Tuesday 30 December 2008

Making Haigh, and punting on Punter

For all cricket correspondents embarking on their 'Australia's fallen empire' piece, here's how it's done, courtesy of Gideon Haigh.

It's a piece filled with lovely, wry lines ('Michael Hussey's average has deflated like a sub-prime asset book') and genuine insight ('This defeat does not mark the end of an era. The era had already ended. And the 13 year green-and-gold age has really been a series of overlapping phases, subtly different, distinguished by key retirements'). Here is real writing.

He also touches on a point that seems to be generally accepted: that Ricky Ponting would retire rather than play under another captain. 

I wonder if that's true. Ponting is still only 34, that glorious late summertime for Test batsmen. The ageless (and for the most part captaincy-free) Tendulkar, and Jacques Kallis apart, he must be the only mid-30 year old with 127 Tests and more than 300 ODIs, and his record as a batsman is exemplary. Within four years, every major landmark aside from Lara's high scores could be his. 

In the hazy way of perception he somehow seems more vital than Michael Vaughan (34), Mohammad Yousuf (34), Rahul Dravid (35), VVS Laxman (34) and the hooded-eyed Kallis (still just 33). Only Chanderpaul, impish as ever at 34, seems to have as much gas in the tank.

Katich is the man most mentioned, and he is just a year Ponting's junior. If Ricky took the Tendulkar/Lara view of the captaincy - a cross you have to bear from time to time - he might live forever in their exalted company. 

That new-look Australian XI for the SCG in full

Chief selector Andrew Hilditch today announced the following XI to play South Africa at the Sydney Cricket Ground on January 3, and every Test after that until further notice:

M Waugh
S Waugh (c)

'We've simply picked the best eleven cricketers in the country,' Hilditch explained. 'Age is no barrier for an Australian team. If you're good enough, you're old enough. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to walk a long way into the bush and start screaming'.

Monday 29 December 2008

The Inaugural OB Innings Of The Year Award

'It's not how, it's how many' goes the old maxim. The old maxim is wrong. It is how, it's always been how. Yesterday Ricky Ponting made 99 at the MCG as the Australian empire entered its last days. He burned with power and aggression for his first innings hundred, but this was something different, something more noble. As he walked off, ghosts trailed behind him. How many didn't really matter: nothing became him more than the manner of his leaving.

Another example. In Adelaide, Iain O'Brien went in with his team 131-8, 134 runs away from making Australia bat again. When he was out 50 runs later, he'd been involved in the highest partnership of the innings, and he'd batted for longer than almost all of of New Zealand's top order. He made 0. How many was it worth? How well did he bat?

Neither of these is the inaugural Old Batsman Innings of the Year, an entirely arbitrary award of dubious logic consisting only of innings I've seen. But both contain its spirit. Traditionally, the ultimate test of a batsman is to play an unbeaten hand in the final innings of a Test, and the year had two true epics: Graeme Smith's 154* at Edgbaston and Sachin Tendulkar's 103* in Chennai. Both laid bogeymen to rest; Smith rode his luck - he was out at least twice, and Tendulkar reigned himself in to a degree he'd never managed before.

Smith made another ton in the last innings in Perth, a truer knock than Edgbaston, and AB de Villiers did too. AB's came on the back of his captain's and so it finished the slightest notch below Smith and Sachin. 

Virender Sehwag, the world's most misunderstood batsman, copped the man of the match award for his 83 in Chennai, and for once he didn't deserve it. He set up the win, but Sachin won it. He produced another statistical marvel, 319, again in the arid paradise that is Chennai. It was a Herculean feat mitigated by the fact that 1498 runs were scored for the loss of 25 wickets in an endless draw. The most defiant Indian innings of the year came from Anil Kumble, 45* in the powderkeg of Sydney. Australia might not beat India again for some time.

JP Duminy announced himself with 166 in Melbourne, Ian Bell deceived with 199 against South Africa at Lord's. Sourav Ganguly made his prince's exit with a ton in Mumbai and two Englishmen saved their careers, Andrew Strauss with 177 in Napier and Paul Collingwood, perennial drinker in the last chance saloon, with 135 at Edgbaston.

KP made more Test hundreds than anyone except Graeme Smith, and none were more inevitable than the 152 in his first Test against South Africa or the 100 at the Oval in his first Test as captain. Viv Richards used to score hundreds on demand too. 

But 2008 was when the shape of cricket changed. The IPL, with its effortless sense of occasion, altered everything from bank balances to the international calendar. It's partly the reason why England went back to India after Mumbai. It's a political and social force and the sheer vitality of its format has changed batting for the better. 

In England, Graham Napier got a warp-factor T20 152 which made a permanent demarkation between hitting and slogging. And then, in the IPL's opening match, Brendan McCullum played its totemic innings, an innings that made the tournament's failure improbable, if not impossible.

His 158 from 73 balls came with 13 sixes and 10 fours at a strike rate of 216.43. Here was batting for the 21st century; heightened, spectacular, extreme, a nailed-on ratings winner. 

With his 158, McCullum offered a fully realised vision of the future, and for that, the innings of the year is his. 

Sunday 28 December 2008

17 bowlers, less than 20 wickets

Australia are prepared to let Brett Lee's foot explode if they can take twenty wickets in Melbourne. The explosion seems more likely.

They have played 13 Test matches in 2008 and have taken all 20 wickets in seven of them. Four of those came against West Indies and New Zealand. On two further occasions that they did so, they lost anyway. In four Tests in India, they took 59 of a possible 80.

One of the great quiz questions of the future will be, 'How many bowlers did Australia use in Tests in 2008?' 

The answer, trivia fans, is seventeen: Lee, Johnson, Clark, MacGill, Symonds, Casson, Hogg, Tait, Watson, White, Siddle, Krezja, Hauritz, Clarke, Hussey, Katich and Ponting. 

There will be blood

Vic Marks and Peter Roebuck are former Somerset team-mates now operating as journos on opposite sides of the world. Both can claim to know a player when they see one - they only had to glance around their dressing room to encounter Viv Richards, Ian Botham and Joel Garner.

This weekend, each decided to to select their Test XIs of 2008 for their respective newspapers, the Observer and the Sydney Morning Herald. Total number of places available: 22. Total number of Australians included: 1.

When empires go, they go quickly and with blood. Marks's selection, which contained no Australians at all, was further constrained by his decision to consider only players from Australia, England, South Africa and India (in Vic's world, if no-one else's, England still rank above Sri Lanka).

All good, knockabout fun. But there is a wider point, and that is that the Australian air of invincibility has slipped away now that their bowlers can no longer control a game. No-one feels the need to defer to them any more.

Marks's XI
Graeme Smith
Virender Sehwag
AB de Villiers
Andrew Flintoff
MS Dhoni
Zaheer Khan
Ishant Sharma
Dale Steyn

Roebuck's XI
Graeme Smith
Gautam Gambhir
Hashim Amla
Shiv C
AB de Villiers
MS Dhoni
Ryan Sidebottom
Dale Steyn
Mitch Johnson
Ajantha Mendis

NB: I went into the bookies on Christmas Eve to put a bet on KP's brave boys to win the Ashes back as a speculative present for my dad. England were favourites

Saturday 27 December 2008

Champagne super-over

The Guardian ran Andy Bull's piece with Harold Pinter today, an interview that turned out to be Pinter's last. The great playwright was talking about his lifelong love of the game. 'Drama happens in big cricket matches,' he said, 'but also in small cricket matches'. 

He was talking about 'big' and 'small' in terms of pro and amateur, but the dramas that appealed to his gimlet eye were the ones that came along ball by ball, with their capacity to provoke instant and overwhelming emotion. 

Dramas don't get much shorter than the super-over shoot-out between West Indies and New Zealand, an event Pinter didn't quite live to see but most probably would have been stirred by. It was the game squeezed down to its smallest unit, a reduction that should have been absurd, but that turned out to be glorious.

Chris Gayle hit Daniel Vettori, who had match figures of 4-0-16-3, for 25. By any measure it was superlative batting, not a contraction of the game but an expansion of it, an expression of what's possible. 

Friday 26 December 2008

Michael Vaughan, stop all the clocks.

So if the selectorial rumour is true, Michael Vaughan will issue his next dispatches for the Telegraph from the frontline itself. It's hard to think of a more English selection: it's a choice that reveals as much about the current national character as it does the state of the cricket team.

England has always loved the underdog. We're a sucker for a comeback. And of late we are in thrall to nostalgia, that most unreliable of notions. The Vaughan of 2001 and 2002 shimmers in the psyche, the most beautiful and classical bat since Gower, a man whose cover drive was a straight line through time. It's a dangerously seductive memory. 

That Vaughan no longer exists, just as that England no longer exists, except in the mind. The Vaughan that exists at the moment is a man whose knee was ravaged by surgery and his will by the captaincy, a man who made 363 runs at 24.20 in 2008, a man who, at the end of last season, couldn't hit the ball off the square in county cricket. 

He's being chosen on memory and hope, the hope that he will again be the batsman he was before the captaincy. Old boxers have the same hope, their honed bodies a mirage, their minds still strong, their punch that ineffable fraction too slow.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Ricky Ponting and the Big Machine: An Xmas Fairytale

Ricky always knew he'd get to drive the big machine one day. Everyone told him that he would. At first he just enjoyed riding on it with all of the other lads. Mark was the driver. He kept on adding bits to the machine until no-one could stop it. Then one day Mark put on a shirt and tie instead of his cricket kit and started telling people about how the machine worked, so Steve began driving instead. 

That was brilliant. If anyone got in Steve's way, he would pull his cap down really low and drive the machine straight at them. If they didn't move, Steve said to them, 'hey mate, this machine is going to run you over. Reckon you can take it?'. He called it 'mental disintegration', although the lads said it was just fucken sledging, like normal. 

Steve took the machine really seriously. Everyone aboard had to go on these trips, which were like school trips, where you had to look at historical stuff and think about Australia and how great it was. Steve's brother Mark was much more fun. He would stand at the back with Ricky, and when Steve wasn't looking, they would sneak away to really fun places, like the trots or the pub.

Steve drove the machine for years. Ricky grew impatient. He wanted his turn. All Steve would let him do was stand on a table and sing the team song after the machine had run someone else over. That got boring, even for a simple soul like Ricky. Other people kept telling Steve that he should let Ricky drive soon but every time they did, Steve would pull out his red rag, blow his nose on it and score another hundred, even if he had a bad leg, which he usually did because he was really old. 

Then one day, out of the blue, it happened. Someone threw Ricky the keys to the machine. He climbed the steps to the top and took his seat behind the big wheel. All around him, the levers and pedals glistened, because Steve had really looked after them. It was a fantastic view. Ricky didn't waste another second. He threw the machine into gear and started driving, running people over just like Mark and Steve had shown him. If the machine ever slowed down or hit a corner, he just had to pull the Glenn lever or floor the Shane pedal and it would speed up again.

Ricky couldn't work out why everyone made such a fuss about driving it. It was simple! 
'Any idiot could do this,' he thought to himself. 
He liked to drive with his foot down all the time. There were a couple of blokes in India that he didn't run over and everyone told him to watch his driving, but he'd shown them. He just carried on as usual, and soon the machine was running everyone over again. Even when he'd hurt himself and had to let this do-gooder swottie kid named Adam drive it back to India, the machine kept working. He'd made Adam give the keys straight back after, though. It wasn't his to keep!

He took the machine to England and started running them over, like usual. But the Glenn bit broke for a while, and the big fat boiler they called Matthew wouldn't make the machine go fast enough for once, and the rubbishy English wagon overtook them right at the end. And then everyone had a go at Ricky when they got back home! He couldn't bloody believe it! He'd pressed all the usual pedals. How was it his fault if they didn't work properly? Get a life!

John at the garage took the machine to the bush and had all the parts repaired and cleaned up. 'Fucken' excellent, it works again' thought Ricky, and he drove it back and forward over England's wagon, which had loads of bits missing now. He kept using all of his favourite levers and pedals, too: Glenn, Shane, Matty, Adam, Justin... Magic!

One by one though, the machine's best parts disappeared. Ricky hadn't spotted that they'd been working hard for so long. He thought they'd keep going forever! Why would they want to stop - no-one could beat them. They even got a new mechanic, this bloke called Tim who said he'd been on a machine himself once, but Ricky wasn't sure that he had. 

He told Tim what sort of things he wanted to put on the machine. Tim got him a part that looked like Shane, called Stuart, but that broke and Tim got all these other parts that weren't anything like Shane. He got another bit called Stuart who looked like Glenn, but Stuart was second hand and had a crack in him. Brad fitted into the machine where Adam used to be, but everyone said Brad was a bit more like this really old bit called Ian, who now watched the machine with Mark. 

The machine worked okay for a while. Ricky ran it over India again, and he gave them a right old mouthful out of the window while he did it. People even moaned about that! What was their problem? Mental disintegration, it was called. 

But then he drove it to India and the machine broke. Steam came out of it. Ricky couldn't work out why. He pulled all of the same levers and pressed the usual pedals, but nothing happened. What was wrong with the machine now? 

He took it back home, where Tim gave him some really good news. South Africa were coming! Ricky needed that! If there was one team that went red and started crying as soon as it saw the machine it was South Africa. 

Ricky climbed back on and pointed it at them. It spluttered forwards. He stoked the Matty boiler, but all that came out was hot air. He went for the Stuart lever but it had broken off! This old Brett pedal which worked now and again wouldn't move when he pressed it. Automatically, though force of habit, he reached for Shane button, but in its place were two or three others, and none of them looked anything like Shane. They made the machine do funny things instead! 

The Saffer wagon moved alongside and rammed them. Ricky felt himself jolt in his seat. He didn't want to get rammed again, so he pulled over and said he wasn't going to race South Africa until he'd had the chance to open his Xmas pressies. That fooled them! 

Ricky walked right up to all of the men in suits and ties and told them straight: 'this fucken machine don't work like I told it to. That ain't my fault, see. Some of these parts were just passengers, along for the ride. Why don't you go and ask them a bunch of questions, not me!'

In the dead of night, when no-one was around, Ricky got up, pulled on his CA trackie-dacks and went to look at the machine. It didn't look so hot. Why wouldn't they just buy him a new one instead of trying to patch this fucken old thing up? He pulled off the Krezja button. He wrenched the Brett lever until it was all twisted and ready to come off. He thought about the Matty boiler and all the fucken rattle it was making. He kicked and pulled and spat. 

The sun came up. Ricky was sitting on the floor next to the machine. All around him were parts that he had pulled off. He realised that he didn't even know where they went. 'Sheesh,' he thought. 'They'll probably expect me to put all of these bits back'. 

These people were impossible to please. They didn't just want him to be the driver. They expected him to understand how the machine worked too. Ricky put his hands in his trackie-dacks pockets. 'Hmm,' he thought. 'What should I do next?'

Monday 22 December 2008

Wot Harmi done on his hols, by MP Vaughan and JM Brearley

The contents of Steve Harmison's mind are, for the most part, as unknowable as the dark matter that binds the universe. Dark matter consumed and defied Einstein and Bohr, two of the last century's greatest brains. Steve Harmison has remained mysterious to logicians as diverse as Duncan Fletcher and Kevin Pietersen. 

Now the two big hitters are on Harmi's case. The man Americans would no doubt call 'England's winningest captain', MP Vaughan, and the game's own gentle, white-haired buddha, Mike Brearley, have each been called to the plate.

Into the limpid depths of Harmi's cerebellum they stare, Brears via his column in the Observer, and Vaughany in his new gig at the Daily Telegraph.

Vaughan's first column has been long awaited. It did not disappoint. Connoisseurs of his ability to say absolutely nothing at tremendous length were treated to a masterclass. 

'Before this tour, I was not expecting Harmison to miss out on a Test,' he reveals. 'But he will be the first to admit he did not hit his straps in Chennai. Was it technical, was he fully fit? Only he can know'.

Only Vaughany can know how much he is being paid for such insight. It's almost certainly not enough. 

Brearley took a different view. Or rather, he took a view. 'Harmison may at times give an impression of languidness, but I am not sure that his attitude is is different from how he was when top of the world rankings. It is a mannerism rather than a potentially contagious down-heartedness'. 

We have a few billion years left to solve the space-time continuum, considerably less to access the parallel universe in which Harmi is England's spearhead once again. KP has been chatting with Brears, which offers some hope. But has Vaughny been texting? Only he, and perhaps the expectant readers of the Telegraph, can know. 

Sunday 21 December 2008

KP: non-religious conversion

Unless he makes a quintuple hundred in England's second innings in Mohali, Kevin Pietersen has no chance of squeezing past his old chum Graeme Smith as Test cricket's leading run scorer of 2008. Unless he makes a triple he will not surpass the Herculean Sehwag for the highest knock of the year. 

But his glowing, brooding 144 today gave him possession of a stat perhaps more remarkable than both of the above. KP has gone past 50 six times in 2008, and he has turned five into centuries. He would have had a conversion rate of 100 per cent had he succeeded in whacking Paul Harris over long on whilst on 94 at Edgbaston. 

Get him early or don't get him, my friends. 

Next over that end, Warnie. Oh.


Not as easy without Glenn and Shane, is it. 

Saturday 20 December 2008

Captaincy, the time for love

Mike Atherton's writing is a lot like his batting: spiky, unpretty, rarely epic. At times he seems almost too detached. On occasion though he forgets his Nietzschian struggles with an ambivalent universe and produces something like this, a sweetly observed piece on Kevin Pietersen and Mike Brearley in India. 

Captains usually look, consciously or not, to fashion teams in their image; either that or they simply overwhelm them with force of personality. Brearley's triumph was of a different order. He gave a means of expression to a cabinet of talents far greater than his own. 

No batsman without a Test match hundred has been more revered by his men. I only saw one day's play of the 1981 Ashes series live, and it was the nadir: second Test at Lord's, Botham the captain making the second duck of a pair, bowled round his legs by Ray Bright trying to sweep. He walked back to the dressing room in a silence that can only be described as contemptuous. His despair was not hard to imagine. 

Bob Woolmer was dropped to make way for Brearley at Headingley. Of course, Brearley could never have done it without Botham. But then, manifestly, Botham was not doing it without Brearley either. 

Brearley's method with Beefy was merely to reassure him of his worth, let him know he was loved, and set him loose. This was important because the public had turned against Botham for the first time in his career. Pietersen has the same need within him, and on a greater scale too. He sees the value in passing it along. Harmison was the first to be enveloped in KP's cloud of love, but he won't be the last.

So the vision of KP and Brears sitting together on the flight to Mohali is a sweet one. You know they'll have been talking love as well as the joys of the in-out field. 

Friday 19 December 2008

Merry Xmas, Warne is Over

Three tests at once, three spinners bowling. Paul Harris, Graeme Swann and Jeetan Patel. And when they weren't bowling, Dan Vettori and Jason Krezja probably were. Not a mystery ball or a doosra or a carrom special between them. 

Nature hates a vacuum, especially at number eight. The first generation of spinners post Warne and Murali look a lot like the species that the great pair had allegedly made redundant. Mendis, Murali's apprentice, is a freak not a harbinger.

So we're back to frustrating men out and keeping it tight. We're back to 2-70 and left arm over into the rough. We're back to non-spinning spinners who are handy with the bat. No wonder Duncan Fletcher was looking so happy as he inked Harris onto the team sheet ad infinitum. Ashley Giles was the future after all. 

NB: You can tell quite a lot by the commentators' reactions. Mark Taylor and Tony Greig occasionally squawk: 'Oh that turned! And BOUNCED!' It didn't really used to be that remarkable. 

Wednesday 17 December 2008

AB de Villiers, Prince Of Thieves

AB didn't arrive in Australia by plane. He came in old-style, on a ship, wearing a suit and playing deck quoits. It was captured on newsreel. Because AB is a throwback to simpler times.

He is a scratch golfer, despite the fact he rarely plays. He might have been a rugby or tennis pro, but chose cricket instead. He doesn't just bat and take slip catches for fun, he keeps wicket as well. When he retires, he will probably fly bi-planes, appear in movies, marry a gal who'll unite the disparate sectors of South African society and spend the rest of his life robbing the rich and giving to the poor.

Men like AB used to exist. CB Fry not only captained Sussex and England, he broke the world long jump record, played in the FA Cup Final, turned out for the Barbarians at rugby, wrote speeches for Ranjitsinjhi at the League of Nations, published a magazine about himself and turned down the throne of Albania. Max Woosnam won an Olympic gold medal, the Davis Cup and the Wimbledon doubles, captained Manchester City, scored a hundred at Lord's, played scratch golf, made a 147 in snooker and beat Charlie Chaplin at table tennis. Using a butter knife. Even the great WG, in his younger days, took time out from scoring a double hundred at the Oval to win the quarter-mile hurdles at Crystal Palace.

The South Africans have some players worth watching. It's just that Herschelle Gibbs, Andreas Nel, Albie Morkel and Justin Kemp aren't in the team. That means, by default, AB needs to step up. He's had an easy ride for too long. Otherwise we're going to be relying on Neil McKenzie and Big Jacques for our kicks.  

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Triggers With Attitude

With South Africa about to play in Perth, older heads might recall 1970, when Barry Richards flayed Australia in the only four Tests he played. 

Even the Batsman was too young to see it, but Richards became my first hero (here), and today, in need of a nostalgia fix, I found this on youtube. It's bad Baz making his third hundred in a week; 129 for Hants against Lancashire in a Gillette Cup match in '72. The voices of Laker and Benaud tumble down the years as he does it, too. 

His shotmaking is exactly as I remember it - especially the first six he hits - but his stance, with his back hunched and his feet almost together, and his grip, the back of his top hand facing the bowler, are not. 

What's more shocking though, is how still he stands. Richards and his fellows had never heard of trigger movements. They were as alien a concept as helmets (Bas doesn't even bother taking his sleeveless sweater off...).

The maxim of the old days was 'see it early, play it late', and that extended to how you moved. On the first day of last season, I was in the Nursery at Lord's watching Clive Radley working with his groundstaff  boys. Without exception, the batters had big trigger movements. It seemed to be part of their mental armour. One kid was essentially jumping at the ball with both feet. He moved more before it was bowled than he did afterwards. 

Barry once made fifty using just the leading edge of his bat in a club match. Check out his bat in the clip. It's so thin it's almost translucent. He is a god from a different time. And he once got 300 in a day in Perth - against Dennis Lillee. 

Cricket correspondent does job - read all about it!

Peter Roebuck's story for the SMH about the link between Javed Miandad, director general of the PCB, and Dawood Ibrahim, a drug baron suspected of providing logistical support for the Mumbai attacks, points to the death of any prospects of India touring Pakistan. Miandad's son is married to Ibrahim's daughter.

Pakistan's isolation, and the loss of its players, draws closer. 

Roebuck is one of the few ex-pros who is a better journalist than he was a cricketer. Who'll be the first to run the story here? MP Vaughan owes the Telegraph a column, doesn't he?

Monday 15 December 2008

Virender Sehwag and the Next Age

In certain sports at certain times come the avatars of its next age. They bring with them hints of what is possible, of how things will happen in the future. Arnold Palmer was one in golf. Sonny Liston was one in boxing. Arnold Schwarzenegger was one in bodybuilding (really, he was). Usain Bolt may be one in sprinting. Virender Sehwag might be cricket's newest.

We know the stats. In Tests he averages 51.85 with a strike rate of 78.12. That is 15 runs per 100 balls more than Pietersen, 20 more than Ponting, 21 more than Gayle. But what are the stats telling us?

To me, they are saying, 'this is how things will be'. Sehwag is the first, the fluke, the avatar. Behind him will come a new age of Test cricket, fed its players from the shorter game. They will be the first generation whose primary skill sets come from a new area. They will not be long-form players playing the short game. They will be short form players playing the long one. 

In Chennai the old met the new. Sehwag set up the win. Tendulkar, with what might be his last truly great innings, won it. They were ships that pass. In ten years, more people will bat with Sehwag's mindset than with Tendulkar's. The New Age is coming. He even has his own religion to prove it. 

Sunday 14 December 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

You know how it is. You leave the country for a couple of days, and... 

No right-thinking man can fail to be lifted up by a weekend in Paris in all of its sombre winter glory, but trying to get a handle on a mad-ass Test match via a hotel satellite channel called BBC World... forget about it. 

Someone at BBC World has been employed to assemble a roster of the most boring stories from around the globe to be run in half hour loops (sample: wife of man who has failed to row the Pacific flies to Australia to meet him). The 'news' of the Test consisted of a ticker running along the bottom of the screen that read, in its entirety - 'Cricket: Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood bat England into a match-winning position'.

Thanks for that. One of the sub-plots in Chennai has been Yuvraj Singh's bedevilling of KP. Mike Brearley thinks he's playing the man and not the ball. I think it's something else; an angle thing. In England last year, he struggled with RP Singh and Zaheer bowling left-arm round from very wide on the crease. Yuvraj also comes from quite wide. He just doesn't line them up well.

Thursday 11 December 2008

KP Pietersen c&b Zaheer, nailed Hopps

KP can be forgiven the weirdest innings he's played for England. He is playing in weird times. In 2005, we thought we'd sussed his character, we thought we knew his sort. As David Hopps writes here, we woz wrong.

Pietersen is not the only man playing a blinder in India. Hopps' tour coverage has been streets ahead of everyone else's. 

The Batsman won't be near a keyboard for a couple of days; thank the lawd the country is safe in KP's hands. 

Jeremy Coney: Axiomatic

Further to the post below, Sky scheduled an entire one hour build-up to the big New Zealand versus West Indies clash in Dunedin. The mad bastards. It turned out to be an inspired call: a  rollicking 60 minutes ensued, during which one former Test captain proved once again he's well worth the screentime.

But then Jeremy Coney is much more than just an ex-cricketer. The Playing Mantis is a musician, Shakespearean scholar and all-round raconteur, too. Last night, he described Jesse Ryder as "a rolling maul of anarchy", and used the word 'axiomatic'. Twice.

In partnership with Colin Croft, whose eyes were aglint with mischief throughout, JC ran through the failings of Test cricket's two worst big-time teams in high style. Great hilarity ensued when, having spent half an hour on New Zealand's godawful batting and the West Indies ineffectual bowling, they cut from studio to the toss, where Vettori won and chose to bat, and Chris Gayle admitted he wanted to bowl anyway.

Coney and Crofty's appetites where whetted at the thought of a team whose batsmen have the averages of good bowlers facing off against another whose bowlers have the averages of good batsmen. They were having such a good time they almost missed the first ball of the match. 

We only crashed back to earth when the trailer package for England versus India came on. Above it came the Nasser Hussain monotone: 'Yuvraj Singh... he just loves hitting sixes...' That, Nasser old chum, is axiomatic. 

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Picture byline

Private Eye has a piece in the new issue about the cull of sportswriters and name columnists at the Daily Telegraph. They're comparing and contrasting with the arrival there of one MP Vaughan. He is, according to the Tele's puff: 'a real asset to our cricket coverage. His experience of captaining  the England cricket team and being one of the best batsmen in the world puts him in a remarkably strong position to comment on cricket'.

Oh does it now. And what do we think the man on a central contract trying to get his place back in the side is going to tell us, exactly? What position is he in?

Hiring Vaughan is anti-comment. It's not Vaughan's fault. He's going to have to do something after cricket, and so following former England captains David Gower, Ian Botham, Bob Willis, Mike Atherton and Nasser Hussain into the Sky commentary box must appeal, as must joining Atherton, Gower, Mike Selvey, Derek Pringle, Vic Marks and Angus Fraser in a cricket correspondent's position on a national newspaper. 

Ultimately this has happened because conventional wisdom has it that these people know something that the rest of us don't. That may be true. But unless they can mediate their experience, unless they can translate it, it remains in its trough of comfortable cliche. Cliche, along with psychobabble, is the language in which sportsmen address each other. Waffle on, Vaughany. 

NB: Vaughan has provided one piece so far: a Q&A about golf.

Related post: I blogged before about the great Arlott and Sky here.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

KP, King of Cow Corner

Events like those in Mumbai ensure that you watch what you write. Getting run out for 99 is not a tragedy. Losing by an innings is no massacre. Yet it's hard to sum up Kevin Pietersen's attitude to spin bowling without saying that he lives and dies by the sword. 

He is the man who switch hit Murali for six at Edgbaston and reduced Warne to bowling outside leg stump for hour on end in Adelaide. Not since Lara has anyone mastered those two in such a way. It was not just a case of batting well against them. Other men have done that. It was the raw desire to humiliate them that set Pietersen apart. It was ego. It was war.

When he got his 158 at the Oval in 2005, Warne dared him to hit over the top. 'Bring your cow corner up and I will,' Pietersen replied. Warne did, and so Pietersen did too. Again, he didn't just want to flick Warne through the infield and milk him until England were safe. He wanted to put him in row Z. 

His hundred in the last ODI in Cuttack looked ridiculously easy once he was set. How well he plays India's spinners may decide how much chance England have of a result in the Tests, if the others can stay in for long enough. 

You know what he'll try and do. It's the way he does that's most interesting. When he brought out the switch hit, he said he'd woken up on the morning of the match and imagined how it felt to play it first. This is true of any good batsman, I think. You have to be able to feel where your feet and wrists and hands will be, and how they'll move; you need to see it before you can do it.

Graeme Smith has been trying to talk up the prosaic Paul Harris before the Australia series. 'We have seen some of the finest batsmen from India and Pakistan, plus Kevin Pietersen in England, taking him lightly and paying the price.' 

The only reason Harris got Pietersen is the same reason other so-so spinners have got him and will again: because he doesn't believe they can bowl to him. For KP, spin is not an invitation to a subtle dance for session after session. He'll live and die by the sword and while he lives, it's tempting to say it's a slaughter - in the purest sporting terms. 

Monday 8 December 2008

The strange disappearance of Mohammed Yousuf

If Ricky Ponting went to play in the ICL, got lured back by Cricket Australia only to pull a late U-turn and go and play in it again, you'd imagine it would make a line or two in the British papers. Similarly, if it was Sachin Tendulkar, Graeme Smith or - lord save us - KP, you'd be pretty sure it would merit some coverage.

But this is what has happened to Mohammed Yousuf, the man who, in 2006, made more Test match runs (1788) and scored more hundreds (nine) than anyone else ever has in a calendar year. 

To people in England who consume their cricket via the national press, on Sky television or BBC Radio FiveLive, Mohammed Yousuf - and Pakistani cricket - have simply slipped away. The correspondents of the broadsheets and the editors of the sports news and radio shows have, to all intents and purposes, ignored it. 

One of the better ideas floating around at the moment is that Pakistan play a 'home' Test in England. Enough of the Pakistani diaspora are here to ensure countrywide support. These fans are the same ones who will have seen nothing about the disappearance of Mohammed Yousuf in the national media of the country in which they live. 

That's the very media which is always wondering, via long, hand-wringing editorials, why these communities feel so alienated. Over to you then, Athers. No? Selv? Derek Pringle? Aggers? Anyone for a story..?

Sunday 7 December 2008

Nathan Bracken's Dropper

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote a short story called Spedegue's Dropper about a mystery bowler who developed a delivery that came down vertically on the stumps from a great height.

It came to mind as I read this about Nathan Bracken's efforts to get back into the Australian Test side as a spinner. 

Bracken has been trying out in the nets, bowling them at around 95kph. 'It's been suggested I look at Colin 'Funky' Miller as an example. Funky had a fast bowler's mentality because he'd make sure blokes couldn't get down to him', he said. 

A better example would be Derek Underwood, who bowled a mix of spin and cut at almost medium pace, left arm over - and Deadly didn't do too badly. The mad ambition of the scheme is the best part of the story. There's something last century about it. 

Conan Doyle, a man of many parts, would have approved. Spedegue ended up winning the Ashes for England, and Conan Doyle himself is said to have dismissed his fellow MD, WG Grace in a private match. 

Grace's reaction to be being undone by the creator of Sherlock Holmes is sadly unrecorded, although it was probably along the lines of what Kevin Pietersen might say if Nathan Bracken ever spins him out. 

Saturday 6 December 2008

Death rattle

Duncan Fletcher believes in fast bowling, to the point of obsession. When Jacques Kallis says that South Africa's advisor has 'some new ideas to beat Australia... I obviously can't say much more on that, but our bowling is going to be crucial', be sure that the Saffer attack will be loaded with its big guns in Perth. 

The one man you won't hear from is Fletcher. Few people in the world have heard him speak, although it's rumoured that he can. 

Tim Nielsen can't stop. John Buchanan limited himself to the odd acidic waft from beneath that crowbar moustache, but his teams had McGrath and Warne to speak for them. Nielsen evidently thinks the pre-series sledge is down to him. He's warned South Africa over 'cheap talk'. Which is interesting considering they have have yet to say anything. When Neilsen really did need to speak out, as Ponting was copping it all for India, he chose to do so via the fearless forum of his Cricket Australia blog. 

Australia versus South Africa is a contest. Fletcher versus Neilsen is over already. 

Friday 5 December 2008

The spirit of '76

Marcus Trescothick's Opening Up is heading the newspapers' choices as the cricket book of the year. The fact that people are amazed when a sportsman offers something candid shows how deep the divide between us and them has become. For me, the standout book by some distance is not Tresco's but Bob Woolmer's The Art And Science of Cricket

It took the Batsman back to my first day at a Test match in the endless summer of '76; that blighted summer of Tony Greig's 'grovel' remarks, that blazing summer of King Viv's ascendency. Day Two at the Oval, Friday 13th, West Indies grovelling to Greigy once more at 373-3, IVA Richards 200 not out overnight. 

Just another blue-planet day in Vauxhall. In the first over, Viv flicked lazily off his legs and strolled a couple. Bob Woolmer ran after it and threw it in. I'd never seen anyone throw anything that far before. The ball arced back from the deep and disappeared into Knott's gloves. No-one else seemed surprised at it.

The rest of the day was played out to the sound of beer cans being beaten together for hour on end as Richards looked like he might tilt at Sobers' 365. Greig bowled him - a rare lapse - for 291. West Indies made 687.

With half an hour or so to go, Woolmer and Amiss opened for England. There was a great demand for binoculars from the people around us - it was expected that either the off stump or the head of Dennis Amiss would soon be cartwheeling towards the wicketkeeper, but they hung on. Bob made eight. Dennis Amiss got 203. England lost.

The Art and Science of Cricket was never meant to be a legacy but it is, and it's tremendously sad to open it to find first an obituary and then a book filled with life and love and knowledge. Bob couldn't bat like King Viv (who can?), but then Viv could not have written this book. The game itself is what holds them together.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Talent is a dog from hell

Millichamp & Hall's retro bat brought to mind Mark Lathwell, who used to use one. If you ever read Mark Lathwell's name now, it's almost always in connection with one theme: lost promise, missed opportunity, a talent gone to waste.

Lathwell's professional life turned on one glorious year when he was 21. He got into the Somerset side, and made 175 for England A against Tasmania. It was an innings that had everyone who saw it drooling, including England's chief selector Ted Dexter who went into the pavilion afterwards to congratulate him. Wisden wrote, 'Not since David Gower has a youngster quickened the pulse like Lathwell'.

He was called into a stumbling England side to play Australia just as the hot streak in his batting cooled in the summer of 1993. He played two Tests and scored 20, 33, 0 and 25, not the worst start, especially for an England player, especially against Australia. But he was dropped, and that was essentially it. The first 'whatever happened to Mark Lathwell' article came out in the Independent in 1996. By 2001, aged just 30, disillusioned and beaten, he retired. 

Seven years on, he still appears in pieces like the Observer's 'Top 10 Squandered Talents' (there's a headline to make you feel good about yourself: also on the list, Gazza and Graeme Hick). But lists like this have just one notion of talent - that someone makes something look easy, or more accurately, that however well they do, they look like they should be doing better. They also tend to focus on early promise.

Just recently, 'thinker' Malcolm Gladwell and Ed 'ET' Smith have touched on developmental theories that affect the perception of talent, in particular one that suggests that most Premiership footballers are born in the autumn, thus giving them advantages throughout the various age group competitions as they grow up. 

These studies focus on physical development. Mark Lathwell, like Graeme Hick, just had a diffident nature, something they will always have. Hick said to the Guardian, 'My kids have become more aware of my career. They watched my retirement being announced on the news and my son just said, 'that's my dad', and he came and sat next to me and he held me. And he wouldn't let go for the next hour. I sat there thinking, Of course I would like to have scored 30 Test hundreds but I might not be the person that I am if I'd done that.'

It's hard to know too how theories account for late developers. When Kevin Pietersen was 21, his was the name on no-one's lips. He didn't appear to be the kind of guy who could one day switch hit Murali in a Test match. 

Talent comes out, but it's an ineffable quality, subject to other forces. To say Mark Lathwell squandered his, and Hick his, just betrays a lack of understanding of what talent is. They got as far as they could get. That's not the sadness of Mark Lathwell's career. The sadness is that he'll forever be appearing on those lists when he doesn't deserve to. He used a nice bat, too. 

Tuesday 2 December 2008

More die of heartbreak

Our man Iain O'Brien went to Adelaide with a Test batting average of 3.8. Only Chris Martin's was lower. In the first dig, IOB got a six-ball duck. In the second, he went in with his side 131-8, 134 runs away from making the Australians bat again.

He was involved in the highest partnership of the innings, 50, with Brendon McCullum. He batted for 54 minutes, which was longer than Redmond, Ryder, Taylor, Flynn, Vettori and Southee. He survived 38 balls, which was more than Redmond, Ryder, Taylor, Flynn, Vettori and Southee. It was also 22 balls more than he'd faced in his previous three innings combined.

It was a decent knock. He got sawn off by Billy Doctrove. He made 0. In a hundred years, the records will show that Iain O'Brien bagged a pair in Adelaide, and that his Test average went to 3.35.

More die of heartbreak than anything else. 

Monday 1 December 2008

Objects of fetish (ii)

This is a thing of beauty. Millichamp & Hall make cricket bats at the county ground in Taunton, at the rate of about five per day. There's something timeless about that. You won't see too many M&H bats in the hands of international players, and if you do, you won't know it because their rather lovely logos will be peeled off and replaced by someone else's. 

Instead, some less traditional words - I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and call them words - than Millichamp and Hall will be buzzing around: Pellara, Incurza and Libro have been confirmed as the adidas range.  

adidas won't be making bats, but buying them in and stickering them. And what stickers they are. They're the product of selling into an information-overloaded age. They've been designed for minimal attention spans, for people who are used to looking at everything and nothing at the same time. 

Selling cricket bats has always been in part about selling illusions. But if you buy from manufacturers who employ their own batmakers you are almost always holding a bat shaped by the same tools and hands as the bats used by their pros. 

For most players, I think, bats are fetishistic things, taken out and looked at, held, touched. You invest emotions in them, when you buy them and when you use them. You need to feel connected to them. I've seen KP looking at his bats in the past. I know that look. He isn't going to be using anything from a factory job lot that's for sure, however much adidas are paying him. 

Nostalgia is rolled into it. M&H have this. Stuart Surridge will even sell you a Jumbo, and doesn't that baby look good after all these years? If Gray-Nicolls made a retro Scoop, I'd buy one just for old times sake - and so would Brian Lara. Well, Brian probably wouldn't have to pay for his. 

adidas will sell lots of bats, but I'm not sure they'll understand why. M&H won't sell as many, but I know which one I covet.

Related post: Objects of fetish (i) is here.

Sunday 30 November 2008

English player 'good enough for IPL' - Official!

The line from the sunday papers is that England should return to India with whatever squad they can patch together. While we wait, Mike Atherton is the first journo to confirm that he will be on the plane. Maybe pack your pads, too, Athers. We miss having an opener on 27 not out at lunch. Or just not out at lunch. 

Concealed in the depths of Simon Wilde's why-oh-why in the Times* is the news that Graham Napier has a deal in place to play for Mumbai in the IPL. This is significant in that he'll be just the second Englishman, behind Dimi Mascarenhas, to do so.

So what do Dimi and Napier have in common? That's it - neither of them are in the England one-day set-up (except for inclusion in the pat-on-the-head 30 man 'performance squads' that we cherish so). The point is slightly skewed because those on central contacts can't sign for IPL sides yet, but it's common knowledge that only KP, Freddie, Shah, Bopara and Monty are likely to get one.

Flintoff had a pre-terrorism rant about the importance of playing IPL cricket next year. Which provokes a question as to why Napier and Mascarenhas aren't in the T20 side, never mind the squad. 

It's not as if England don't need someone who can hit 30 off five balls against India, or 24 from four against New Zealand like Dimi did. Dimi can do that stuff. Napier can too, and he can sustain it for far longer because he's not confined to hitting in one area.

So shall we give someone who's good enough for one of the two IPL contracts in England a go. Or shall we just pick Belly again? 

* Can anyone from that newspaper explain why they still insist on calling Mumbai 'Bombay'? They are alone in this. Old stylebooks die hard, eh boys...

Saturday 29 November 2008

The Day of the Pig

For a man who averages 3.8, Iain O'Brien works at his batting. 'I hate bouncers' he wrote in his now world-famous blog, thus guaranteeing one first up from Mitch Johnson (which he ducked rather suavely). He also wrote a nice piece about batting in the nets before the Adelaide Test. 'The bowlers always feel a little quicker,' he said.

That's a lovely observation, and true I think. The quickest spell I ever faced was in the nets at the old county ground in Southampton, way back in the mists of time circa 1980 or so. Me and a bunch of other 16 year-olds full of piss and vinegar were there for a day under the watch of Peter Sainsbury, then Hampshire's coach, and a man whose rheumy eye and still-steady arm were informed by the wisdom of 1300-odd first class wickets. 

We were pecking away on a hot afternoon when Steve Malone turned up in the neighbouring net, to bowl at one of the second XI players. Steve, known to one and all as 'Piggy' after a character in a Two Ronnies sketch, wasn't with the first team for some reason and he wasn't happy. With Sainsbury watching out of the corner of his eye, Piggy worked up a real head of steam, fast and hostile. 

I had a ringside seat, batting in the next-door net. I could hear the ball cleave the air with a high-frequency buzz. The weather was good, the wickets were hard and Piggy was getting some bounce as well as pace. When he got past the bat, the ball sounded like it was hitting a chain-link fence rather than the netting. My dad, in the grip of misplaced ambition, suggested to Sainsbury that we swap nets. Sainsbury, with a slim smile, agreed. 

We changed nets. Piggy was unamused. He ran in, breathing fire and grunting as he let it go. He probably bowled a couple of overs, but it seemed like a lot more. He pinned me. The balls I couldn't leave, I played from about an inch in front of the stumps. The front foot seemed like another country, a distant memory from a happier time. His pace had an actual physical effect on the nervous system, not unlike jumping into very cold water, sharp and breathless. 

That day I learned about the gap that separated us from the real game. The real game was a different one to the one we played. It was like being in the foothills of a mountain and catching sight of its shimmering face still some distance away, hazardous and sheer. 

When IOB's blog triggered the memory, I looked up Steve at cricinfo. They described him as 'fast-medium'. Wonder what he thinks of that. 

Dirty Dozen (or so)

If, as looks likely, England's refuseniks won't return to India for the Tests, I favour a Dirty Dozen-style squad of renegades, bad boys and nearly men who would get on the plane. 

Those who covet an IPL contract can't baulk, so KP and Fred go, along with Ravi Bopara, Ace Shah and Monty Panesar. Vaughany wants a Test place back, so he can jump aboard, as can the Hog. Can't imagine James Foster and Matt Prior knocking it back, or Rob Key, Saj Mahmood, Dimi Mascarenhas, Joe Denly, Graham Napier. Corky would be on the plane before you'd finished asking the question. Even Goughy might be talked into it.

They may not win. They may not even get close, but it would be worth watching. And it would somehow have the right spirit to it, something the bunch who are on their way back seem to have misplaced.

Let's be honest, it's going to be no more or less safe in India in two weeks than it is next April. 

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Mumbai last night

Was going to write something yesterday evening about how being dropped on tour is not like actually being dropped - I am sure that the face of IR Bell will once again soon peer out from above the blue muscle-shirt, and probably even the red - but instead sat watching the news from Mumbai.

The BBC called up Shaun Udal, who found himself commenting on pictures of people being evacuated from the burning windows of the hotel he was due to check into a few hours hence with Middlesex. The newscaster kept calling him 'Shaun Oodle'; not a cricket man, then.

Something that stayed with me from the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005 was that one of the bombers had played cricket as usual the weekend before. One last game. That mindset is impossible to penetrate. 

Tuesday 25 November 2008

The meaning of 77, or The Don recedes

99.94 is the one stat that, to cricketers, does not need to be explained or contextualised. You don't need to be told what it means or who it belongs to. 99.94 stands as the landmark number in the sport.

It's widely known, too, that 99.94 makes Bradman not just the best cricketer of all time, but the best sportsman. Statistically, no-one else in any sport has dominated as Bradman did. 99.94 made him almost 40 per cent better than anyone else who has ever played cricket, a margin that Pele, Nicklaus, Jordan or anyone else cannot approach in their disciplines.

Jeff Thomson once said, 'I didn't believe that anyone could be twice as good as Greg Chappell,' and then he saw the Don messing around in the nets as a 60-something, no pads, dispatching it everywhere.

I came across a lesser-known study that attempted to compare Bradman with players from different eras. Using a 'coefficient of variation' of batting averages, it calculated that a modern player would need to average 77 to match Bradman. 

The study was made at the end of the 90s, before the current era of the bat, so the number may have ticked up a notch, but modern gods Ponting (57), Yousuf and Kallis (55) and Tendulkar (54) fall a long way short. Mike Hussey is the closest at 64, but it feels like he's not begun properly yet. Gilchrist was in the 60s too at one point. None of Pollock, Headley and Sutcliffe, who all finished with career averages above 60, made more than 5000 test runs; Pollock and Headley made less than Hussey has now.

Still, 77. Not even on the horizon. And now it may never be. What I was driving at in this post was that the measures that describe success in cricket feel as though they are about to change. An average, as long as it's acceptable, already means less in limited overs cricket than strike rate. Just as Twenty20 has accelerated 50 over matches, so it will accelerate Tests.

Geoff Boycott, a surprisingly progressive commentator, has already suggested four-day Tests, played as day-nighters, would be a more viable commercial proposition. It will surely happen.

When it does, the meaning of stats will change, subtly at first, and then irrevocably. 99.94 will prove harder to understand.

In the study that showed Bradman was statistically better than anyone in any other sport, the third-most dominant athlete was baseball's Ty Cobb. He played a version of the game that is unrecognisable to the baseball fans of today. They attach more meaning to power-hitting records like those held by McGwire and Bonds than they do to Cobb's base stealing and RBIs.

How we adjust 99.94 in a new era will become important in keeping the game connected to its history. The Don is receding, but not in meaning.

From underneath the Black Cap

Iain O'Brien has a blog. If he were English, it's inconceivable that it would exist. It contains a terrific description of his second innings at the Gabba.

On the subject of online worthiness, David Hopps is blogging for the Guardian from India. Here he is on the frustrations of trying to interview Monty Panesar via the ECB politburo. 

Compare and contrast. 

Monday 24 November 2008

IR Bell: always outnumbered, always outgunned

A case was once made for Ian Ronald Bell opening in the 50 over format. 'We can bat around him,' they said. 'He gets a hundred at a strike rate of 70, we'll win more than we lose,' they said.

But rarely has a single game made any argument for a man look more redundant. In Bangalore, Virender Sehwag hit the first ball he faced for four, and the first ball he faced after a two-hour rain break for six. MS Dhoni hit his first ball for six, and Yusuf Pathan hit his only ball for six. That is the standard of the new age; of the superfreak power hitter.

Bell's 12 from 15 balls could be written off as a bad day. Except it wasn't. It was a normal day. In fact, given his strike rate of 80.00, it was a marginally better than average day. What drove pure despair further into the bones was the sad little tinky-tink his bat made as he tried, mostly in vain, to hit the ball off the square.

He has walked to the middle with that weird, pinched look on his face playing shadow forward defensives 26 times to open in ODIs. He's made 800 runs at 33.33, striking at 70 per 100 balls. He has scored precisely no hundreds. 

In his other 50 innings, he has batted down the order, made 1683 runs at 36.59 at the same rate, despite, presumably, batting in fewer power plays. In nineteen innings in 2008, his top score is 73. 

In this era of the superfreak, England are shockingly adrift. For India Sehwag strikes at 99.36; for West Indies, Gayle goes at 81.21; for Sri Lanka, Jayasuriya strikes at 91.03; for New Zealand, McCullum goes at 90.24; for South Africa, Gibbs strikes at 83.18, and for Pakistan, Afridi goes at 111.20. Adam Gilchrist went at 96.94 for Australia. With the exception of McCullum, all have scored over 5000 runs; with the further exception of Afridi, all have over 6000. Jayasuriya, who started it, has 12,785.

The closest England have come is with Marcus Trescothick, who made 4,335 runs at a rate of 85.21. And he's retired. 

What's most amazing is the near-total absence of debate over Bell's position, or over England's inability to find a player of the kind above given the resources flowing in. 

Sunday 23 November 2008

Body talk... la dah dah

The BCCI-TV cameras dwelled lovingly on the England rooms as the Boys went 4-0 down in Bangalore. You didn't need to be Cracker to work out the psychodramas within. At one end sat Peter Moores, on his own, arms folded, leg crossed against the rest of the room. At the other sat KP, arms also folded, his lackey Bell passing him Red Bull. The rest made themselves scarce. 

In one of those offbeat Ducky-L games, England fell 19 short, despite getting 178 to India's 166. England lost it at the start of their innings, when they scored 21 from the first six. In the power play. Bell made 12 in seven overs. 

NB: Graeme Swann went in before Matt Prior. For the uninitiated, Prior is a Sussex man, where he made his name under coach P. Moores.

Punter punts

Two things that that we outsiders always took as planks of Australian cricket:

i) Pick the team then pick the captain

ii) Let the opposition worry about you

Ricky Ponting after the Test at the Gabba: 'I just think we've got to be a bit more flexible in our selection in different places. We need to look at every way we can to have the most impact. They're some of the lessons we all learned in India. We could have been better equipped for those conditions and if we come up against conditions like that, in Australia or the world*, we need to have guys who can play in them'.

What a very English argument.

Ricky Ponting's average in 2008 - 43.55. From India onwards - 31.88. What a very English average. Don't talk yourself out of a job, pal.

* Australia is actually part of the world, even though it doesn't seem like it sometimes.

Saturday 22 November 2008

The executioner's song

Conventional wisdom says that the greats wake up one day and just know. But how? How can they? Because often the quality that separates them from the rest is belief, and that rarely ever dies, bound up as it is with ego and self-image.

Some go gently into that good night. Others rage against the dying of the light. You won't get two more opposing departures than those of Justin Langer and Steve Waugh, for example. But they had the inevitable in common. They both understood they would have to go, one way or the other. 

Matthew Hayden knows it, hears the whispers. Like the old soldier, his talk is all of his fallen comrades. 'When they leave,' he sighed this week, 'a part of you goes with them'. His winsomeness contrasts with the thousand yard stare that Katich wears as standard. That guy's desire is the property of the unfulfilled.

Hayden has scored so many runs even he must be almost sated by now, and the numbers carry their own hints. 

It has been ten innings since his last hundred. Those innings have been: 0, 13, 0, 29, 83, 16*, 16, 77, 8, 0, an average of 26.88 against a career 52.04.

Steve Waugh's last hundred came nine innings before the end: 78, 61, 0, 56*, 30, 42, 19, 40, 80, an average of 50.75 against a career 51.06.

Justin Langer's last hundred came eight innings before the end: 4, 7, 37, 0, 27, 26, 20*, an average of 20.16 against a career 45.77.

Waugh averaged a hundred every eight innings (32 in 260), Langer one in eight (23 in 182), Hayden one in six (30 in 177). Hayden's stat is leant more weight by the fact he once went 30 innings without one.

The statistics say Hayden is waning. Waugh raged. Langer knew. Hayden hears the song, too.

When the Australian war machine was at its peak, they surrounded your castle and used Hayden as a battering ram. He has been the most okker of Aussies, and therefore not the most loved elsewhere, but it's impossible not to salute him. 

The best compliment I heard paid to an Australian from an Englishman came from Mick Jagger to their opening bowler. 'Glenn McGrath,' he said, reclining in his chair in the pavilion at Lord's. 'What a bastard'.

You knew what he meant. Matty Hayden, what a bastard too.


Friday 21 November 2008

Dream debut

The Australians may have had a bad day at the Gabba. But it wasn't as bad as the day that Imrul Kayes had in Blomfontein. He was out twice. On his debut. In three hours. 

Channel the pain, Imrul. Let it feed you. 

Thursday 20 November 2008

Gone in the Side. And in the Bottom.

On TV, Ryan Sidebottom is all hair and panto grimaces. Watch him patrol a boundary from a few feet away, though, and he's a different proposition, a man of barn door dimensions with shoulders the size of Flintoff's and an arse like a cart-horse.  

Strange and sad then, that his body is in breakdown, gone in the back, calf, groin and Achilles. He has bowled two overs since July. Even the hair has been cut down to size.

Much was made of the seven years in county cricket that had turned him into a bowling machine. A year inside the England bubble of trains, boats and planes put paid to that.

On sunday, six English fast bowlers - Maurice Chambers (21), Jonathan Clare (22), Jade Dernbach (22), Chris Jordan (20), Mark Turner (24) and Chris Woakes (19) - head to Bradenton, a charming town on Florida's Gulf of Mexico, and the IMG Institute of Sport for three weeks of strength work with Huw Bevan, a rugby trainer. The ECB's bowling academy man Kevin Shine says. 'we want to treat them like Olympic athletes, fitter, faster and stronger'. Once Bevan has had a go at them, the six go to Madras and DK Lillee. 

They are at the sharp end of Shine's development programme, which now monitors seamers six-monthly from the age of 13. They all seem decent enough: Jordan got some raves at the start of the season, Justin Langer describes Turner as 'an explosion waiting to happen' (hopefully not an explosion of bones and joints), Woakes was Warwickshire's leading wicket-taker and he, Dernbach and Clare all took over 40 first-class wickets. Shine hopes they 'could be the next world-class bowlers to play for England'. 

Thanks to players like Sidebottom, the ECB are rich enough to do it. However, and this is very English: all except Woakes are older than Tim Southee, who just took 4-63 at the Gabba. Five of them are older than Ishant Sharma, too. Three of them are the same age or older than Stuart Broad. Turner is just a year younger than Dale Steyn. 

It's only a year and a bit since Saj Mahmood (26) and Liam Plunkett (23) were on tour with England. They are going with a squad somewhere, where they'll probably end up bowling at MP Vaughan in the nets all day. The current location of uber-fragile lunk Chris Tremlett, 27, is unknown. 

All are under Shine, being ruthlessly developed. The last fast bowler called up by the selectors? D. Pattinson, a 29-year-old Australian. 

NB: The subtext of this story is nature versus nurture. The most injured of England's bowlers have been the biggest, most muscle-bound guys: Flintoff, Sidebottom, Simon Jones. Despite the hours in the gym, their bulk goes against them. The quick bowlers with the most longevity are the tall, sinewy ones: McGrath, Walsh, Ambrose, Pollock, Dev,  which at least bodes well for Broad, Southee etc. Sometimes you can't beat nature.

Sights you thought you'd never see

Headline in the Sydney Morning Herald

'Black Caps Destroy Australia At The Gabba' *

Now we know why Punter felt he had to be there.

* 'Destroy' might be a little strong with four days left, no...?

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Extended run

England had to do something, and so they have. Ravi Bopara will open in Kanpur, according to the always excellent David Hopps. Matt Prior drops to number eight, eight games into his comeback. His run at the top of the order included one game against Scotland, one where he was required to chase the almost insurmountable South African total of 83 and one in which he did not bat due to rain. Of the eight games, England lost two. 

Stats lie, of course. He was paralysed by spin on monday. Bopara has been bullish in asking for his chance. It will be interesting to see how extended his run is under KP.

A chilling reminder of prior (no pun intended) consistency. Ravi Bopara made his ODI debut on 2 Feb 2007 in Sydney. The XI:


Pietersen had gone home injured. To continue the Spinal Tap theme of the post below, many of the others are of course current residents of the Where Are They Now File. 

Tuesday 18 November 2008

No more six please, we're British

Last night Sky aired their highlights package of the Hong Kong Sixes, which, with its five over a side 45-minute games, is itself a highlights package made flesh. Thus the highlights of the highlights were cricket absurdo ad reductum. 

In one group match, Australia were 52-1 - after two overs. You might think it would be hard to show highlights of those two overs without showing the actual two overs, but Sky did it. 

All the event lacked was Roy and HG on commentary. Instead it had Danny Morrison and Ian Bishop, who, having misjudged their opening tone and become hugely excited by the first few sixes, left themselves with nowhere to go. By the time the 300th - someone was actually counting - sailed skywards, they were reduced to grunting 'it's another maximum' through their destroyed and flapping larynxes. In fact, forget Roy and HG, Benaud and Arlott would have been the dream ticket here.

England won a brilliantly comical final against Australia by losing less wickets in a tied game; not, I'm sure, the criteria by which they thought they would be victorious. Maybe Boycs should go next time, to hold up an end. He's only 68, after all. 

The England team was quite useful: Mascarenhas (so that's where he was), Bresnan, Trott, Napier, Maddy, Wagg. Amusingly, Hoggy turned out for the Stephen Fleming captained All-Stars.

The Oz sent youngsters - do they ever let any opportunity slip? Their squad: John Davidson, Brendan Drew, John Hastings, Michael Hill, Stephen O'Keefe, Nathan Reardon and David Warner.

They looked good, but in a tournament with 300 sixes, so did everybody. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, how many more sixes can there be, and the answer is none. None more sixes...

Monday 17 November 2008

Two jobs

It took a couple of days, but now we know what Duncan Fletcher will be doing while Hampshire boys Giles White and Tony Middleton 'decide how to use his talents'. He'll be working with South Africa.

The only downside for Fletch seems to be that he's required to wear something described, rather sinisterly, as 'a uniform'. Enduring image, isn't it.

The harsh and strange lessons of Moneyball

Billy Beane, the hero of Michael Lewis's revelatory book Moneyball, should have been a superstar. He was a natural, a baseball player so gifted that scouts came from across America to his high school field just to watch him train. He looked a billion dollars. He was a first round draft pick for the New York Mets in 1980. 

And then he played 148 games in six seasons for four different teams. He hit a career total of three home runs. 

Billy would have been just another schoolboy phenomenon who couldn't cut it in the major leagues had he not absorbed the lesson of his own life. Instead, he realised that how baseball looked wasn't necessarily how baseball really was. 

He became general manager of the Oakland As in 1997 and proceeded to pull off the greatest ongoing giant-killing in sport by recognising that conventional wisdom meant very little in an organic, living game. 

Baseball runs on stats. Ultimately, teams, players, eras are defined by them. And Billy worked out that the stats used in baseball were wrong. Or at least, they were out of date. Standard measures like RBIs and stolen bases were relics of a bygone age. Their usage led enormously rich teams to waste huge amounts of money and time on players that would never deliver. 

Beane found his new measures of success or failure in a fanboy's book of geeky stats called Baseball Abstract. He began working with a new set of standards named sabermetrics. With them, he discovered that many effective players were being rejected by other teams because they looked weird and ugly, and because they weren't successful by the old measures. The Oakland As ended up with a bunch of cheap rejects who consistently outperformed the market. Beane now co-owns the team. He is a superstar at last. Everyone in baseball uses sabermetrics.

Baseball was reshaped by many things: the size, strength and athleticism of its players (and, it should be noted, rampant steroid use), and external factors like the demands of TV. It took 37 years for Roger Maris's single-season home run record of 61 to be broken, but once Mark McGwire had done it, it was broken twice more in three years. As soon as players understood what was possible, they went and did it.

Cricket's reshaping is happening much more quickly. Imran Nazir just got 111 from 44 balls in the ICL final, and it doesn't even seem that extraordinary any more. 

The lesson of Moneyball is, what are the stats that define this new game? Strike rate during powerplays? Economy rate whilst bowling second? Boundaries to balls faced ratio? The Batsman doesn't know, but I don't think it's the establishment that are going to find them. So it's over to the geeks and the freaks. The answers are out there.

England's limited over sides seem a little like the baseball teams that Billy Beane overcame. It's not that they're not thinking, it's just that they're not thinking the right things. Beane thought differently and came up with a team full of unfashionable freaks.

Napier, Mascarenhas, Rashid, Panesar, Wright, Key... who knows? But Moores doesn't have much longer to find out. Beane used his stats to develop and drive a philosophy on playing the game. What's Peter's?

NB: KP's post-matchers just get better. Today's was along the lines of: 'okay, we were thrashed, but we were less thrashed than last time...' Accentuate the positives, chap.

Sunday 16 November 2008


Who knows what's in Ricky Ponting's head at the moment. Probably something which sounds like that really terrible album Radiohead made after OK Computer, playing over and over again

Then, through all the white noise and static and steely screech of alienation comes something else: the sound of Harbhajan Singh.

'Ponting is a very average captain and an average player too. I can get Ponting out any time. Even when I come post a six-month lay off. He got a hundred in Bangalore but I don't think that's enough. He needs to come back and score some more before he can claim to be a complete batsman. He needs to go and learn to bat against spin bowling.'

Somehow the word 'average' really does its work here.

Function creep

Duncan Fletcher is back. The men of Hampshire will soon feel that unsettling, implacable gaze fall upon them as he appears, ethereally, silently and unannounced, behind them in the nets. The ubiquitous shades, age-inappropriate though they are, will be there too. 

It's another coup for Rod Bransgrove, the man who brought Warne and Pietersen to the Rose Bowl. A Warnie apprentice, Giles White, is the tyro team manager. Tony Middleton is academy coach. 

Enter Fletch, and shades, as 'consultant'. White and Middleton will 'decide how to use his talents', while Fletch conducts 'an audit of coaching procedure'.

So, to recap, Fletcher will be auditing White and Middleton, while White and Middleton decide 'how to use his talents'.

Fletcher, like all coaches touched by greatness, has one way of doing things. His. Is it just the Batsman or is anyone else thinking 'director of football'?

Friday 14 November 2008

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

KP got it just about right today. Sometimes you just have to say hats off. Yuvraj was regal, even if he was wearing a girdle (there was something vaguely New Romantic about him - if only he'd had Chanderpaul's eye liners on too), and never better than with the six he hit off Flintoff towards the end. It rose like a long iron struck from a fairway bunker. His rhythm is transcendent. Low to high with that rhythm, the ball coming on and a 60 yard boundary... it's no mystery.

Warnie was on fire in his column in The Times, too. 'Brad Haddin can be as dangerous as Adam Gilchrist,' he wrote. 'He hasn't shown it yet...'

Yeah, we've got a few who haven't shown it yet as well, Shane. 

He did bang the drum for Dimi Mascarenhas, who just won player of the tournament at the Hong Kong Sixes. He's right. Who can Dimi have upset?

Thursday 13 November 2008

MP Vaughan b McGrath, Lee, Naved, O'Brien, Oram, Steyn, Collymore...

Men used to go to sea for freedom. Now they go freelance... Jeremy Kyle and his feuding proles, spot of lunch with the crossword, re-runs of vintage Grand Designs, all on in the background of course, just so things don't get too quiet... 

Yesterday the Batsman took a break from the wordface just as Sky decided to fill some broadcast hours with a two-hour round-up of the Ashes 2005. You really can't watch it often enough, can you?

You find something new with every encounter. This time it was Michael Vaughan getting bowled. For someone who maintains he doesn't get bowled a lot, he seems to get bowled a lot. He was bowled in both innings at Lord's by McGrath, bowled by Lee in the second innings at Edgbaston, and then again by Lee in Manchester, albeit from a no-ball during his 166.

Subsequently, he's been bowled by Rana Naved in Faisalabad at the end of '05, and then, after his year off with fetlock damage, by Corey Collymore in Manchester, by RP Singh at Lord's, by Zaheer Khan at Trent Bridge, by Jacob Oram in Wellington, by Iain O'Brien at Trent Bridge and by Dale Steyn at Lord's. 

In his Test career, he has been bowled 22 times in 147 innings; however 10 of those have come in his last 46 digs. And don't even talk about Lord's.

A quick, unscientific random sample by way of comparison:

Ricky Ponting bowled 24 times in 206 innings
Matthew Hayden 19 times in 175 innings
Jacques Kallis 40 times in 209 innings
Sachin Tendulkar 40 times in 256 innins
Kevin Pietersen 9 times in 80 innings
Mike Hussey 11 times in 49 innings

This rather more comprehensive survey concludes that the modern, post-1990 batsman with an average of over 35 is bowled in around 15 per cent of his innings. Vaughan falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. 

So statistically, Michael Vaughan doesn't get bowled a lot. But for someone who doesn't get bowled a lot, Michael Vaughan gets bowled. A lot. Or at least he appears to. Several reasons ruffle the Batsman's cap...

i) When he gets bowled, he gets bowled badly: off stump or off and middle, playing defensively and simply missing it. It's somehow more vivid that way.

ii) He gets bowled by a lot of fast-medium bowlers. McGrath is of the highest class, but consider Rana Naved, Corey Collymore, RP Singh, Iain O'Brien and big Jake Oram. 

iii) He has an idiotic look on his face when it happens. 

iv) Finally, and here's where the Batsman thinks the stats may be slightly behind the curve, the trend in modern batting is to get yourself right across the stumps and have the head on a line outside off stump. Thus aggressive players who come at the bowler looking to hit straight or leg side - Pietersen, Hayden, Ponting - tend to remove bowled from the equation. All have been out LBW more often than they have been castled (Pietersen 12, Hayden 26, Ponting 36).

Compare them to an old-time classicist like:

Geoff Boycott, bowled 30 times in 193 innings, leg before only 27. 
Or even Mike Hussey (stats above), another natural offside player. As is Vaughan of course.

Being bowled is the most devastating way to get out psychologically, I think. It's a product of the most basic failure of purpose: missing the ball. A decent batsman playing at his natural level should not be bowled often. It hurts too much. 

The Old Batsman himself bears several scars, the most livid from a jaffa of a slower ball at Basingstoke that I played about three shots to, none of which came close to connecting. I remember it still, with all of those years gone by... 

It's a subject too raw to leave without some comfort. Jacques Kallis has been bowled 40 times in his Test career. He has faced 22,232 deliveries. 22,192 of them have not hit the stumps. Way to go, big man.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Yeah but, no but...

Australians are brilliant, aren't they? When they lose a series, they require their captain to face the press as soon as he gets back home. And when they say as soon as he gets back home, they mean at the airport

It's happened to Ricky Ponting twice now, in 2005, and again yesterday. Assuming the position once more, he said, 'I've had an opportunity to sit back over the last couple of days and think about those decisions that I've made, or that I made there and then, and even talking to other players, I'm very comfortable with the decisions that I've made'.

Shane Warne helpfully translated via his newspaper column: 'One of Rick's strengths is to admit his mistakes and I'm sure on the way home he relived every moment of the final Test and the mistakes that he made'. 

Cheers, Warnie. Thanks for that. Ponting also received some 'help' from fearless team coach Tim Nielsen, who used the high-profile forum of his blog to address the subject of the over rate: 'is it alright to break the rules as long as you win without worrying about the consequences?'

Er, hasn't stopped them any other time, Tim. You sure you're Australian? Check your passport, fella.

Meanwhile, England have been enjoying the advantages of having KP as captain. His technique is far simpler and more effective than Ponting's. He just pretends it hasn't happened. 'Oh, what, that match? That knockabout you're referring to? I'd forgotten about that. We're just focused on our controllables...'

As Ed Smith rightly pointed out in The Wisden Cricketer, technology means that today's player can no longer return to the pavilion claiming to have been sawn off when he wasn't. The truth is all they have back in the dressing room. The main arena for creative excuses now comes in front of the media. Excellent!

Monday 10 November 2008

Boycott, the lion in winter

Last week, The Guardian sent four of their writers to meet their childhood heroes. Stephen Moss chose Geoffrey Boycott (read his piece here). Geoffrey was, and probably still is, my father's hero too. For me, he was too distant and unknowable; even for an obsessive, his obsession was palpable. He could be glimpsed in the books I bought and collected; the tour diaries that made him the butt of team jokes about his hair transplant and his baked bean diet; the autobiographies that recounted anecdotes of run-outs and faux pas and boorish one-liners. 

We thought all of his character was there in his batting, which was courageous, selfish, monomaniacal and technically unsurpassed. Me and my dad watched the World Cup Final of 1979 from the top tier of the Compton Stand, underneath the clock. West Indies got 286 (from 60 overs - when ODIs used to last a day...) a total that seemed like the sheer face of a glacier back then. Boycott and Brearley set out in dogged pursuit against Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner (the concept of a one-day specialist did not really exist - how easy life was). After 30 overs England were 129-0. They needed 157 from 30 overs with 10 wickets in hand. This was thought an impossible chase, and a middle order of Randall, Gooch, Gower, Botham and Larkins folded to Croft and Garner, England were all out for 194 and still had nine overs left. Such was one-day cricket in 1979. Boycott had batted beautifully to his own internal rhythm. Holding got him for 57. 

Two winters later, Holding bowled him that famous over in Barbados, supposedly the quickest of all time. Boycott said, 'it was the only time I got out for nought and didn't feel a profound sense of failure'. It's rarely mentioned that he went to Antigua two weeks later and made 104 not out against Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. He was 41 years old. 

'Watch Boycott' was the eternal advice of my youth, from my dad at least. What he loved about him was not just his excellence, but the way he walked out to bat, immaculate, a state exacerbated when he opened with Goochie, who tramped out there looking like he'd just climbed off a park bench. I realise now that what my dad liked was the way Geoffrey's look represented his state of mind: nothing left to chance. 

The great day finally came when my father met Boycott. He'd worked on the refurbishment of Lillywhites at Piccadilly Circus, and Boycott came to the grand opening. My dad collared him for ten minutes, and Boycott was charm personified. The words that came down from the mount for me were 'bat for as long as you can, and never mind the other boogers...'

It wasn't until he retired - at 46 - and took to the commentary box that it became obvious that you couldn't know Boycott just from his batting. He turned out to be a womaniser, a raconteur, a man of unvarnished truth and insight, and full of quirks too. Last summer on Test Match Special, he revealed he was a big fan of Feng Shui. Most of all, as Stephen Moss's lovely piece showed, the lion in winter has been mellowed by cancer, his fire drawn by fatherhood and marriage. In an audio clip, Moss recites Geoffrey's well-known claim that he'd give up the rest of his life for five more years at the crease, in his prime. Well no more. Living had conquered his obsession at last. 

My favourite Boycott story comes from David Lloyd. Boycott called him one day, and, as is apparently usual, began talking with no introduction.
'You and me, playing golf, 9.00am this wednesday'.
'I can't Geoffrey, I'm going fishing,' was Lloyd's reply.
'That were always your problem, fishing outside off stump,' said Geoffrey, and hung up.

Sunday 9 November 2008

Still Krejzy. Or, The Madness Of King Ricky

How do you follow

43.5 1 215 8 ?

If you're Jason Krejza, with: 

31 3 143 4

For match figures of (look away now if you are of sensitive disposition):

74.5 4 358 12

It gets better. Up until tea on Day 4, Krejza had bowled almost 40% of Australia's total overs from a run-up of about four paces. Yet they were so far behind the rate, Ponting (and the team management) decided that, rather than risk Ponting's banning from their next Test (against that terrifying New Zealand side in Brisbane, where Australia have not lost this century) they would cede a realistic chance to force a face-saving win in India, a place their forebears spent careers trying to conquer. 

It's heartbreaking to report that the Australian press have not taken it well. In The Australian, Malcolm Conn wrote: "In what must surely be Ricky Ponting's worst day as national captain, he may have cost Australia the Border-Gavaskar Trophy by attempting to to save himself from suspension." In the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Roebuck called it "one of the most baffling displays of captaincy seen in the long and proud history of Australian cricket".

Better get a few tomorrow then, Punter.

One last note on Jason Krezja: Tim Nielsen said he didn't play in the first three Tests "because he wasn't ready".

Tim old mate, no-one could be ready for that...

Oh, and he was on a hat-trick. Again. He only got Laxman and Ganguly this time.