Wednesday 30 December 2009

The 2nd Annual OB Innings Of The Year Award

Some innings - a very few - are instantly and evidently great, usually because of their context. For most others, time adds to or subtracts from them; it reveals their weight. In February in Durban, Phil Hughes made 115 and 160 for Australia against South Africa. Cricinfo wrote: 'The transitional period is over. An emphatic series win in South Africa will imbue Australia with confidence that, after a harrowing six month search, they have uncovered a crop of cricketers capable of competing with the world's best'.

It was hard to see then that the year would close with Shane Watson in Hughes's place, and making a debut hundred of his own. Time has weighed a little on Hughes's achievements, but those innings have stuck in the memory. He's a weird, wild talent, and he is playing in the right era.

The criteria for the OB Innings Of The Year, as set out in the inaugural effort of 2008, are simple and arbitrary - an innings I've seen that upholds the noble and aesthetic principal that a great knock is worth more than the numbers in the book. Lord's is one of the places you might choose to play it, and both Andrew Strauss and Michael Clarke did so in the Ashes Test there. Strauss, like Gooch, is a different batsman as captain. Clarke was simply the best batsman on either side, and at Lord's he was at his best, low-slung and wristy.

That clamor for Mark Ramprakash to play at the Oval feels like it happened in a different century, a century in which Ramps seems to have been engaged in one long, unbroken innings for Surrey against the rest. It was more of the same this summer: he's still one of the best value tickets in town. But two other domestic innings broke through the drowsy joy of watching the master. Eion Morgan's 161 for Middlesex against Kent at Canterbury in an FP Trophy game was a ridiculous thing, as adept as it was absurd. It probably skewed his batting a little too far towards the offbeat for a while, but it was astonishing to watch. Even better was Vikram Solanki's dreamy 47-ball hundred for Worcester against Glamorgan. It was as beautiful and as magnificently melancholic as anything of Ramps' too, a late, pure flow of not-quite-fulfilled talent.

Yet this was the year that batting changed, shifted, moved on and the men who were moving it were openers. Tillakaratne Dilshan is 33 years old, a late-flowering freak who has reinvented himself and the game. T20 cricket has set his mind and his method free. The 96 not out against West Indies in the World T20 semi-final simply blistered. He made six Test hundreds in the year, five of them at almost a run a ball, and at Galle against New Zealand made 92 from 72 balls in the first innings and 123* from 131 in the second. 

Chris Gayle is even more terrifying than Dilshan because of the ruinous power he holds in those giant shoulders. Australia were this year's victims of choice. The 88 from 50 balls in the World T20 game at the Oval contained the most gargantuan straight hit I've ever seen. But even that wasn't as good as the 72-ball 102 at the WACA. There was an almost zen quality to the stillness of his head as he struck the ball. 

Virender Sehwag is another warrior from that distant outpost. The 293 in Mumbai came from 254 balls. In the way that he can sustain his assault, Sehwag is a man apart, flat deck or not [and while that criticism of him is valid, there aren't many scores of that size made on any other kinds of pitches]. I even dreamed about him. 

But the innings of the year is none of those. When twelve gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore last March, Thilan Samaraweera was at last in the form of his life. A career that had spluttered and stuttered had finally blossomed. He'd made two double hundreds in two weeks, the second of them just a few hours before he found himself laying on the same cricket ground with shrapnel in both legs, the madness of the world all around him.

If the attack had been on England or Australia, things would have assumed a whole other scale. Instead, the courage and modesty of the Sri Lankan team was embodied in Thilan, who returned a few months later, physically healed, mentally redoubtable, to make 159 against New Zealand in Galle, his tenth Test hundred in just his seventh innings back. Forget the venue, forget the opposition, ignore the number of balls it took, and the strike rate and all the rest of it, and just applaud the humanity of the man and the team and the game. Thilan, the innings of the year is yours.

Monday 28 December 2009

The power of suggestion

In a few days time, we will farewell the first decade in the history of Test cricket that has seen more batsmen dismissed LBW than bowled. 

It's a stat highlighted by Sky's Benedict Bermange and it provoked a bit of on-air discussion as to why. Hawkeye was the verdict, which is, I'd say, only partly true. The UDRS is too new to have skewed the statistics; Hawkeye's major impact has come more casually, as umpires have been able to see on television what kind of balls go on to hit the stumps [I'd guess that the major shift in decision making has come in giving front-foot LBWs to spinners].

More than that, there are more LBWs because batsmen are batting differently. When Viv Richards began walking across his stumps and whipping straight balls through midwicket, it seemed freakish. Now everyone does it. The sight of a player taking guard and then moving right in front of the stumps before the bowler delivers is commonplace, as is asking the umpire for an off stump guard. There's another clue in the rise in players who are bowled after the ball rolls around the bottom of the thigh pad and back onto the stumps, another rarity ten years ago. Hawkeye and the pitchmap have served to illustrate the fact, too.

But Hawkeye has changed more than the stats. It is subtly altering the language of the game. After almost every replay now, the commentator will say something like, 'Hawkeye is suggesting that the ball will go on to hit...' or 'Hawkeye says it's missing leg'. 

It's a piece of Unspeak that always goes unchallenged, but it should be. Is Hawkeye 'suggesting' or is it right? If you watch a lot of cricket, you'll almost inevitably have formed the view that Hawkeye's 'suggestions' are quite often surprising, and sometimes dubious. They must be, because Hawkeye operates as an absolute: it assumes that once a ball starts doing something, it will carry on doing it. Life, and bowling, is not as infallible as that. 

Indeed, at the moment and egregiously, its accuracy is dependent on the television companies who set it up. The cost is also borne by them. That should be stopped immediately, and the ICC pay for all umpiring technology at all Tests [in South Africa at the moment, there's no snicko because, er, the home broadcaster can't afford it...].

Yet as a far lesser player, I always preferred being given LBW to getting bowled. Leg before allows plenty of room for moaning and argument. Being bowled is the ultimate failure of purpose, the killer blow to the ego...

NB: Tony at AGB found some interesting quotes from Daryl Harper on how Hawkeye has put him straight...

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Moving day

While England's batting order looks as immovable as Kim Jong Il [We won't be dropping Ian Bell because er, we didn't take anyone else apparently], perhaps Australia's will become more fluid ahead of next winter.

If Ponting misses the Boxing Day test, given his current run and the passing years, it might be time for him to turn the number five slot back into the 'skipper and proven batting great' position, much as Viv Richards and Steve Waugh did at the tail end of their careers, and come back into the side there. 

It would remove some pressure from Ponting, and allow Michael Clarke to shift, breaking the stasis in a line-up that doesn't quite seem to fit together any more. Clarke obviously needs to move up, Watson will ultimately move down. Hussey could shift to three until his exit, North is expendible - there is a new generation waiting now, and he, Hussey, Katich and Punter are all into their 30s. 

Transitioning towards the Ashes, Australia could line-up:


Marsh/Marsh/Klinger, whichever young blade is making the noise

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Why Benny's Benny

'He's unusual. Benny has always been himself. That's how he plays cricket... He's sometimes miserable at times, too. But that's just Benny...'
- Chris Gayle on Sulieman Benn

But why is he miserable? Perhaps it's because he's built like a combination of Courtney Walsh and Joel Garner, and yet he has to bowl left arm spin. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad...

NB: Anyway, free the Benn One.

Sunday 20 December 2009

How sponsorship works

Makhaya Ntini's 100th test has been rightfully celebrated, for both the individual achievement and for its more symbolic meaning. Even the flint-eyed Graeme Smith seemed seduced by the romance of it all and gave him the last over of the match at Graham Onions. He was right, too; it would have been a helluva story had Makhaya sneaked one through to win the game.

When Ntini started playing cricket seriously, apartheid still existed. It's been a long road to that 100th test, and it was a nice touch to see that he wore a specially embroidered shirt throughout the match.

At the post-match ceremony, it was announced he'd receive a special presentation. As he stepped forward, a rather nifty cut-glass cricketer glistened on a stand behind him. That turned out to be for the man of the match. Makhaya got a fridge-freezer, provided by the sponsors. Throughout his interview with Ian Bishop, the large Castle logo on the freezer compartment got its three minutes of screentime. Job done.

NB: Credit to Makhaya, he seemed quite pleased. 'I've got a fridge with my face on it,' he grinned. I suppose when you started playing in the way he did, you'd have settled for a hundred tests and a fridge. Well played, Makhaya.

Poetry corner

So farewell then, Ian Bell

'I want to bat number three'

That was your catchphrase.

Friday 18 December 2009

New things

Some new places to drop by, which I found via one of Jrod's many blogs [the guy's a machine...]: First, in from the wilds of Canada, is Cricket Minded, a blog inspired by the the much-missed Amy S. Some of her spirit is there. And there's Cricket Family, which is imparted from the home of the game. By an Australian* [I know... at Lord's]. Anyway the Cricket Wife [like it] is on the in, so there's some nice stuff there. 

* From Tassie, too. I went to Tasmania, and in Launceston was taken down to the bank, where I got to shake Boonie's hand. He worked there. Those were the days, eh...

Thursday 17 December 2009

How was that dad {ii}

Courtesy of Mike Selvey, here is the glorious absurdity of the UDRS [how we love an acronym] in a single paragraph on Jonathan Trott:

'The not out decision was reviewed and upheld but Hawkeye had the top of leg stump clipped. Had Trott been given out and himself appealed, he would have been given out according to the protocol.'

So to summarise: Trott was, potentially, not out and out. Kurt Vonnegut [or Schrodinger] couldn't have done any better.

The problem here is not the use of technology, it's the application. By giving the power of umpiring to the players, decision-making has essentially become politicised. By allowing two incorrect appeals, informed decision-making has become arbitrary. As I've blogged before, the proper solution is to hand the technology entirely over to the umpiring team, and have each decision reviewed by the third umpire, who can then feed back in the way he usually does. 

The current system could only possibly have been designed by a committee, almost certainly after lunch...

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Arguing the toss

England's decision to bowl first today was a classic demonstration of a great contemporary malaise, that of overthinking. It's not just a cricket thing, it's a modern life thing. Everything is complex now. Everything is analysed, deconstructed, challenged. It's a product, in part, of so many people having jobs doing exactly that. 

England considered too many problems, came up with too many solutions. They went for six batsmen, four bowlers. Four bowlers, they thought, could get the job done. So should they bowl first or last? Six batsmen would offer depth. So should they bat first or last? South Africa's batting was undercooked, their best bowler crocked just before the game. Which should they attack first? The pitch was green, the weather was wet, the match was at altitude, the moon was in taurus*...

In simpler times, the analysis just wouldn't have happened. A wizened old pro would have said something like, 'let the openers worry about the first hour, that's their job', and the match would have a different shape.

*It may not be, I made that bit up. Is Taurus a place?

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Viru: transcendent

Anyone doubting that the new age of batting is here, doubt it no more. Sehwag and his acolyte Dilshan are not just batting differently, they are thinking differently. The mindset of the game has shifted now.

I blogged before on the physical resemblance between Sehwag and the UFC lightweight champion, BJ Penn. Penn fought at the weekend, administering a zen beating to Diego Sanchez. He seemed to float while he did it, barely striking Sanchez [although Diego's face begged to differ]. Penn's nickname is 'the Prodigy'. He comes from a rich family, doesn't fight for money and until recently, barely used to train between bouts. He is an entirely natural fighter - within three years of taking up Jui-Jitsu, he was not only a black belt, but the first non-Brazilian world champion. It makes you wonder how much deeper physical similarities can go.

Sehwag's mind is as great a strength as any he has. He lets it set him free. When he was receiving the man of the match award today, he said, 'I was actually supporting Sri Lanka. When I support India, they lose. So I was supporting Sri Lanka.' Great minds think differently...

NB: As usual Geoffrey Boycott had an interesting take on Viru in his Cricinfo column: 'I am not sure it [Sehwag's batting] is modern; it is more old-fashioned. Wally Hammond made 336 at more than a run a minute for England against New Zealand in Auckland in the 1932-33 series. It took him just 318 minutes to get 336. That is very much how Sehwag plays... He is a rare, special player because he plays with a flowing bat and an uninhibited style. He has an uncluttered mind, which I like. I don't think he gets cluttered up with technique and footwork he just plays in a wonderful instinctive way, which is good. I think on good batting pitches he is a modern-day great.... if it moves around I don't see him getting 300 so easily, but on certain pitches he is a fantastic player'.

Shock of the new

400 - it's the new 300.

Although if you can get 200 in a T20 game, 500 will be the new 400 soon enough.

NB: Best bit of Cricinfo commentary from the game - '34.6 Kumar to Dilshan, no run, he has scooped it into his face'.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Wide of the mark

There was a quite extraordinary decision in the India-Sri Lanka T20 game yesterday. Jayasuriya was bowling to Sharma, who swept him behind square to short fine leg. The umpire called it wide. Jayasuriya, who has played a few games of cricket, turned round to the umpire and said 'wiiide?' in gobsmacked manner. Yup said the umpire, and the match carried on.

It reminded me of a game I played in many years ago, an away match umpired by their man at both ends with one of our blokes doing square leg. He was ancient. The bowler ran in, and I pushed the ball back down the wicket to him. 
'How was that?' he asked the umpire. 
'What?' I said.
'Out' said the umpire.
'Unlucky mate,' said first slip. 'He always does that'.

Oh does he, I thought, as I walked off...

Monday 7 December 2009

Confessions of a man insane enough to live with beasts...

Jarrod Kimber is not a normal Australian. He doesn't live in Australia. He honours a non-Australian idol. He does un-Australian things, like write a book about the 2009 Ashes. For those reasons alone, it would be worth reading but I suspect it will be funny, too, and not just about Mitchell Johnson.

NB: The only other Australian to go into print about 2009 has been Gideon Haigh, another terrific writer. The England side of the ledger stands at Andrew Strauss, Andrew Flintoff, The England Team's Official Story, Stuart Broad, Mike Atherton, the official DVD and the back end of Michael Vaughan's autobiography. Not that the market is dictated by who won at all...

Saturday 5 December 2009

Sehwag: The Dream

Further to the post below, another measure of greatness could be the degree to which it penetrates the subconscious. Last night I dreamed about Virender Sehwag. We were at the top of a very high green hill, which opened out onto a spectacular valley, me, Virender and another nameless cricketer. Viru was dressed in his whites and still had his blue headband on. 

For some reason, we had to get to the bottom of the hill. It was wet and had deep, muddy furrows in it, but Sehwag said, 'come on' and simply ran through the furrows like a mountain goat. At the bottom, with the skyscrapers of a distant city before us, I found some cards of the kind kids are meant to collect. Imbedded in each was a bit of footage of Sehwag playing a shot. The one I looked at was filmed from behind a net, and Viru came down the wicket and smashed the ball hard at the camera. 

The dream ended there, argument settled...

NB: Thanks to Jrod in the comments on the post below for pointing out that the Don got six runs closer than Sehwag to the three triple centuries. But then they couldn't field in those days. Have amended the post. 

Friday 4 December 2009

Se7en: in praise of Viru

What is greatness in batting? It's a question worth asking. Virender Sehwag was seven runs away from doing something no-one has done. No-one, from Grace to Bradman, from Gavaskar to Richards, Tendulkar to Lara, no-one who's ever picked up a bat has scored three Test match triple centuries. In all of the history of the game, Sehwag has got almost as close anyone has. If he had scored seven more runs, the question would be moot already.

There is a certain tyranny to statistics. Seven runs, in the context of nine hundred, are neither here nor there, and yet statistics are an undoubted measure of greatness. There are batsmen - Border, Waugh [S], Tendulkar, Boycott, Chanderpaul, Dravid, Jayawardene - who are made great [albeit not exclusively] by them. Then there are batsmen who are ostensibly players of great innings - Lara and Viv Richards for example [which is not to deny the reach of their overall statistics]. There are others - Gower, Mark Waugh - whose aesthetic beauty overrode their stats.  There are yet more who were denied the chance but whose brilliance has them accepted anyway - Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock spring to mind. There are great partnerships - Greenidge and Haynes, Hayden and Langer. 

Then there is the notion of personality, best illustrated by the equivalency in stats between Shiv Chanderpaul and Viv Richards. Chanderpaul would certainly be more highly regarded if he had some of Richards' brooding aura.

So where does greatness leave Virender Sehwag? He has come of age in an Indian team containing three batsmen over whom the nation has obsessed. He is an avuncular and humble presence; he is more Inzy than King Viv physically. His average sets him alongside the greats, yet fifty is the new forty. He seems unconcerned by protecting or valuing his wicket. He even feels sorry for the bowlers he flays, not an emotion Boycott or Bradman usually bothered with.

And yet no-one has batted like Sehwag. Eleven consecutive times he turned centuries into scores of 150+, five of them went over 200 and two over 300. Last August but one in Sri Lanka, he carried his bat for 201 out of 329. He has made the game's greatest wicket-taker his bunny. He has scored the fastest 300 of all time. This is not just the stuff of greatness, it's the stuff of legend.

He may yet get another 300. His rarest talent is the ability to go on and on, to 'see ball, hit ball' for days on end. But even if he doesn't, I think history will see Sehwag as the avatar of a new era in batting, a transition between Tendulkar and Ponting and whatever comes next. He is a genius. He is undoubtedly, indisputably, ineffably great.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Top 40 hit parade

Two stories of note in the press today, firstly, Dileep Premachandran's excellent piece on India's new generation of batsmen in the Guardian, and All Out Cricket magazine's list of 'The 40 Best Players In The World Now'.

'If you don't agree with us,' AOC writes, 'then you're just plain wrong'. Here's the list:

40. Jesse Ryder
39. Ishant Sharma
38. Brendan McCullum
37. Zaheer Khan
36. Ross Taylor
35. James Anderson
34. Shakib-Al-Hasan
33. Shivnarine Chanderpaul
32. Umar Gul
31. Chris Gayle
30. Younis Khan
29. Daniel Vettori
28. Ajantha Mendis
27. Dwayne Bravo
26. Mike Hussey
25. Mahela Jayawardene
24. Andrew Flintoff
23. Gautam Gambhir
22. Brett Lee
21. Yuvraj Singh
20. JP Duminy
19. Shahid Afridi
18. Harbhajan Singh
17. Tillakaratne Dilshan
16. Shane Watson
15. Stuart Broad
14. Muttiah Muralitharan
13. Jacques Kallis
12. Virender Sehwag
11. Andrew Strauss
10. Mitchell Johnson
9. AB De Villiers
8. Kevin Pietersen
7. Sachin Tendulkar
6. Dale Steyn
5. Kumar Sangakkara
4. MS Dhoni
3. Michael Clarke
2. Ricky Ponting
1. Graeme Smith

Wot, no Ian Bell? 

NB: A prediction on the major points of contention: Hussey above 25 people. Mitchell Johnson above Andrew Strauss. Shane Watson above Dilshan, Gambhir and Gayle. 

Criminally overlooked player: Thilan Samaraweera

Tuesday 1 December 2009


Form - or more accurately the lack of it - is an ineffable link between the club player and the pro. For the amateur, much of the professional experience can only be guessed at; it's probably impossible, even on your best day, to really know what it's like to hit the ball as they do, to deliver when you really have to, to play with your future on the line.

The absence of form, though, is universal. Watching Kevin Pietersen scratch around like a mortal, I could almost feel the ball hitting the bat just slightly away from the middle, could sense the disconnect between brain and hand, could know with some certainty how he felt. We've all been there

Being able to do something one day and then not the next is in a way what makes us human. The subtlest of things affect us in the smallest of ways, and it all adds up. It's not really the absence of form that's remarkable, rather it's the huge and complex sequence of reactions and timing required for being in form that's the miracle.

There seems to be no transitionary state between the two, either. Form doesn't appear to come back over a period of weeks. It's absent and then present, sometimes after the proverbial shot 'hit straight out of the middle' and sometimes after a scratchy fifty that has you remembering how it feels to stay in. 

Boycott always recommended a return to basics - hit the ball in the V enough times and the rest will take care of itself. Bob Woolmer's magisterial Art And Science Of Cricket has this to say: 'Many coaches can confirm that after a shocking performance in the middle, a struggling batsman's glaring technical faults evaporate the minute he enters the nets. Because batting is a reflex that occurs at a subconscious level, the more the mind tends to override those reflexes the more likely it is that errors will develop. It is thus vital to help the failing batsman to correct the erroneous thinking patterns that have developed as a result of repeated failure. That is not to deny the need for constant vigilance on the technical side, rather to stress that a more holistic approach almost always pays off when addressing a lack of form'.

Those two approaches are not exclusive. The beautiful internal rhythm that striking the ball straight back past the bowler produces is a holistic, healing thing in itself - the heartbeat of batting.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Brightness falls

On the radio commentary from Port Elizabeth today, Simon Mann was talking about England's batting for the Test series [well come on, the ODIs are like so over, aren't they?] and floated the idea that with KP coming back, Jonathan Trott might be persuaded to open to allow Ian Bell to continue in the side at the expense of Alistair Cook.

England and the English have long been susceptible to this kind of thinking, where square pegs are hammered firmly into round holes with a kind of tortured expediency. It's an England kind of thing. What it's not is an Australian kind of thing. Instead, it's the kind of thing Australians used to laugh at England for doing. 

But at the moment, Ricky Ponting seems to be the only man there who's seeing things clearly. He wants Shane Watson -an expedient, but defendable emergency selection in England - to join Australia's middle order where he so patently belongs [or at least, where he so patently deserves the chance to prove that he belongs]. Punter's aware that, to open in Test cricket, it's best to be an opener. Australia's order, after so many years of Langer and Hayden, has Katich, a converted number three, and Watson. Hussey, an opener, bats four. 

Hughes, an opener [and what's more the sort of opener, like Sehwag and Dilshan, who may redefine the job] was dropped because he kept getting out in the same fashion. Well now so does Watson. 

Australia's selectors were once consistent to a point that extended beyond ruthlessness. No more. An easy series against the West Indies will compound rather than eliminate the problem. They should think about starting again with Ricky Ponting and a blank sheet of paper.

Straight up

 Cricinfo today: 'Murali may quit before World Cup - depends on how much body can take'.

Yeah, his arm has been looking a bit bent lately. Arf.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

If a tree falls in the woods...

England and South Africa will use the referral system in the forthcoming Test series, thus ensuring that the issue of television replays stays high on the agenda. 

Brit at Think Of England had a further take on Thierry Henry, who has asked TV companies to stop showing slow-motion footage of his handball. 

'As a footballer you do not have the luxury of television to slow the pace of the ball down 100 times to be able to make a conscious decision,' he said. 'People are viewing a slow motion version of what happened and not what I or any footballer faces in the game. If people look at it in full speed you sill see it was an instinctive reaction'.

Henry essentially argues that slow motion replays actually show something that wasn't present live; that they invite interpretation of an event that is being distorted by the showing. 

Is he right? Can straight-up raw footage include something that isn't there? One thing is certain about the referral system: it's all about interpretation.

Monday 23 November 2009

New Zealand: problem identified

Headlines on cricinfo this morning:

'Vettori tells bowlers to step up'

'Bond urges batsmen to deliver'

That'll sort it, lads...

Sunday 22 November 2009

Colly: Englishman

It's entirely appropriate that Paul Collingwood is England's most capped ODI player. He embodies all of the virtues and all the vices of England in the format. Even the number of appearances [171] tells the story in miniature. 

But more than that, he seems the perfect channel for England's narrative in ODIs: he's probably the team's most totemic member. If any opposing coach is giving a talk about playing England and he has to describe both their strengths and their weaknesses, he should probably just display a picture of the man. Everyone would get what he meant. 

In that spirit, I closed my eyes, thought of each of the other major ODI nations, and wrote down the first player that came to mind:

India: Sachin Tendulkar
Sri Lanka: Sanath Jayasuriya
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi
West Indies: Chris Gayle
Australia: Ricky Ponting
South Africa: Mark Boucher
New Zealand: Scott Styris [weird, I know]
Bangladesh: Mashrafe Mortaza

Strange, but it kind of works...

Saturday 21 November 2009

A little bit pregnant

On Radio 5 the other night, Michael Vaughan was asked for his view on the Thierry Henry/Republic of Ireland handball farrago. He came up with the predictable 'well in cricket, you nick one, you don't walk...' response.

That was the wrong thought, but he was driving towards the right point. Each sport has its own internal culture that is created by the players and that extends beyond the rulebook. Within that culture, some things are acceptable and some things are not, and to the outsider, there can be a bewildering lack of moral equivalency between them.

In cricket, not walking for a nick will get you sledged by the opposition, and if you're a pro, the TV commentators might smile and suggest you've got away with one. You won't be spat at in the street, you won't have the opposition fans boycotting your sponsors' products. 

If, like Paul Collingwood, you don't call back a player run out after a collision, or, like Ricky Ponting, you claim a 'catch' that has clearly bounced in front of you, you will face a righteous anger, even though the transgression has essentially the same result as the nick- the fall or otherwise of a single wicket.

Such things aren't decided by anything other than that internal culture. In golf and snooker, it's considered bad form not to call your own fouls. In rugby, it's worse to use fake blood than punch someone during the scrum. Football is even more vague, the language even more semantic [While Henry admits to cheating, he doesn't regard himself as a cheat]. 

There's no logic to any of it. Cricket just falls somewhere in the middle.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

On t'bloody net

Geoffrey Boycott has a blog. It's all-bloody-reet too. Much better than them other bloody buggers who put up vainglorious efforts done by their management companies...

I like Boycott. At 68, he remains engaged by the modern game, he doesn't seem to feel the generation gap, and considers his only duty as broadcaster to be the truth as he sees it. He has an infinitely subtle understanding of batting. That his humour sometimes grates, that he can be boorish, I accept as the spikes and contradictions of an intriguing, conflicted character. 

Contrast Boycott's views with those of Viv Richards, another hero, but one rooted in his era. Boycott is the man still looking forwards. 

NB: At risk of dating myself, I remember having this as a kid...

Monday 16 November 2009

Things we have learned from SA vs Eng Pro20

1. South Africans still call Twenty20 Pro20. As opposed to Amateur20, presumably [insert own England joke here].

2. Graeme Smith and Alistair Cook were both left-handed openers and [for one game] captains. The similarities ended there.

3. Graeme Smith's technique shouldn't work, but does. Saj Mahmood's technique should work, but doesn't.

4. Strike rates of 200+ will soon be de rigeur.

5. Eion Morgan will probably find that his sixes are called DLF Maximums at certain magical times of the year.

6. He might be the first England batsman to make the Test team based on T20 form. He averaged 23 in first class cricket for Middlesex last season. In division two.

7. That might not be a bad thing.

8. Duckworth-Lewis still doesn't seem to work properly for T20. England felt way more than one run ahead in the first game.

9. Alistair Cook could one day actually cry in a post match interview.

10. Andy Flower does seem to know what's wrong. 

At the Pavilion End...

Chanaka Welegedara returned to the Sri Lankan Test side against India today, along with his six initials.

It was a nice moment to look at a live scorecard on which UWMBCA Welegedara was coming in at one end and HMRKB Herath at the other.

Rahul Dravid seemed to quite like it, too...

Thursday 12 November 2009

Dirty little secret

The news that professionals quite often use bats made by people other than the manufacturer they are sponsored by will come as no surprise, but today is the first time I've seen it openly acknowledged.

Millichamp & Hall's Christmas newsletter arrived this morning [boys, it's still November...] and they included a nice farewell to Justin Langer [M&H's workshop is within the county ground at Taunton]. With it was a picture of 'one of the bats made for him by Rob, which he presented on his departure from Somerset'.

Sure enough, the bat made by M&H is stickered up as a Kookaburra. You have to feel for the batmaker, in his ghostwriter's role...

Wednesday 11 November 2009


'I don't think it's a squad sitting there hoping desperately hoping other people turn up... Kev [Pietersen]'s just going to add to that. You never know, he might even have to fight for his place' - Graeme Swann.

England all out 89, 17.3 overs, 75 minutes.

Monday 9 November 2009

Matthew Hayden's Diary

G'day everyone! Look, I know that's kind of my catchphrase now, since the old Haydos stint on TMS last pommie summer. At least, they called it a bloody summer - wasn't much like any sort of summer a Queenslander gets involved with! 

'G'day everyone' I'd say, as I was introduced for my expert stints by Aggers or Blowers or some other bloody pom. The pommies liked it too. 'How would you have dealt with Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad or some other bloody medium pace rubbish,' Aggers or Blowers or another English twit who'd barely played a Test match would ask me.

'Ah look mate,' I'd tell them, 'when you've got that baggy green on your head, you're pretty ready for that kind of half-track garbage they're serving up. I'd just stick me chest out and smash the weak-minded pommie bastards like always.'

Anyways, that was then. The old Haydos has consigned the famous Gray-Nicolls to the garage mate. I've got the boardies on and the Matthew Hayden Cookbook out and the barbie fired up! Bit of marinading going on. See, this morning I cast the old boat upon the waters of Moreton Bay. 'Come unto me, Moreton Bay bugs', I said,' and all the fishes of the sea'. Then I'm straight on the mobile. 'Roy mate', I say. 'The Lord has giveth plentifully, so get yourself over mate. And don't be talking to Kelly if you're there before I am!'

When I'm out walking around the city, people see the famous Haydos shoulders sticking out above the crowd and they say to me, 'mate, what's it like now you've not got the Baggy Green on your head 200 days of the year?'

I let 'em in to a little secret. I still wear it, mate. Still put the old creams on too. Have a little bat in the back yard. Kelly's the bowler now. Made 375 the other day. I gave her some fearsome stick, but she kept running in, bless her. Fear in her eyes there was, as Haydos came down the track towards her. I was just starting to think about getting that bloody record back from Lara when I had to pick the nippers up from school, just like a regular Aussie Joe in his AIS-issue thongs. Still Lara only did it against the weakling poms, which hardly counts in my book. 

'Smell that Kell?' I said to her as I walked down the bloody track at her. 'That's your house burning down, that is...'

'You've left the bloody barbie on again, you great daft Aussie sod,' she said. 

That's why I love her. That and the fact she bowls like a bloody pom! G'day mates!

Sunday 8 November 2009

Hatchet job

Sometimes the sheer size and frequency of the media leads you to write things you probably don't really want to write, or at least haven't thought about at any length.

Simon Wilde's piece on Kevin Pietersen in the Times is a noteworthy example. 'Even before his layoff, KP no longer looks the player he was,' he asserts. 'His technique looked a mess'.

'Opponents have wised up to him. A ploy of bowling to a fuller length on off-stump was paying dividends'.

Yup, it certainly was. Pietersen is one of those fallible batsmen who can be dismissed early on by a full-length 90mph delivery that swings late and hits the top of off stump, as Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards demonstrated. That's a technical flaw shared by er, pretty much everyone who's ever batted.

The truth is, in almost every innings, you have to get out somehow. Like most great batsmen, Pietersen's strength can also be his weakness. No-one without a deadline would suggest he pick apart his technique for that. 

Most egregiously Wilde goes on to makes the claim that 'some think that Pietersen's problems have been compounded by the pursuit of celebrity... They suspect that he has forgotten his main business was scoring runs' [He neglects to name the 'some' who think it, too].

Pietersen can be impugned. His spiky public speaking and the aloofness his talent offers make him a tall poppy. But he is a consummate professional, and is patently dedicated to batting. He has occupied considerably less column inches than Andrew Flintoff and Michael Vaughan in recent months. Wilde's article fails him on all levels. 

Friday 6 November 2009

Fit for purpose

Mike Selvey wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian on the concept and future of the benefit year. It's another of those anachronistic things which are good and worthy in principal and increasingly unworkable in practice.

Selvey reveals that Andrew Flintoff 'is reported to have pocketed several million pounds' during his benefit year, which included events in the well-known Lancashire town of er, Australia.

The deficiencies of a system like that hardly need pointing out, and will probably hasten the end of the idea. Selvey also highlights via his own benefit year how the less thick-skinned player feels too: 'I found it an embarrassing, humiliating, demeaning experience, tantamount to the begging bowl, and incredibly time-consuming, I'm sure to the detriment of my game'.

Yet there is flipside. Benefits inevitably encourage the county side into fixtures with club teams, for whom such afternoons are a tremendous pleasure, and a boost to membership. As a kid, one of my greatest days was the one on which Barry Richards came to town. It would be a shame to lose such closeness. 

NB: Flintoff revealed the other day that he'd signed a new deal with Lancashire. And then today said that his stated aim for a comeback against Bangladesh was 'optimistic'. Yeah Freddie, we'd worked out what kind of optimism that was. Now the bid to become the world's best one day cricketer will begin at... you guessed it, the IPL. 

NNB: On the subject of money, I've no idea how much adidas paid Sachin Tendulkar to use their bats, but I suspect after yesterday, they've already made that money back...

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Ain't no sunshine now he's gone...

One of the new blights on UK high streets is a shop called The Works, a bizarre abomination apparently aimed at people who want to buy a big picture book of World War II fighter planes and a massive pack of felt pens in the same place. 

They hoover up publishers' leftovers and stack them up for a few quid a go. In there the other day, I saw Michael Vaughan's 'Year In The Sun' for 50p.

The blurb on the back contained the superlative line: 'There's never a dull moment when the 2002 Cricketer Of The Year is on the field'. 

Laugh? I almost bought it... 

Tuesday 3 November 2009

The sword in the stone

Like the monomaniacal cyberstalker I probably am, I often gravitate to the website of Millichamp & Hall, batmakers, where I sit with my nose pressed against the glass, dreaming of the day when I make the journey west to Taunton and have them make me a bat.

There's a new bat-sizing section on the site, for those ordering online. Ordering an M&H bat online is a bit like taking a plane to Las Vegas and then not actually getting out - why deny yourself the full experience? - but those who do are asked to complete a form with the questions:

Build - solid, medium, light [solid - terrific euphemism]
Batting position - top order, middle order, lower order [don't think you'll see too many of the latter, lads]
Level of cricket played - school, county youth, occasional, club, first class
Batsman - right-handed, left-handed
Most prolific scoring area - off side, on side, square of the wicket, straight
Deal mostly in - singles, boundaries, both
Highest score:
Type of pitch played on - grass hard, grass slow, grass indifferent, artifical
Weight of current bat:
Size and type of current bat:

There's something quite beautiful about the deduction that will go into the selection of a bat based on this questionnaire. It requires a rich knowledge of the game. I like to imagine the batmakers processing the info when you turn up in person too, and then picking up the draw knife to take some wood here, to leave some more there, to tailor it, to shape it, to make it fit.

I remember once finding a bat in a shop somewhere. It was not my sort of thing at all, a Stuart Surridge Jumbo with a very short handle. But it fell into my hands like a wand. I've never felt anything like it since [and I didn't have the money to buy it...] but I'll know that feeling again when it comes. It was like picking up Excalibur. So when I get to Millichamp & Hall, whenever that is, I'll know what to ask for.

'I'll have one of those lads. An Excalibur. Do me one just like that...'

NB: Tom Redfern has the video film of his trip to M&H on their homepage. The bastard. His writing on the subject is here, and just about says it all.

Monday 2 November 2009

Rain down, rain down...

'Each man kills the thing he loves,' said old Oscar, and he should know. Without being impertinent and trying to second-guess him, I take that line to be about the complex closeness of love and hate, of how too much of one provokes the other.

In a terrific piece for the Guardian, Stuart Jeffries looked at Andre Agassi's claim that, 'I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate tennis with a dark and secret passion'. 

Jeffries went on to speak to Vic Marks, who told him, 'sometimes as a cricketer, you long for it to rain so you don't have to play... When it pissed down you knew that you were not going to fail that day. Lovely thought.'

Part of the piece is about the pressure of professional sport, which only those who play it can assess intimately. But part of it is about something more universal. As a kid, I can remember hoping it would rain before big games, or that I'd develop some mysterious injury. The hope in itself was a release. Where it stemmed from, I think, was not just fear and not just hate but from love, and to understand the love you have to accept the rarity of it.

That's because the feeling of coming through the pressure, through the sleepless nights and the prayers for rain, the feeling of going to the game anyway, and of facing the fear and then having it melt away as you stay in, and you don't fail, and you reach 10 and then 20 and start to feel better, and all of a sudden you're in the game and it's there and you want the strike, covet it, and the game turns from something to be feared and hated into something to be loved, to be loved because it offers you a feeling that you just can't get anywhere else.

It's not a cheap feeling, it's not a cheap thrill. It has a value and a price. It's a rare thing. It's the other half of hate, but it's much more fleeting. You can come to hate its value and its price, but that's the thing that you hate. 

The feeling has a ratio, of course. For someone of Agassi's talent, it's probably the feeling of winning a grand slam. He took eight in his career. Eight times the feeling came, in all of those hundreds of matches, those thousands of hours, and it came with its price. He might have hated the price, but I'd bet good money he doesn't hate the game.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Farewell Shep

There was something ineffably sad about David Shepherd's death, announced today. He held the respect and affection of the modern players he umpired, yet the essence of him was older; he was the embodiment of summers passed.

Part of that was physical. He was like something out of Laurie Lee, rotund, apple-cheeked, his face split by a life-affirming grin; not just an Englishman, but a west country man, unpretentious and as honest as the day is long.

He was appropriately superstitious - it's a country thing - and was said to spend every friday the thirteenth with a matchstick tied to his little finger so that he would be touching wood all day. He loved the game as much as anyone ever has, and he probably died unaware of how gently but gloriously he has touched it.

Everything you need to know about him is contained within one lovely anecdote. Throughout his professional life, he used to return from whichever far-flung field he'd been adjudicating at to his brother Bill's post-office and newsagents in North Devon, always up with the lark to help with the morning paper round.

'Bloody hell Shep,' said one villager, 'I'm about to read a report of the game you umpired in Sharjah yesterday, and here you are delivering the paper to my door'.

Just like Arlott and Johnson, David Shepherd has been loved, and he will be missed.

Libel news

Read Tom Redfern on the attempt by the Middlesex County Cricket League to ban him from playing for comments made on his blog. 

Sometimes, only the phrase 'for fuck's sake' will do...

Monday 26 October 2009

Lost and found

Many times I have driven past cricket grounds and got that strange sensation of an elusive familiarity, a sense that somewhere, at some point, in all those hundreds of matches, I've played there. Usually it's just a faint echo, but occasionally the feeling locates itself around a very specific memory.

Last week, I passed the Officer's Club at Aldershot. It looked magnificent in the painterly autumn light; its white brick pavilion worthy of a county ground, the long covers and the golden trees the only reminder that summer has gone. 

It's actually two grounds, a small nursery separated from the main pitch by a long terrace. I played there as a very young batsman, co-opted into a police side by a neighbour. All I remember about the game is an intense determination to still be batting at tea, which was probably about twenty minutes away when I got in. I desperately wanted to know what it felt like to be one of the not out batters. I made it, and kept my pads on at the table. That's how not out I was.

Not far from there, also on army land, was an old shed with nets in it that we used in winter. It was always cold; a floor of hard, polished wooden boards with mats laid over the top. Bowlers had room for their full run, and because of the surface, got a fast, skidding bounce, not steep but rapid.

There, I tasted real pain for the first time. One of the bowlers was a couple of years older, a decent, slingy quick with a fast arm. The surface was made for him. One day I inside-edged a short one into the fleshy part of my thigh. It hurt so much I actually couldn't breathe for a minute. Two balls later, he did it again, on the exact same spot. It felt like a knife blade going in. You could see the stitches of the ball in the bruise mark, which went from groin to knee, a glowing black in the middle, going through all degrees of purple out to yellow at the edges. I can almost feel it now.

Thursday 22 October 2009

Just fancy that!

Michael Vaughan interviews Gary Neville
Daily Telegraph 25 September
MV: If you were ECB boss, what would you change about cricket?
Gary Neville: 'I would want to make county cricket more attractive. Maybe create a world series of domestic cricket where state teams from Australia and South Africa and sides from India and Pakistan play here in a world league of four-day cricket. County cricket looks dead to me'. 

Andy Bull interviews Michael Vaughan
The Guardian, 20 October
'So what does he [Vaughan] want to see happen? 'I would encourage them to introduce overseas teams to county cricket. It's just something different. I don't think we should just think county cricket should stay as it is. Change would be a good thing. I think the idea of having a world series of county four-day cricket would be a good one'.

Update: Ceci managed to get a pic of the Neville interview. Now that's journalism. 

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Michael Vaughan's Diary

Okay, is this thing on? Great. So some people want the diary of Michael Vaughan? Not a problem. Just sort the contract out with Chubs, and Michael Vaughan is all yours for exactly seventeen minutes per month. Because writing's an official string to Michael Vaughan's bow these days. You provide the tape recorder, the venue, the car to and from, and the little bloke who types it all up, and I'll write for you. And for the Telegraph of course. Those boys were first in for a slice of the Michael Vaughan post-cricket brand, as we like to call it.

People say to me, 'Michael, how is England's greatest-ever captain going to adapt to life after the game?' And I tell them straight, 'look the crying has to stop soon. You can't keep grieving for Michael Vaughan and his captaincy and his batting and everything he gave to the game'. Let Michael go. 

It's like I said to Straussy in our daily chats this summer when I was telling him how to win the Ashes against that Aussie side that was just a shadow of the one I beat in 2005, 'Straussy,' I said. 'You've got a job to do. I'm there in the hearts of all the lads, so dry your eyes mate, get out there and give it to them. And if you're saying to yourself when you're out on that field WWMD? [What Would Michael Do?] well, I'll just give you a wry old smile from wherever I am'. It's alright mate. 

Anyway, can I just say at this point, I'm a very keen skier now, but only at the Chalets Des Deaux Domaines in Peisey. I'm contractually obliged to do that. You don't mind, do you? I get a very nice yield on the property there.  

I've still got people coming up to me in the streets, tears in their bloody eyes the silly beggars, going, 'I can't fucking believe that twat Geoff Miller didn't call you in for the Oval. I mean, what would have put the wind up the Aussies more, that bloody rubbish Jonathan Trott or the sight of Michael Paul Vaughan gliding to the crease looking like god as usual?'

I say to them, 'I know your pain. But at 35, having achieved it all, what was going to drive Michael Vaughan on?' What would England have done with all of that knowledge? It would have inhibited them, having a living legend on the field.

I was doing an interview the other day - not one of my ones that appear in the Telegraph, but where I was the subject, and the guy says to me, 'So Michael, if the ECB just admitted that they need that daft old England legend with the gammy knee and the bloody nice little property portfolio he's built up, if they finally admitted it to themselves, would you go back and just run world cricket and bloody sort it out?'

Sure, I said. Michael Vaughan will do that for you. Just put that call in Chubby in the morning, and I'm all yours, boys - one and half days per four weeks.

NB: With a nod to Andy Bull's excellent interview in the Guardian today.

Monday 19 October 2009

Stephen Moore: Ever ready

Stephen Moore - the story so far

Love that shirt: 'I will always have Africa in my blood, and I love the country.... I moved over when I was 18, so I've spent a third of my life in England'.

Wisdom of the selectors [i]: Moore is 'scratching his head' over some of their decisions during his annus mirabilis of 2008.

The agent's press release: 'The feeling is that a poor start by England during the first 2 Ashes games [sic], or indeed injuries, will see Moore come as close as ever to securing the full international honours that his record deserves'.

Belief: 'I believe first division bowling attacks are better than second division bowling attacks and if I were playing international cricket, I would want to go into that match having faced the best bowlers I could. That's why I had it written into my contract that I could leave [Worcestershire] early if we were relegated.'

Applying the pressure: 'The more people you have got putting pressure on the England side, the better it is for English cricket. I'm thankful I'm one of those guys'.

Wisdom of the selectors [ii]: 'It's fantastic to be around the squad'.

Stephen Moore: the stats

Age when he flies out to South Africa to join the performance squad: 29

Number of first class hundreds: 15

The men 'under pressure': Alastair Cook, 24 years old, 21 hundreds [9 in tests]; Ravi Bopara, 24, 15 hundreds [3]; Ian Bell, 27, 27 hundreds [8]; Jonathan Trott, 28, 20 hundreds [1]; Kevin Pietersen, 29, 38 hundreds [16].

Stephen Moore's average in the second division in 2008: 55.80

Against the 'better bowlers' in the first division, 2009: 27.33

Ready: 'I'm 100 per cent confident I've got it in me'.

NB: Thanks to King Cricket and Jrod.

Saturday 17 October 2009

The thick end of the wedge

There's no money in county cricket. Everyone knows that. Or rather, everyone did know that. Things ain't what they used to be, even at the bottom of LV Division Two, as Gus Fraser, newly appointed Director of Cricket at Middlesex, discovered during his first season.

'It's certainly a different game to the one I left in 2002,' he said in a nice interview with Andy Afford in All Out Cricket magazine. 'The players are far more demanding than they used to be, and their expectations for themselves and everyone else are far higher. At times you wish they would just concentrate on what they are supposed to do well'.

Good to hear it's all hunky-dory down at Lord's, then.

'There is a bit of a culture of players wanting to know where the club is going before committing their future. There is an expectation that the club should be out there signing up all these wonderful names... For instance, do you sign a 'name' overseas coach in order to placate the players, media etc? The problem is, in doing that, you're probably waving goodbye to the thick end of 200k...'

'...And how much is an overseas player going to help the club when he is likely to be there for a four to six week period. The challenge then is to find someone below that 'superstar' level. Someone who wants to play for you and is available all year...'

Someone like Marcus Trescothick, maybe, interviewed a few pages later by Afford again. 'At the moment, in-demand players with big names and reputations are being touted around, expecting salaries of 80-120k,' Afford writes. 'As a point of reference, I send some hypothetical text messages out to county managers and coaches. My text reads, 'hypothetically, what price Tres...?' 

The average price? £175,000 per season. And, as Afford notes, 'he would be worth every penny'.

Wonder if one of his messages was sent to Gus? 

Friday 16 October 2009

Glass ceiling

Generation of England Bowlers/No. of Test wickets
Matthew Hoggard 248
Andy Caddick 234
Darren Gough 229
Steve Harmison 222
Andrew Flintoff 219

Interestingly, only Alec Bedser separates this lot on the all-time list. So is it a cluster, or something more perturbing?

Thursday 15 October 2009

Sign O' The Times

Last night, Somerset CCC sat in an Irish bar in Bangalore yelling for Trinidad & Tobago to beat Deccan Charges so that they could go to Hyderabad to play the Diamond Eagles and New South Wales.

That's not a sentence you would have really thought of writing a couple of years ago...

Monday 12 October 2009

Hoggard's Run

Matthew Hoggard must feel like he's appearing in a 70s sci-fi flick, sacked by Yorkshire in part for breaching the directives on age. 

In this new dystopia of county cricket, clubs fielding young players are 'incentivised', thus producing teams full of future champions.

That never works. Sport is a genuine meritocracy, a talentocracy if such a word exists. Mike Tyson could be heavyweight champ at 20, George Foreman at 46. Tendulkar can be an international at 17 and 36. A generation artificially ramped into county teams will be weak, not strong.

The IPL demands young players, too, but then the IPL is not culling at the other end. It runs on nous and star power. It runs on merit and talent. Its the only way.

Saturday 10 October 2009

Chubby Chandler: Jonah

Steve Harmison is 'still available' for England. How do we know this? His agent told us, of course. And his agent? Step forward once more Chubby 'Andrew' Chandler. 

More news from Chubby's website: 'The cricketers in the ISM stable have developed to such an extent over the past twelve months that they now form the mainstay of the England team'.

That ISM 'stable' in full: Jim Allenby, Tim Ambrose, Rikki Clarke, Andrew Flintoff, Andrew Hall, Steve Harmison, Geraint Jones, Craig Kieswetter, Muttiah Muralitharan, Graham Onions, Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan, James Vince. 

Number of players in England's winter squads: 1

Thursday 8 October 2009

Monty Panesar's Diary

Thursday [SA squad day!]

Woke up this morning and immediately focussed on being focussed. Because that's what Monty Panesar is all about - focus. I zoom in on that ceiling and straight away, there it is... boom! My bedroom ceiling, perfectly focussed on by Monty Panesar. Make a mental note to tell Mushy how well it went.

Go down to breakfast. This man comes over to my table and starts firing questions at me about the menu. 'I respect all kinds of breakfasts,' I tell him. 'Continental, full English, kippers, scrambled eggs, there's not one of them that is better than the other. I'm just focussed on eating my breakfast and not worrying about anyone else's.' The man holds his pen and looks a bit confused. He won't catch me out though! 'Shane Warne says I've eaten the same kind of breakfast 33 times, and I respect that opinion,' I tell him. 'Obviously Shane's had a lot more breakfast than I have, and I love to learn from people like Shane. So I'll just concentrate on the breakfast you're about to put in front of me'. He doesn't say anything else. Must remember to tell the ECB boys how well that went.

Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better. That's the way I like to think. People say I'm confused, but I don't agree. They're entitled to their opinion though. I'm just focussed on that mobile phone today. It really works, because I hear that ringtone right away. I'm quick to it, but there's a slight fumble on pressing the button. Still get it on the third ring though. It's Geoff Miller!

Okay! I appreciate all England squads, no matter who's in them. And Geoff really wants me to focus on the fact I'm not in this one. An entire winter of focus! 

The mobile goes again. This time it's Ravi. 'That Geoff Miller,' he shouts. 'What a c*$@!' I tell him that I like all kinds of opinions, but I think he's hung up...

Monday 5 October 2009

Flying private: feel the lust

Last week, it looked like Michael Vaughan had three jobs. The world had almost forgotten about his original post-cricket gig as a journo for the Telegraph.

Well MPV hasn't. He's roared back into print via an interview with golf tyro Rory McIlroy. And what an interview it is. Vaughany positively drips with longing for this new, small and spherical world, for, as anyone knows [especially anyone who knows Chubby Chandler] it's golf, not cricket, that is the gateway to real riches.

It can't be done justice here. Just click on the link and enjoy.  

Saturday 3 October 2009

Go on, lettem in...

The gentle sense of melancholy that followed Mark Ramprakash's one hundredth hundred last season was not entirely down to Ramps and what might have been. It felt like one of the game's great marks of batsmanship was sliding into the past. No current player was close enough to the line to get there; no future player would play enough first-class cricket. Perhaps Ramprakash was the last.

But statistics only mean anything if they allow for some kind of adjustment: no-one denies Grace his status despite a Test average of 32.29. Watching Ricky Ponting score a sublime, chanceless ton against England last night, another adjustment seems due. 

It really doesn't need saying that Ponting and Tendulkar are not just contemporary greats, but worthy of comparison to anyone who's played the game. They are due that accolade of 100 centuries.

Ponting has 72 by the current measure, Sachin 69. But it feels like it's time to start counting their one-day international hundreds, too: Ponting has 28 of those, Sachin 44 [44!].

The argument against has always been that ODI hundreds were scored in reduced circumstances. Bowlers were limited in the number of overs they could send down, fields have been restricted, powerplays introduced and so on. Yet could anyone watch Ponting deliver last night, or in the World Cup Final of 2003 and say that those were innings any less brilliantly constructed, any less dominant or wilfull, any less pressured or easier than a nice afternoon knock in the LV county championship division two? Was the bowling any worse, the fielding any poorer?

Between them, Ponting and Tendulkar have played 763 ODIs - almost two solid years' worth. The structure of their careers will not allow them to get a hundred hundreds in the conventional manner, so maybe the conventional manner should change with the times.

If it did, Sachin would already be there, Ponting would have arrived last night, via a glorious knock in an international game. And it's not as if the change would open the floodgates: the great Lara would still have fallen short.

Friday 2 October 2009

Night of nights

The ICC sure know how to put on a bit of an Awards do...

South Africa boycotted [oh the irony], India went home, the West Indies only had their third XI available and England, despite staying in a hotel a full 500 yards from the venue, mustered a handful of attendees.

And the player of the year was... Mitchell Johnson*!

Trebles all round!

* Probably the first winner who felt the need to apologise for his form over the year in question.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Slow: the new fast

Lovers of that niche but noble genre cricket fiction will remember Arthur Conan-Doyle's tremendous short story Spedegue's Dropper, about an asthmatic school teacher from the New Forest who develops an entirely new and unplayable delivery which drops directly onto the batsman's stumps from a great height. 

Even back in 1928, when Doyle first published Spedegue, there was a kind of mystery attached to very slow bowling. Inherent in it are the headgames it provokes, the psychological screw it turns on the batsman. Because, somewhere in the psyche, slow equals easy, or at least easier. The risk of physical damage is removed for a start, as is the need for razor-sharp reaction. And it's usually bowled by an old bloke. 

And then you try and hit it, as it thuds, dull as a shot put, into the pitch... as it crawls towards you, shedding velocity all the way... as it offers no leeway, no get out clause, no mental soft-landing... It's slow, and you should murder it, muller it, smash it out of sight... But you know - what if it spins? What if it bounces? What if it grubs along the ground? You have time to think all of this and more, and all the time, in your head, an almost audible voice... 'I've got to get four here, or six, because you know... it's slow...'

All of a sudden, because you absolutely have to, because your brain can't find a good reason not to, because everything you've ever known about the game tells you so... you can't. You hit it straight to a fielder, or you swing too hard and miscue it, or you decide to just knock it for one and take a look from the other end, or - oh sweet baby jeebus - you slog like Afridi and hit it 300 feet, straight up...

Perhaps the really slow one is making a comeback. Tom Redfern at Get A Hundred got done by this one - and joined Dessie Haynes and Jimmy Adams in falling to the same guy. Jrod, who apparently spent the summer bathing, Kallis-like, in red ink, came to the lovely realisation that one ultra-slowie 'made people question themselves'. Even the Old Batsman himself was tormented by a lob-bowling psycho who could barely get his arm over, and yet bowled me four dot balls in a row - in a Twenty20 game...

Not since Chris Harris or the man who so successfully stopped South Africa choking, Jeremy Snape, has a moonballer appeared in the pro ranks, but maybe that will change in 2010. After all, it's been working for a century or more.

NB: I remain convinced that the way to play Ajantha Mendis is to just pretend he's Paul Collingwood, bowling slow cutters... 

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Andrew Flintoff's Diary

Woke up early and drew the curtains in apartment 216 of Palm Jumeirah Luxury Beach Residence Tower No 3, and the Dubai sunshine whacked me right in the face. 'Yep,' I said to myself, 'it's bloody brilliant being Andrew Flintoff of Lancashire and England'.

At brekkie, I accidently knocked my glass of juice all over the floor. The missus had a right go at me, but I swear that my little lad jogged my arm, not that Andrew Flintoff is about making excuses. And anyway, Rooster spilled his cuppa on the coffee table the other day, and that was far worse, so it's not just me. If my mate Harmi had been here, he'd have put her straight. He knows what I'm like. 

Chubby phones and runs me through this freelance thing again. 'I'm always available for Lancashire and England,' I tell him. 'You're right Fred, you are,' he says. 'But sometimes you won't be playing for them, you'll be playing for the Dolphins or the Super Kings or the Leeward Islands if they ever pick up the bloody phone. Cos you're the world's first freelance cricketer, just like I told you.'

I still don't really get it, but apparently it's good for the old bank balance. Got to put a few drinking vouchers in there for me old age. He told me I had to think of myself like a golfer going off to play in all these different tournaments. I said, 'Chubby, I'm no bloody good at golf,' but he just sighed and hung up the phone.

I'm not a hundred per cent sure where this Dubai place is, but it's bloody sunny. Got a bit bored, so I decided to do one of my legendary wind-ups on Rooster. Went to cut all the toes out of his socks but he'd hidden them, so I cut the ends off of the missus's tights instead. She started shouting on about it, so I told her it was one of the kids, not me. 

Straussy and the boys are doing well over in South Africa, but I was bloody gobsmacked when they put up the names of the lads who were playing against the Saffers on the telly and one Andrew Flintoff wasn't amongst them at number six on the batting order. I rang Chubby and I told him straight, in my opinion I'm available and fit to play. He reckoned that Flowersy had told him I was on crutches and couldn't walk, but if you ask me it's just like Headingley all over again. Told Chubby to phone the bloody papers and leak it. He said he would, but there's been nothing in the Dubai Straits Times yet.

I've got another book out! Had to fly back to England to talk about it. I don't know what all the fuss is about on writing books. It's bloody easy. I've done three already, no trouble at all. You just spend the afternoon with this fella, telling a few stories, and bosh, a bit later there it is, in the shops for Christmas. This one's called Ashes To Ashes. I wanted to call it The Andrew Flintoff Book On Cricket but they said no, maybe the next one. That's alright, I reckon I've got another few books in the old Freddie brainbox yet. It's got a great picture on the front of me doing my celebration, kneeling down with me arms out. I invented that, I did. Chubby said he's trademarked it, too, which is probably good.

Whey-hey! Friday night tonight! Where are all the pubs in Dubai?

Can't believe it! Chubby rang and said that the ECB wanted him to write a letter confirming my availability for all England games. I said I thought I was freelance now, but it's bloody confusing. Chubby said just leave it to him, so I have. He had some ace news though - I might be on the telly - doing bungee jumping! Well you know, Goughy's got his show where he wears a silver jumpsuit and tries to get through holes in a wall, and Tuffers is doing the dancing thing, so it's like Chubby said, bungee jumping's all mine. An untapped market he called it. All I know is that my aim is to be the best bungee jumper in the world. I'll leave the rest up to Chubs. See ya!

Monday 28 September 2009

Call off the sex

Rest easy, WAGS of India. Sleep soundly. It wasn't Gary Kirsten  who put out the booty call

It reminded me of a story that a heavyweight boxer once told me. His trainer was vehemently anti fighters having sex in the weeks before a fight. He said that rather than increase aggression it reduced it, and released too many feel-good hormones. 

This boxer was something of a ladies man, and he had a new girlfriend. The ban was driving him and her crazy. His girlfriend made it her mission to break the ban. She tried everything, and one night, he cracked. Next day in the gym, he had to start his session with a few rounds on the pads with his trainer.

After no more than two punches, the trainer stopped him.

'You had sex last night, didn't you?' he said.

'Yeah,' the boxer fessed up. 'I did. How the hell did you know?'

'Felt the difference straight away,' the trainer said. 'Your legs are weak'. 

So ended his pre-fight misadventures...

Friday 25 September 2009

Nowt wrong wi' that

A superlative Boycs story:

On one of Ian Botham's first England tours the great man was struggling with form, so Beefy dropped by his hotel room to offer commiserations. Boycott was inside, naked except for his pads. He told Botham to sit on the bed, picked up his bat and demonstrated the famous forward defensive.

'Now tell me what's wrong with that,' Boycs said. 'Nothing, that's what'.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

10ft lizards, grassy knolls, Michael Vaughan

No wonder unemployment's in the millions. Cricketers have got all the jobs. Andrew Flintoff's going to have five or six. Michael Vaughan's got three. Alec Stewart and Sir Ian Botham have a couple too. And we know all about Ashley Giles

Vaughany will be a busy boy mentoring young players for the ECB, working as a business development manager for Chubby Chandler's ISM and commentating for Test Match Special in South Africa. As David Hopps notes, Vaughan joins Alec Stewart and Ian Botham as high-profile broadcasters who have potential commercial links with some of the England players that they commentate on [Stewart has an interest in an agency that acts for Matt Prior, Botham is Chairman of Mission Sports Management, which represents both him and Kevin Pietersen]. Vaughan's chums at Chubby Chandler's include Graeme Onions and low-profile limited overs journeyman Freddie 'Andrew' Flintoff.

As the great Hopps goes on to say, 'There was a day when, irrespective of the honesty of the person concerned,  this would have been condemned as an unacceptable clash of roles'.

But then we exist in the new world where it's no problem for an England selector to work as Director of Cricket at one of the counties he's choosing from. New school tie, anyone?

Tuesday 22 September 2009

No excuses

'Searingly honest' is a phrase publishers love to attach to celeb autobiographies. It's sexy and it's salable. It's also a euphemism for 'I'm now going to admit to all that stuff that I denied at the time'. 

Naturally enough, it's been the key bit of blurb for Andrew Flintoff's newie, Ashes To Ashes, just the third autobiog he's managed since 2005 [Sheesh, Freddie's better than you'd think at this writing game; Amazon is also pre-selling a fourth, Good Times Bad Times: Ready For The Fightback, due for publication in October 2010 - and what a loomingly prescient title that might be...]

The whole point of an autobiography is that it's self-serving, and sporting ones are generally an unappealing gloop of false modesty and hand-wringing justification, but Flintoff's seems particularly craven, judging by the extracts on offer in the Daily Mail. 

There's the time he had 'quite a late night' on Australia Day 2007 and then 'didn't help things by having a couple of drinks on the plane' the next morning but - having been sent away from nets for not being able to throw properly - he 'wasn't as bad as Duncan said'. Fred 'wasn't going to make excuses' though, except that 'My wife Rachael had gone home and I probably needed someone to get hold of me and tell me to cut it out', and that 'I wasn't the only one... it was like being on a booze cruise'.

Then there was the time he got pissed at an England football match in Germany and gave a boozy interview to the BBC ['I had a couple of glasses of wine with lunch which must have topped up what I had the night before']; the pedalo in St Lucia ['Other people were out later than I was and I truly believe the morale of the squad had gone before then']; and the one where he missed the team bus to pay respects to the fallen at Ypres ['We had a late night. I wasn't the only one who was late down, but I was the only one who missed the bus. I'm sure if Harmy had been there, he'd have come and got me, because he knows what I'm like'].

Actually Fred, we all know what you're like. You've just brought out a book telling us. Flintoff carries with him an enormous amount of goodwill: he's not a bad guy. He is though more complex than such stage-managed mea culpas allow. The book can also be read as an exercise in media control - firstly in how the stories were originally spun, and then again as how they can later be sold. 

Thursday 17 September 2009

Stop digging...

Isn't it time that Chubby Chandler just kept quiet, if only for a few hours? Anyone would think he was trying to get some publicity for himself.

NB: Andrew Flintoff must be chuffed that the Chandler vision of his future is one of bungee jumping on saturday evening TV. Darren Gough watch out...

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Box clever

The single most remarkable piece of cricket gear I have ever seen resided not in a batmaker's den or the Lord's Museum, but in the bottom of a club kitbag in the dressing room of one of the first teams I ever played for.

The concept of the club kitbag has almost died out, but back then most sides had a couple of guys who weren't bothered about owning equipment of their own and who were happy to delve around in the club bag for a pair of mismatched pads, some sweat-stained gloves, maybe a mildewed thigh pad that they could use and then chuck back in at the end of the day. 

Within this particular bag, it lay. A stitched-in manufacturer's label described it as an 'abdominal guard' but that hardly did it justice. It looked like something Henry VIII wore to the jousting, a great tin codpiece attached to a wide, padded v-shaped belt that had to be stepped into like a jockstrap and then secured around the waist with a couple of long ties. 

It was universally known as 'Cyril's Box' after the only man who would [or could] wear it, the first team wicketkeeper Cyril. He was a remarkable man, mid-fifties, squat, powerful, with giant, hooked hands permanently ingrained with grease. I never discovered what it was that Cyril did, but it was some kind of hard physical labour that had produced both great strength and admirable stoicism. He barely ever said anything; just turned up in the dressing room every saturday, stripped off his streetclothes, retrieved the box from wherever he had thrown it the week before, strapped himself in, pulled the rest of his gear over it and walked out onto the pitch.

Like Rod Marsh, Cyril had iron gloves. The ball often used to fly off of them at tremendous speed, accompanied on crucial occasions by a muttered oath. He'd sometimes stand up to the opening bowlers, usually without explanation, and it was then that the abdominal guard earned its corn. The ball would smack Cyril in the vital area, and then richochet away with a metallic clang. On one famous occasion, a batsman was caught at second slip direct from Cyril's box and the game took a while to restart: several people were actually crying with laughter.

After a match, Cyril would silently remove it, sometimes pushing out a dent with a thick thumb. He'd get changed back into his streetclothes and then wander up to the pub, his love for the game expressed perfectly and eloquently in the slow satisfaction of his walk. 

Saturday 12 September 2009

Phil Space: Inertial designed

Ad for Slazenger's 2009 bat, The Blade:

'Blade's unique profile delivers Slazenger's first inertial designed bat. The strategically crafted rear edge profile increases bat torsion stability to improve shot accuracy and performance'.

The fact that this copy comes with the exquisitely-tooled pay-off line 'As endorsed by Paul Collingwood' might have you thinking the whole thing is a wind-up, a discerning howl in the dark at the inexorable attachment of marketing bollocks to something as noble and beautiful as the cricket bat, but alas no. It's real.

The need to re-sell a product that has limited opportunities for redesign or innovation has led to the heightened language manufacturers are using, yet what they really need is a different kind of gimmick. Like any natural thing, willow comes in cycles, it has good years and bad. Maybe they should start selling it like wine, by vintage. 2009 - now that was a helluva year...

Friday 11 September 2009

Central contracts: Rewarded

'Central contracts are designed to reward players who perform well consistently for England' - Geoff Miller, National Selector.

Spot the difference:

Ian Bell's centrally contracted year in full:
vs India: 49 runs at 16.33
vs West Indies: 32 runs at 16.00
vs Australia: 140 runs at 28.00

2009 stat attack: 
172 runs at 24.57 [0 x 100, 2 x 50]

IR Bell: full contract.

Ravi Bopara's centrally contracted year in full:
vs West Indies [a]: 104 runs at 104.00
vs West Indies [h]: 251 runs at 125.50
vs Australia: 105 runs at 15.00

2009 stat attack:
460 runs at 46.00 [3x100, 0x 50]

RS Bopara: Incremental contract

Quote of the day:
'England have invested a lot in Ian Bell*. He's played 49 Test matches, he's got a lot of experience, he's still relatively young. I hope he's still got a lot to offer English cricket in the future, but only he can determine how well he does'. - Andy Flower, England coach

* Yeah, a lot of money.

Thursday 10 September 2009

Brief Encounter

Idling along High Street Kensington today, just out of the tube station and heading slightly against the tide, I glanced up and thought, 'Oh, that bloke looks like Shane Watson'. Then I realised it was Shane Watson, in a cheery yellow T-shirt. Skulking along next to him, looking like his sidekick in a grey T-shirt and baseball hat, was the captain of Australia, RT Ponting. 

Having spent most of the summer watching them play, it seemed strangely normal to see them walking up the street. I almost nodded hello before I remembered I don't actually know them.

A few minutes later came Mike Hussey, who was uttering the sentence, 'just ask Alex to get them for you' to his mate. Who Alex is and what s/he can get will forever remain a mystery...

Born into this

While Sachin Tendulkar was in London this summer, he gave his son Arjun some coaching. In the nets. At Lord's. Arjun is nine. He might grow up knowing a bit about how to play this game. 

NB: This morning, good old blogger kept chewing the rest of this post. Maybe it's a Sachin fan. Not that the post said anything bad about Sachin: aside and away from his ability at the crease, he seems like an extraordinarily decent and rounded man, especially given the distorted life he has led. 

Further along in the interview where he talks about coaching his son, he says: 'I also love going for a drive at 5am, when the roads are empty and people won't see me... I listen to relaxing music, there is no-one else. I like it just being me on my own'.

Tendulkar cannot live his life alone, though, aside from those few moments he carves for himself on empty roads at 5am. Who would wish the same for their children?

Tuesday 8 September 2009


The Guardian and Sky Sports have both just described tomorrow's third [of seven - seven!] ODIs between England and Australia as 'crucial'.

Is there anyone on earth who, having seen either of the first two games, would agree that it is indeed 'crucial'? 

Let's have a worldwide vote. Entries from employees of the ECB and BSkyB will not be counted.

Other adjectives we may find more suitable: Interminable; Endless; Apathetic; Obligatory; Agreed Between Boards; Post-Coital; Moneymaking; Airtime filling; 'Let's face it the Australian Captain and coach both went home before they started'.

What we have lost

I watched Graham Napier bat for Essex in a Pro 40 game the other day. He made 60-odd from about 40 balls at number three. I got that deflated feeling when he was dismissed because he has that extra dimension, that indefinable something that marks him out.

He doesn't do it often, according to his average. Essex don't seem to be able to decide where to bat him. You could drive a truck through parts of his technique. Yet his talent is rare. It even sounds different when he hits the ball.

Napier is thirty now, so he might be lost to England beyond the T20 format. But perhaps more than anyone else, he exposes the paucity of vision in our one-day cricket.

The 50 over side has not just been moribund against Australia this summer, or at the last World Cup or the last Champions Trophy, or even at the ones before that. It's been a generation of utter mediocrity, of wasted time and wasted careers. In a decade when batting has been redefined, England have singularly failed to identify players who can push out past the norms and conventions.

England's selectors tend to spend a lot of time looking at what players lack, at what's not there. It's the orthodox view. Instead, they could start from the point of the problem and work backwards. They could ask, 'who can hit the ball?' and build on that. Identify what's there rather than what's not.

Napier's probably not good enough to make it as an international player now, but he is talented enough. There's a subtle difference.  The same could be said of other hitters: Ian Blackwell, Dimi Mascarenhas, Ali Brown, James Benning. 

Yesterday Rory Hamilton-Brown, who's 22, walked out at Hove and smacked an average Notts attack around for a while. There's plenty that Brown can't do against better bowling, but he hit the ball harder and cleaner than anyone else except perhaps Dwayne Smith. It's a place to start, and god knows, watching England peck around for 250-odd ad infinitum, a start is what we need. 

And Napier can bowl at 90mph, too...

NB: Napes is on TV again now, playing for Essex against Somerset. He's sporting a fierce pair of sideys. He's just yorked Marcus Trescothick and hit Justin Langer on the shoulder first ball. 

Monday 7 September 2009

Amy S

Amy S Talks Cricket was one of the fastest, funniest cricket blogs out there. It was dreadfully sad to visit this morning and read of Amy's passing, aged just 26.

Like everyone who followed her blog I felt like I knew her a little, yet as her friend Kate's tribute shows, writing was just one of her talents. 

More than usual today, the game seems like a beautiful irrelevance. 

Friday 4 September 2009

Trotters: just getting better and better...

There's nothing like a decent debut to get people on your side. And in the days since the last Test, Jonathan Trott's has just got better and better. Not only is he the pundits choice to move up to number three, now Duncan Fletcher, usually the most sober of appraisers, has weighed in on his spot in the one-day side.

'It's possible that Jonathan can fill that Pietersen role and take the attack to the bowlers,' he says.

This is symptomatic of a certain part of the English outlook: build 'em up unrealistically, then knock them when they fall short of euphoric expectation. 

Trott made a terrific hundred on debut. He's not alone in that. Strauss, Cook and Prior did the same - Cook's, in Nagpur, was arguably as good. Bell made 70, Trescothick 66, Shah 88, Pietersen 57 and 64 not out. England do debuts quite well, but for Test-class players the debut is more a test of temperament than ability. Usually, opposition teams are on the treadmill and have had little time see them up close and to work them out. What comes next is more revealing.

Trott needs and deserves a longer examination of his technique before he becomes some kind of sticking plaster for all of England's batting ills. My view is that sides will dry him up quite quickly, and he will need some time to adjust and respond. That's natural, and we need to let it happen.