Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The mind is a lonely hunter

A few years ago, and it was a few because he was still playing, I found myself in a net with Phil Tufnell. He bowled for a while, and then we had a chat. The conversation went onto the hardest batsmen to go up against, and the most difficult places to play.

'Ah you know,' he said in that estuary drawl, 'Mark Waugh... Mark Waugh doesn't believe spinners can get him out. You get to Brisbane, first Test. It's about I dunno 120 degrees or something. Maximum humidity. You're dripping with sweat. The crowd's calling you all sorts. The pitch is like a road. It's not even brown, it's gray. They're quite a few for two and he comes in. And then he's just walking down the wicket at you... ping, ping... Nightmare...'

Mark Waugh was like that of course, a laughing cavalier for whom the game seemed as easy as it was consuming and obsessive for his twin [nature versus nurture theorists could flounder forever over those two]. But Tufnell's words have always stayed with me: 'Mark Waugh doesn't believe spinners can get him out...'

Here was an articulation of the great divide in batting. There wasn't a batsman on earth who would think 'no pace bowler can get me out', because they usually did. Sometimes there was just nothing you could do about it either, however good you were. Facing spin lacked one compelling mental pressure: it was never going to physically harm you. It was not going to take your reflexes to the edge of their capacity, it wouldn't assault your person or your ego in quite the same way. Pace was there to be overcome, but spin could be subjugated.

Yet the genius of the game lies not in its physicality but in its apparently infinite psychological variety. Spin somehow cleaves open mental inequality. Kevin Pietersen offers an example of the subtleties at play. His first Test saw him take on, and take apart, Shane Warne with breathtaking audacity. A couple of years later in Adelaide, he reduced the king to monotonous defensiveness, bowling around the wicket for over upon over, trying to make Pietersen tire of kicking him away. Pietersen also switch-hit the other great spinner of the age, Murali, an act of mastery that somehow exposed the sweet vulnerability beneath the great Sri Lankan's toughness. In Australia last winter, Xavier Doherty was visibly cowed by him.

That is the same man who has spent the last two Tests pecking like a chicken in the dust, not knowing, in my father's memorable phrase, if he's Arthur or Martha. His failure has nothing to do with his physical ability. Any technical flaw has been provoked by indecision and doubt, by humiliation and fear. These are the powerful levers of the batter's psyche.

A couple more examples: Warne, with all of his fearsome resources, never conquered India. And in 2005, when the Merlyn spin machine was first available, Matthew Pryor, the son of its inventor Henry and the machine's main operator, was asked which of the England players handled it best: 'Ian Bell,' he replied immediately. 'He's like a wall'.

Well he's not much of a wall at the moment. There is one mitigating factor: England will rarely have seen spinners bowling with a new ball on a skidding pitch. It's a little like batting against Ajantha Mendis before he was sussed out. The solution to Mendis turned out to be a mental one; imagine that he was bowling slow-medium cutters. That shift in the visual picture went some way to nullifying his mystery.

Mark Waugh liked batting against England, averaging 50 against a career mark of 41, but his contests with the Cat weren't entirely unequal. Foremost in Tufnell's mind, perhaps, was Waugh's dominant 140 at Brisbane in 1994, but he did pick him up in the second innings of that game, bowled for 15. He also got him out in Adelaide, and in England dismissed him five times.

That's not quite the point though. Waugh might have got out to Tufnell, but he didn't face him believing that he would, and disposition can be everything. Doubt accrues in a batsman's mind like unwanted freight, heavy and hard to stop. Its impact can be even greater in those who rarely know failure, because they're unfamiliar with its challenge.

But we can only glory in a game that can do this to the mind, that can cause more trepidation with a ball lobbed down at a speed a child could hit than one a club player would barely see. In that, greatness lies.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Chucking, deception and Saeed Ajmal

Okay, try this: grab a cricket ball, or if not a tennis ball, orange, apple or something like that. Space your index, middle and ring fingers across the widest part of its circumference so it fits snugly between them. Hold your arm up straight and look down an imaginary wicket. Rotate your wrist until the back of your hand is facing down the pitch and you can look up at your palm. Try and flick the ball from your fingers as if twisting a doorknob in a clockwise direction. Now imagine doing it all at speed as your arm swings up to the perpendicular as part of a bowling action.

This is the contortion required to produce the doosra, genius invention of Saqlain Mustaq. To deliver it accurately down the cut strip to an international batsman takes skill available only to the very few. Because the wrist is weakened by its rotation, the power to propel the ball at sufficient speed must come from the shoulder and the elbow. The rules allow a fifteen percent flexion to help.

Almost every bowler who has used the doosra has had problems with their action at some point: Shoaib Malik, Harbhajan, Murali, Botha, Ajmal. And almost every bowler who has used it has been thrilling to watch, and has contributed richly to the game. In Dubai, as Saeed Ajmal ran through England with some non-spinning spinners in an act of beauty, smoke and illusion, battle raged once more.

TV evidence was damning, especially in the heightened artificiality of super slo-mo. On Twitter, opinion polarised and there were two views: either Ajmal was chucking some deliveries, or anyone who thought Ajmal was chucking some deliveries was uptight, square, boring, had sour grapes. Both sides had cause for righteous indignation.

Yet there's no reason for the positions to be mutually exclusive. Even the hardline chuckers would not want to see Ajmal's artful brilliance removed from the game [well, Ian Bell might], and equally those being dismissive would not enjoy an unregulated free-for-all in which anyone can deliver the ball however they like.

The current laws have removed the stinging, career-ending public shame that once came with the accusation of throwing. Science has shown that human beings cannot, in fact, deliver a ball with an entirely straight arm, and the 15 degree rule reflects that.

What the tests can't do is make allowances for the nature of being human; the stress, tension, excitement and fear of executing fine motor skills under extreme pressure. Ajmal probably did exceed the limits on a couple of occasions - that's not an egregious sin. But neither was he trying to cheat.

Actions can change and deteriorate over time in the same way that a batsman's technique can alter and warp. There would be nothing wrong with calling in those who bowl that kind of spin every couple of years and testing their degree of flex, rather than waiting for the umpires to report them and becoming indignant over whether they do or whether they don't. That way, all of the rancor and whispers could stop.

Ultimately, spin bowling is about deception. On a first day wicket that wasn't really turning, Ajmal played with minds. The ball fizzed from his wrist with a scrambled seam, and it had done half of its work before it even pitched. That was his true victory, and we wouldn't want it lost to rumour, spite, television replays or anything else.

NB: Yes, spin freaks, there is another doosra method with the hand facing forward. This is not about that.

Monday, 16 January 2012


Making a film isn't easy. It's even tougher when you've got no money. But if anyone can make a film about where Test cricket's at, it's probably a Godzilla obsessive and his pal.

Check out their trailer here.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Brad Haddin and the death of Strine

In a tour filled so far with nothing but defeat, India can count up one win: Zaheer Khan's victory over Brad Haddin has been absolute. Having slapped him down verbally before the game in Perth, he cleaned him up for nought out in the middle. No send off of recent times has been as richly-earned.

Australia are reviving, moving on, or at least 10 of them are. There is new blood at either end of the team sheet. Now they need some behind the sticks. That there isn't any is Haddin's great good fortune and the seriously injured Tim Paine's vast bad luck. Haddin's first three years of Test cricket returned averages of 38.77, 44.12 and 38.75. Each contained a century. He was no Gilchrist, but then who is? Yet 2011 has been a year of precipitous decline - an average of 20.93 that dips to 17.00 when his top score of 80 is removed. Under Clarke's captaincy it's 19.70, and studded with dismissals that suggest a man mentally shot, a notion reinforced by some comedy keeping. If he drove to the wicket in an exploding car, he couldn't look any more of a clown.

So when Haddin laid into India before the Perth match, he hardly spoke from a position of strength. His was the first name India would have written down for the Aussie squad. Yet here he was: 'India break quicker than anyone in the world. We know this side can be as fragile as anyone in the world. They can turn on each other,' said Haddin, before providing an illuminating discourse on how to dismiss Sachin Tendulkar.

What really jarred was not Haddin's needless disrespect, or even his galumphing lack of self awareness, but just how out of step he felt with the new Australia. The shift has been subtle but distinct, the air of hubris that surrounded the end of empire has dissipated. It's a team that is forming in the image of its captain, less okker, less Strine, more sleekly metrosexual. That's no dig: Clarke has stepped up. He has been a realistic and respectful captain, he has a set a new tone and he has earned the right to express his vision.

In a year's time, it's hard to see him allowing someone like Haddin to make remarks like that [it's hard to see Haddin still being in the side to make them, too]. The thought that Strauss and Flower might let, say, Eoin Morgan do the same thing seems absurd.

The new Australian team, like many new teams, is erratic and prone to collapse, but it would but churlish to deny that there is something there; a new energy, renewed spirit, palpable ambition. It has been well expressed by Clarke's batting. Haddin's remarks, dismissive of men he is fortunate to share a field with, are backward-looking. Clarke could have been forgiven a cheeky smirk at Zak's send-off for his keeper too.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Perimeter Weighted, baby...

Gray-Nicolls, supplier of bats to Mr WG Grace and other subsequent players of note, have some self-made videos on their site of various pros going into the factory to pick out their glowing, handsomely-stickered blades for the new season.

In serried ranks they lie, pods shaved to exacting requirements, a batter's dream. None of the players approach the task particularly scientifically. They do what everyone else does: pick a bat up, play a few air shots, cast an eye down the line of the willow. They might fuss later with handles and grips, but that initial acquaintance is all about indefinable feel.

The scales have their say. A man who likes a bat of 2lb 8ozs will never be seduced by a 3lb mutha, whatever promise of dominance it offers. Yet, as anyone who has buggered around with the game for long enough will know, weight, once narrowed down, is just a number. Two bats might tip the scales the same, but they will not feel the same, not today, not ever. Some bats of 2lbs 10oz will pick up lighter than others of 2lb 8, and there's not a scientist on earth who can say why, because it's as much to do with the physiology of the batsman as it is with the weight of the blade. That is the only explanation as to why a bat can feel one way one day, and another way the next.

There is a deep psychology at work, because a bat, ultimately, is all a batsman has. In it, he invests his future. It is prey to superstition, ritual, illusion. Ultimately, what matters is belief. If it feels right, then it is right.

Gray-Nicolls have this year [praise be] relaunched their most famous bat, the GN 100 Scoop. It's hard to overstate the rep this blade once had. In a TV era when bats were emerging as marketable objects of desire, the Scoop was revelatory, its spine gouged out and sacrificed for the mysterious promise of 'Perimeter Weighting' a concept so new it got its own sticker on the bat. Counter-intuitive it may have been, but the Scoop roared in the hands of Greg Chappell, Barry Richards, David Gower [who also used the four-scoop version, from memory] and of course Brian Lara.

Other batmakers were forced to respond. Stuart Surridge had the epic Jumbo; Slazenger came out with a V8 [or maybe V12...] which had a sort of shark's fin bump the back; Saint Peter, briefly used by King Viv and Tony Greig, obtained an impossible glamour before vanishing. But the Scoop was the one, a masterpiece of design and allure, an Excalibur among broadswords.

Part of its magic was the sound it made, a great hollow 'whump' that pre-dated the current, plosive crack. You couldn't help but feel a bit superior with a Scoop in the bag, and that was half the battle. I got my first hundred with one, on a distant field long ago, forgotten by all but me.

Its revival appeals to a nostalgic market. Today's player was barely born in its heyday. In the videos, they all get offered one at the end, like a sweet: 'wanna try a Scoop?' To them it seems like an oddity, its conception fatally flawed by the removal of that apparently essential mass on the back of their bat.

The hurdle is psychological. They've grown up looking down at sleek spines and thick edges. It may be a battle for Gray-Nicolls to get one in the hands of a pro on the field. They can't be persuaded by the legend, any more than they would be by the chance of using a bat like Compton's or Bradman's.

But then they have one thrust at them. The reaction is usually one of surprise. 'Picks up really nicely,' they'll say*. Hopefully, they'll chance one in the nets, and the ball will go from it like it always used to, and they'll realise the strange magic that this greatest of all bats possesses. After all, Lara got 375 and 501 with it, so it kind of works...

*That'll be the Perimeter Weighting. Probably.