Saturday 28 February 2009

We need to talk about Kevin

How do teams form? Do they simply coalesce around the available talent, or are they planned, built, developed, evolved by men who understand the forces that shape them?

It would be nice to think that a selector would know, but James Whitaker didn't seem to during an uninspiring radio interview with Jonathan Agnew. 

The side playing in Barbados is a fly 'em in and patch 'em up effort, but by luck, some pieces seem to fit. The ennui radiating from Bell and Harmison has gone, as has the strange tension that attaches itself to Andrew Flintoff. A team moving towards a top six of Strauss, Cook, Pietersen, Shah, Bopara and Prior, with a bowling all-rounder at seven has a nice, dynamic feel.

It is contingent on Pietersen accepting the burden of his luminous gift and moving to number three. Great men bat there, and the career arcs of great men suggest they enter their prime at 4000+ test match runs. 

Shah is an oddity, a glorious one, and deserves the chance that Bell got lower down, with Bopara in the pup's position. England should have huge ambition for Prior, who can really bat, and can open up the team for five bowlers. 

It will take a man Pietersen respects to tell him he must move up. James Whitaker and Geoff Miller are not that man. Strauss and a new coach might be. Someone must; Pietersen's talent demands it.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

MLK Day... No, better make that Groundhog Day

I had a dream, my friends, not a long dream, but a dream nonetheless, in which Ian Bell was no longer in the England team. I had a dream in which men were judged by the content of their character and not by their misleading average, I had a dream in which selectors viewed times of hardship as times of opportunity, where they put aside timidity and they put aside doubt and they gave willing young men their chance, they threw them in the fires of the crucible and said, 'here is your chance, we'll back you,' and when those young men fell down, they picked them up again and said, 'there, you're stronger now, because hardship makes you strong, so keep going because soon, you will make us stronger too'. I had a dream my friends, where we let go of the past and looked to the future, where we realised that some men never change, no matter how much we may want them to, and so we bid them farewell, with thanks and no hard feelings. I had a dream my friends...

Oh, woah, I must have nodded off there. Belly's coming back is he? Number six? Jolly good. He likes it there. Averages 47 you know. Imagine what he'd average at number eight - better watch yourself Broady! And Harmi, too. No Fred, you see, so we better have him. Nine wickets at 41 since KP brought him back. He's a stand-up guy, just needs the right kind of pitch. Like 2004. Remember 2004? Glorious. Best to play it safe. Khan, Bopara, Rashid.... untested, you know. And young. So young. At least we know what we're going to get from Bell and Harmi.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Just leave it, Giles

There comes a day, at the end of the English winter, when everything changes. The air feels gentle, the sky's a less brittle blue, the sunlight not quite as low and harsh, the shadows it casts softer at the edges. It provokes a mix of nostalgia and anticipation, a sense memory of old summers and a pang for the one to come. 

Yesterday was that day, good enough to play cricket on. It went quickly, and the first week of the season, still months away, will be rainy and cold, but that's alright because things have changed. 

Yesterday it didn't matter that England had four bowlers in various stages of knackeredness, that Allen Stanford might be some kind of peasant-slaughtering gringo drug lord and that, with their usual immaculate timing, the ECB's ballot form for tickets to the Stanford Super Series arrived in the post.

The people affected by Stanford are the ones queuing up outside the banks in Antigua and Venezuela trying to find out if they've got any money, not a few adminstocrats with big-man offices at Lord's.

Summer's coming as it always has, and not even Giles Clarke can fuck that up. 

Friday 20 February 2009

Joy of Six: The new language of cricket

The Atheist is at his arch best on the subject of Dolphins vs Cobras and Warriors vs Eagles, otherwise known as domestic cricket in South Africa. 

Dolphins, Cobras, Warriors and Eagles are 'franchises' that 'exist' with the aim of producing 'stronger top tier sides'. 

Given the position of the national team, you could argue that the structure has worked. But the names... The marketeers are here, boys, and they're not going away.

This month's Wisden Cricketer comes with the Good Gear guide, which adds to the new language of selling cricket bats. We've had the neologisms of bat brands: Heros and Icons, Ignites and Kahunas, and now the macho, hard-on, big-boy business of shifting them: 'enlarged sweetspot', 'maximum response', 'massive wood'. 

Feeling horny yet? Wallet opening like a desert flower?

NB: Also on fire was Jrod, saying all that was worth saying about the Antigua Test.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

England's very average average

England went through a generation of Test cricket with just one batsman maintaining an average above 40. Step forward Graham Thorpe. The rest - Atherton, Stewart, Hussain, Ramprakash, Butcher, Hick et al - ended their careers below that tideline.

While they did, though, the frontline bowlers, Darren Gough, Andy Caddick and Gus Fraser, piled up 640 wickets at averages of less than 30, under thirty of course being the bowling equivalent of over 40 for the batters.

In Antigua, the next generation has inverted the pyramid. With the exception of Ryan Sidebottom, no England bowler takes his wickets at less than 30.

It would be easy to pine for an age when the two halves came together (the two good halves, obviously) and the batters all averaged 40 while the bowlers got them at 20s. 

But maybe bowling averages are blowing out across the world. Fifty is the new 40 for batsmen. Perhaps 30 is the new 20 for bowlers. 

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Full extent of Stanford fraud exposed

Penniless Sir Allen Stanford has today revealed the full extent of the fraud that has cost him 'in excess of $20m'. 

'It's a con on a massive scale,' said Sir Allen from the secret location at which he is currently hiding from Giles Clarke. 'They told me they were sending a cricket team over. You should have seen them. They were useless. Looking back, I don't believe that they had ever played a game of Twenty20 before'. 

Speaking of the moment when the deception became public, Sir Allen went on: 'As soon as this guy Ian Bell opened the batting, I began to get the feeling that I'd been had. And when Steve Harmison started bowling, I knew it for sure.'

Stanford claimed to be unaware of the reputation of Giles Clarke and the ECB. 'We conducted due diligence, but hell, I'm American. I'd never heard of these cowboys. That Lord's place looked good, but now I'm thinking it probably wasn't even theirs.'

Told of Stanford's claims, Giles Clarke said, 'We contracted with Sir Allen to provide a cricket team, and as far as I'm concerned, that's what we did. I've seen Ian Bell's passport and it definitely says 'cricketer' in the back. Sir Allen knew exactly what he was getting. By the way, if you see him, can you tell him he still owes us four more matches. He doesn't seem to be answering his phone.'

Sir Allen concluded: 'I'll admit their girlfriends were nice, but they weren't worth $20m. Getting involved with the ECB has ruined me. I expect I'll end up in prison'.

Monday 16 February 2009

No business like Shah business

'A bit susceptible to pace early on' is one of those blanket criticisms sometimes applied to batsmen. It's a little like a clairvoyant cold-reading a crowd: 'I'm seeing a white room with cream curtains...'. Practically everyone's been in one, just as every batter is vulnerable to a 90mph yorker bowled by Wasim Akram. 

Yet it's a criticism that has attached itself to Owais Shah; it was trotted out as conventional wisdom on TV, radio and newspapers yesterday. 'Ooh, he's got a strong bottom hand... can get out to pace bowling early...'

It's just a fear of unconventionality, a fear that has its natural home in England, where, in May 2005, almost every commentator of note expressed grave doubts over the suitability of Kevin Pietersen for Test match cricket.

Shah is antsy and odd at the crease, especially early, all mad stares and quirky rituals, but the ball cracks from his bat and he drills lines through the field. He hits it either very early or very late; both are fine qualities to have. 

Anyone who reaches Test cricket with their idiosyncracies intact has character, and the next age of batting will be all about unconventionality. Owais Shah has it, and England, and the media need to embrace it. Show the love, boys. Owais can play. 

Friday 13 February 2009

More than a Test match

The groundsman at the Sir Viv Richards Stadium is wearing a T-shirt with the slogan 'More Than A Test Match' printed on the back.

I'm not sure if that statement is right or wrong at the moment. 

It's friday 13th, too.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Batting: Percentage failure and despair

There's an excellent statistical deconstruction of England's batting from 2007 onwards by S Rajesh over at Cricinfo

There's a stat in there called failure percentage, the number of times a batter fails to reach 20. Bell is top (or bottom) at 48.57. Pietersen's percentage is 41.18, which is good, presumably, given his record. 

Bowlers like to think it's a batter's game. This stat says it's not - you fail almost half the times you try. And they wonder why batsmen become weird and neurotic. 

He ain't heavy...

Please god, let them name this team soon. Today there has been no escape. I like to work with the radio on - an all-talk station. It's just wallpaper, undemanding voices that wash over you. Well it was until about 11am at least, when the curiously penetrating sounds of Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting joined the West Country burr of Marcus Trescothick to jostle for airtime.

The subject? Yeah, you guessed it. They were joined by a caller, a businessman who felt strict business principals should apply: when it's not working, sack everyone. Gatt was phlegmatic, Tresco as tolerant as a labrador being jumped on by children. Goochie, though... well, have you seen the end of Dead Poet's Society...?

He was impassioned and urgent, up there on his school desk. His subject was hard work and personal responsibility, as you would expect. But he also talked about the start of the innings and the opening partnership, which is something he knows a little about.

It all comes down to chemistry, was his view. It's not as simple as Strauss and Cook being similar players; it's that they have similar faults at similar times. That makes it easy for bowlers. There is also the worry of Strauss's retreat into nurdlehood.

The truth is, there is no easy answer. Opening partnerships are a bit like songwriting partnerships, fragile and unique. They fit together like jigsaw pieces. Hayden waned when Langer went. Boycott and Gooch shared a work ethic if nothing else. Atherton and Stewart mixed cussedness and pride. 

Gordon Greenidge was in two great partnerships, first with Barry Richards and then with Desmond Haynes. Early on, Greenidge remembers the experience of opening with Richards: 'Quite often the applause was ringing round the ground for his fifty when I was still in single figures.'

What an education. Batting with Richards taught Greenidge to be himself. Self-knowledge is the key to batting wherever you bat, but especially if you go in first. 

Strauss is reinventing his game, Cook is learning his. That's why the partnership is on shifting sands.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Moving targets

England should name their XI for Antigua straight away, if only to preserve what's left of the mental health of the press.

Bell and Collingwood have been duffed up already and Harmi's a basket case anyway, so attention has shifted rather queasily to Andrew Flintoff. Lawrence Booth's case is that the giant is on the wane. Nick Hoult, with the whiff of second-hand info, says he can't play with KP.

Flintoff is not a man who will ever be flattered by statistics. Like Botham, you kind of had to be there. He is a player of great innings (albeit infrequently) and a bowler of great spells, rather than a great player. That much has always been apparent. His batting is brutal but fragile, his bowling demanding rather than deadly, and whatever the opposite of a golden arm is, he's got one. His wicket-taking is stymied by his natural length, which is slightly short for regular pitches. 

But this is old news. The world has known it for some time.

Hoult's piece is risible, and based around the three Tests since 2005 that England have won with Flintoff and Pietersen in the side. I don't know how a statistician like David Barry would describe this information: I'd call it disingenuous in the extreme. Flintoff has been injured for great swathes of it; it disregards whoever else was in the team - they probably won just as few when Flintoff has played with Vaughan, or Bell, or Harmison, or Collingwood, or Cook; it also ignores the fact that Pietersen has played in every test since 2005 - all 41 of them. 

On the list of England's problems, Flintoff and Pietersen are some way down. Unless you're reading the papers, of course.

Monday 9 February 2009

Square heads, round holes

Entirely unpredictably, the media was awash with advice for England. All friendly, of course. Duncan Fletcher felt they should drop Bell and Harmison. Bob Willis's internal selection meeting gave Ronald the flick too, edged KP up to number three and brought Owais Shah in at five. Boycott recommended personal responsibility. Mike Atherton decided Bell should open and Cook should go for being caught at slip too often*.

53 all out does not leave you short of targets. But the real target should be England's lack of options. The squad carries just one replacement batsman along with its three spinners. And who picked the squad? Step forward Geoff Miller, who has handed choice of the actual team over to those on tour, and Peter Moores. Remember Peter? Blond chap, very keen on his procedures.

* Ah, Athers. Caught a mere 133 times himself. 

Sunday 8 February 2009

Dirty secrets, unappealing habits

One of the key sections of Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby's book on obsession and football, is about an Arsenal centre-back named Gus Caesar, a player so inept he became a cult hero to the Highbury regulars.

'To get where he did,' Hornby wrote, 'Gus clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation and it still wasn't quite enough. Gus must have known he was good, just like every pop band who has ever played the Marquee know that they are destined for Madison Square Garden, and just as any writer who has sent off a completed manuscript to Faber and Faber knows that he is two years away from the Booker. You trust that feeling with your life, you feel the strength and determination it gives you coursing through your veins like heroin... and it doesn't mean anything at all'.

Hornby was writing about the point at which talent maxes out and goes no further, the place at which it meets its match. 

Everyone who played for England in Jamaica has ridden that curve further than nearly all of their generation. They've made it into that famous, insulating 'bubble' where they can imagine that their position is almost unique, explainable only to the others who play with them. 

It takes an extra kind of toughness to separate yourself from the others in the bubble, to become a Warne or a Tendulkar or a Waugh or a Boycott or a Richards or a Botham or a Border or a Lara.

A tiny, tiny few of them simply do have more talent; even playing against the best in the world cannot take them to the end of it. But more just seem to have a streak of individualism that sets them apart. From the list above, you could put Boycott and Border and Waugh in that category. 

You can bet there are some dirty little secrets in the back of their minds, secrets that pulled them through. One that is universal, I think, is to be able to draw strength and freedom from the failures of others. 

It's an unappealing habit, to be up the other end from a teammate who's just been bowled and to know, that in some strange way, it makes you feel better, but every batsman knows it. 

It's also the mentality that can enable you to stop a collapse like England's. It's the opposite of the herd reaction. It's one of cricket's great paradoxes that it flourishes as a team game because of the complex needs of the individual. 

As England reconfigure their team, they'll be looking to the great individualists to lead the way, as they always have. 

Saturday 7 February 2009

Jerome Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

The psychology of a collapse is interesting. It's entirely different on the inside to watching from the outside; you can see it from the faces of those involved, the too-wide grins in the dressing room, the way they all tend to sit together when it happens. A collapse has its own inward gravity.

Geoffrey Boycott, as always, had something interesting to say, noting that, as a player, you become too conscious of its gathering momentum. The opposition, the crowd, the noise, the vibes, all sweep you along. Suddenly, you're in it, dragged outside of your game. The number of England players rooted to the crease, caught in the headlights, was telling. Jerome Taylor produced two terrific deliveries, to Pietersen and Prior. They seemed to take more than one wicket each. 

From the outside of course, it's different. England should cancel the papers tomorrow. But it's not really the details that matter, it's that the start of a collapse - and the reaction to it - is a measure of the psychological health of a team. Teams in good health can usually halt the slide at four or five wickets. Australia, at their peak, did so many times. England are far less robust; the decline since Fletcher's departure has been steady. 

They lost the first Test in New Zealand last winter. Significantly, Harmison and Hoggard, two big players, were dropped afterwards. The mental health of the team improved. Perhaps Bell and Collingwood will go this time.

Thursday 5 February 2009

What we have lost

Ah, Sabina Park. Patrick Patterson pushing off the sightscreen at one end, Michael Holding whispering in from somewhere around the dressing rooms at the other, a pitch you can see your face in, chin music for as long as you can take it...

Oh sorry, that Sabina Park. Big Sulieman Benn in off three paces at one end, Chris Gayle off two at the other, a pitch the colour of Murali's dreams, spin from both ends before lunch on day one. And Ian Bell back in the hutch of course. After a nice twenty, naturally. He's hitting it beautifully in the nets as well.

Bell's stranglehold on the selectors' dreams has come about because his batting promises so much. Paul Collingwood's no longer seems to. He's been out of form so long, it's plain that he's not actually out of form any more. This is his form. Even when he makes runs, and he has two hundreds in his last seven innings, he's like a man holding off death. His guns have been spiked; he's lost the firepower to drive the opposition back. 

Colly is the batting equivalent of Matthew Hoggard, a stout yeoman, reliable and keen as a labrador. Hoggy was cruelly dumped, but fairly, too. For the very top of the game, something imperceptible had gone. Something imperceptible seems to have gone from Collingwood's batting too. His reservoir of talent isn't as deep as Bell's, just as Hoggard's wasn't as deep as Harmison's. What's lost may never come back to him. 

Tuesday 3 February 2009

'How was that, dad?'

There's an old joke about a man who goes for a country drive and can't find his way back to the city. He reaches a tiny village and stops to ask directions.
'Well,' the local says, 'if I was you, I wouldn't start from here'.

That joke applies to a lot of modern cricket's structure. The concept of touring, for example, began because it took two months on a boat to reach your opposition. It wasn't worth going unless you stuck around for a while. It's not a calendar you'd draw up today.

Similarly, the technology available to the third umpire wasn't developed to improve decision-making, but to improve television viewing. 

Now, with manifestly twisted logic, players are to be invited to use it to umpire their own games, a concept with certain inherent contradictions.

The referral system itself has some built-in nonsense about the number of unsuccessful appeals a side can make - it's currently two. Imagine applying that logic to a bowler, for a start. 

Or imagine the last few overs of a tight match in which a side has used up its two appeals on a couple of very close calls, and then something like the Brad Haddin Hand of Dog thing happens.

Let's not even visit the conspiracy theories about the pitch 'mat' that, it's said, has sometimes been subtly tweaked to favour the home broadcaster's team - wider when they bowl, narrower when they bat* - and the way that catches held close to the ground always look iffy. 

No, let's instead envision a technical utopia in which the gizmos are never wrong. Why not just have the third umpire inspect every decision and offer feedback to his colleagues? Why only do it if the players ask?

We may or may not be headed towards a future in which every decision is correct (and how much poorer the game will be without human fallibility), but if we're going to get there, I wouldn't start from here. 

* Who, from the ICC or the umpires or whoever's in charge, checks that the technology has been set up accurately? Or do they just presume that the TV companies always get it right?

Monday 2 February 2009

A Bell of his own making

Leo Mckinstry's Boycs is one of those rare books that you can open on any page and find a real zinger of of a story (and if you want stories, Boycott's your man) or a nugget of essential truth. 

Mckinstry spent some time talking to Boycott's batmakers. Geoffrey would not countenance anything above 2lbs 5oz, and would often swap to one of around 2lbs 3oz if he'd been batting for several hours and was starting to tire. 

His man at Slazenger said to him one day, 'Hey Geoffrey, I've got you a good one here. The ball will fly to the boundary with this one.'

'I don't want it to fly there,' said Boycott. 'I want it to roll there. I'll still get four for it...'

To me, the story demonstrates not Boycott's contrariness, but his absolute self-knowledge, his acceptance of himself and of his game. He understood intimately what kind of player he was.

All great batsmen understand this. At the heart of Ian Bell's problem (yes, him again) is this lack of certainty. He's always being told to dominate the bowlers, and you can see him trying to do it, strutting priapically - and unconvincingly - to the wicket, trying to bat like a batsman he's not.

The notion of dominance is the wrong one for Bell. You wouldn't describe, say, Shiv Chanderpaul as dominant in the traditional sense. It's just that no-one can get him out. 

If Bell is to stay in the Test team, he'd do well to watch Chanderpaul score his runs. He, like Boycott, is utterly true to himself, however odd that self might seem. All the best players are. 

NB: With aching predictability, Bell and Harmison failed to make the IPL auction cut today. Know thyselves, my friends...

Sunday 1 February 2009

The Bloodaxe Also Rises

Mark Ramprakash signed a new, two-year contract with Surrey this week; it means that the great Bloodaxe will play on past 40. Failure, like Test cricket, is just a part of his past now, and the past, as we know, is another country. 

Today I imagined a future in which Ian Bell was dropped by England and had a couple of untidy, unfulfilling comebacks before retiring to county cricket and making mountains of runs, year after year.

If Bell plays in all of England's matches in 2009 (and let's face it...), by the time the first Ashes Test comes around he will have the same number of caps as Ramprakash - 52. Ramprakash's appearances were spread over a decade, Bell's over half that time. Ramprakash played during an era of loss and instability, Bell during the years of consistency and relative success. Sometimes, life really is all about timing.