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.