Saturday, 31 December 2011
Shah's little masterpiece sat above all of the blasts, flips, scoops, glides and switch-hits; it was simple and beautiful in its way. Batsmanship, though, is more complex than ever, what with its extended repertoire and its multiple formats, with all of its choice. Selecting a single innings that somehow represents the year, or at least more than just the match it was played in, is the task at hand, and as with the three previous editions of this entirely arbitrary and little-known award [2008, 2009 and 2010 here] the criteria for the shimmering gong are as ever: an innings that I've seen, either in the flesh, on the box or down that handy ask-no-questions live stream via India, that upholds the principal that a great knock somehow transcends the numbers in the book. The winner need not trouble themselves with the rented tux and trip to the sponsored green room, because there isn't one: honour is all. And with that, the envelope please...
Jacques Kallis began the year with a hundred in each innings, and ended it with a pair - that's the batsman's life right there in miniature. The second of those tons, compiled in the great tradition of the walking wounded, was a feat of technical endurance and experience that at last, after a statistically epic career, proved Jacques had that more mortal attribute of heart to go with his glorious new head of hair. The Test though will resonate for one epic passage of play between Steyn and Tendulkar. An exquisite exchange of skills that will live forever in the memory was won - just - by Tendulkar, who made a 51st Test century.
Sachin had two more tons in him, both World Cuppers, that would for the 98th and 99th time belie the weight of expectation that has shadowed his life. Amusingly, he was outbatted in the first of those games by Andrew Strauss, whose 158 confirmed England as the 50-over side to follow if you wanted shit and giggles. They greatly enlivened a competition staffed by central casting and scripted by Spielberg. In losing to Ireland, they bowed to the endeavours of Kevin O'Brien, who produced an innings that, come the IPL auction, might yet change his life, and in the tie with India in Bangalore, engaged in the match of the tournament.
When the stage cleared for the big boys in Mumbai, Mahela Jayawardene made an 88-ball hundred silkier than a George Clooney chat-up line, but the force of destiny was ranged against him and Sri Lanka. Enter MS Dhoni, a man whose implacably sunny attitude to cricket deflects pressure of mercurial weight, for a rousing chase that finished with the ball burning through the night skies. It was a Bollywood ending for a tournament that dispelled much of the darkness and farce of the West Indies four years before.
The comedown for India was long and hard, but on what must have seemed like an endless traipse through England's damp green lands, Dhoni's spirits never dipped, and come some limpid one dayers he was once more undismissable. But just one man stood up to England's high summer onslaught, reiterating his quiet greatness. The Wall made three hundreds in four games, carrying his bat at the Oval and then going straight back in again. It was valedictory batting characterised by Ruler's ruthless judgment. To watch him leave the ball remains, in Gideon Haigh's phrase, 'an exchange of advantage so small as to be immeasurable'. You can be sure, though, that Rahul knows its value.
Sehwag was sold badly short by his rushed return to the side after shoulder surgery, but his day lay ahead and what a deathless day it was, a white hot morning in Indore when he made a world record 219 in an ODI against West Indies. The adjective that captures it best is joyous. Sehwag's ability has been eulogised enough. What was really memorable was his spirit. He was reveling in his moment. Who among us would not surrender a fair portion of out worldy goods just to be able to bat for an hour like Viru?
Australia's new role as the comedy entertainers of Test cricket required moments of excellence to set up their punchlines, and Michael Clarke produced two centuries of high class, his 151 at Newlands against the moving ball being the pick for some immaculate driving. 'It'll mean nothing if we don't win the game,' he said afterwards. If you believe that, you'll believe anything. Amla's hundred did win the game, and was just as good.
Before we reach the sharp end of this year's shindig, a word on Chris Gayle's explorations of T20 possibilities. He and David Warner have set the blueprint for scoring hundreds regularly in the format. Gayle's hitting is freakish - no-one strikes the ball harder - but his real value is in the amount of games he wins for his teams, and he does it by judging perfectly the tempo of his innings.
Aside from that electric, anachronistic month or so of the World Cup [50 over cricket remains on death watch], the year belonged to England. Bowlers - those poor saps - win Tests, but England's method is based on the relentless accumulation of runs for them to shy at. It has been a golden time. Cook and Trott had their sessions in the sun and Matt Prior remains the hammer of the declaration, but two players merited further consideration.
Ian Bell evokes rapturous notices for his timing and elegance but to me remains a pond-skater, sliding across the surface tension, afloat on the calm created by other forces. Unfair? Maybe, but that icy chip of indefinable greatness is still not obvious. You would though need a heart of stone not to enjoy his double at the Oval, when, on a glowing August afternoon, England iced their cake.
Kevin Pietersen made 175 that day, an innings that took his Test average back over 50 and ended a lengthy rehabilitation from a slump complex in its nature. Had it happened in an England side of the 1990s it might have been terminal, but both KP and the set-up deserve credit for coming through. His most human innings of the year came at Southampton against Sri Lanka, a knock of 85 in which he employed that huge stride to play massively straight, a homage to orthodoxy that even the wildest players must sometimes make. It was an innings of penance, an acknowledgement that the gods of the game must be respected.
He deserved a hundred that day, but it went to Bell. A month later, at Lord's in the 2000th Test, those gods relented. In return he grafted against the swinging ball, his first 22 runs taking 73 balls, his first fifty 134. But then, the next took 82, the third 75 and his final 50 just 25. He went to his double hundred by smoking Suresh Raina for 4, 6, 2 and 4 from consecutive deliveries as Lord's vibrated with the strange magic that he only can impart. The occasion, the venue and the moment had aligned, and England's best player had stepped up. The series was shaped, and England's upward curve confirmed. KP, the innings of the year is yours.
Friday, 23 December 2011
I'll save that, but in writing about it, I found this. It's Woolmer's own description of his dismissal by Michael Holding at the Oval in 1976. It came on the third morning of the match and the day after his amazing thing:
'Holding's feet barely touched the ground as he ran in. He moved in silkily, and his body swayed like a cobra's: it would have been magnificent if I'd been watching it from the outside. But here I was more intent on watching the ball, moving back and across as Colin Cowdrey had taught me.
'Holding was bowling with only one fielder in front of the wicket at cover point. He bowled, and I moved back and across. I saw that the ball was pitched up, so I moved forward, feet first and then into the shot.
'Before I knew it, the ball had smashed into my pad. Even though I was wearing state-of-the-art buckskin pads, the pain was so incredible I thought I'd been shot. A small explosion of whitening emanated from my pad and a loud appeal from the bowler and fielders. Dickie Bird was not known to give too many lbws. But this time he had no choice: the ball would have broken middle stump'.
Bob Woolmer wrote this 23 years after the Oval match. Some things stick in the memory. Facing Michael Holding in 1976 is evidently one of them.
Monday, 19 December 2011
Yet his record contains some of the more arresting statistics in the first-class game. There is his 24-minute, 27 ball hundred against Leicestershire at Leicester in 2006. And then there is his career return as a bowler: 18.5 overs, 191 runs, 0 wickets, at an economy rate of 10.14 per over.
These records are not unconnected. Pettini's century came in the second inning of the last game of the season in Div Two, 2006. Essex batted first and made 486, scored at 3.30 runs per over. Leicester replied with 372-4 at 3.96 per over. Essex went in again, and scored 186-0 from 9.4 overs at a rate of 19.24 per over in an innings that was concluded in under half an hour. Pettini's 114 from 29 balls included 12 fours and 11 sixes. His partner, AN Cook [yes, him] made 66 from 32 balls, and managed a six of his own, too. Pettini's bowling figures were compiled in similar circumstances in other games: he is one of Essex's declaration bowlers, a reliable purveyor of floated flotsam, useless trex, hittable junk. It's a skill of sorts, but as of last week, one that is probably now confined to the past.
Collusion in county cricket has been longstanding, but it is impossible to see it surviving into our new and cynical age, an age in which the domestic fixture is 'at greater risk' than an international game, according to the ECB's Head Of Corruption Chris Watts. The era when one skipper would knock on the other's door and with pen and fag packet scope out an acceptable chase before working backwards to the number of dreck-filled overs required to set it up, must now be gone. For this was a calculation that would quite often be known to the local radio man and the BBC stringer as well as to the players on both sides, and no doubt the members who bothered to ask, none of whom would have dreamt of phoning the local bookie.
These were innocent passages of play regarded by all - except perhaps the fielding side - as a fitfully entertaining requirement of the wider contest. There were deeds both famous and ludicrous: Glen Chapple also made a 27-ball hundred, his in only 21 minutes, against Glamorgan at Old Trafford in 1993. Murray Goodwin got a ton in 25 minutes at Southgate. Andy Afford, the former Notts spinner, recalls a spell early in his career when he and Paul Johnson were required to bowl at Viv Richards while Somerset set up a game: for some reason Richards blocked everything that Johnson sent down but hit Aff for a six that rang the bell in the Trent Bridge pavilion, to great amusement all round. When Pettini got his hundred, Leicester opened the bowling with batsman Darren Robinson, who returned the figures of 4.4-0-117-0. As recently as 2010, Alastair Cook was required to turn his arm over against Bangladesh A, and bowled five overs for 111.
It already seems anachronistic, its astounding figures somewhat compromised by the accelerated glories of the Twenty20 game. The thought that a section of a professional match might be arranged by both sides so that they can compete to an unrehearsed conclusion is surely dead in 2012 under the gimlet eye of Chris Watts. Another connection with a less complex past has been cut.
Thursday, 15 December 2011
It took a sentence for Arlott to get to the heart of the matter, the centre of his life. Brearley first asked him why he had chosen Alderney. 'Well,' said Arlott in a voice rising up over the hot coals in his chest, 'the tempo here is magnificent'. Not for him a description of the views or the of the peace and quiet, but instead that connection he felt to the cadences of the place.
That was present in everything Arlott did, in the rhythm of his sentences, both spoken and written; the melancholic beats of his verse, the rise and fall of his commentary. The way that he could almost conduct a passage of Test cricket was Arlott's true talent as a speaker - 'in through the eyes, out through the mouth' as he put it - his internal sense of the rhythm of the over, and the session, and of the day and the match, all building symphonically. He confessed at one point that his favourite moments in Test matches were batting collapses, and again noted the way they produced their own momentum, fed by the noise of the crowd.
Not saying anything helped to produce that rhythm too. When he spoke to Brearley about his parents, or about the son he lost in a car accident, he paused for long periods and the camera held his face, which bore all of the iniquities of age. Its stillness, which he struggled to maintain, conveyed everything that words could not. 'No...' he said eventually. 'Let's talk about something else'.
He told Brealey that he'd had a lucky life, the son of a cemetery keeper who became a poet, author, broadcaster, friend of Dylan Thomas and Betjamin, Hobbs and Botham. 'Well, lucky in some ways...' and the camera held that face again.
They do0n't make 'em like him any more, and they don't make many programmes like this, either. You can see it here on the BBC iplayer, if you're within range. It's worth it.
Monday, 12 December 2011
It's unlikely that anyone will ask Jacobs about Phillip Hughes, but the old master would recognise the unerring predictability with which the ball flew from the edge of Hughes' bat to second slip. After all, it's just happened four times in a row. And yet as Hughes slides sadly out of Test match cricket and into a future as uncertain as it once was gilded, it's Jacobs' thought that reverberates, that holds true.
It's a philosophy of reverse engineering, of learning before teaching. He examines the outcome before he thinks about what caused it. What caused Hughes to keep edging to second slip? Well...
Spring 2009: Phil Hughes comes to England to play for Middlesex on a short-term contract ahead of the Ashes. He has just played his first three Test matches, against South Africa, where he scored 0, 75, 115, 160, 33 and 32. He appears in three first-class games for Middlesex, scores another three hundreds and averages 143.50. It's no surprise. His life has been filled with such success: he scored 141* on his grade debut in Sydney, made 51 and 137 for New South Wales seconds to ensure a first-class debut where he got 51, and then scored a match-winning hundred in his first Pura Cup Final. He plays in the first two Ashes Tests of 2009, makes 36, 4 and 17 and is replaced by Shane Watson. The first coming of Phil Hughes is over.
His dropping was complicated by the way Hughes scored his runs. He was, like Bradman, a country boy coming out of nowhere, defying convention. Where The Don picked the bat up differently, Hughes ignored one of the immutable laws of batting and stayed legside of the ball, from where he carved and sliced through the offside and mowed down the ground like Nadal hitting a low forehand. Even in an age at ease with unorthodoxy Hughes was too much, and yet it was unorthodoxy that made him devastating, that set him apart.
Flintoff and Harmison went hard at him in Cardiff and at Lord's, and he was an appealing target. The great and unmentioned facet of the way he played was that staying legside of the rising ball had always been, in the accomplished batsman, a mark of cowardice. The only reason for not getting into line was a fear of being hit. That wasn't why Hughes did it, but he was fighting a century's worth of conventional wisdom, and almost subconsciously it played into a wider notion that he would have to re-invent his technique if he was to succeed as a Test match player.
The weird magic that Phil Hughes possessed has all but perished in the effort to do so. He is now just another lefty who gets caught at slip a lot. It needn't be that way. Almost universally, by the time a player arrives in Test match cricket, he cannot be radically changed. Coaching at that level is holistic, rather than prescriptive. It's about tuning the engine, not rebuilding it. England have integrated two deeply unorthodox players since 2005, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan. Both came into the Test match team with the dark thought that they were really one-day players trailing behind them. Pietersen's first Test innings were frenetic and free, quite different to his more measured game now. It's a solution that he arrived at by himself, without altering the essential structure of how he plays. Similarly, Eoin Morgan has not been asked to bat differently in the Test side: he will, you sense, stand or fall as what he is.
England perhaps learned from their experiences with two bowlers, Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, who were almost ruined by trying to drag their methods too far from the place they had arrived at naturally. It very rarely works.
Phil Hughes went to his first Test hundred with consecutive sixes. Doubt was not in his mind then. John Jacobs would have looked first at where the ball was going and what it was doing before he considered how it was getting there. Where it was going was to and over the boundary, usually at great speed. There was the starting point, the moment that things might have been different.
To a greater or lesser extent, every player gets found out, worked out, worked over. For the best, this happens at Test level because it's the only standard high enough to do it. Nothing unexpected happened to Phil Hughes. What's shocking now is how quickly he was first discarded and how completely his methods were written off. He gets caught at slip as often as he ever did before, and he doesn't score any runs either.
It's hard to go against the knowledge and commitment of someone like Justin Langer, who has been working with Hughes, but it's necessary too. Orthodoxy has laid low something special. The young, fearless Hughes was an extraordinary sight, and that has been lost in a world of doubt and confusion on the part of his coaches as much as himself.
Cricketers aren't like golfers, they don't have the luxury of deciding not to win or earn much money for a couple of years while they completely rebuild their technique [and years, from the examples of Woods and Faldo, is how long it takes]. Just worry about what it does after it comes off the bat, Phil, and good luck.
Wednesday, 30 November 2011
Now consider the difference between yourself and Virender Sehwag, to whom this happened the other day in the first ODI against West Indies. Viru stepped back and carved it over third man too - the difference being that he would have done it anyway, regardless of the no-ball and the free hit, and regardless of the fact it was an ODI and not a Test match or any other type of fixture. Because that is Sehwag, the man who gave the world the irreducible 'see ball, hit ball'.
This blog has long seen Sehwag as an avatar, a vision of the future, an outlier. But perhaps he is something else too; mentor, leader, philosopher king. In the modern age, there have always been attacking opening batsman. Gordon Greenidge, no slouch himself, recalled his partnership with Barry Richards at Hampshire: 'it was not unusual for applause to be ringing round the ground for his fifty while I still had single figures'. Richards once made 325 in a day at Perth against Dennis Lillee amongst others. Then came Jayasuriya, Slater, Hayden, Gayle, McCullum.
Yet none are Sehwag. Jayasuriya, Hayden and Gayle have Test match triple hundreds but Sehwag has two, and came within seven runs of a third. They are power players, yet Sehwag strikes at 20 runs per hundred balls better than any of them. Only Hayden can really claim to be in his class - the others all average about 10 less - and yet Hayden cannot be called a genius; the adjective effortless does not attach itself easily to his game.
Viru doesn't have Gayle's shoulders or Jayasuriya's forearms or Haydos' pecs. He has none of the nervous intensity of Slater or the cross-eyed desire of Hayden. He doesn't really have the insouciance of Gayle or Barry Richards. He is instead an almost implacable little Buddha, soft-edged, calmly accepting of the fates, whether they swing for him or against.
If there is one player he is most like, it is Lara, in that he can hit unstoppably not just for hours but for days. It is they who have built monolithic scores most regularly. Yet Lara didn't open, and he often gave the first hour or so of his innings to the bowler. That has not been Sehwag's way.
His technique is not revolutionary, just thrillingly heightened. What is different about Sehwag is his mind, the way he sees the game. Essentially, he is free. Where tradition insists that the new ball and fresh bowlers and aggressive fields are threats, he sees wide open spaces, a hard ball that will fly off the bat.
Sehwag said as much to David Warner a couple of years ago, when the notion of Warner wearing the Baggy Green was inducing not only ridicule but indignance. 'He said to me, 'you'll be a better Test cricketer than you are a twenty20 player',' Warner recalled a few days ago. 'I looked at him and basically said, 'mate I've not even played a first-class game yet'. But he said, 'all the fielders are around the bat. If the ball's there in your zone, you're still going to hit it. You're going to have ample opportunities to score runs. You've always got to respect the good ball, but you've got to punish the ball you always punish'.'
This week, David Warner made his Test debut. Sehwag was more right than most of Australia. Warner does not have Sehwag's talent, but he shares his worldview. There will be many more who do in the years to come, and then it will become the new orthodoxy. That is Sehwag's true legacy. He has shared an era with Lara, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ponting, Kallis, yet he is not one of them. As great as they are and have been, they are the old order, more connected to the past than to the future.
And there is something more important here than just a mindshift, than changes in tactics or techniques. The game must always move forwards and renew itself. Essentially it must accelerate to match the speed of the culture in which it exists. Test cricket of the 1950s is as distant now as the rest of that decade, with its housewives and its radio plays and its music hall conservatism. David Warner may or may not succeed as a Test match opener - do you want to bet against Viru? - but plenty like him will. At some point or other they will be the norm, and they will be standing on Sehwag's shoulders, the shoulders of a giant. If he is not the best batsman of his time (and he might be), he is the most significant; a genius and a visionary with it.
Friday, 25 November 2011
It is a long reach back in time. 1848 was the summer that Grace was born. Brahms was 15. Tolstoy was 20. Dickens had just written A Christmas Carol. The Crimean war was five years away. America had 30 states. A man called Innocenzo Manzetti had hit on the idea for something that, three decades later, would become the telephone. 1848 is a distant place.
Cricket, though, was in rude health in its first great age, a sport of the people and a gambler's paradise. Two thousand four hundred people went to the Priory Ground to watch Eleven One Armed Men v Eleven With One Leg. The game lives on through a glorious match report in an Australian paper published six months later. ''Novelty was the ruling passion," it runs, "nine tenths went merely for the say of the thing".
The principal of the fixture was well-established; a similar game had been played for a thousand guineas in 1796, and this was a rematch of sorts of a fixture played in 1841, although, "during this long recess, the great leveller had bowled a large proportion of those who figured on that occasion out." The betting, "what little there was," went in favour of the men with "two living legs".
The players from both teams were Greenwich Pensioners, navy men who had been injured in service and now lived at the Royal Hospital. What a sight it was: "The singularity of the Greenwich dress combined with the ludicrous positions of the fielders, their antique physiognomies and the general clumsiness of both parties at the game produced a match that was grotesque in the extreme".
Lest anyone think political correctness was being invented at the boundary edge that day, a riotous time was had by all. A clue as to why the players were keen enough came from the description of their "substantial luncheon before each day's play" and "for their dinner there was a profusion of roast and boiled beef, and lamb, accompanied by plenty of heavy".
Thus, in their veteran's uniforms, full of grub and with a night's-worth of ale in them, did the One Arm XI make 50 in their first innings, which featured a top score of 8 not out. The One Legged XI replied with 32, The One Arm XI extended their lead with 41, leaving the One Legged XI 60 to win. They were dismissed for 44, a gallant effort that included the highest score of the match, 15, from their number five, Sears. The greatest contributor to both totals was extras. The One Legged XI conceded 30, the One Arm XI 43, all of which were wides. Across the match, 21 players were dismissed without scoring in one innings or the other, and the One Legged XI featured five batsmen who made pairs, including the unfortunate number eleven Baldrick, who was run out twice.
"The bowling on both sides was generally very wide," wrote our man [Mitch wasn't playing was he...?] "and the One Legs, in endeavouring to take advantage of it but in the majority of cases missing the object, span round like the final revolutions of an expiring teetotum, and frequently got out".
Then, in strange triumph, both teams "marched to the Bull Inn, headed by an excellent band who had been engaged throughout the match. Each man had free passage to and from the Royal Hospital, a glass of grog to drink to Her Majesty's health and ten shillings for his two days' exertions".
It was a distant match from a distant time, played in a world that is unknowable now. The lives of the players had not been easy, and yet their oddly uplifting spirit endures and flourishes. Any cricketer can relate to how they felt - especially that Baldrick. Here are the names of the men that played. Gentlemen, we salute you:
One Arm XI: Guay, Wiley, Morley, Johnson*, Burns, Sissoms, Broom, Newsom, Seale, Jeffreys, Sowden.
One Legged XI: Wetherhead, Ryan, Scot, Brown, Sears, Albar, Polston, West, Drew, Browne, Baldrick.
* Not that one.
NB: Thanks to the great Jonathon Green for passing along the report.
Saturday, 19 November 2011
It's facile - not to mention impossible - to offer an answer to that, about Kallis or anyone else. But it is worth thinking about why the question seems so unlikely, because it sort of strikes at the heart of what we think greatness in cricket looks like. Billy Beane - him again - called it 'the tyranny of what you see'.
Kallis has gone past 12,000 Test runs, just the fourth man to do so. He has more than Lara now, is 500-odd behind Ponting, and he is scoring at least as heavily as Dravid and Tendulkar, so who knows where he'll end up. That series against India was his sixth in which he'd averaged more than 100; Bangladesh and Zimbabwe couldn't get him out, so in two more he finished averageless, or rather, beyond average.
In the era of batting giants, Kallis has been the most consistent. For his first 22 Tests he barely averaged 30. In the years since he has topped 60. He is the most successful Test batsman this century. He is also the best second innings player around - he averages five runs more than anyone else, and of players who have made more than 2,500 second innings runs, he has the best average not just of his era, but ever.
That last stat may raise a smirk; Jacques loves a red inker, the world knows that. The suspicion that he bats for himself might never be extinguished, yet that is what the best do. They need the icy chip of ego in their hearts that tells them they are no use in the pavilion. But Kallis cannot be bracketed with Boycott or other ruthless accumulators; his technique has the depth to make him an essential Twenty20 cricketer, too, and even in that form, he seems to have an innate inner pace that attunes itself to the rhythms of the game he's playing.
When Bob Woolmer needed a batsman to pose for the photographs in his matchless book on playing the game, The Art And Science Of Cricket, he chose Kallis. His technique is utterly orthodox, and more than that, it makes the argument for orthodoxy. He can do pretty much anything, and he can bat in all circumstances. His first innings 50 against Australia in the Test just concluded came off 36 balls, a knock that ran against type, but the ball was swinging, the field was up, the outfield slicker than an ice-rink. Kallis barely took a backlift and he creamed it through the covers again and again, the ball ringing from his bat. With Amla doing the same at the other end, it was almost symphonic.
But forget his batting: Kallis the bowler has 270 Test wickets, more than Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Dale Steyn, Bishen Bedi, Andy Roberts and Jeff Thomson. If he was English, he would have more wickets than anyone currently playing, and would be fifth on the all-time list behind Underwood, Trueman, Willis and Botham.
As an all-rounder, he has a batting average that dwarfs Flintoff's, along with 46 more wickets at the same price. Hadlee, Botham, Imran and Kapil have outbowled him, but Kallis has 10 more hundreds than all of them put together. And Sobers? Well Sobers can match that average, but nothing else. Kallis has sustained it for another 4,000 runs, has scored 14 more centuries and has 35 more wickets at cheaper cost.
So what is it about Jacques that leaves him so ill-considered by the wider world? Botham, Imran and Kapil lifted their countries, raised them up. They have been loved. Hadlee may not have been, but he was deeply admired, and feared too. Flintoff inspired an uncomplicated affection. Kallis has been less overtly heroic. The South African methods of winning have been to grind relentlessly from a position of advantage. Kallis is not a victory from the jaws of defeat merchant; the greatest deeds of Botham, Imran and Kapil had a context that Kallis's often don't.
Then there is his sheer consistency. Failure has never dogged him, no-one's asked him to captain a rag-bag outfit. He doesn't bear Sachin's burden of expectation, he wasn't asked to manage his country's decline like Ponting. His life lacks the epic curve of Boycott's. Instead he has his machine-like grace. There is an impression that his relentless excellence allows him to dictate to South Africa how he plays, and he is, of course, undroppable, so his story lacks jeopardy.
Most of all, as Billy Beane observed, aesthetics hold sway. He has the physique of a mobile fridge. Aside from when he's bowling or in his pads, it's impossible to imagine him running. His hair transplant has been comically successful - its current style is the most Botham-esque thing about him. His physicality just adds to the air of superiority his technique gives him. He's never an underdog in the way that the smaller Tendulkar or Lara were against some bowlers, and for all the classical brilliance of his batting, it doesn't quite have the sudden, illogical and otherworldly lurches into genius that Lara or Sehwag or even Pietersen can provide.
Yet this is the tyranny that clouds judgement. Kallis's genius is empirical, provable. He may be hard to love, but he's pretty easy to pick. KP may not be right, but he had a point.
Monday, 14 November 2011
Tangled Up In White contained an epic piece about Dean Jones' 210 in Madras, an innings that Roebuck sketched, unforgettably, through the conditions [a nuclear sun, its microwave heat], fragments of dialogue [Border: 'quit if you want, we'll get a Queenslander out here'] and harrowing notes on Jones' physical and mental deterioration [dry heaves, urinating at the crease, hallucinating in the shower, on a drip at the hospital]. It was impossible to read without being stirred for your inconsequential club game, your appointment with the local quicks...
It Never Rains played a wholly different role. It was the first book I'd read that was equivocal about the game, that made it okay to feel ambiguous about something that dominated your life. It was self-aware, knowing, courageous in its way. Roebuck found cricket and his efforts at playing it funny, ridiculous, poignant, hubristic, bathetic in the sense that it switched from the everyday to the unrepeatable, and slightly, darkly heroic, too.
The start of the season is beset by rain, endless and total, that sends him indoors for hours and hours on the bowling machine. Roebuck's confidence grows and grows until he strides out for his first innings of the year and lasts one ball. As the summer reaches its height, he's in the grip of a six-week depression that concludes on the first day of August with the simple words, 'no entry'. It's a book full of such cadences, the rhythms of real life. There are the identikit ring-roads and fuming pub grub of the touring pro, the grinding tyranny of the fixture list, the recognition of unfathomable talent far out of reach [Botham, Richards and Garner are perched in their corners of the Somerset dressing room], and the comforting quirkiness of any team, anywhere [Colin Dredge, the Demon of Frome, Dasher Denning, the manic opener]. Any cricketer will read it and just know.
What I remember most though is the passage where Roebuck hears that he might be considered for England, and realises, down in his heart, that he doesn't really want to be, or at least that he is profoundly uncertain about it. That admission, and his honesty in revealing it, rounded the game out for me, completed it in my head. This was why it was great - because it was not easy. Somehow, the joy of it was increased by this. Whether you played cricket, wrote about it, thought about it, lived it or watched the odd highlights programme when there was nothing else on, you could never exhaust it. It was, and always would be, too rich, too human and complex, for that.
Roebuck knew it, too. As obituaries often do, his have turned up some tremendous stories. When he went for his interview for Millfield school his parents went as well, and were both offered jobs. According to Wisden, he was just four feet two inches tall when he debuted for Somerset seconds as a thirteen year old. He once wrote a newspaper piece about the decline of Richard Hadlee and then had to bat against him at Trent Bridge - he made a double hundred, that was, the Notts spinner Andy Afford tweeted, 'scored entirely off his gloves'. Mark Nicholas once sidled up to Roebuck and said that the pair of them were the two best cricket writers around. 'Who told you that,' snorted Roebuck, 'your mother?'
He was an anachronistic man, which probably cost him. He should have lived in the 1950s, not now. Off the field, he had a rock-solid intellectual confidence that enabled him to lead the sacking of Richards and Garner in favour of Martin Crowe - Botham pasted the famous 'Judas' sign over his dressing room peg. On it, the same intellect smothered his instinct. Someone described his stooped stance as being 'like a question mark'. How perfectly appropriate that was.
Roebuck's 'conversion' to being Australian was always amusing; he was the least Australian man on earth, and yet he found acceptance there after his conviction for assault. The great conflicts in his personality, expressed so well in It Never Rains, leaves an ambiguity over his death too. There is a [mostly] unwritten fear over what its circumstances will expose. Yet his books remain fundamentally true - and they remain in my bag, too.
Thursday, 10 November 2011
Kahneman is the star of Michael Lewis's piece in the new issue of Vanity Fair, a story that fills in a little hole drilled by Lewis's book Moneyball. Kahneman, as you might expect of a man who knocked off a Nobel in his spare time, had the answer to a question that Moneyball left hanging, namely, why, if baseball coaches had spent their entire lives watching baseball, had they got player selection wrong so often, and by so much?
The solution lay in cognitive psychology and something Kahneman called 'the availability heuristic', which was the notion that human judgement is often based on the most easily recalled information. He explained this by means of one of his experiments: a roulette wheel was rigged to stop on one of two numbers, 10 or 65. Kahneman asked the groups he assembled in front of the wheel to write down the number they saw. He then asked them an unrelated question: 'What is your best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?'
The average answer of the groups whose wheel landed on 10 was 25 per cent, and of the groups who landed on 65 was 45 per cent. In other words, the unrelated number affected their guess.
Kahneman called this 'the anchoring effect'. He conducted lots of other strange experiments too, like creating a character called Linda, who 'was bright, majored in philosophy and who was deeply concerned with discrimination and social justice'. He asked his subjects which statement was more true: i] Linda is a bank teller ii] Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. Eighty-five per cent of people opted for number ii even though it is logically impossible [if number ii is true, then number i must be equally true].
Daniel Kahneman developed all of this stuff into 'prospect theory' which was about economics and ultimately, many years later, won him the big one. A Harvard undergraduate called Paul DePodesta, who had been hired by Billy Beane at the Oakland As, became interested in it. Along with Bill James, their maverick statistician, they exploited the 'willful ignorance' of the baseball player market, and revolutionised the way the game was measured.
Michael Lewis thought of all of this when he stumbled on a letter written to him in 1985 by Bill James. 'Baseball men have an entire vocabulary of completely imaginary concepts used to tie together chance groupings,' James wrote. 'It includes momentum, confidence, seeing the ball well, slumps, guts, clutch ability, being hot and my all-time favourite, intangibles'.
Kahneman's work seemed to answer Bill James's question. Baseball coaches often based their judgement on nebulous concepts and 'instincts' rather than empirical evidence of the kind rooted out by Bill James.
Cricket does it too. Australia dropped Simon Katich for being too old in the face of all available evidence: in the previous three years, he was the only Australian batsman to average over 50, had scored more runs, home and away, than anyone else, and two payers who kept their places, Ponting and Hussey, were older than Katich. There are plenty of other examples: how long did Steve Harmison's 7-12 affect opinion of his game?
During an insane day at Newlands yesterday, when Australia were bowled out for 284 and then South Africa were bowled out for 96 and Australia's second innings score stood at 21-9, Robin Jackman asserted on commentary that 'South Africa have the momentum here'.
How did Jackman make that judgement? Probably because, in his mind, South Africa taking 9-21 was further forward than the knowledge that Australia were 209 runs ahead on a day when 20 wickets had fallen for 128 runs.
Momentum is king of those nebulous concepts affected by the availability heuristic. In truth, not even Daniel Kahneman could tell you what's going to happen at Newlands today, other than that someone's going to win, because there's almost nothing to compare it with. Try one for yourself: Next time Australia bat, which will be in Johannesburg, how many do you reckon they'll score? Not that easy is it, when your availability heuristic is all over the place.
Thursday, 3 November 2011
Okay, that's a cheap shot at Mitch, but in sentencing Butt, Asif and Amir [three names that will now forever be bracketed together, no pun intended] Mr Justice Cooke pointed to the 'insidious nature' of what they had done. He was right, because what they have done is cast doubt, suspicion and fear where there was none: Edgbaston '05, Australia's second innings, Shane Warne steps too far back in his crease and knocks off a bail with his heel; Trent Bridge 2010, County Championship final day, Notts win the title on countback after taking the three Lancashire wickets they needed for a bonus point in 4.4 overs of the final session; Edgbaston 2011, spinner Amit Mishra bowls nine no-balls in England's only innings; Cardiff 2011, Sri Lanka lose eight wickets for 49 runs in the last session of the match; Sabina Park 2009, England second innings, 51 all out in 33.2 overs...
All of these events were straight up. They were unusual, but in the way that we want sport to be unusual, and they happened within the broad paradigm of credibility, they weren't without precedent. But as Cooke noted, insidious cheating turns the eye inwards. Ultimately, how do you tell?
The ineptitude of Butt's fixing ring does not help any, either. The loud-mouthed, loose-lipped, vainglorious Mazhar Majeed was an accident waiting to happen. In turn, Butt and Mazhar were so unsure of Asif's loyalty they were paying way over the odds for his over-stepping, and Amir provided joke no-balls that couldn't do anything but arouse suspicion. No international cricketer is that bad [and yes, you can insert your own Mitch or Harmi joke here]. We can probably assume that there are or have been more sophisticated, less porous, more professional operations going down.
It still took a sting as well-financed and sharply executed as the News Of The World's to produce a strong enough case to convict. It's notable that the Crown Prosecution Service decided to focus their case on the no-balls rather than other evidence offered by the ICC's Anti- Corruption Unit in the wake of the story's publication, because it was really only the no-balls that proferred a provable moment.
The News Of The World has gone, and the likelihood of another sting is remote. The Anti-Corruption Unit certainly could not undertake one. The game will continue to throw up its occasional collapses and catastrophes, its offbeat outcomes. Well-meaning commentators and ex-pros may speculate about them. but there's little more they can do. So the question grows: how does cricket protect itself?
Perhaps one key lies in the desire of the best teams to improve. Andy Flower's stats department at Loughborough has watched and logged every ball bowled in international cricket in the last five years. Other sides are doing the same. From that information, they're looking to extract patterns, to identify and recognise both the obvious and the unique about teams and individuals. That data offers some kind of baseline of performance that might be adapted when looking for the kind of events used by spot-fixers and gamblers. An obvious example would be scoring patterns produced in 'brackets', which, by the nature of them being set out before the game starts, might lie at odds with the rest of the play around them. Statistical analysis is, in a way, the ultimate in vigilance.
Most fixing demands the involvement of the captain, and there are a finite number of those. If they can be made part of the process - an ICC quorum that brings them together and offers them the chance to meet and talk and establish common cultures within their teams - might offer a stronger grasp on control of the game.
These are small things. The best protection is for the broad internal culture of international cricket to provide its own defence. Mohammad Amir, 18 years old, from a background beyond the experience of most English or Australian players, walked into a nightmare. His captain was corrupt, so were his team-mates, and his family were being threatened by bookmakers' heavies. It's asking a lot of a kid to make a stand against all of that, even if knew how to do so.
It has been a personal tragedy for him, and the laws of natural justice need to apply. Prison is probably not the place for Amir, at least not for long. In mainstream society, once a man has served his punishment he's free to resume his life, his debt paid. Amir must be allowed to do the same within cricket once his ban is served. Rehabilitating him into a game that has found new ways to police itself would be the ultimate victory over what has happened.
Thursday, 27 October 2011
Trott occupies that category of batsman for whom flair is another country [current proprietor S. Chanderpaul, notable residents Simon Katich, Paul Collingwood, Graeme Smith]. There may be little aesthetic pleasure to his game, but there are consolations, and not just in the scorebook. Behind Trott trails the obsessive-compulsive's checklist of ticks and rituals, the mad-ass rundown of scrapes and sidesteps of a man who must impose clarity and order. Once he has done, he is set. His mental landscape is entirely different to Lara's or Pietersen's or Ponting's, players who need the challenge to escalate as they bat, and who will escalate it themselves if the bowlers won't.
There is something ineffably English about debating the merit of a man who has the best record in the team, is the cricketer of the year and has, with 1,310 ODI runs, 172 more than anyone else in 2011, yet that is his lot, because he is a man out of time. Had he played ten years ago in the pre-T20 era, when the possible was comfy and predictable, he would appear without argument. But the possible is no longer comfy and anyone can score anything; limited overs batting is now the art of vicious, unpredictable acceleration set around periods of accumulation. These are the surges that will define games.
The broad, non-penetrative measures of average and strike rate cannot and do not tell the story of those surges. In a small room in Loughborough, England's analysts have recorded every ball delivered in international cricket in the last five years. While Flower does not talk publicly about what they've found, you can be sure that he will pondering stats like those in Mohali, when Trott made 26 from 25 deliveries in the last 10 overs of England's innings, and the numbers that tell him that Trott has scored at better than a run a ball in three of his 38 ODIs.
Put simply, Trott's runs are useful at certain points of the innings and less so at others. They suit games that have middling totals of 250-280. This is what makes him a percentage selection. The choice of Cook as captain and by default, opener, has also compromised Trott's value as the man to bat around.
The rest of the order needs to coalesce before Trott's position becomes clearer. It's not inconceivable that the answer is for him and Cook to open together, and for batting below them to be supercharged by Bell, Pietersen, Morgan and Patel, with Keiswetter or Bairstow keeping wicket and batting deep, plus the option of Bopara and the versatility his bowling brings.
Trott's game may not have fully flowered. His success so far has lain in ruthless elimination of error and risk. Collingwood introduced his thump over cow corner and, allied to his scampering, his fielding and the odd inspired spell of bowling, it made him the essential selection that Trott is not. Even Chanderpaul can and has destroyed teams in short bursts. Trott has bullishly claimed he can hit sixes, so maybe he should try. It's no longer a luxury, a skill like that.
Flower is trying to overcome a notoriously cautious culture, and one scarred not just by failure but by humiliation and embarrassment. This is the nation that opened in a World Cup final with Brearley and Boycott; that for a decades would have loved to have enough talent at its disposal to just get into position to choke. The really adventurous long-term selection as 50-over captain was Eoin Morgan, which strangely, would have shored-up Trott's position. With Cook, they have hedged to some degree. Whether he or Trott make it to the 2015 World Cup is a question that at the moment has no right answer.
Sunday, 23 October 2011
'Well then, would you sleep with me for a shilling?'
'Sir! What kind of woman do you think I am?'
'We've already established what kind of a woman you are. We're just haggling over the price'.
This anecdote of woolly provenance is as good a description as any of the methods of Mazher Mahmood, aka the Fake Sheikh, star witness at Southwark Crown Court in the spot-fixing trial of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir.
For a time, Mahmood, for all of the mystery that surrounds his physical appearance, was the most famous journalist in the country. Yet one of the ironies of the trial is that he gave his evidence in a media landscape that had altered irrevocably in the months between the publication of his story and the commencement of proceedings. The paper for whom Mahmood wrote his piece no longer exists, and neither, arguably, does the appetite for his stock in trade, the celebrity sting.
The News Of The World's defence of Mahmood's methods was generally that his investigations had led to 250 criminals being brought to justice. But it's also true that some of the crimes he reported would never have occurred without his involvement. In 2006, the media commentator and former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade wrote a piece for the Independent entitled 'Why I'm Out To Nail Mazher Mahmood'. He said: 'Mahmood's methods debase journalism. They often amount to entrapment, and on occasion, appear to involve the methods of agents provocateurs. People have been encouraged to commit crimes that they would not otherwise have conceived'.
Mahmood's rap sheet in that regard is long. Most notorious is his 2002 'world exclusive' story of a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham. The reason it was a world exclusive is because there was no plot. After the men accused by Mahmood had spent seven months in prison on remand, the trial collapsed over the unreliability of the main witness – and Mahmood's major source – Florim Gashi. The News Of The World's role was referred to the attorney general, and it transpired that Gashi had been paid £10,000 by the newspaper, and had played a role in four other of Mahmood's stories.
In 1999, Mahmood's investigation led to the conviction of Joseph Yorke and another man on drugs charges, yet the jury sent the judge a note explaining that had they been able to take into account the 'extreme provocation' to which Yorke was subjected, they would have issued a verdict of not guilty. The judge agreed and passed only a suspended sentence. And in the conviction of the actor John Alford for supplying cocaine, also in 1999, the judge said that 'entrapment had played a significant part, but so had greed'.
There were more. In 2005, a man was jailed after he admitted selling Mahmood and the News Of The World a fake story that he was 'the fifth London bomber' in the 7/7 attacks. The police wasted more than 4000 hours of time investigating the claim after the paper splashed on the story. The man, Imran Patel, said that had been promised £5000 by the News Of The World. In 2006, three men, Dominick Martins, Abdurahaman Kanyare and Roque Fernandez, were acquitted of plotting to buy a substance that could be used to make a 'dirty' bomb, and Mahmood's methods were again questioned, this time by the BBC.
In 2010 Mahmood exposed the world snooker champion John Higgins over plans to fix frames in four tournaments across Europe. After an investigation, Higgins was banned from competition for six months for failing to report an illegal approach and discussing betting, and yet his acquittal on match-fixing charges came in part after Mahmood himself gave a full statement to the inquiry and turned over his unedited videotapes and transcripts.
The Higgins case perhaps best of all illustrates the ambiguities of these kind of stories. There is an excellent summary of it at the Sporting Intelligence site, including an interview with the man who investigated Higgins, former metropolitan police detective David Douglas, who says, 'The News Of The World are very clever at what they do, very clever indeed'.
Well not any more they're not. The paper has gone, closed for its involvement in the phone hacking scandal that might yet cost Rupert Murdoch control of his business. In retrospect, Mahmood's best stories were his more harmless ones - the shagging footballers and feckless club directors who insulted their own fans under the Fake Sheikh's wily prompting.
None of which is intended as a defence of Butt, Asif and Amir - especially the first two, Butt with his mug-purchase watches and ice-cream parlour deals; Asif with his schoolboy excuses and previous as long as your arm. It's just that this is another case that wouldn't have unfolded in the way it has without the presence of Mahmood and his robes and his bag of money – this time £140,000. You somehow wish for something as odious and damaging as spot-fixing to have been exposed by an organisation a little more noble. It's not exactly Watergate, is it... and it is probably the last of its kind.
Thursday, 13 October 2011
He writes: There was a strange dynamic between Andy Caddick and Darren Gough. I found it really weird. They absolutely hated each other but pretended to get on in this pseudo friendship. Their jealousy towards each others success made me feel uneasy.
On hearing of it, Gough, already stoked up by an allegation elsewhere in the book that he'd sucker-punched Swann while he was standing at a urinal - you'll have gathered by now that The Breaks Are Off might not take its place next to Cardus on Cricket in the pantheon - used his radio show on Talksport to rip a few snorters into Swanny's rib-cage. Paraphrased, his response was something like: 'It's absolute rubbish. Me and Andy were competitive, but we were friends too. Before every game together we'd do something like go to the cinema or have a meal or play golf. We're playing golf in a couple of weeks actually. Caddy's one of the few players I've stayed in touch with. I've stayed at his house for a week. I texted him the other day. Why would I do that if it were a pseudo friendship?
'There was a bit of jealousy because I was the golden boy and I got all the contracts, and that might have been a bit because I were a proper Englishman and he were a Kiwi, and we were competitive. If you look at how close were were in the wickets we got, of course we were. But to say there were cliques in the team and we weren't friends is rubbish. That team under Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher and Lord MacLaurin started the process of where we are today.
'You're always better friends with some people in the team than others, but that's not a clique. Vaughan and Collingwood and Giles were always together. Freddie and Steve Harmison were inseparable. At the end of my time, I was always with KP. In this team now, Swanny's always with Jimmy Anderson and Bressie, they spend all day on Twitter winding each other up. Is that a clique?'
It took him less time to say than it does to read, and he seemed far more exercised by it than he had been by the punch allegation, which had come the day before and over which he'd rung Swann direct. Perhaps it's because the story has been so persistent over the years, and it rankles.
In truth there was an almost symbiotic link between the two, in that they unconsciously echoed one another's performances. Gough played 58 Tests and took 229 wickets at 28.39 at a strike rate of 51.6, a best of 6/42 and 14 five wicket hauls. Caddick played 63, taking 234 wickets at 29.91 at a strike rate of 57.9, a best of 7/46 and 13 five-wicket bags. Gough had the edge as a limited overs bowler, Caddick took 1,180 first-class wickets to Goughie's 855.
They played 25 Tests together and were mostly formidable, except in the Ashes of 2001. England's comparative mediocrity during their era can be blamed on many things - three batsman who played more than 100 Tests and averaged less than 40, the failure to develop Hick and Ramprakash, a chaotic selection policy, the lack of central contracts, all of the usual - but not on players with records like Gough and Caddick, who, statistically at least, outbowled Flintoff and Harmison.
You can imagine both having their moments. You might think Gough had a heart like a dustbin lid and Caddick maybe less so, but then look at their numbers. That can't be true, although Gough's bravery in the face of his terminal knee injury pre-dated Flintoff's Leviathan efforts when faced with the same. Caddick by all accounts could be quirky. David Lloyd even called him nerdy, and maybe he was sensitive and inconsistent, but again, the stats say not that often. Anyway, which fast bowler is entirely sane?
Swann's recollection appears coloured by the myth, by the story. He has carefully constructed a personal mythology of his own, and his book will reinforce it. He's in a glass house throwing stones with this one.
Wednesday, 5 October 2011
Of course he had coached, with great success, and had lived his life in the game, but in his diffident way, he was out of the spotlight and so, perversely, he remained trapped by his brief moments in it. He only played in two Test match victories [despite appearing in 41 games - how very English that is] but the first of those is probably the most famous win of all, at Headingley in 1981, and even then he is famous within it for an innings and a catch, rather than for his bowling. Indeed, so far had he fallen at that point, he found himself, a week later, playing for Kent seconds against the Army.
His other win came on that happy tour of 1986-7, when he was part of the team that couldn't bat, couldn't bowl and couldn't field and that beat Australia 2-1. It was the tour on which the famous wicket, Lillee ct Willey b Dilley, was willed into existence. According to the testaments, he was the kind of man you needed to know before his true personality came out; Pat Murphy, the BBC radio journalist who wrote a book about a season at Worcester with Dilley and Graeme Hick, recalled late nights putting the world to rights over a few beers and a packet of fags - the book's title, Hick And Dilley's Circus, was surely cooked up then.
Two more diffident - that word again - destroyers you could not find. If ever you wanted to study savage talent wrapped in a pacifist's temperament, look at Hick and Dilley. Like Hick, Dilley had all of the physical gifts. He approached the crease on the angle from a run that sometimes seemed to take about five minutes, so long and curved was it, and yet the delivery stride was a thing of beauty, the front leg extended high while the whole body appeared balanced on the one dragging toe of his back foot, the javelin sweep of the arm delayed until the final second when it unfolded in a whir of long levers. Dilley was quick, sometimes brutally so, and that action let him swing the ball away very late, the batsman's nightmare. Had he possessed Botham's uncomplicated ego, he might have had another 150 Test wickets. As it was, he was way too good for most county players, as 648 first-class notches at 26.84 suggests.
It's strange how many of those Headingley men were on a last chance. Botham of course had been removed as captain, and was selected at Brearley's insistence. Willis, in his own mind at least, was bowling for his career, and Dilley was dropped after the game. How unjust that was; he had shown as much of the right stuff as anyone. His death somehow sends that match further into an ephemeral past.
Dilley may have prospered more in the scientific now, like his contemporary equivalent Chris Tremlett, another unassuming big fella. Instead he played through tumultuous times yet remained a gentle presence in them. It serves his memory well.
NB: thanks to Tony for pointing out the error above - Lillee ct Willey b Dilley came in '81 not '86. In the mind's eye, Willey was at either third slip or gully, but I could be wrong about that too...
Sunday, 2 October 2011
The resemblance ended there. This wasn't the Viv Richards of memory or dreams, it was Viv as he approached 50, a long-retired cricketer playing with his friends in a charity match. He still looked the same, still moved in the same way, but it had been a long time, and he could barely hit the ball off the square.
There was a sigh as he got out, but it was a sigh of relief almost, because no-one wants to watch their gods become mortal with age, and anyway, Goochie was blasting away at the other end and it was a terrific afternoon. The match offered something that only those sort of matches used to be able to do.
Not any more. One of the less remarked upon aspects of T20 cricket has been the rise of these simulcrums. There was one on the field yesterday by the name of Andrew Symonds. It looked like Symonds from a distance, but when the camera honed in, the face was lined and weathered, the waist had thickened, the hamstrings had tightened. It moved like Symonds used to move, only more stiffly, more slowly. There was another one on the other side, too, a version of Justin Kemp that just seemed to have staggered, unshaven and pawky, out of the nearest pub.
It's pretty obvious why Symonds wants to play for the Mumbai Indians [a team name that is increasingly loaded with sardonic humour], and why Shane Warne and Matthew Hayden want to play in the Big Bash. But why do the teams want them?
It's a strange and telling phenomenon. The thought that any of those players could, for example, appear in next year's T20 World Cup is so distant as to be laughable. Even Australia aren't that desperate. It's pretty unlikely that a stretched county side would lay out their hard-earned on them when young and hungry muscle is available on the cheap. But the IPL and its little me-too the Big Bash don't run entirely on excellence; performance is not their sole criteria. They need to keep the tills ringing with a little bit of showbiz too, so the appearance of the undead cricketer in their elasticated kit serves its purpose. You wouldn't have wanted to watch King Viv doing it though...
Monday, 26 September 2011
There is an easy answer for white-ball cricket: he is a man who can induce a queasy kind of awe. But as a Test match batsman, he moved there out of expediency and his decline has been camouflaged by the entropy all around him. Australia's future definition may be hazy at its edges, but focus should sharpen at the top. Shane is just not cutting it.
Watson's batting is a kind of brutalist modernism, as heavy as concrete and about as subtle. In the Summer of 2010, during the warm-ups before an ODI at the Rose Bowl, he came to the boundary edge for some throw-downs, wearing a single pad and a pair of gloves. He began belting the ball back past the coach like the school bully slapping a fat kid's neck. It was impressive, superficially, until Ricky Ponting came over to do the same thing. Ponting didn't strike the ball quite as hard, but he played each shot differently, angling the blade of his bat in such a way that a graph of his shots would have looked like the lines drawn on a protractor. It was the difference between putting a wrecking ball through a wall and undermining its foundations.
Incrementally, Watson's methods have failed him. His Test average is declining and is now below 40. He has made two hundreds in 54 innings. Phil Hughes, his much-maligned partner, averages half a run more - 39.73 to 39.43 - and his average is climbing. He has three centuries from 24 innings.
Those stats are blunt yet revealing, and need digging into. Watson's last Test before he began opening was at Brisbane against New Zealand in November 2008. He went in at number seven behind Hayden, Katich, Ponting, Hussey, Clarke and Symonds. He scored one and five, and his average hit its lowest point, 19.76. He had made one half-century in 13 innings.
He opened for the first time at Edgbaston in the third Ashes Test of 2009. He averaged 48 in that series, with three half-centuries, did even better against West Indies and Pakistan the following Australian summer, averaging 52.60 and 69.20 and making his maiden hundred. He slipped in New Zealand, averaging 38.50 in a single Test, then again against Pakistan in England, averaging 16.00, before playing wonderfully in India, with a second hundred and an average of 67.75 in two Tests. He averaged 48.33 in the Ashes of 2010-11 but with no century, and then made 87 runs at 17.40 in Sri Lanka. His overall average peaked at 42.11 against England in December 2010, and has slipped away since then.
Of his 2040 Test match runs, 1164 have come in boundaries, and he has been dismissed between 50 and a hundred 14 times in 49 innings. These are the stats of a player who has been worked out. When the field is up, he can score in boundaries. Once he is set, and teams are less attacking, he struggles to work the ball around and becomes frustrated.
Australia, with two openers averaging under 40 and with five hundreds between them, compare badly to the sides ranked ahead of them. India have Sehwag - 52.26/22 100s, and Gambhir - 48.34/nine 100s; South Africa have Smith - 49.71/22, albeit paired of late with the mystifying Peterson - 33.64/1; and England have Andrew Strauss - 41.98/19 and Alastair Cook - 49.72/19. And Australia, let's remember, dropped Simon Katich - 45.03/10 and who as an opener alone averaged 50.48 with eight centuries - figures better than Watson and Hughes combined.
Not every great opener qualifies as a great batsman, but every truly great team has had a great opening partnership. Hughes has the capacity to score big hundreds and bats unfathomably; he is an outlier in terms of technique, and there is an X-factor about him. Watson carries none of that, and yet he is a potentially devastating all-rounder if deployed more conventionally.
It may dent his ego to move, as he spends a lot of his time talking about how much he wants to open, but at heart he is a beta-male, deferential, scared of ghosts. Pitched as a Gilchrist figure who bowls instead of keeps wicket, all of that can be dealt with, and as a cricketer he can be fulfilled. At the top of the order, by the highest standards, he is an also-ran.
Tuesday, 20 September 2011
'To review the split-second data of what happens when a batter executes a shot,' he wrote, 'is to wonder how any batsman survives more than one delivery'. Woolmer was considering the complex physiological process that the body goes through when facing an individual ball, but it did pose a simple question: what is the percentage chance of any one delivery dismissing a great player?
It's a blunt stat, as blunt as a batting average, but it is revealing too. By adding together the number of deliveries faced in Tests and ODIs, and then subtracting the number of completed innings, it's possible to produce a percentage figure.
Jacques Kallis balls faced: 41,664 dis'd: 455 % chance per ball: 1.09
Rahul Dravid b/f: 45,374 dis: 519 % chance: 1.14
Sachin Tendulkar b/f: 48559 dis: 667 % chance: 1.37
Ricky Ponting b/f: 37,966 dis: 553 % chance: 1.46
Brian Lara b/f: 32,839 dis: 483 % chance: 1.47
The number of not outs offer another expression of the value a batter might put on his wicket:
Jacques Kallis inns: 546 not outs: 91 % chance of a not out: 16.6
Rahul Dravid: inns: 591 not outs: 72 % chance: 12.18
Ricky Ponting: inns: 620 not outs: 67 % chance: 10.80
Sachin Tendulkar: inns: 740 not outs: 73 % chance: 9.86
Brian Lara inns: 521 not outs 38 % chance: 7.29
Jacques still king of the red-inkers, then...
Thursday, 15 September 2011
It’s the last day of the first-class season, and for a few it will be the last day as a professional cricketer. Some will go willingly, some even gladly, most less so. More will be sensing that the end is not yet, but is not far away; the fine edge is ebbing from their game, sliding away bit by bit.
I’ve just re-read the pages on Geoffrey Boycott’s final seasons in Leo McKinstry’s tour-de-force biography, Boycs. The fading of Boycott’s power manifested itself in a particular way: he became almost strokeless even by his standards. In 1984, as McKinstry records, he made 60 in 52 overs against Somerset, 53 in 51 overs versus Derbyshire, 17 in 26 overs against Leicestershire, 77 in 67 overs against Sussex, 33 in 32 against Northamptonshire, and perhaps most grievously, 25 in 27 in a one-day game against Shropshire that Yorkshire lost. In all he made 1567 runs that summer at 62 per innings, but it took him 1200 overs.
Astonishingly, the following season, aged almost 45, he made another 1657 runs at 75.31, leaving him second to Viv Richards in the averages. Playing against Hampshire at Middlesbrough, facing his old friend and rival Malcolm Marshall – Macco loved to bowl at Geoffrey – he made 115 even as Marshall took 5-48 to rout the remaining Yorkshire batting.
It was still going though, and he could probably feel it. In his final season, in his last match, he needed 69 runs to make a thousand, something he’d done every year since 1962. He was playing against Northants at Scarborough. Jim Love ran him out for 61 in the first innings, and after Boycott had advised his skipper to enforce the follow-on, Northants survived and timed their second-innings declaration in such a way that he was not able to go in again.
More than a decade later, he remembered the day in an interview with the Telegraph: ‘Something had come to an end, something wonderful. I just thought, this is it then. I waited for the ground to clear. Then I wondered around on my own, among all the newspapers and food wrappers and tin cans’.
That’s how things ended for Geoffrey, because that’s how things end sometimes, alone, among the wrappers and the tin cans. It’s no less glorious in its way.
Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Jonathan Trott is the new ICC Cricketer of the Year, Alastair Cook the Test Player of the Year, England are on the verge of a clean sweep against India, and their fifth captain of the season will take charge in a couple of Twenty20 games that didn't even exist when the fixture list came out.
Yet such is the upward curve of England's reversal of fortune, the awards are deserved and hard-won; the captaincy issue has been resolved with such force of logic that continuity and victory have become seamless. It's all so un-England, isn't it...?
The summer of 1988 was the last when the captaincy changed hands as regularly, and it's a story worth retelling, because it sets in context the happy daze that now surrounds long-time England followers.
They were playing West Indies at the time, a team entering the last moments of their glory era but that still bristled with big guns: Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh and Patterson.
England were captained by Mike Gatting, who, the previous winter, had the on-field spat with Shakoor Rana. The first Test was a draw, with Gooch and Gower batting well to save it. Before the second, Gatting was sacked following an alleged fumble with a barmaid in a hotel room, an incident generally regarded as flimsy cover for revenge over the Pakistan debacle. Such was the small-mindedness of the time, Gatting's autobiography was banned from sale at cricket grounds.
John Emburey took over for the second Test. Gatting was dropped and replaced by Martyn Moxon. Phil DeFreitas was replaced by Gladstone Small. West Indies won by 134 runs. Emburey remained in charge for the third match, for which Gatting and DeFreitas were recalled, and John Childs, who was 36, and David Capel, given debuts. Derek Pringle, Paul Jarvis and Chris Broad were dropped. West Indies won by an innings and 156 runs.
Emburey was sacked and dropped. The new captain was Chris Cowdrey, who had played briefly for England in India three years previously. Cowdrey, who was as surprised as anyone, was the son of Sir Colin, a man England often turned to in times of crisis, and the godson of the chairman of selectors, Peter May. May had been on the selection panel that chose three captains for the West Indies series of 1966, one of whom was Colin Cowdrey. Paul Downton, Martyn Moxon, Mike Gatting, David Capel, Phil DeFreitas and John Childs were dropped. Derek Pringle, Neil Foster, Bill Athey and Jack Richards were recalled, and Robin Smith and Tim Curtis made their debuts. Cowdrey got nought and five and didn't take a wicket. England lost by 10 wickets.
Chris Cowdrey incurred a slight injury in a county game and was quietly moved aside. He never played for England again. Graham Gooch was appointed captain for the final Test. Allan Lamb was also injured and was replaced by Rob Bailey. Cowdrey's place went to Phil DeFreitas, and David Gower was dropped and replaced by Matthew Maynard. West Indies won by eight wickets.
The Almanack thundered: 'The morale and reputation of English cricket has seldom been as severely bruised'. But then even Wisden can't predict the future. 1988 was just the foundation for the entropic decade to come.
Mike Gatting now works for the ECB and Graham Gooch is England's batting coach and a mentor to Alastair Cook. Last week, Chris Cowdrey had a heart attack whilst in hospital to have some stitches in his knee. 'People always said I was lucky player – well, if you're going to have a heart attack anywhere the middle of a hospital is probably it,' he said.
Get well soon, Chris. Perhaps you were lucky after all. His is an odd role in England's history, but four captains or five, he knows life's not so bad.
Saturday, 3 September 2011
All of the rest of that era - Willis, Gooch, Boycott, Knott etc - were already playing, but Gower, yup, I was there for the lot. It came to mind when reading Andrew Miller's piece at cricinfo on how good the current England side are. The general feeling seemed to be that this is a workmanlike team profiting in an era of flat tracks and non-lethal bowling, and it's a valid view to have. How many of those Indian pies would Goochie have gorged himself on? Loads, probably, if he could have got the strike off of Geoffrey and his stick of rhubarb.
But whenever these arguments emerge, two things happen, one obvious and one not quite so. The first is that we are remembering men in their prime, at their best, and sometimes with that lovely, melancholic air of what the Portuguese call 'saudade', which is a kind of nostalgia for something that never really happened. The second is that the older set of men have the advantage of being judged on the whole of their time, rather than the cross-section of the current team.
So taking a kind of composite, early 80s England XI that may never have actually taken the field together [I would check, but, you know...] which of them would have got into the current team? Beginning with the non-arguments: Ian Botham would get into any England side of any era, first name on the sheet. Disregarding the captaincy for now, Boycott would displace Andrew Strauss. As much fun as they were, Mike Gatting and Allan Lamb, with Test averages in the 30s, would not crack this middle order. John Emburey would yield to Graeme Swann; Geoff Miller would make it only as a selector [at which he is very good] and Phil Edmonds could tough it out with Monty Panesar for the non-playing spinner's role. Mike Hendrick, who never took a Test five-fer despite his niggardly ways, and Chris Old, with his legendary propensity for an injury, could not survive in this day of bowling units. Alan Knott and Bob Taylor were sublime glovemen, but this is the modern era, and Matthew Prior is a far superior batsman to both, even Knotty, with his pre-Chanderpaul, crab-like efforts.
Which leaves Willis, Gooch and Gower. The Goose had the one thing that the current attack lacks - out and out pace, and so could displace Bresnan. And Gooch and Gower would walk in, right...?
Er, well... Gooch is a leviathan of English batting, remembered as much for the first-class runs he scored - a figure no current player will approach - as anything else. But his Test match career was one of two halves, and we don't yet have the benefit of Alastair Cook's second half. Cook has played 72 Tests, scoring 5868 runs at 49.72, with 19 hundreds and 26 fifties. After 72 matches, Gooch had 4714 at 37.41 with eight hundreds and 29 fifties.
And would Gower bat at four or five? At four is KP, with 6361 runs from 78 matches at 50.48, with 19 hundreds and 25 fifties. after 78 games, Gower had 5523 runs at 45.27 with 12 hundreds and 26 fifties. Pietersen already has more hundreds than Gower would go on and make.
At five is Ian Bell, with 5027 runs from 69 matches at 49.28 with 16 hundreds and 28 fifties. At a similar moment, Gower had 4543 runs at 42.06 with nine hundreds and 23 fifties.
These are not definitive comparisons but are more even than looking at the completed careers of one set of players against the incomplete records of others. Now the main argument for the records of the older players being reassessed: the quality of bowling. Gooch and Gower, you can argue, faced one of the most daunting attacks of all-time in West Indies. Here, Gooch is impressive, with an average of 44.83 as opposed to his overall mark of 42.58. Gower though averaged considerably less - 32.82 against a career 44.25. Gooch's weak point was against Australia, where he averaged 33.31, having encountered Lillie and Thomson early on.
Now consider Kevin Pietersen, who has played against one of the great Australian sides, plus in Warne and Murali, the two most productive bowlers ever. Against Australia he averages 52.71. His low comes against South Africa, at 'just' 42.71.
Cook and Bell can't claim to have competed as well against the very best around, yet their records are both on a sharp upward curve, and their scoring of hundreds is relentless.
Ultimately, if you're choosing on aesthetics, Gooch would come in for Cook, and Gower for Pietersen. However, Pietersen is, I think, better than Gower, and the rest of his career will prove it. An aesthetic choice between Gower and Bell is tougher, but I would suggest that Gower is the more hardened player. His ratio of hundreds to fifties though, 18 to 39, would weigh against him in the mind of a pragmatist like Andy Flower.
It's a daft argument in the end, but here's another: the real choice should perhaps be between the sides of 2005 and 2011. That would be a far closer contest.
Thursday, 1 September 2011
There I was watching Kevin Pietersen bat in the Twenty20 when he wandered off to the edge of the pitch, outside the line of the ball, and managed to top-edge it into the grill of his helmet, a sort of vertical flip-sweep that would have cost him his pearly-whites had it not been for the lid, and I felt a little tingle in my bottom lip, where there is an inch-long, pale-white scar from many years ago when the same thing happened to me... It wasn't exactly the same sort of shot - how could it be - but it was a sweep, played to a gentle off-spinner who I didn't think could get me out, so I got down on one knee and swept hard, but the ball must have just popped a little from the dry midsummer wicket and taken the edge of the bat before flying up into my mouth...
...There was a bit of gash, but it didn't seem like much and it didn't really hurt, just stung a little, so I carried on... I have no memory now of how long, or how I got out or how many I scored or whether we won, or any of those things... what I remember is getting home and trying to eat a chinese but giving up because by then it felt like I had a tennis ball in my mouth, and of the next time I played when I noticed that there were some bloodstains on the inside of one of my pads that stayed there for years [loved those pads, had to retire them gently in the end, like laying down a favourite shield]...
...That sent me off to another match on the same ground, fielding at slip to another off-spinner and watching the batsman go for a cut and then coming round on the ground because a top edge had flown up and hit me in the forehead, to the great hilarity of everyone that saw it - no health and safety in those days - oh, the embarrassment of that... and then another game, again on the same ground, where I got done by an outrageous slower ball that seemed to take forever to get down the pitch and bowled me - another laugh then, that time from their wicket-keeper - and then yet another game when I almost got shown up by a dolly catch at mid-off that I got too far underneath but just managed to grab with a jump and a fingertip...
All things that I'd forgotten, or thought I'd forgotten, but that came back in an instant after KP flicked that ball into his face, and then he laughed and the bowler laughed too, and we all thought yes.... this is the game... this is the game...
Saturday, 27 August 2011
Peter Moores turned Flower onto Beane's methods, which worked because he realised that traditional baseball stats like Runs Batted In weren't particularly effective in measuring performance, even though everyone in the game used them and had done for a century. Some fans of fantasy baseball found better ones to run their teams, and Beane employed them to analyse players for him.
Ever since Lewis's book, every sport has tried to find its version of Moneyball. Andy Flower found Nathan Leamon, a mathematician from Cambridge University who was also a qualified coach, and provided a well-funded black-ops stats department at the ECB for him to use [it's easy to imagine A-Flo wrapping an arm around Nathan's shoulders and telling him to 'think the unthinkable...']. Flower has been even more guarded than usual when he's been asked about the numbers being run, saying only that the work was 'very interesting' - at least until last weekend, and piece by Simon Wilde in the Sunday Times.
Wilde's story [unfortunately behind the humble Rupert's paywall] revealed something of Leamon's methods. The boy's gone to town and then some. England's enthusiasm for Hawkeye extends way beyond the DRS - they've used to it log and analyse every ball delivered in Test match cricket around the world in the last five years.
With access to such vast data they now run simulations of every Test match they play, taking into account venue, conditions, selection and pitch. Leamon reckons that such 'games', when he checks them against the actual matches, 'are accurate to within four or five percent'.
Other work has been in breaking down pitches in areas for bowlers to aim at: Leamon claims England's palpable success against Sachin Tendulkar was due in part to statistical analysis that showed Sachin made the bulk of his runs on the leg side until he reached fifty.
'It's all about asking the right questions,' Leamon told Wilde, 'which can be the short cut to six months of work. A lot of the old ways of looking at the technique of opponents leads to guesswork - feet position, how they hold the bat. Hawkeye enables you to come up with answers'.
Unlikely though it is that Flower and Leamon would reveal much of what they know to a newspaper, it is nonetheless strangely comforting that five years of work has simply produced a shortcut to knowledge rather than anything more revelatory, because if the numbers had unpicked the game, had stripped it back to a simple series of probabilities, some of its deep and human mysteries would have been lost.
Moneyball worked for Billy Beane in part because every franchise plays hundreds of games per season and the vast majority aren't watched by the other coaches and teams. Test matches are much rarer things, and are more closely observed. And Moneyball only really worked until all of the other teams knew about it and started using the same information. Once they did, the variables of power and money that Beane had overcome reasserted themselves.
Baseball is also a more mechanical game than cricket. The batter only really has one swing, so his ability to adapt is compromised to a far greater degree than, say, Tendulkar's who, lest we forget, once made a double hundred in Australia without hitting a single cover drive - on purpose. The numbers are beautiful and fascinating, but as Rahul Dravid said last week, cricket is a game 'played in the space of the mind', and that is more fascinating and beautiful still.