Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Big Syd Gets Swole

Sometimes worlds collide in unexpected ways. I remember exactly when it started because it was the day after Princess Diana died. I'd arranged to go to Cardiff for a newspaper piece, to interview a bodybuilder called Grant Thomas. Neither of us saw any reason to cancel. The roads were empty as I drove down there.

Grant was trying to become Mr Universe. He thought it might be a way out of an ordinary life for him and his girlfriend and their baby. He sat in his living room sipping de-ionised water, several ornate plastic trophies he'd won arranged by the TV. He was on his pre-contest diet which made him feel weak, but he still looked big, even under the baggy tracksuit he was wearing. Through Grant I discovered that although Mr Universe was probably the most famous title in bodybuilding and the only one that people outside of the sport could name, it was actually an amateur contest. Winning it brought no money but instead a potentially more valuable prize, the 'pro card' which would enable him to compete for the really big titles - the Night of Champions, the Arnold Classic and the greatest of them all, the Mr Olympia.

Becoming Mr Olympia was the goal of every pro bodybuilder. Mr Olympia got a $110,000 cheque and a contract worth double that to appear in Joe Weider's bodybuilding magazines. He could charge thousands of dollars for personal appearances at gyms and expos and waltz through smaller contests in which no-one could beat him. Mr Olympia had been going since 1965 but only nine men had ever held the title, including the most famous of them all, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had won seven times before he went to Hollywood and became a movie star.

It was hard to win because building the amount of muscle required to be Mr Olympia took years and years of heavy training, vast calorie consumption and the careful application of steroids and other artificial aids like insulin and human growth hormone. It was impossible to become Mr Olympia, or even a pro bodybuilder, without using them. It was the main difference between the professional and amateur sides of the sport. As Grant admitted, wryly, he couldn't afford to take steroids. In fact, he could only eat the 21 chickens that he consumed each week because he had a deal with the local butcher.

Yet drugs were not the key to becoming Mr Olympia. If they were, any tragic iron junkie or addled gym rat could win. What it took was an extremely rare genetic suitability, plus the will to train hard and live an ascetic but nonetheless dangerous life. And from Grant I discovered that throughout the 1990s, while England's cricketers and footballers, rugby players and tennis stars had found a hundred ways to fail, we had an unbeatable champion that no-one knew about.

His name was Dorian Yates, and he was just about to become Mr Olympia for the sixth time. In doing so, he had ushered in a new era of the sport, the era of the freak, in which even men like Arnold Schwarzenegger were puny by comparison. At his terrifying peak Dorian Yates looked like no-one else on earth, some sort of strange post-human.

A few years later, when I was hunting for a sport to write about that didn't involve interviews set up by PR companies and copy approval and endless, meaningless cliches from both sides, I thought of bodybuilding. It was wild and mad and hidden, and while I might never get to speak to say, David Beckham, I could walk right up to Ronnie Coleman, the man who had succeeded Dorian as Mr Olympia, and ask him whatever I wanted, because outside of bodybuilding, no-one had any idea who he was.

It was a dream of a story. I got to know Dorian Yates, and his business partner, an amazing man named Kerry Kayes, and spent the next couple of years periodically jetting off to see the Dutch Grand Prix and the Arnold Classic and the Mr Olympia itself. Everywhere I went with Dorian, he was mobbed. I learned about the vicious rivalries, the bitter feuds, the drug deaths, the judging fiascos, the nobility and the sacrifice and the determination, the redemptive power of posing to music in a tiny pair of spangly trunks. I got locked in a room with Arnold Schwarzenegger and stuck in a lift with Ronnie Coleman. It was one of the weirdest, funniest things I've ever done.

The last bodybuilding show I saw was the Mr Olympia 2003 in Las Vegas, when Ronnie won his sixth title and got $110,000, a Cadillac Escalade and a gold dagger. Arnie had just been elected governor of California and made a special guest appearance. It was always going to be hard to top, plus once I'd finished writing I didn't really have an excuse to go any more.

It's a world that seems very distant from cricket, but then came the news last weekend of David 'Syd' Lawrence, erstwhile England quick bowler, who, at the age of 50 has become the NABBA West Of England over 40s Champion. He describes getting into contest shape as "the toughest thing I've ever done, physically or mentally".

NABBA is the UK's amateur bodybuilding organisation, and at 50, there's no chance of Syd entering the mad, bad world of the pros - he's far too sensible for that anyway. But to get into the kind of shape he's in still requires Herculean effort. Well done, big man.

NB: The piece about Syd refers to him being at 'zero per cent' body fat. This is impossible. The average pro footballer is at about seven or eight per cent. A contest-shape pro bodybuilder is somewhere between three and four per cent. Anything less is fatal, as the only fat left in the body is that surrounding the vital organs. The things you learn from bodybuilders...

If you want to know the difference between amateur and pro, this is Ronnie Coleman.

NNB: A plug for the book I wrote about it - Muscle.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why is Kevin Pietersen's book unreadable?

In The Information, Martin Amis' novel about literary envy, the protagonist Richard Tull publishes Untitled, a book so impenetrable that not only can no-one finish it, no-one can really start it, either. They become ill trying: headaches, nausea, narcolepsy.  Tull ends up lugging the only remaining copies around America in a sack, which duly puts his back out. I'm starting to feel the same way about KP: The Autobiography.

There it sits, on the coffee table, in the same place it has sat since it arrived three weeks ago, the year's most anticipated cricket book, and certainly its best-selling. Having skimmed it once, I am on page 79, and I'm not sure I'm going to get any further. Its moment already feels over.

I got a copy for free, too. My friend Tom blagged us in to the London launch, where Pietersen spoke for almost an hour and a half. It was comfortably the longest period I or probably anyone else in the audience had listened to him for, and as he loosened up and his natural defensiveness fell away, a more rounded man emerged from the public image.  He may be hard to get along with sometimes, but he's not that hard to understand.

His insecurity, in cricketing terms, is a rare strain of the same insecurity that dogs every batsman, certainly every introverted batsman. It's the highwire act of batting itself, and Pietersen walks it without a net. He is constantly telling himself not to look down.

Unlike every other great of the modern era, he did not grow up with a bat in his hand. He didn't begin batting seriously until he came to England to play for Nottinghamshire; instead he bowled off spin. He doesn't have the emotional and psychological foundation, that rock-solid confidence that comes with a lifetime's endeavour. He is obsessive over practice, perhaps to compensate.

One of the most revealing moments of his talk came when he described the days when he felt like he couldn't play at all; how he would know as soon as he took guard that the bat "felt wrong" in his hands. He didn't really understand why it happened, and his good days appeared from the same kind of haze. He admitted to having long sessions with the England team psychologist to try and unravel the reasons why. I would guess that they are rooted in the very rootlessness of his batting. In a way, the height of his talent has surprised him.

His insecurity is reinforced by the role he plays in the team, where he is encouraged to take the game away from the opposition. When he can't, or when it doesn't happen right away, he gets out and faces the familiar criticism of not caring enough (or perhaps being 'disengaged'.) He protects himself by saying he's never been scared of dismissal. That may be true, but equally, getting out can sometimes be an escape from the pressure.

The enigma of Pietersen is actually the enigma of batting itself, and its great psychological depth. It was evident from the way he spoke that he has a grasp on this. It was easy to feel the mood in the hall shift: what had begun as an already familiar run-through of his split from England became something far more diverse and interesting. During the Q&A at the end, someone asked the obvious question:

"When are you going to write a cricket book, Kevin?"

"I definitely want to," he replied, perhaps unguardedly.

KP: The Autobiography is not it. In fact, KP: The Autobiography isn't an autobiography, either, at least not in the conventional sense. It's a howl of rage and pain, a distorted scream coming through tinny speakers. Like the angry mind, it is (so far, anyway) repetitious, circling around recurring thoughts. The rest is just window-dressing, thrown in there to make it look like something it is not.

His criticisms are not invalidated by this approach. He's particularly good on the IPL and what it means for cricketers, and the dressing room intrigue that he finds so hard to navigate feels oppressively real. But it presents a skewed view of his career, lacking in worldview, lacking in nuance.

What makes it unreadable is the voice it's told in. It's flat, didactic journalese that relies on repetition at the end of almost every key paragraph.
Short. Sharp. Like that.
Yeah, just like that.
It gets old. Fast.
Real fast.

After listening to Pietersen talk for ninety minutes, it's clear that this is not his voice, or even his character. It may have the cadence of some his post-match interviews, but when he speaks at greater length he is far more likable and engaging, almost geeky at times, with a high laugh and a thoughtfulness that belies the brash TV persona.

Capturing him on the page would have needed more time than his ghost-writer got, and a different idea of what the book should be. As it is, KP: The Autobiography is a terrific commercial success that reinforces the binary notions of Pietersen as the most divisive player of the age. What a shame, for him and for us.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Days of Grace

After one of my worst seasons ever with the bat last year, I began 2014 by scoring one run in May (compadres for all-time, me and that run; a prod to extra cover for a harassed single...) Something had to give. Maybe it would be me. I just wasn't sure any more, and batting has always demanded a kind of certainty - of footwork, of judgment, of many things that I was no longer certain about.

Yet the game has a habit of turning round to face you for no reason other than it sometimes does. It's not so much fickle as implacable, neither for you nor against in the long run. It happened for me at Sheffield Park in deepest Sussex, where Grace once turned out for Lord Sheffield's XI and hit an old oak that stands by the pavilion on the full (the square's been turned around since then, but it's a good eighty yards, perhaps more, and it was nice to stand in the middle and have a sense of his power).

It was a shimmering summer's afternoon, with clouds of midges glinting in the soft air by the edge of the woods, and we were facing familiar and friendly opponents. I'd made a few - well more than one, anyway, which was an improvement - when a ball going down the leg side brushed my heel on the way through to the keeper. There was a half-hearted appeal for a catch and the umpire gave it.

'Oh come on...' I said.

It was out of my mouth before I could stop it. I felt bad about that, but not as bad as I did about the decision. I was trudging away when Matt, the opposition skipper, asked me if I'd hit it.

'No,' I replied, completely honestly, and he withdrew the appeal and called me back. It was a generous act on his part, and something that's never happened to me before. I got an unlovely fifty that day, and for whatever reason everything changed. Oh I didn't suddenly become Brian Lara, but my mind cleared. In the dreaded vernacular of the sports psychologist, I got out of my own way. I forgot about the plan I had to stop worrying and play more freely, because I do worry, and I don't play freely, at least not until I've been in for a while (and even then it's debatable.) I started worrying again. It felt good, or at least it felt normal.

Ultimately, the most important thing in the mental half of batting is self-awareness. You can yearn to be the player you're not, but it's more purposeful to embrace the player that you are. I had a few matches in my old position as an opener, and it helped me to realise what I was okay at: reasonable defence; good judgement; I can be hard to get out; I know my scoring shots. It's not the glorious vision of cricket that I carry in my head, but it's something.

And I had the noble Kudos in my hand. Newbery offered it to me at the start of the season (not that I took much persuading) and thinking about not batting with it is already giving me the horrors. It's been a while since I had a bat that I've really bonded with, but me and the Kudos, well... is there language to describe our love?

What a thing it is, played in now and bearing its scars - a hairline crack running horizontally across its slender shoulder, the bite marks from the seam of the ball that did it just below, the blade blushed with the remnants of dye from red leather.

I can still remember the first time I found its true middle, that deep, sweet spot where you feel only a suggestion of contact in your hands. It was a full toss from the opening bowler that I managed to hit straight to mid-off - no run, but a defining moment for me and that bat: the ball left the blade with a throaty crack and rocketed away. I got a few runs that day, but that point of pure connection with the absolute centre of the bat remained something rare and wondrous, a quest worth chasing.

I stopped wearing a thigh pad too. What a revelation that was. My team-mate Hoggy tipped me off to it.

"What's it going to hit?" he said. "Just your muscle. And there's no-one quick enough for it to really hurt..." So I rid myself of the cursed thing and gambolled around like a spring lamb.

It's my final tip to anyone that wants one. Ditch the thigh pad. Let it go. Run free, my friend, and be yourself. Worry, mither, chip them runs out however you can. Let it flow, baby, let it flow...

Saturday, 6 September 2014

England: Jumping The Shark Since '79

In June 1979, I went with my dad to Lord's to watch England play West Indies in the World Cup final. It was the second edition of the tournament, West Indies having won the first with a hundred from Clive Lloyd. They would win this one with a century from Viv Richards, but their total owed its impetus to Collis King, who played one of the great forgotten innings in the history of the game, 86 from 66 deliveries.

That total? West Indies made 286 from from their 60 overs. It seemed then, at the halfway point of the 74th one-day international ever played, a vast score, a forbidding, ice-laden mountain that England could not climb, indeed that no team might scale. And so against Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner, England's openers, Mike Brearley and Geoffrey Boycott reached 129 in 38 overs, leaving the other frontline batsmen, Randall, Gooch, Gower, Botham and Larkins, 158 from the remaining 22.

It all feels like a long time ago, the images of both sides all in white - Packer's 'circus', with its 'coloured clothes' and its vulgar floodlights, was still a dirty phrase around these parts - as Joel Garner established the eternal value of the yorker, pinging England out for the addition of just 65 runs. The Almanack sounded vaguely gobsmacked too, describing Collis King's innings as 'an amazing display' and Richards as 'the hero of the day'. We went home in the haze of a warm evening and didn't really worry too much more about it. Was it 'proper' cricket or not? No-one seemed quite sure.

Turns out it was, and England were already up against it. Although the maths and stats of that day seem arcane - 158 from 22 overs with nine wickets in hand? The WASP would be buzzing - the ambivalence towards it all remains. As players, pundits and punters tear each other apart after India's 3-1 win, now, as much as ever, we look at the limited overs game through the eyes of those who existed way before it.

A win in Friday's final match was welcome, but as meaningless as any in the 3,451 ODIs that have followed that long-ago day at Lord's. England's current methodology is from around the mid 2000s of that number; they're still quite excited to score 290, and still quite daunted by the pusuit of it. The rest of cricket, meanwhile, roars on into a future that is being written from the bottom up - through T20 into the 50 over game - rather than the top down.

The arguments don't need repeating: you can read them anywhere. It's interesting though to consider exactly how much England have changed since 1979, psychologically and philosophically. The answer is, not as much as you'd think. I'll believe they are serious about winning any kind of ICC tournament when they clear a window for the IPL and join in with the rest of the world at last.

NB: That window doesn't need to undermine the primacy of Test cricket, which will become greater by becoming slightly more rare. Seventeen Tests in a year post-World Cup is less about commitment to form than to TV deals, cricketing realpolitik and finance.


Saturday, 23 August 2014

How many problems have England actually solved?

Somewhere in the Multiverse is a reality where Ravi Jadeja held on to Alastair Cook's tremulous edge at the Ageas Bowl, the England captain walked off with 15 to his name and failure dark by his side. His team took another beating, and now he will spend the winter 'working on his batting' at Essex while Eoin Morgan leads the ODI side to the World Cup.

Such is the glorious uncertainty of the game. Instead of the fog of war comes the fog of winning, an equally confusing and deceptive state. On our side of the Matrix, the New Era lives, but how well and for how long?

The captaincy and succession
When questioned over a decision he'd made Mike Brearley often used to reply, 'you never know, the alternative might have been worse'. This early iteration of Multiverse theory was a neat deflection, but Brearley, twinkly-eyed, blessed with success in a different age, did not have the weight of scrutiny that has so benighted Cook - it's hard to imagine, say, Richie Benaud, criticising him on air and in the paper so severely that a clear the air phone call is necessary. What the summer has proved is that on-field strategy is simply a focal point for discontent. The problems Cook faced were more fundamental. He essentially had to conceptualise a new team and a way of playing, and he was going to have to bottom out before any improvement came. That improvement is fragile so far, contingent too on India unexpectedly screeching into reverse.

Yet as Cook's reception at Southampton showed, as a nation we love an underdog. That ovation at lunch marked the moment that the public decided enough was enough: on a human level, Cook was being bullied. As well as Jadeja's drop, this was a watershed. Winning helped, but this moment came first. He will cherish it, and it was won through perseverance.

Cook has dug the ECB out of a hole because there is no realistic successor in view yet. The schedule means that the captain will have until the end of the Ashes next summer to answer the question of what an 'Alastair Cook side' actually is.

Problem solved? For now. 

The opening partnership
Like marriages, the true nature of the chemistry of an opening pair is known only to its participants. It partly what makes finding a good one so difficult. Cook began the summer with another divorce, Michael Carberry following Nick Compton and Joe Root onto the list of post-Strauss exes (he's kept in touch with Joe, though - he's a nice lad). Carberry has every right to feel cheated. He fended off Australia as well as anyone, and nobody was grumbling about his age as another Mitch missile shot towards his throat. The cards fell Sam Robson's way, but to have his technique, such as it is, interrogated and then unpicked by India's attack should see him subjected to the same ruthlessness handed down to Carberry and Compton.

To really establish an opening partnership, both parties have to be in form at the same time. Cook's lack of it has impacted, too.

Problem solved? No.

Talent development
Imagine the England organisation's philosophy as a train on a railroad. It goes forwards in a straight line with inexorable logic. By contrast, the rest of the cricketing world are in cars, driving all over the place, sometimes wasting petrol, sometimes finding shortcuts, able to turn off the path when they need to.

Three years ago, before David Warner had made his Test debut - in fact when the idea of Warner playing Test cricket seemed to some hilarious and offensive - Virender Sehwag said that Warner would not only play Test cricket but would be more successful at it than T20, because there are far fewer fielders to hit the ball past in the opening overs of a Test innings. Viru was right, and visionary too: here was a new career path evolving before our eyes.

On the England train, they still get the agonistes about someone graduating from the T20 side to the 50-over team. The 50-over team in turn is a safety-first endeavour filled with Test players, obsessed with the two white balls and what will happen if someone plays aggressively and gets out. The IPL is regarded in the same way that you imagine Martin Amis views Jeffrey Archer. The forthcoming World Cup is already a write-off.

The evolution of the game is actually quite a complex series of call-and-responses that result in an apparent forward motion. England's modern history has gone from the splintered 90s, when the team strategy lurched from match to match, through the creation of Process that led to 2005 and then the number one spot and the T20 World Cup in 2010, to now, where Process is everything. The response has gone too far. It's divorced from the fluid way the rest of the world sees the game.

Andy Flower is a magnificent human being but he needs to ask some deep questions about England's systematic approach. Loughborough's spin department has produced no spinners. Pace bowlers go in fast and come out slower. The maverick batsmen arrive from outside of the system. Ian Bell had to tell Moeen Ali to bowl faster. Middlesex fixed Steve Finn up, and so on.

The T20 World Cup win was a time of glorious risk. There's little sign of such adventure any more, and that's sad. Who wouldn't love to see a 50 over squad with such zest and life, and who would not forgive them if they came up a little short?

It's time to embrace the new world game, to love the IPL as well as the Ashes. Choose hitters and wicket-takers and crowd-pleasers. Choose life.

Problem solved? No.

The wicketkeeper
Superficially this would appear a simple answer. After all, Jos Buttler is exactly the kind of selection discussed in the section above. And yet... As Viv Richards observed, he is some player. But Viv wasn't talking about the keeping. Jos will never be great at that. He is potentially a dynamic, game-changing top order batsman, a number four who could do what KP did, but in his own sweet way. It's never going to happen if he's stuck with the gloves, which essentially mean a career wasted by expediency at number seven.

Like Sangakkara and De Villiers, he should look to give them up. My choice would be Craig Kieswetter, a better keeper and a big-game player who could inhabit the number seven role while Buttler bats much higher.

Problem solved? Temporarily. 

The fulcrum
Replacing Graeme Swann was about more than finding a spinner. Swann enabled England to play in a particular way, with four bowlers and seven batsmen (including Prior). When I interviewed Alastair Cook for All Out Cricket magazine at the start of the summer, he said that blueprints like that can't be planned for, they have to evolve, and I think he's right.

No-one could have planned for Swann, and similarly no-one planned for Moeen Ali, but he has offered Cook's side a new way. He is obviously a high-class batsman. During his century at Headingley and his rearguard at Lord's, his judgement of line was magnificent. You can't coach that. Where he has suffered is in being slightly unclear on how to bat when the match situation is less defined, a choice made harder by the presence of Buttler behind him. He may need some very clear guidance on exactly what the captain and coach want from him as he walks in.

Yet he is certainly a top order player, and his off spin has progressed to the point that England can pick four seamers, thus offering that new way. His bowling reminds me a little of Nathan Lyon's, not stylistically but in the way it has quickly become much better that it first appeared. He's also wonderfully natural with media and fans, a new cult hero.

Problem solved? Yes.

Kevin Pietersen
There was a moment this summer when, had Pietersen opted to play four-day cricket, he could have applied almost irresistible pressure on Downton, Moores and Cook. His decision not to, and the effect that playing once a week has had on his batting, has been his major miscalculation. He has won the PR wars comprehensively: it's a rare moment when someone in authority isn't apologising to him for something or other.

Thus even his biggest fans (like me) have had to question how much he actually wants to play for England again. I don't think it's impossible, but his tacit admission in signing up to a couple of end-of-season champo games for Surrey is that he must respect his talent and the game. Australia and South Africa are to come, and four of England's top five are unproven against bowling of that class. Opportunity will emerge.

The way that Pietersen has receded as an issue this summer shows how short-term modern sport is. His autobiography, when it comes in October, already feels like it is about ancient history. However, Downton, Cook and the ECB may still be vulnerable to its revelations should they be damning, and Pietersen can afford to play the long game here.

Problem solved: Not yet.

The Schedule
Here, insanity lies. After the World Cup, England play Test series against West Indies away, New Zealand and Australia at home, Pakistan away and South Africa away in a calendar year. How has this happened? How can the players be asked to do it? Geo-politics is the broad answer. The ICC takeover that concentrates financial power in the hands of India and its couple of mates compels them to generate that money. The global ratcheting of the value of sports television rights for media giants trying to sign up customers for all kinds of services means that the next round of contracts will see unprecedented sums paid - and an unprecedented number of games and tournaments in return.

Domestically, the deeply flawed system of the allocation of international games to bidding grounds has manifested in a kind of nuclear arms race of development, with stands and hotels and whatever else cramming themselves around the edges of ambitious venues desperate not to be left behind, who then somehow have to rake their money back. Dead pitches and seven Test summers are the visible tip of that.

 Caught in the middle are the players, already away from home 260 nights per year, and now facing a new kind of compacted, concentrated career that will see them retiring not from age and the fractional diminishing of skills, but burn-out in its many physical and mental forms.

Problem solved: No.

Relationship with the fans
Along with winning a couple of games, the reconnection of England and the fans was Alastair Cook's mission and became his greatest success. It's been quite touching to see him try so hard, both with the media and the public. It has not come naturally to him, and even the inflections in his speaking voice, with its upward lilt at the end of his sentences, works against him, but he has been honest and forthright and approachable and it has worked. It's great to see the team walking around the boundary after games - it's a simple thing, but worth its weight. The players, if not the ECB, have moved closer to the public.

Problem solved: For the players, Yes.

Fast, short-pitched bowling
It may seem a peripheral subject on which to end a screed like this one, but I think it is England's major on-field issue. Australia opened deep wounds, and they are unsteady against it. They were bombed out by India at Lord's and have wobbled on other occasions this summer too. If they can't hack it against India and Sri Lanka on slow pitches, then they won't against Australia and South Africa.

Whoever opens with Cook, along with Ballance, Root, Ali and Buttler, are untested by attacks of that class. The New Era is most vulnerable here.

Problem solved: No.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Zaltzman's Over

I have been playing in cricket matches since I was eleven years old. During that time I have seen most things, and seen them often enough to realise that the game's genius lies in its quotidian variations, its subtle, almost infinite changes to a grand and familiar theme.

And yet last week at Wormsley I was on the field for an over that will live in the memory, and that quite probably will never be repeated - at least not by another bowler. It was delivered by Andy Zaltzman, cricinfo's polymath statistician who runs a parallel career as a stand-up comedian and another as a writer. These duties mean that he doesn't play often, and when he does it's usually as a rather elegant left-handed batsman who - he is quick to remind us - has apparently plundered untold centuries in an obscure Sussex Sunday village league.

He was called on to bowl as a run chase heated up, and he immediately marked out a 40-yard approach to the wicket that began in the shadow of the sightscreen. Most club cricketers have seen this done, usually by a batsman, and usually during a practice match or as a game peters out into an unavoidable draw. The same thing happens every time: they begin their run at pace, dipping into a Bob Willis impersonation a third of the way in, before the realisation that they are still nowhere near the stumps dawns and they start to slow down and worry about what will happen when they actually arrive. The result is either that they stop and deliver a gentle off-spinner or chuck down one that bounces twice and is called a dead ball.

Zaltzman, who sports something of Bob Willis hairdo of his own, did not disappoint on the first part, almost immediately spearing his bowling arm behind him and bobbing his head as he ascribed Willis' semi-circular approach. Yet having gone early with the Bob, and faced with another 30-odd yards before the stumps, he began a remarkable series of leaps, like a cat jumping through tall grass. Each one ate at the distance between him and the crease. His momentum was now unstoppable, perhaps catastrophically so, but somehow he arranged his feet into a delivery stride and slightly off the wrong foot conjured a perfectly acceptable medium-paced outswinger that the batsman, less surprisingly, missed.

Alone this performance might have been enough, but after another couple of outswingers from a truncated run, he announced a change of bowling action from right arm over to left arm round, and proceeded to pitch and turn both of them.

He continued to bowl with both actions throughout his spell, taking a couple of wickets right-arm, and almost one with his left. He has, he said later, bowled an over featuring all four actions: right arm over, right arm round, left arm over and left arm round.

Perhaps more predictably for a comedian, he's given to sledging, but only his own team-mates and only by means of inverse flattery - "like a young Glenn McGrath," he may shout at a veteran medium-pacer who somehow lands a couple in the same spot.

Imagine my delight when I discovered, halfway through writing this, that his first ball was captured on film. You can see it here, now and forever...


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Arlott at Words And Wickets

I think of John Arlott as cricket's quiet conscience, a man with soul. He was equally at home with Ian Botham and Dylan Thomas; a wonderful writer and an unforgettable talker: 'in through the eyes and out through the mouth,' as he used to say. One of the most resonant things he ever wrote was a single word, when he arrived in South Africa in 1948 and was told to fill out a landing card. In the box marked 'Race' he put simply, 'Human'.

It is his centenary this year. It's hard to picture him in the current media culture but I think he would have liked some parts of it at least, the great clamour of voices that now comes online. It's democratic in its way, and as the son of a cemetery keeper from Basingstoke who began his working life as a records clerk in a mental hospital, he would appreciate that.

His life, which had its burdens of personal tragedy along with its brilliant, sometimes boozy highs, and which was suffused with cricket and poetry and wine throughout, is being celebrated on Saturday at the Words And Wickets Festival at Wormsley, a ground with enough beauty to have many who see it attempting a stanza or two of their own. Arlott's biographer and friend David Rayvern Allen leads the way.

The idea of the festival is to unite cricket with its literature, and it's almost certainly the only place where you'll get John Arlott and Jarrod Kimber on the same day. Check it out.

"I had a lucky life," Arlott said once. "Well, lucky in some ways..."

Perfectly put, as ever.