer. If I don't write, I don't get paid (and when I do write, I don't always get paid much, but that's a different matter). I aim to be as good as I can be, whether it's a 100 word review or 100,000 words of a book. The 140 characters (or 280 or whatever Twitter is now) is seductive. It offers instant feedback, instant satisfaction. Publishers want writers on it and visible. The problem is that it's a fucking timewaster, and it changes the way that you think. In the recent past, when something like ball-tampering happened my first urge would be to blog about it, which demands a certain kind of piece, a particular consideration. I realise now I blog less in part because that sort of thinking takes a bit of time. Twitter's easier, and it kills the urge to write properly. A post here usually gets about a thousand hits. Over 24 hours after Cape Town, my Tweets had 50,000 impressions.

When James Sutherland's first press conference finished, a cricket writer I respect very much sent me a DM that said: "what the fuck was that?" I was thinking exactly the same. The difference was, I Tweeted something like it too. His piece came out later; it was properly weighted, properly judged, and I envied his wisdom in messaging to satisfy that initial urge to say something. 

Mickey Arthur wrote a piece about his time coaching Australia (one that I found out about on Twitter), and he mentioned Homework-gate, which had led to his own public humiliation and sacking. I realised I couldn't even remember what had happened beyond it maybe having something to do with Shane Watson and papers under hotel doors - or perhaps that was something else entirely...

The other effect of these storms is that they pass so quickly it makes their consequences appear unreal, too. I think in the case of Smith and Warner, these twelve months are going to feel prehistoric, monolithic. Real time is slow time, and virtual time moves away from it at the speed of light.

I love Twitter. I met the people I now play cricket with there, which has enriched my life in all sorts of ways. Lots of great things have happened for me because of it. A week dripping in sanctimony hardly needs any more, but there is cause and effect in everything, even being a wise-ass on Twitter. It's not the effect on anyone else, it's the effect on me and the way it makes me think that I don't really feel as sure of any more.

NB: Now I'm off to Twitter to post this link...

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Ramprakash and Hick: onwards down the years...

Thursday 6 June 1991, Headingley. First Test, England v West Indies. The Windies team-sheet is a study in greatness, or at least in grandeur beginning imperceptibly to fade: Simmons, Haynes, Richardson, Hooper, Richards, Logie, Dujon, Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh, Patterson.

England's side has some old stagers with no illusions - Gooch, Lamb, Smith, Russell, Pringle - two established fast bowlers in Defreitas and Malcolm, an opening batsman, Mike Atherton, who has made three centuries in his first thirteen Tests and is already regarded as a future captain, and three debutants blinking softly in the Yorkshire gloaming: Steve Watkin, Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick.

Under rain-streaked skies, Viv Richards wins the toss and bowls. Hick, at three, doesn't have to wait long for his chance. After 22 minutes, Atherton is bowled by Patrick Patterson and he walks out. Few modern players have taken guard in Test cricket for the first time with quite as many runs behind them. In the seven years he has spent qualifying for England, he has made 2,000 runs in a season, a thousand runs in May, been named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year and has a top score of 405 not out for Worcestershire against Somerset, an innings so vast and rare that it was reported on the Nine O'Clock News.

He bats for 51 minutes, hits one boundary and is caught by Dujon from the bowling of Walsh for six, leaving England on 45-3. As Hick walks off, Mark Ramprakash walks out. They pass one another just inside the boundary rope.

Many years later, I had the chance to talk to Mark Ramprakash about that day. While he wasn't carrying quite the expectations that Hick was, he'd made his County Championship debut for Middlesex while still at sixth-form, struck a first class hundred at the age of eighteen and followed it with an innings of 56 in the NatWest final, which won him the man of the match award. Now he was twenty-one years old and playing for England.

What he remembered most was not just the unforgiving brilliance of the West Indies bowling, but how good their fielding was. After a while he'd looked around and thought, 'how am I going to score a run here?' Yet he made 27 of them, the third-highest total in an innings of 198 all out.

His knock was set in further context when England dismissed West Indies for 173, with only Simmons, Richardson and the great Richards, with 73, making double figures. From there the game assumed its real significance. When England batted again, Gooch scored 154 of the team's 252, an innings regarded now and perhaps forever as the best played by an Englishman in Test cricket, and ranked in the top two or three of all time. West Indies were bowled out for 162 and England won by 115 runs, a first home victory over the Windies for twenty-two years. They went on to draw the series 2-2 by winning the last Test at the Oval.

Mark Ramprakash scored 27 in that second innings at Leeds, too, and it would become, eleven years later, his final average. It was one of the strange symmetries that echoed through the careers of he and Graeme Hick: the shared debut, the shared trajectory, the notion of each being, in their way, an enigma. They are, and will probably remain, the last two players to score 100 first-class hundreds, the traditional mark of a kind of batsmanship and a type of career that has now passed. Two others in that Headingley game, Viv Richards and Graham Gooch, immediately precede Hick and Ramprakash on the list. Viv Richards was Ramprakash's batting hero, and each would end their career with 114 hundreds.

In the Ashes series just gone, Hick and Ramprakash opposed one another as batting coaches for Australia and England respectively. Each would have recognised in their line-ups some of the struggles that they endured, in James Vince's ability to get started and then get out, perhaps, or in Shaun Marsh's endless drops and recalls. People often wonder what batting coaches at that level actually do, aside from develop the world's strongest shoulders via the dog-thrower.

Last year, for Wisden Almanack, I spoke to Joe Root about his innings of 254 against Pakistan at Old Trafford. Root felt he'd been playing well going into the game, but remembered that Ramprakash had asked him whether he was 'still in one-day mode' after watching him give it away a little in the defeat at Lord's. Root at first disagreed, but then thought about it some more, and with Ramprakash, made some small but crucial changes to his technique against Pakistan's three left-arm quicks, each of whom bowled quite differently.

The result was that definitive innings, and Root was happy to acknowledge Ramprakash's unobtrusive but key role in it. That's what batting coaches do, although, like everything in cricket, it doesn't always happen and it doesn't always work. Having the knowledge to understand what to say, and the sensitivity of when a player may want to hear it said, are skills that can take a lifetime to develop, especially in the blizzard of noise that surrounds every international performance.

For a long time, I wanted to write a book about Hick and Ramprakash, a kind of double-biography which would begin at the Headingley game and somehow spin outwards to talk about England in the 1990s, and about notions of success and failure and what those twin states actually are. That one's just another on the great pile of 'books' destined not to exist, like Martin Amis' joke in The Information about the novels of its central character Richard Tull: 'Unpublished, then unfinished, then finally, unwritten and unthought of'. But I did get to write a chapter in The Meaning of Cricket, The Descendants, about it and about that day talking to Mark Ramprakash.

The era still feels like an extraordinary time. Joining the quartet of bowlers that Ramprakash, Hick and Atherton squared up to at Headingley would come Wasim and Waqar, Warne, McGrath, Muralitharan, Kumble, Donald, Pollock, Saqlain and many more. With that little lot, plus reverse swing and mystery spin, almost every bowling record would be shattered during a decade that looks, in hindsight, more like a reign of terror. It's easy to imagine Ramprakash and Hick, Nasser and Athers and Graham Thorpe and the rest listening to the discussions about Australia's Ashes attack, wearing the kind of smiles that are always best described as wry...

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Australia player-by-player; Going at it home and away - final Ashes notes

Steve Smith said that he felt the series turned on Nathan Lyon's run out of James Vince on the first afternoon at Brisbane. The city was unseasonably cool, the Gabba pitch one England would have knelt down in prayer for, low and sluggish and about as typical of Queensland as Julian Assange. Vince was on 83 and cruising like a rich granny, England 143-2, ahead for the first and, as it turned out, last time. Smith was right, Brisbane was England's chance. How fleeting it was, and how suddenly it was gone...

David Warner
(441 runs at 63.00, HS: 103)
The mighty Bull turned righteous Reverend was uncharacteristically mild until the Ashes were won, visibly set on an unlikely (for him) strategy of seeing off Broad and Anderson then to feast upon white underbelly. He saw sense in Melbourne, where he scored 103 of Australia's first 135 runs, the only man to overpower a wicket that demanded players outlast it. It's a mark of Australian dominance that his final mark of 63 was good enough for just fourth place in their averages.

Cameron Bancroft
(179 runs at 25.57, HS: 82*)
Warner's tenth opening partner may soon yield to number eleven, Bancroft's series post-Brisbane both jarring anomoly and a stinging lesson in holed technique. He is only 25 and has time to regroup, while Australia will probably return to the even more youthful Matt Renshaw. Warner may reflect that his one stable partnership has been with Chris Rogers, gentleman of a certain age...

Usman Khawaja
(333 runs at 47.57; HS: 171)
Australia remain equivocal about Khawaja, who rather marvellously doesn't seem to bother himself with such trivia. The main criticism, expressed at length on commentary by Michael Slater, was that he didn't "give off enough energy" at the crease, whatever that means. It's nonsensical of course, as useful a piece of advice as when Ian Bell was urged (and tried) to "impose himself" on the opposition. Yes, someone who glares and re-fastens his gloves like Warner, or struts to square leg like Smith, is going to look more engaged than Khawaja, who is soft of frame and gently round-shouldered. But he gutsed out fifty in Perth and then unfurled majestically in Sydney, where his timing outshone his captain's.

Steve Smith
(687 runs at 137.40, HS: 239)
Let's not talk more about the Bradmanesque technique and what it may mean, and instead consider Smith's cricketing intelligence. He read the game like a great Shakespearian actor reads the Bard, with an innate feel for how it should be expressed. It may be a flowery analogy, but how else to explain the way Smith produced his fastest hundred and his slowest, how he altered his stance and his grip and the shots that he chose? He inhaled the game and breathed out pure cricket, and by the end had batted so long it had driven him slightly mad. His final hour at the crease became eccentric even by his standards; he lost some timing and scooped a nothing catch to Moeen with an historic fourth hundred a few runs away. Captains engage in a Yin and Yang struggle in long series. Smith already had the advantage in firepower when he was handed a cache of free ammo in the Bairstow 'headbutt' and Duckett pint fiasco. From then on, he simply had to smirk at Root to let him know the score.

Shaun Marsh
(445 runs at 74.16, HS: 156)
Sometimes the gods laugh... At 34, Marsh was a kind of Australian Graeme Hick, dropped and recalled so often even he couldn't remember how many times it had happened. Yet he arrived in form, his first ball hit the middle of the bat and at last the world was his. The story goes that Mark Waugh had liked Marsh since 2003, when Marsh brought up his maiden first class ton by hitting Waugh for consecutive sixes in a State game. Whatever the reason, the selectors got this, and a couple of other borderline choices, exactly right. In the Aussie rooms their batting coach, one Graeme Hick Esq, might have permitted himself a smile.

Mitchell Marsh
(320 runs at 106.66, HS: 181)
There's nothing like a bit of brotherly oneupmanship to stir the familial blood. Their mid-pitch celebration at Sydney when Mitch joined Shaun with a second hundred of the series was funny and touching, but you can be sure there was some grit in the pearl - little brothers fight hard not to be outdone. There was a weird familiarity to Marsh's uncomplicated batting - the cut, the pull, the beefy biff down the ground - and then it dawned: he's not unlike a prime-era Flintoff in approach.

Tim Paine
(192 runs at 48.00, HS: 57)
Great teams - very good teams even - feel solid; they have a kind of inevitability to them, with all questions answered. Tim Paine seemed so far away from being a part of it, and yet after the bolshy Wade, he was the perfect fit. Beyond an early drop, his glovework was smooth and his batting there if needed; a question answered so well it seems strange it was ever asked.

Pat Cummins
(23 wickets at 24.65, BB: 4/39; 166 runs at 41.50, HS: 44)
Unlike England, who turned up with two ageing thoroughbreds, a couple of punts and half a spinner, Australia had planned for eighteen months to get Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood on the field together. It was more difficult than it sounds - Cummins' five Test appearances prior to Brisbane had occupied six years, his first made in November 2011 and his second in March 2017. Still not 25, only now could Cummins' body withstand the rigour he put it through as a strongarm enforcer from brutal lengths.  

Mitchell Starc
(22 wickets at 23.54, BB: 5/88)
Starc is almost two bowlers in one, such are the difference in angles when he goes over and around the wicket, and England really didn't need two Mitchell Starcs bowling at them... Full or short, it was that bone-chilling speed, the sort that has its effects on the central nervous system. The plan to destroy England's tail, which, when Stokes was in the side and Moeen batted at eight, brought so many runs, was lethally executed.

Nathan Lyon
(21 wickets at 29.13, BB: 4/60)
The least likely member of either side to be involved in a Daily Mail kiss-and-tell nonetheless pulled that feat off, the continuation of his equally unlikely but increasingly substantial career. It's not usual for a man with almost 300 Test wickets to have a semi-ironic nickname, but the GOAT continues to feed, especially on left-handers, and it was his run-out of Vince in Brisbane, and his first spell there, which edged Australia into the series. England's lefties need more solid plans for two years' time, because Lyon, Australia's unlikely lothario champ, will still be there...

Josh Hazlewood
(21 wickets at 25.90, BB: 5/48)
So evenly were Australia's wickets shared that Hazlewood took one of just two five-fers from the 89 that they knocked over. He is the least flashy of the pace trio, and in a way the Ur version of the player England want to produce: someone that bowls 90mph at the top of off stump, and stays fit while they do it. Hazelwood sent down some compelling, tireless spells, particularly in Brisbane and Perth, and his moustache remains the only truly indefensible thing about him.

Home and away with the neighbours...

Cricket Australia's sale of rights to BT Sport has resulted in a predictable car-crash for viewing figures. The series was essentially invisible in one of the competing nations. Numbers for the Perth Test, Andy Bull reported for the Guardian, were 82,000 per day. For Melbourne it's possible there were more people in the ground than watching on British TV.

With the announcement that "there will be no specific review" of England's performance from the ECB (compare and contrast to the internecene blood-letting of last time) it seems that the Ashes 2017/8 will be quietly swept under the carpet, least heard, soonest mended.

It is becoming a contest divided between home and away, still subject to the great anachronistic timescales of the era in which it was invented. A more stable proposition, and a more competitive one, may be to play a six-match series across both countries, three in England ending in September, three in Australia beginning in November, once every two years. In the event of a tied series, an away win would count double. Alternatively, there could be four Tests in England, three in Australia, and then vice versa.

Any sport - indeed almost anything - needs to accelerate to match the speed of the culture it lives in. The era of five Tests once every four years in each country is creaking unsteadily towards its end.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Philby in exile; England player-by-player: More Ashes notes

I read a book review the other day describing the final years of Kim Philby in Moscow: "drinking himself insensible and reading accounts of cricket matches long since finished in old copies of The Times." He was yearning for a version of England that existed only in his mind, and in the names of players that he would never see. It evokes a very English kind of melancholy, too, a mix of nostalgia and longing that cricket, with all of its transience and meaning, represents perfectly.

In a weird way, the Ashes depends on something similar. Each new version of it relies for its heft and its significance on all of the other series that lie underneath. Without them, it's a just another tour in the endless round of modern cricket, a fleeting entertainment gone as soon as the next thing comes along.

So it's worth asking where the Ashes 2017/8 sits, a series that ended, uniquely, with one of the captains asleep in the dressing room; a series that in its dying moments was called "one sided and tedious" by the editor of Wisden, Lawrence Booth, and "the most boring Ashes in living memory - a one-sided plod on useless pitches" by Phil Walker, editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly. The august, yellow side of town is unequivocal, although the glee of the green and gold, and the understandable pride in their achievement, must be weighed against it.

The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle. The pitches were drear, and England lacked the skills needed to compete on them. There is a public spin from within the camp that Root's side had "a foot in the door" in most games but could not get the damn thing open. The stats do not back that up. They are monolithic and irrefutable:

Australia scored 2,982 runs to England's 2,585, and took 89 wickets to England's 58. Australia's wickets cost England 51.42 apiece, England's cost Australia 29.05. Of the Australian batsmen, Steve Smith, David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Mitch Marsh, Tim Paine and Pat Cummins had a series average higher than their career average. Of English batsmen just Cook, Malan and Vince had the same (and the latter didn't take much exceeding). Starc, Cummins and Lyon took their wickets at less than their career average, and Hazelwood equalled his.

Steve Smith scored as many hundreds in seven innings as England's top six managed in 54. Australia's batsmen passed fifty twenty times and converted nine into hundreds. England's passed fifty thirteen times and made three hundreds. Every frontline Australian bowler took their wickets at less than thirty. England (look away now, here comes the real horror show) saw only Jimmy Anderson do the same. Broad and Woakes, the other bankers, conceded 1020 runs between them and delivered 21 wickets. Moeen and Mason Crane had a combined 6-768. No wonder England could claim that every Test went into its final day - Australia spent most of them batting.

Anyone reading the match reports as Philby once read his, in the light of rueful exile and months later, may not experience quite the yearning that a gentle and inconsequential day in the Shires brought to his endless winter in Moscow. For England there is an alien hostility to cricket down under that is starting to feel insurmountable. Australia's unrepentant mercilessness in everything from conditions to the media should chill them most of all.

Player by Player: England

Alastair Cook
(376 runs at 47.00, HS: 244*)
The reaction to Cook's Melbourne epic felt sentimental and laudatory, a signal response to his fading greatness. He ends the series as the sixth man in history with 12,000 Test runs - and so few players have experienced those heights, it would be folly to predict how Cook will react. Without the pressure of runs from any putative rival, England will have to settle for the hundreds that arrive like rainy day buses - not as frequently as you'd like, but all the more welcome when they do.

Mark Stoneman
(232 runs at 25.77, HS: 56)
Like Michael Carberry before him, Stoneman was shockingly and relentlessly exposed to bowling far above his pay grade. He should be extended the opportunity to continue that Carberry never got, although anyone imagining that Boult, Southee and Co. in New Zealand will be some kind of reward for his doughtiness may need a rethink. I'd recommend a chat with Alan Butcher about how to play the throat ball - back in Alan's day every county opener got plenty of exposure to it, and he had to face Sylvester Clarke, its ultimate exponent, in the nets, too...

James Vince
(242 run sat 26.88, HS: 83)
I crave Vince's batting like an alcoholic craves that first drink of the evening. If his cover drive had a voice it would sound like Marilyn singing happy birthday to JFK. But for every boozer, the morning dawns like needles in the eye and the damage must be picked through. There is no coherent argument to be made for his retention: instead it is a romantic one. Put simply, if Vince ever managed to bat for two or three sessions of a Test, he may produce something that would live in the memory eternally.

Joe Root
(378 runs at 47.25, HS: 83)
The conclusion at Sydney must feel like a fever dream to Root, its symbolism forgivably lost on a captain frazzled by two endless days in furnace temperatures. His last innings, bravely compiled while semi-conscious with gastroenteritis, was of course an unconverted fifty, his fifth of the series. That stat plods after him, its footfall growing louder. When England's one day side staggered from the wreckage of the 2015 World Cup, Eoin Morgan rebuilt a gun-shy and risk-averse team into a sleek and dangerous unit. Root could learn from his ODI skipper's flint-eyed and ruthless authority.

Dawid Malan
(383 runs at 42.55, HS: 140)
Malan had the wit to make a slight but significant adjustment to a more open stance, and his off-side play was a revelation, beautiful in its moment. He likes a scrap, and does not appear to have the major flaw that might be exposed with a move to number three, a growing possibility for next Summer.

Jonny Bairstow
(306 runs at 34.00, HS: 119)
This series proved why Bairstow is right to have resisted the notion that he should give up the gloves and find a place higher in the order as a batsman. Firstly his keeping was exemplary. He gave a funny interview about the amount of squats he'd done during the series - many thousands behind the pegs - yet it was tribute to his fitness that he'd just taken a wonderful late catch having kept all day. Secondly, six is plenty high enough, and seven ideal, for a player with a short backlift who goes hard at the ball - his nick-off after refusing a nightwatchman in Sydney was the perfect case in point.

Moeen Ali
(179 runs at 19.88, HS: 40; 5 wickets at 115, BB: 2/74)
Yes Moeen had a poor series, compounded by a side strain and a ripped spinning finger. Yet his treatment by mainstream and social media leaves a bad taste. Last summer he was the hero. Suddenly he was being pasted for not being something he never was in the first place, if a sentence with so many negatives can make any sense. He is a batsman who bowls, yet is expected to be a bowler who bats. To have played against type so successfully for so long is a confidence trick of sorts, and once Moeen's was dented he faced a harrowing time. Sadly, what could have been a significant career for all sorts of reasons is being damaged by misplaced expectations.

Chris Woakes
(114 runs at 16.28, HS: 36; 10 wickets at 49.50, BB: 4/36)
More culpable than Moeen, Woakes was brought to bowl briskly and aggressively - his primary skills - and managed neither. His speeds may have been fastest on the gun, but, banged on the wrong length into slow pitches, it became merely fodder. The notion that he may be a new ball bowler for England once Broad departs was, for now, exposed. Perhaps the most disappointing of the tour party.

Stuart Broad
(136 runs at 15.11, HS: 56; 11 wickets at 47.72, BB: 4-51)
There were notes of Animal Farm early in the series, as Broad, like noble Boxer the horse, strained in the harness for little effect. From memory, Boxer collapsed while building a windmill, and Broad seemed as though he may go while tilting at one - the oldest enemy of all... Yet he dragged it back with force of personality and some formidable discipline. Accepting his limitations, he bore his burden - his 195 overs were exceeded for England only by the ageless Anderson. His late career batting, conducted from somewhere near square leg and often almost behind the stumps, displayed similar fortitude, and some flair. Should get to 400 wickets, and the acclaim he has earned, in New Zealand.

James Anderson
(17 wickets at 27.82, BB: 5-43)
In his spare athleticism and astonishing fitness, Anderson resembles Roger Federer, another preternaturally young sprite. He sent down 223 overs, more than anyone but Nathan Lyon, at an economy rate of 2.11, and took 17 wickets at his career average. With everything from the ball to the pitches ranged against him, it was the work of a supreme, and supremely driven, craftsman.

Of the youth and bit-part men, Craig Overton emerged with perhaps the most immediate future. Surely a strapping lad like him has another yard to come - with the right technical coaching at least. Tom Curran also had something about him, but that something is sadly not pace. He may well become a batsman who bowls, although whether that will be at Test standard, rather than in white ball cricket, is debatable. The reality for Mason Crane, for all of the positive notices, was 1-193. He bowled as many decent deliveries as you could expect from a 20-year-old leg spinner promoted way above his station, and should at least avoid the fate of Scott Borthwick. Jake Ball fell from favour after a lame performance at Brisbane, and will have to take a ticket at the back of the queue. Ben Foakes assumed the traditional and ghostly role of the spare keeper. Does he exist in corporeal form? Who knows...  Gary Ballance may have to accept the firm hint being offered: If he couldn't get a game with this lot, a rethink is due. His refusal to accept a deep-rooted flaw in his technique might have finished him at this level.

Tomorrow: Australia...

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Bull and the Chef, in Shadow and Sun; Weapon of Choice... More Ashes Notes

Each Spring, the EKKA comes to the Brisbane showgrounds. There, Australia's prime beef goes on parade. It's a strange and awesome display of meat and muscle, and it's easy to see why they regard David Warner in the same way, why they call him 'The Bull'. Even as he stomps to the crease, or re-fastenes his gloves for the many-thousandth time, he gives the impression of bunched and barely restrained power. The Bull is emblematic of a certain national characteristic, a successor to Slater and Hayden as the top-order enforcer. Hayden had a shot he used to call "the bowler killer". Dave Warner has a few of his own.

To see him bat at Melbourne was to marvel at what he has become. On a pitch that made parts of the Mojave desert looked nuanced and inviting, he scored 103 of the first 135 runs Australia made, 83 of them before lunch on day one, and in the second innings made his slowest half century. In all he faced 378 deliveries, the most he's ever squared up to in a single Test.

Warner is a freak with a freak career, the first man since 1877 to represent Australia before he'd played a first-class match. He arrived at a feverish time for the game, a year or so after the IPL began, and he batted feverishly too, so much so that the notion of a Test debut was laughed at. Only the great Sehwag saw what he might become (well perhaps also Warner's long-term coach Trent Woodhill) but Sehwag was the one with a platform to point out that Warner's style would translate. In his second game, on a Hobart greentop, he carried his bat for his maiden hundred, the sixth player in history to do so in the fourth innings of a Test.

Regardless of the Ashes win and the arrival of the new Bradman, it is what you might kindly call a transitional time for Australian batting. The Bull has had ten opening partners in seven years. Like his opposite number Alastair Cook, he went into the series knowing he would probably have to deliver if his side were to win.

The second half of Cook's career has a kind of symmetry with Warner's entire one. When Andrew Strauss retired at the end of the 2012 series with South Africa, Cook had played 83 Tests, and had 6,555 runs at 47.89. Since then, he has played 68 matches with twelve different opening partners, making 5,401 runs at 45.00. Warner's 70 Tests across almost the same span have yielded 6,090 runs at 48.72.

As the Ashes began, they had claim to be the two most established opening batsmen in Test cricket. Cook was the only opener in the top 10 of all-time highest run-makers, too, but for more than a year had been working on the technical aspect of his game with Gary Palmer, a coach outside of the ECB set-up until he was invited to Australia to work with some of the younger batters as well as Cook. Palmer is not an entirely holistic coach: he has firm views on technique and a gimlet eye for the fine detail of it. Cook has compared their work to that which a swing coach does with a golfer.

Although Palmer felt that by Perth Cook's batting was in shape, the player himself was having darker thoughts about the end. For the older batsman, knowledge is a double-edged sword. Experience cuts both ways, and all of the accrued scar tissue leaves its mark. The certainty of youth is a distant memory, replaced by an understanding of everything that can go wrong, and of the fleeting nature of what goes right.

The dead-loss pitch, Cook's technical work, his gathered fortitude and the late arrival of some luck produced an innings that will be remembered as a bittersweet classic, filled with personal meaning.

Meanwhile, the Bull, usually bristling with aggression, had appeared beset with his own uncertainties, not in technique or psychology, but in approach. He had been weirdly passive in the first three games, perhaps conscious of the stakes; the hail mary picks of the Marsh brothers and the form of Smith had bailed him out. Warner had seemed content with the un-Bull like game plan to see off Anderson and Broad rather than attack them.

It just wasn't him, and the Melbourne pre-lunch blitz, fired by adrenaline, had been coming. And yet this wasn't the rampant Bull of old. He hit the ball along the ground and into spaces, he ran hard. It was an attacking, fast hundred, but it was full of control too. To counterpoint it with that second innings 86 showed a psychological range that has been developing for a long time.

Warner eschewed the booze a long time ago, too. His marriage and family centred him as a man. They stopped calling him the Bull. They changed his nickname to Reverend. But Australia, in Australia and on their landmark day for cricket, needed that demonstration of bullish power. They got it, and they got more. On a wicket that has rightly been condemned to the dustbin of history, the Bull and the Chef showed how to survive in the shifting light and shadows of a career opening the batting.

Between them stood the ghosts of twenty-two men, fallen openers that they have so far outlasted. The Bull and the Chef may be Yin and Yang as players, but together they would have made a hell of a pair.

Weapons of Choice

The endless, circular Duke's versus Kookaburra debate and the wider one about the balance of bat and ball was drawn further into focus by the Melbourne drop-in (dropped in from where, we should be told... Hell, apparently). There is a solution, maybe slightly avant garde in the slow-moving world of Test cricket, but perhaps worth trying. Instead of one make of match ball, offer a choice at the toss.

It would work like this: the winning captain could select whether to bat or bowl, or alternatively what ball they would like to use. The losing captain then gets choice of whatever's left. For example, Smith wins the toss and chooses to bat. Root then decides whether to use a Duke's or Kookaburra ball.

The system would add some more variety and nuance to the start of the game. At Melbourne, Smith would, I'm sure, still have elected to bat, figuring that even a Duke's ball would not tilt the advantage towards the bowling side. In more marginal circumstances, the choice of ball may be more valuable than whether a team bats or bowls first, and so a captain may change their thinking.

The value of the toss would also be recalibrated, meaning a chance event has less effect on the game's outcome.

I'd propose one other change too, one that would put more power in the hands of bowling sides. At the moment a team gets two new balls in the course of 80 overs (or 160 overs until a third). Why not allow a captain to take the second new ball whenever they want during that 160-over period - if they thought it would be an advantage to have it after 30 overs, then they could, but that ball would then not be replaced for another 130 overs.

It would add a tactical dimension, allowing a captain some flexibility to try and dislodge a partnership, or blow away a tail. On flat wickets it may be a gamble worth taking or one that could backfire, but it feels as though it's time to allow the bowlers a little redress in an age of the bat.

Smith and the Don, Redux...

It's now the law to write about Bradman's technique in every Steve Smith piece, but there's one part of the theory that hasn't yet been aired. Tony Shillinglaw, the man behind the modern dissection of Bradman's method, has argued that the Don's 'Rotary' style is physiologically easier on the body. Although Bradman batted for Herculean periods, sometimes days on end, his concentration was rarely affected. Shillinglaw reasons that Bradman got less tired than other players, and therefore found concentration easier to maintain.

Smith half-joked at the end of the Melbourne Test that he would have liked another hour out there, and considering he'd left the field during the game with the stomach bug that was going around the Australian dressing room, he would probably back Shillinglaw up.

NB: I've had the pleasure of writing about Gary Palmer and Tony Shillinglaw, plus another man outside of the mainstream, fast bowling coach Ian Pont, for the next issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

More Ashes Notes: Boycott versus Engel; Bluffborough; Cleaned Out

There is an outtake from Death of a Gentleman, just a minute or so of footage knocked off by whoever had the camera outside the Oval after a Test match, a fraction of the many hours that ended up in the pixellated digital scrapyard once known as the cutting room floor.

It shows Geoffrey Boycott crossing the road, wheeling his suitcase behind him. His back is to camera, but the figure is unmistakable: immaculately dressed; panama hat tilted just so. People surround him, shout his name, follow him. He is oblivious because this has happened hundreds of times. Boycott's life has been lived before us, and almost everyone has a view, on his batting, on his commentary, on his personality.

He's in Australia now, and appearing on both BT Sport and Test Match Special, which means that back home his analysis is omnipresent. It hasn't gone unnoticed either. First came a soon-deleted Tweet from the ECB's Clare Connor calling him 'unbearable', a low character count, high-impact missive that quickly ignited. Matthew Engel then wrote a piece for the Guardian headlined 'Geoffrey Boycott may be vivid and trenchant but he is becoming unbearable'.

Engel is a storied writer and a former editor of Wisden, and as such is impishly aware of the weight of his words. These particular ones were well-freighted with their own little depth-charge, the line about Boycott suffering from 'Abbeydale Back', a "mysterious injury that seemed to beset him before games on the pacy pitch at Abbeydale Park in Sheffield, especially if the opposition had a menacing West Indian in the attack."

It's an old jibe, that Boycott avoided fast bowling, and one that has long been discredited by both empirical evidence and force of logic, but Engel must have known that it would sting - it's impossible to have followed Boycott's career and not do. Wrapped in a piece that was as much about the relationship between Engel and Boycott as his commentary, it hinted at the game's internal dialogue, at insider knowledge among those close to events.

Boycott was never going to ignore it. Why should he? Impugning his batting, and beyond that, his courage, is hurtful. Graeme Fowler became involved on Twitter, and then to his credit apologised to Boycott, who accepted.

I've always read and admired Matthew Engel, often a deeply human and empathetic writer: see, as just one example, his pieces on Peter Roebuck. But here, he has conflated a criticism of Boycott's commentary with an attack on his character as a player. I wouldn't claim to know how intentional it is: maybe it was calculated, perhaps he was just going with the flow of writing and memory, and that's where it took him.

There's a wider point to this. Engel's piece is not one that could be written by a journalist today, because that kind of career-long access to an international player, and to the inner professional game, has all but disappeared. Writers that have not been players work from a greater distance now, and it alters the level of discourse. Voices become homogenised, the level of received wisdom increases and the language standardises, in part because what most cricket fans get to hear or see comes from ex pros.

That's not to devalue it. Personally, I find Boycott fascinating as well as trenchant, especially on radio, where he has more time to elaborate. For a player who retired a long time ago, his view on the game has grown to embrace and enjoy the great sea-change in play that we are living through, and he does it far better than others of his era (ironically unlike Engel, who loathes T20 cricket). Mike Atherton, Ricky Ponting, Ian Ward and many more illuminate the game in a way that someone who hasn't played professionally cannot.

Yet those of us who play and watch experience the same game, and the same emotions. Everyone travels to its strange hinterland, and finds what they find there. Gideon Haigh, Jarrod Kimber, George Dobell, Andy Bull and some other of the finest writers working were not pro players. There's a whole new generation doing brilliant, on-the-whistle or over-by-over work that weren't, either, and it's filled with fun and love. When someone of the status of Matthew Engel implies that one of the great batsmen of his age - a "very flawed kind of genius" as he wrote - lacks courage, that erroneous judgement somehow widens the gap between the two groups. It hardens opinion on those that haven't played, that they somehow don't have empathy or understanding, even insight.

It's a small, probably unimportant, example, and a minor ruck for Boycott in a life that has been filled with far tougher confrontations. Anyone who's read Leo McKinstry's Boycs will be royally entertained by anecdote after anecdote that back Engel's more sustainable judgement: "Boycott was a remarkable batsman who made an amazing career out of relatively limited natural gifts. But he had great difficulty understanding how his personal performance tied in with the aims of the collective, was a permanent pain in the arse in dressing rooms, and a dreadful captain." It's the nature of the man that you'll read an equal number of anecdotes that back an opposite view, too.

Cricket has a rich history because the gap between pros and amateurs, writers and players, current pros and their predecessors, has been a fluid border, often crossed both ways. It's a game of common experience, and a game that will continue to sprawl its way across the years and formats, a river and its tributaries. Over here, the coverage of the county championship has been renewed online. The big names and TV players aren't the ones providing it because they're engaged elsewhere, so necessarily it falls to other voices. If cricket's reach is to be democratic, it can only be a good thing if writers, broadcasters, ex-pros and pros are in it together.


Losing the Ashes always brings with it a Pulp Fiction-style furious reckoning. If you have to ask who's to blame - it's you... Well maybe not, but among the first of the post mortems, and one of the very best came from George Dobell: "... the ECB are in the process of dismantling the MCCU system (through which almost 25 per-cent of England-qualified cricketers graduate), even though they pay nothing for it, they have poured millions into a centre of excellence that has produced very little - go on, think of all the fast bowlers and spinners who credit it for their development..."

That centre of excellence is Loughborough - or Bluffborough, as Dobell calls it. I went there on a few occasions some years ago to do various interviews for the England match day programmes. It was easy, non-combative stuff, talking briefly to Kevin Shine, who was head of fast bowling, and Peter Such, who had a role developing spin bowlers, and being shown around and so on.

One message was clear: it was high-tech. Science was what Loughborough was about. Andy Flower was interested in data, so there were rooms full of analysts, both of physiology and numbers. The game was being undressed, and each age-group squad there would follow a 'pathway'. Shine said that they had identified the key assets that every 90mph bowler possessed, and they were finding players that matched them. Such was working on a similar analytical, empirical approach to 'revs' and all that kind of twirlyman stuff.

It was new and impressive, lavishly funded and cutting-edge. Purpose hummed through it. Its setting, on the campus of a university with a reputation for sporting excellence, added to the vibe. There was talk of PhD students coming in with niche specialities as and when required. Everyone appeared to be wearing the same kit as the England team. It was a vision that for so long during the fractured 1990s seemed chimeric and distant, yet that had somehow now hoved into view.

The point is that Loughborough, once it existed, had to do something. It was never going to maintain the status quo, or adopt a passive, non-prescriptive approach. Perhaps its greatest discovery has been that the game has a mystery that cannot be unravalled by throwing something like Loughborough at it. Some kid with a tapeball and an alleyway for a wicket will come up with a method that you can't map, precisely because it has never existed before.

Imagine the horror if Loughborough really had, like some dreadful version of Deep Blue, come to the end of cricket... Perhaps we should be glad that it has failed.

Cleaned Out

In 2015, I was fortunate to work with Simon Jones on his memoir of the 2005 Ashes, which meant lots more re-watches of those famous games. In one of the DVD interviews, Michael Vaughan says of Jason Gillespie: "we'd cleaned him out". It was true: after his evisceration by Kevin Pietersen in the final overs of the ODI at Bristol, Gillespie went on to series figures of 3-300, and was dropped after the game at Old Trafford. He played just twice more (and what a finale).

The language Vaughan used seemed brutal, but it was simply the pragmatism of the pro game emerging. Gillespie's decline appeared sharp, probably because the margins at the top are so fine. There isn't much room once you start to slip. It was a feeling repeated when England dropped Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison mid-series in New Zealand a few years later, and replaced them with Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. Again an indefinable something, once there, had left them.

Now it's Broad's turn to feel its dread approach. His knee is troubling him, his team is being beaten, his skills are negated by conditions, and he has in his body all of those thousands of deliveries gone by, each drawing their infinitesimal fee. When Australia bowl, it seems like a different, newer game. We have had Anderson and Broad for so long, it never felt right to look beyond them, but the end sometimes rushes through.

Among all cricketers, fast bowlers rarely get to choose the time of their leaving. Jason Gillespie went. Simon Jones never played for England again after that series. Matthew Hoggard was finished by the New Zealand trip, and while Steve Harmison returned to the side, it was not as its spearhead. You hope that Broad can somehow outrun the distant sound of thunder, but it's coming... maybe soon... maybe now.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The seduction of James Vince, and fear of the dark: more Ashes notes

James Vince is one for the dreamers. He's like a batting version of a Rorschach Test: look at him and tell us what you see... Shimmering possibilities... an indistinct waster...

There was a moment during the Adelaide Test, Vince's first delivery of the first innings, facing Mitchell Starc. England were 29-1. Starc had detonated Mark Stoneman with the final delivery of his fourth over, and then Cook played out a maiden from Hazlewood, leaving Vince on strike. Pumped, Starc went full and very fast, 90mph+ with a small amount of tail at the off stump. Vince played it remarkably: easing forward, knee bent, somehow dropping the face of an angled bat onto the ball.

Confronted with that, most players would have been happy to jam the toe down over a reflexively stiff front leg. Vince had the one thing that separates real batsmen from the rest: time. It's the most precious of commodities, and it was easy, in that moment, to see what the selectors saw, to understand the punt they had taken on him.

He blew it in Adelaide, as he has so often before. Blew it because he 'gave it away', blew it because he played the wrong shots, blew it because he's not a conspicuous tryer like Stoneman or Malan, honest toilers who visibly sweat out their twenties and their thirties. At the heart of that is an acknowledgement of his talent. Social media splatters pixellated venom every time he's out. There seem to be a great number of people who are personally offended that he's in the team.

Vince has made England's only half-decent score of the tour. Along with Root, he has looked like the  top-order player who is capable not just of surviving for a while, but of taking the game from Australia. A player that makes 100, 0, 0 and 0 will win more games of Test cricket than one that makes 45, 24, 56 and 17, although his life may be more precarious. Vince's innings in Brisbane, and Root's second in Adelaide, were the two moments of English control with the bat.

He is a shot to nothing for the selectors, too. There were no outstanding candidates to bat at three, and Root doesn't want to. A poor tour could have set back a next-gen player like Haseeb Hameed or Dan Lawrence by years. If Vince succeeds then it's a bonus. If he fails, he can be jettisoned permanently at no cost, like Michael Carberry. He has been indulged less than Gary Ballance.

Beyond those arguments, players in Vince's mould strike at something fundamental about the game - its capacity for aesthetic pleasure, for beauty, for demonstrating something rare. What infuriates about him isn't just the manner of his failure, it's the possibility of his success. "It's not how, it's how many," goes the old saying. That's only partly true. If the game was stripped of artistry, it would be fatally diminished.

James Vince is a very, very long way from David Gower, but his batting has the same languid charm, and the same ability to make the watcher want to rent out their spleen in frustration. He needs to score some runs, but so do the rest.

And after all, the point of a Rorschach Test is that it tells you about yourself...

Fear of the dark

Like Amsterdam, vampires and Iron Maiden's trousers, Test cricket changes by night. I don't remember uncovered pitches, but do remember them being spoken of in hushed tones, the game's deus ex machina, random destroyers of the status quo.

Rain, in the days before weather apps, was predictable only by an old pro gazing over the stand at some distant hills, or the umpire's gammy leg starting to twitch. Night, on the other hand, is as inevitable as death and taxes. Never before has cricket been confronted with such certainty and regularity of change, and it was interesting to see how much it affects decision-making.

Root's choice to bowl seems logical. Yet as day-night cricket develops, maybe the reverse will apply. Given that both sides will - in almost all cases - have to bat through night sessions at some point, the most desirable outcome must be to have two well-set batsmen when that session starts. Batting first may be the best chance of that.

England's long summer twilights mitigate against it working here, but day-night Tests have already offered a new dimension. Will the first 'night specialist' batsman be that far away?