Monday 31 August 2009

Consistent [ii]

Given the stasis in England's Test match batting order, here's a stat to toy with: Bopara and Denly were England's thirteenth opening partnership in T20 cricket. England have only played 22 T20 matches. As they both got nought on Sunday, how long before number fourteen comes along?

More consistency: England have played Ireland three times in ODIs, in 2006, 2007 and last week. Here are the teams:




Number of players who appeared in all three games: one. Number of opening batsmen: five. Number of wicketkeepers: three. Number of years between fixtures: three.

NB: England have one tactic right: pick Ireland's best player and then let him disappear. 

Update: Thanks to Rob for pointing out Bopara got one on Sunday - should keep him in the team for today at least. The times today has a good piece on the awarding of central contracts, currently bringing IR Bell and Monty out in fear-sweats. The current list of incremental contract holders has a couple of half-remembered names too: Tim Ambrose and Samit Patel. Don't wait by the phone, boys...

Sunday 30 August 2009

Fashion news

Note to England's T20 kit designer: no man on earth looks good in red trousers.

Saturday 29 August 2009

Ooh beehive yourselves: The Phil Space Awards 2009

And so as their names pass into history, these men of the Ashes, summer 2009 - Hayward, Barnes, Syed, Williams, Freedland, Logan [well okay, the last one's a woman, but the art of filling space acknowledges no frontiers] - their guns are silent now, but we shall remember them...

Er, well, after a fashion, anyway. The chief sportswriters of the land began the Ashes with a transparent agenda: that it was going to be exactly like 2005 and that Andrew Flintoff was the man to make it so.

Yet after tremulous columns were held aloft by herculean prose post-Cardiff, fire was slowly drawn by a series and a player that refused to conform. Never mind. For a glorious few weeks, the papers glowed purple, omens were over-read, cricketers were not men but cultural symbols. And then it all got... weird. Let the ceremony commence: 

Best single paragraph 
Paul Hayward, Observer
'He [Flintoff] is a country charging into bowl, a culture brandishing a bat. To attack him is to poke the beehive of his nature, which survives the ravages of injury and calls to the night-porter to keep on coming with the tray of drinks'.

Best analogy
Simon Barnes, Times
'Sometimes Flintoff will turn himself into a Rodin statue, holding a vigorous pose to indicate extremes of emotion. There he stood, legs planted wide, head bowed, hands clasping head: Freddie Agonistes'.

Biggest understatement
Paul Hayward, Guardian
'Flintoff is the Ashes in single human form. The story flows through him like the Taff flows through Cardiff'.

Best theme for single column
'On looks, this Ashes series would be no contest', Gabby Logan, Times
'The Aussies sent here to try to retain the Ashes just aren't as beautiful as our boys. Think about Bopara, James Anderson Stuart Broad and Alastair Cook...' 

Most Promising Newcomer
'I Never Understood People's Fixation With Cricket - Now I've Joined Them' - Jonathan Freedland, Guardian
'On match days it required monastic degrees of willpower not to hit refresh at five minute intervals to find out what new ordeal fate had meted out to the England cricket team. I might be faced with a stunning Albigensian castle or the gorgeous, sparkling Canal Du Midi, but still my thumb itched to find out if Anderson had broken through...'

Best Celebrity Endorsement
Richard Williams, Guardian
'I'm interested in Lily Allen. Not in her music, I'm afraid, or in most other aspects of the life and career that have made her into a sort of national treasure by the age of 24. But if the singer of Smile and The Fear is the shape of cricket supporters to come, then bring on the multitudes... She likes Flintoff and Onions and Broad.'

And finally...

The Phil Space Award 2009
For Outstanding Achievement in space filling
Matthew Syed, Times
Judge's Commendation: Syed's ability to restate the obvious at extraordinary length and in florid detail made him a worthy winner - Well done, Matthew!
'Romantic relationships are, I am told, all about chemistry and watching the Ashes you get the same feeling about sporting relationships. English and Australian cricket have what is known as a long-term relationship: it started not with a kiss but with the first Ashes Test in 1882'.

Here's to the next four years!

Thursday 27 August 2009

Matty Hayden walks the earth: the Ashes media, mano et mano

'Ah Paris... marvellous. The Louvre... walking up the hill to Montmartre. Fabulous city...'

Matthew Hayden paused. 'One of the great pleasures of coming over here is getting the chance to go to historic places like that.'

And one of the great, and unexpected pleasures of the summer was Matthew Hayden, who split his time between Test Match Special and the Channel Five highlights show, and who, like Kwai Chang Kane, has apparently put aside worldly things to walk the earth instead.

'I went walking around London last night,' he said. 'Summer's night, strolling around the streets, stopping at a couple of pubs for a beer... wonderful'.

For some reason, when I pictured Haydos doing this, he was in his cricket gear, too. And barefoot. As England tipped the balance of the Oval Test by running out Punter and Clarke in consecutive overs, he welcomed Jim Maxwell to the mic by saying, 'Good on ya Jim, I feel like I need another Aussie here at this point. I'm quite emotional...'

The new caring, sharing Hayden still had his sharp side, most notably in his now famous spat with Geoffrey. 

'Your batting emptied grounds, mate,' he said, no doubt out of the side of his mouth while still mentally at first slip. 

Exit Geoffrey, muttering. But thankfully not for long. Boycott got every prediction he made wrong this summer, but that's because they were almost always based on the kind of sound logic that the series refused to obey.

TMS has copped some flak, but the mix of Haydos, Geoffrey and Phil Tufnell made it a joy to listen to. Tufnell is as self-effacing as the two great batsmen are proud. Asked about his greatest fear, while others waffled about planes and spiders, Tuffers deadpanned: 'Mark Waugh'.

Sky opted for Warne as their resident legend, and once you got past the teeth - surely some kind of spin-off from NASA research - he was worth what must have been a reassuringly expensive fee. The real difference in his commentary came in his willingness to stick his neck on the line and call the play. Sky's collective of ex-England captains in the 'comm box' could do nothing but genuflect. Add Ravi Bopara to his list of Test victims. 

Beefy at least had someone to share his jokes about not training and coming in at 5am with. The heirarchy - Sky-erarchy? - revealed itself via the banter. Botham admitted Warnie to the club that contains himself, Michael Holding and sometimes David Gower. Nasser and Athers remain the butt of Beefy humour ['you'd have had about 18 by now wouldn't you Nass?' he'd enquire, just before tea]. Bumble is the mad uncle at the party, capable, like most jokers, of concealing the truth in humour.

Sky's technology is the real star of their show. Hawkeye versus Aleem Dar, super slo-mo versus Asad Rauf were heavyweight contests with only one winner.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Things Ain't What They Used To Be: Australia player-by-player

'In transition' is the accepted euphemism for 'not as good as we were' [as England should know, they've been using it long enough]. Yet Australia have been without Warne, McGrath and Langer for almost three years, Gilchrist for nearly two and Hayden since the start of '09. Unsurprisingly, the talent pool doesn't run quite as deep now. So what are they in transition to? 

Simon Katich
341 runs at 42.62, hs 122; 1 x 100, 1 x 50
The Krab laid it down at Cardiff, a man safe in self-knowledge, seemingly set for a series full of the same. Instead he got aggressive, prickly, mad, and started giving it away. Players like Katich succeed in Test cricket on the outer edges of their ability. There's just that much less margin for error.
Out of 10 - 7

Phil Hughes
57 runs at 19.00, hs 36
Fully entitled to ask which other players Australia have bailed on after such a short run of failures. Hughes is a true outlier - he doesn't play like anyone else, so the solution to his problem will come from within. Suggestions he's been worked out don't quite play: he received exactly the same kind of bowling in South Africa and mullered it.
Out of 10 - 3

Shane Watson
240 runs at 48.00, hs 62; 3 x 50
No longer young - he's 28 - no longer, judging by his bowling, an all-rounder, Watson may well have fallen into a barrel of breasts and come out sucking his thumb. He's certainly a sucker for an LBW, and there are no secrets in international cricket. His best hope for a permanent place may be at five, if Clarke moves up in place of Hussey.
Out of 10 - 7

Ricky Ponting
385 runs at 48.12, hs 150; 1 x 100, 2 x 50
Between the 2005 Ashes, when he averaged 39.88, and revenge in 2006-7, when he averaged 82.28, Ponting's series returns went 82.25, 103.00, 58.00 and 95.50. He wanted it - bad. Between the 2006-7 Ashes and this one, his series returns ran 38.28, 53.82,  38.00, 33.33, 47.50 and 35.00. So is he [finally] sated, is he tired, is he on a last, gentle downhill slide? Perhaps defeat will fire him up again: when he's in and set, he looks as good as ever. In 2005, he was culpable as captain, this time less so, and he played the media as beautifully as he batted in the Oval second innings.
Out of 10 - 8

Michael Hussey
276 runs at 34.50, hs 121; 1 x 100, 2 x 50
It's not just England in thrall to the symbolism of '05: Hussey's hundred at the Oval has been compared to Matty Hayden's. Hayden took off on a long last tear afterwards, but Hussey lacks the hubris of Haydos. 
Out of 10 - 5

Michael Clarke
448 runs at 64.00, hs 136; 2 x 100, 2 x 50; 1 wicket at 75.00, bb 1-27
The finest, most timeless batting of the series came from Clarke. At Lord's he could have been batting in any era; you almost expected Keith Miller's spitfire to fly overhead and dip its wings. As an audition for the future of Australian cricket, it passed. Must surely bat four now, and make big hundreds. 
Out of 10 - 9

Marcus North
367 runs at 52.42, hs 125*; 2 x 100, 1 x 50; 4 wickets at 51.00, bb 4-131
Which one is Marcus North again? Oh yeah... Turns unobtrusiveness into an art form, but you can't argue with the runs. 
Out of 10 - 8

Brad Haddin
278 runs at 46.33, hs 121; 1 x 100, 1 x 50
Haddin keeping to Johnson offered the great comic moments of the series; Haddin never settled after Lord's. If he was following anyone other than Gilchrist his batting would be manna from heaven. As it is, it's matter of fact. 
Out of 10 - 7

Mitchell Johnson
105 runs at 17.50, hs 63; 1 x 50; 20 wickets at 32.55, bb 5-69
In years to come, the full impact of the slaying of Hughes and Johnson on the tourists' psyche may be known. They were the two gun young players, the ones that allowed the team to argue that they were en route to somewhere cool and exciting. But Johnson is the Australian Harmison, right down to missing the cut strip. His opening spell at Lord's was the real turning point of the series. England may not have known  they would win after that, but they knew that they could. 
Out of 10 - 4

Peter Siddle
91 runs at 18.20, hs 35; 20 wickets at 30.80, bb 6-71
No man is more Australian than the Sizzler. Expect him back in four years, this time sporting an enormous moustache, accompanied by some hard-won craft to go with the graft.
Out of 10 - 7

Ben Hilfenhaus
40 runs at 20.00, hs 20; 22 wickets at 27.45, bb 5-80
The only bowler on either side to average under 30 per wicket, he was reminiscent of Hoggard at his sharpest. A jaffa did KP all ends up at Cardiff. 
Out of 10 - 8

Stuart Clark
38 runs at 12.66, hs 32; 4 wickets at 44.00, bb 3-18
Bowled Australia back into it at Headingley, but he's 33 and can't play at Leeds every week. Those sixes though...
Out of 10 - 6

Nathan Hauritz
45 runs at 22.50, hs 24; 10 wickets at 32.10, bb 3-63
Should Hauritz be pleased or discouraged by the general astonishment that he wasn't actually as bad as everyone [including his own team] thought? When you don't get a game at the Oval in a hot spell at the end of August, you might have your answer...
Out of 10 - 6

Tomorrow - the media pundit-by-pundit and the Phil Space Awards...

Monday 24 August 2009

Bad for good: England player-by-player

Sometimes a cricketer will come out with a line of which any writer would be proud. Andrew Strauss said: 'When we were bad we were very bad, but when we were good, we were good enough'. Perfectly put, and perfectly true. 

As the old maxim goes, styles make fights. Compared to 2005, this was two drunks swinging at each other in a pub car park, but they were equally pissed and equally matched: England found one last punch, right at the end. Good enough, like the man said...

Andrew Strauss
474 runs at 52.66, hs 161; 1 x 100, 3 x 50
Graham Gooch without the callisthenics, Strauss is another of nature's stoics. He won't stare into the game and see what Brearley or Vaughan saw, but the payback comes elsewhere. There's been plenty of talk about which England batsman will be the first to 10,000 Test runs. No-one ever mentions Strauss - wonder why not? 
Out of 10: 9

Alastair Cook
222 runs at 24.66, hs 95; 1 x 50
10 - the number of batsmen above Cook in the averages. Has a technical flaw so obvious that Geoffrey Boycott's mother and her stick of rhubarb may be required to advise on it. If England had another available opener whose initials weren't RWTK, he might be allowed the winter off to solve it. As it is he'll plough on, nicking away.
Out of 10: 5

Ravi Bopara
105 runs at 15.00, hs 35
And so did Shane look upon the burning bush and then say, 'This man who has just made five score and more against the West Indies has the sin of vanity, and he shall disappear because of it...' And we all said, 'Ah Warnie, playing his Sherminator games again...' A number five bat, for which position England now have Trott, Collingwood, Bell...
Out of 10: 3

Kevin Pietersen
158 runs at 38.25, hs 69; 1 x 50
Like a first reading of 1984, the sheer distopian horror of that initial sighting of the England team list without his name on it lingers in the heart. Still better than the rest on one leg, his greatness has grown with his absence. 
Out of 10: 6

Paul Collingwood
250 runs at 27.77, hs 74; 3 x 50
Well we'll always have Cardiff... It was an innings that carried its freight through the series. Collingwood's future employment rests on continued faith in his bloody-mindedness, but his edges are perceptibly blunting.
Out of 10: 6

Matt Prior
261 runs at 32.62, hs 51; 2 x 50
Ssshh. Hear that? No? That's because it's the sound of no-one talking about Matt Prior's wicketkeeping. Deserves tremendous credit for the improvement, which culminated in the stumping of North at the Oval. The added effort probably weighed on his batting which consisted of cameos. The utter purity of his ball striking can be jaw-dropping, just like Stewie's used to be. 
Out of 10 - 7

Andrew Flintoff
200 runs at 33.33, hs 74; 8 wickets at 52.12, bb 5-92
Notions of greatness surrounded him, but greatness is apparent rather than debatable. Flintoff himself nailed it: he was a player of great matches rather than a great player. There is something to be written about his ego, but not yet. For now, remember him at Lord's - an indomitable, hammy, temporarily irresistible force. 
Out of 10 - 7

Stuart Broad
234 runs at 29.25, hs 61; 2 x 50; 18 wickets at 30.22, bb 6-91
Pushed selectorial faith to the edge, but credit where it's due. Contrary to popular opinion, is nothing like Flintoff or Glenn McGrath. Instead, Broad's model should be Shaun Pollock - his physique and talent occupy a similar register. 
Out of 10 - 8

Graeme Swann
249 runs at 35.57, hs 63, 2 x 50; 14 wickets at 40.50, bb 4-38
The teams that form within teams are always interesting: Swann and Broad bubble with internal chemistry. They enjoy batting together, and at the Oval they became Strauss's first-choice partnership as bowlers. Like most spinners who aren't Warne or Murali, he requires favourable conditions, but produced two of the best balls of the series to get Clarke at Lord's and Ponting at Edgbaston.
Out of 10 - 7

James Anderson
99 runs at 16.50, hs 29; 12 wickets at 45.16, bb 6-127
There remains something chimeric about Jimmy Anderson. He's capable of easy and confounding brilliance, and he's equally vulnerable to the whims of conditions and pitches. Cricinfo describe him as 'strapping', but then that's Jimmy - everyone looks at him and sees something different. Nerveless batting in Cardiff, too.
Out of 10 - 7

Steve Harmison
31 runs at 31.00, hs 19*; 5 wickets at 33.40, bb 3-54
The 90s had its batting enigmas in Hick and Ramprakash. This decade has the bowling equivalent in Steve Harmison. Like Hick and Ramprakash, there's something unreachable about him. Watching him standing in the sun at the Oval, genuinely happy yet still entirely equivocal about his future pretty much summed him up. Let's part now and end the heartache.
Out of 10 - 6

Graham Onions
19 runs at 9.50, hs 17*; 10 wickets at 30.30, bb 4-58
Unlucky to be dropped for Harmison, but then he was dropped for the idea of Harmison rather than the reality, which softens the blow. Has a deceptive solidity to him, and getting Watson and Hussey with the first two balls of the day at Edgbaston was a highpoint of the summer. 
Out of 10 - 7

Ian Bell
140 runs at 28.00, hs 72; 2 x 50
A list of current Test number threes: Ponting, Sangakkara, Dravid, Sarwan, Amla, Younis Khan. Need we go on?
Out of 10 - 4

Jonathan Trott
160 runs at 80.00, hs 119; 1 x 100
Strauss, KP, Prior... all from the land of Trotters' fathers, so no wonder he felt right at home. Fine, fine debut, big match temperament and all that. England will hope he can bat higher than five [perhaps even you know where]. Two small things: he'll get dried up pretty quickly scoring where he does; and in the first innings he got very offside of the short-pitched stuff, all of which will be noted.
Out of 10 - 9

Monty Panesar
11 runs at 11.00, hs 7*; 1 wicket at 115, best 1-115
The best seven not out since Matthew Hoggard at Trent Bridge. Worth an MBE, surely? 
Out of 10 - 5

Tomorrow: The Strines...

Saturday 22 August 2009

Elegy for Ronald

The gentle skies of autumn aren't quite here, but Ian Bell's international summer of batting has already come and gone: a seventy, a fifty, three failures; his last two knocks over and done on the first two days of the Test.

Bell has been a shadow-like presence, as insubstantial as he's sometimes good-looking. His 72 could yet be the highest individual score of the match, but even if it is, his contribution doesn't feel as though it carries that weight.

In a way he is emblematic of a series played out between two fragile, flaky teams who lurch capriciously between good and bad, and where luck has played a bigger than usual role. We still know no more about him now than we did at the start.

Perhaps that's the point. With Ian Ronald Bell, there might be nothing more to know. He is what he is, and England will take it or leave it. 

Win or lose, change is coming for England. Colly has almost exhausted the goodwill of his innings at Cardiff, KP will be fit again, Bopara is a natural number five, the side must be rebalanced without Flintoff. Ian Bell, the schoolboy who went to war, may not be back for a while.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Office solutions

After Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell were dismissed by apparent no-balls at the Oval:

Caller to Phil Tufnell's radio show: 'They should just put a line of plasticine down, like they do for the long jump'.

Phil Tufnell: 'Or a beam of light across the crease, sets off a buzzer in the umpire's pocket when it's broken. Job done'.

Or they could just get the third umpire to check the replay, lads...

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Ash for questions

A good and very necessary piece by Mike Selvey in the Guardian today on the invidious position of Ashley Giles, England's most compromised selector.

Selvey ascribes lashings of integrity to Giles, yet if he was as unimpeachable as claimed he would have withdrawn from the job as soon as he became an employee of Warwickshire. 

The truth is, Giles is ambitious, and the dual role suits his purpose. Selvey sets out an excellent blueprint for the criteria of becoming a selector [no, it's not just being a middling spinner who bats a bit]. One other addition would help: an online register at the ECB website, viewable by all, of every match watched by every selector. 

After all, there's nothing to hide, is there?

Monday 17 August 2009


In his comment below this post, Rob argued that the naming of the England squad in Saturday's papers - a story that proved entirely and unsurprisingly accurate - was spin rather than leak. At first I disagreed, and then, after Geoff Miller did his rounds of the radio and TV studios on sunday morning, I began to see his point.

A leak reveals the news, spin accents the parts of it that the spinner wants you to talk about. In making sure that the story was about Trott, Bopara, Key and Ramprakash, Miller was barely challenged on the most extraordinary decision of all - to bat Ian Bell at number three.

You could drive a truck through the stats. Bell has batted three times in this series, scoring 53 [during which he was out three times], 8 and 3 for an average of 21.33; in his last nine Tests his average has dropped from 44.28 to 39.84; he averages 24.60 against Australia; he averages 18.08 against Australia in England; he averages 31 batting at three; has never scored a hundred batting at three; has never scored a hundred without another England player also passing a hundred in the same innings; he made 0 and 0 against Australia at the Oval in the decisive Test of 2005.

'We don't have a concern,' said Miller, loftily, a statement that must put him in a rather exclusive minority. 'We don't pick players who we have a concern about. I'm confident he has got the technique and ability to do a job there'. 

At least they can claim consistency: they consistently pick Ian Bell. 

NB: I have a strange vision of the future in which Bell becomes a kind of new century Ramprakash; eventually discarded by England and playing on and on in county cricket with a beautiful technique and a deal of comfort, opinion of him softening to a rosy glow...


Sign o' the times

Andrew Flintoff has appointed his own press officer. 

Saturday 15 August 2009

Definitely no leaks.

'This selection panel is watertight with its information, and the only leaks yesterday related to the lunch order: cheese sarnies and wedges with salsa dip' - Mike Atherton, today's Times.

'England drop Ravi Bopara and bring in Jonathan Trott. Ian Bell will bat number three' - David Hopps, Guardian

'Jonathan Trott will come in for Ravi Bopara, though not in the number three position, a position to which Ian Bell is likely to revert' - Derek Pringle, Daily Telegraph

'England set to turn to Trott, with Key and Ramprakash missing out' - Stephen Brenkley, Independent 

'This panel does not have a history of radical changes of direction, and the only one expected now is the omission of Ravi Bopara' - er, Mike Atherton, the Times

Nope, doesn't sound like there's been any kind of leak there... 

Friday 14 August 2009

Little Master, big bat

Thanks to Prabu, here's some of your actual empirical evidence as to the size and shape of that most mythical and productive of weapons, Sachin Tendulkar's bat [you can read the story of how Sachin came to hand it over in the comments beneath this post].

Weight: 3lbs 2oz [1.4 kilos]

Edge at its thickest: 1.25"

Bow of the bat at its meatiest point: 2.25"

So it's true: the Tendulkar bat does top 3lbs. And as Prabu points out, not everyone can bat with it...

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Phil Space: The New Understanding

Sportswriters, give it up. It's over. Not the Ashes, obviously. The Phil Space Trophy.  

Step forward Jonathan Freedland, and a quite majestic 1,227-word [yes really] Guardian odyssey entitled, 'I never understood people's fixation with cricket. Now I've joined them'

On 'vacation' in France [who'd guess] Jonathan's new obsession ['The Blackberry had a single purpose: allowing me, via its internet browser, to keep up to date with the cricket'] not only interrupted his viewing of 'a stunning Albigensian castle', it had him pondering 'a thoroughly absorbing long-haul clash. While a Manchester United versus Chelsea battle might be all over in ninety minutes, England's business with Australia takes all summer'. 

'The rhythms of the game are like life itself, only more so: the gods smile on you one moment, only to frown the next'. 

They do, don't they. 

Now Hayward, Syed, Athers, Selves and the rest: top that!

Tuesday 11 August 2009

State of England

Justin Langer's dissection of the English condition was the best thing in the papers this weekend, but even JL, frothing away at his keyboard in sunny Somerset, didn't pick up on one of our greatest traits: our telling weakness for the past.

We don't have a word for it, but the Portuguese do. It's saudade, which means something along the lines of 'nostalgia for a time and place that never really existed'. 

It's a very English concept when you think about it, and it's the one behind the calls for Mark Ramprakash to come back. There's a tremendous romance about the idea, for several reasons. Firstly, English cricket loves its old warriors - Washbrook, Cowdrey, Close, Steele, all called up for a last mission in front of the guns. We trust that concept for exactly the reasons Australia mistrust it: for what it says, for what it means. 

Ramprakash also embodies the desire for a happy ending, the need for reality to match up to the kind of redemptive storylines you get in novels and films. The weight of his fame [which comes in part from his success on reality TV] plays into it, too, as does the British sense of fair play. All of those runs must amount to something, after all. 

But is is nostalgia, it is romance. Ramprakash and Graeme Hick were my  favourite English players of their era. They mean more to me than Atherton or Hussain or Stewart; I'd rather watch either of them get 40 than see Thorpe get a hundred. They were special in their way. Ramprakash's achievements over the last four years have a great nobility about them because they've been built by his pure love of batting. 

Yet if Ramps played at the Oval, it wouldn't just be about England needing a number three. It would be about the baggage he brings with him, his own and ours. We'd be asking him to bat not for his future, but for his past. And that's a very English thing.

NB: Strangely, the one way it might work would be if Ramprakash were not the only change, and Key went in ahead of him. That would skew the expectation, redistribute the pressure more evenly, make it less about either of them and more about the team as a whole. Wonder what JL would do...

Separated at birth?

* UFC lightweight champion. He kicks ass, too. 

Saturday 8 August 2009

Know what I mean?

Had been scratching about for a sporting analogy to sum up this Ashes series, and as England blundered around yesterday it came to me: it's Frank Bruno versus Oliver McCall.

The man in one corner past his best but still beloved of his country, a nearly man, a noble giant, superficially in great shape, proficient against lesser opponents, exposed when challenging for the big titles, but a fighter possessed of a sunny determination to make things right even as he drinks in the last-chance saloon.

The other corner a champion, not one of the great champions of the past, but one still possessed of great physical gifts. A flake, though, too, capable of kayoing Lennox Lewis one week and crying in the ring the next. 

They begin to fight, and somehow, against the odds, almost miraculously, Big Frank gets ahead. He boxes steadily, building a lead as he realises that his opponent is on the slide, not what he was, highly strung and all over the place. The crowd's belief grows along with Big Frank's. The middle rounds tick by, only a couple left now - come on Big Man! - Frank so far ahead he can't be caught, only knocked out, running short of gas, legs slowing up, face puffing but still in there.

And then it happens, with the end in sight, McCall, the Atomic Bull, the man with a chin of granite, finds a punch from somewhere, and Big Frank, desperately tired, does what he always does, hits the ropes, straight-backed, legs stiff, chin hanging out. Only a minute to go, but a desperate, endless one as the crowd look through their fingers at this horror film, one they've seen played out plenty of times before, the one with the unhappy ending... Come on Frank, hold on, son. Just stay upright and you've got a chance...

Big Frank did it of course. McCall couldn't quite land the conclusive blow, even though he was eminently capable of it. Frank had big bloody tears in his eyes when they called his name out as the winner, barely had the strength to get his arms above his head... tremendous, it was... moving somehow. 

Not the greatest fight of all time, but a great night. Bit like this series... Come on Frank, lad...

Wednesday 5 August 2009


Further to the post below, Ceci wondered what drives sales of bats to club players. It's a good question. A while ago I had the chance to speak to Rob Pack, who made bats for Puma [he's a bowler himself, naturally...] and the subject arose. He looked up from his drawknife and said wearily, 'the stickers. You've got to have good stickers these days...'

He wasn't being entirely serious, but they play a role. A new design that catches on works, too*. Classics like the Gray-Nicolls scoop [awesome bats, got my first ever hundred with one] and its offshoot the four-scoop that Gower used [I think] on his Test debut; Stuart Surridge's immortal Jumbo, wielded by Goochie and King Viv; the Slazenger V12 with its cool little hump on the back, and so on. 

The right endorsee plays into it too. Saint Peter got big on the back of Tony Greig wearing the mittens; Duncan Fearnley had Beefy during the 1981 Ashes; Woodworm were briefly huge with Flintoff and KP on board.

Ultimately though, I've only ever bought a bat on feel. Sometimes I've come out of the shop surprised by what I've gone for. I suspect a lot of people are the same. Would love to know, too, about the market in India and Pakistan, where the big makes aren't ones we see too often here. 

* There has to be a market now for retro bats. I'd love another scoop, however counter-intuitive the design. In the meantime, Jrod is debuting the Hawk, which will be worth reading...

Tuesday 4 August 2009

There is a Gid

Jrod put up the link to Gideon Haigh's address at Oxford, 'Cricket And The Media: The Pantomime Horse'

It's as good as you'd expect, and the opening point about the mediated experience of watching the modern game is superbly made.  The only defence against that experience, I'd say, is to trust the evidence of your own eyes - or at least take note of who's doing the mediating. 

NB: I actually misread the first line. I thought he'd said: 'Cricket and the media... the topic has haunted me since Bopara suggested it'. Now that would have been something...

Cost-benefit analysis

Stephon Marbury isn't famous in Britain, but he's a pretty useful NBA basketball player who did something that made a difference to his sport. Growing up he couldn't afford expensive branded shoes, so when he made it, he launched his own line, Starbury. They retailed at $14.98. Marbury didn't just endorse them, he wore them when he played. 

'If you take my shoe and a $150 shoe and cut it down in half, it does exactly the same thing,' he said.

Cricket bats don't really equate to basketball shoes. The quality and rarity of the wood, the skill of the batmaker, the intrinsic individuality, prevent it. But there's probably a similar emotional investment. And there's a certain similarity to the financial investment, too. Today I made a random, ad hoc chart of bats used and/or endorsed by Ashes players*:

Ricky Ponting Kookaburra Kahuna: £342.99

Gunn & Moore Icon DXM [Ravi Bopara]: £334.99

Adidas Pellara Elite [Kevin Pietersen]: £329.99

Adidas Incurza Elite [Ian Bell]: £329.99

Gray-Nicolls Ignite Pro-Performance [Andrew Strauss]: £324.99

Puma Iridium GTR [Andrew Flintoff]: £320.00

All of those manufacturers offer cheaper versions, made of lesser wood. But there are plenty of smaller batmakers who will make the equivalent for less, it's just that the players don't endorse them.

This isn't a criticism per se. The best are entitled to the best, and to the commercial opportunity. But imagine if someone like Marbury walked out in a Test match with something a little different.

* Stated recommended retail prices. Most shops knock a sizeable chunk off. 

Monday 3 August 2009

Size matters

My dad was in his loft the other day, and he pulled down a vintage bat of mine from a trunk he'd last opened years ago. We looked at it and laughed. It's a County [now Hunts County] Insignia. It must weigh about 2lbs 4oz. It's wafer thin and so dark it seems to have been smothered in fake tan rather than linseed oil. It's maybe twenty years old, but on the evolutionary scale it's a fish that's crawled up onto the beach: it has more in common with Grace's bat than with Ponting's. 

We took it down to the nets. At first it was psychologically disturbing to face up with: I felt almost unarmed, outgunned. When I looked down, there was none of the testosterone-fuelled outrigging of the modern bat; no power bow or contoured spine, no massive edges or giant sweet spot or chrome-dream stickers. It wasn't named after a greek god and that worried me. If the ball missed the middle it didn't really go anywhere, and the first few that did hit the centre went in the air because the bat was so light I was through the shot before the ball had properly arrived. 

But then I cracked a few, and they went almost as well as any other bat. It was as much a mental as a physical adjustment. I wouldn't use it in a match, I wouldn't want to go back to it, but it taught me one thing: both the bats I'm using at the moment are too heavy. I'd forgotten how freely you can move with a feather in your hands. 

Driving home. I felt like a sucker. Without realising it, and despite telling myself I was far too sussed to be taken in, I'd bought into the myth of modern bats. I'd gone big and thick. Now I want something sleeker, slicker, sexier. Still big, but you know, not that big. 

Sunday 2 August 2009

You'll miss him when he's gone

It was somehow appropriate that Ricky Ponting went past Allan Border's 11,174 Test match runs on a grey day at a foreign field thousands of miles from home; an unflashy push, a smatter of applause, a few hard blinks of his eye, moisture maybe, or a little grit. There was no fuss for or by this most blue-collar of batsmen.

Strange to say, but Ponting deserved better. Circumstances have conspired to drop this mighty accomplishment into the life and times of a fading side in a tight series when other things matter more. The Australian press were preoccupied, the English had different things to write. 

Ponting played it down because that's his nature, a nature that stands in contrast to Lara and Tendulkar, the only men ahead of him now. They are regarded differently to Ponting, differently to everyone, but part of that separation has come from them. Both have embraced that difference, their specialness, far more readily than Ponting has.

Neither were good captains, but their careers will not be considered in that light. Ponting's might. He's not a great captain, he's not always a great man, but he is one of the towering batsmen of the age. This Englishman's cap is doffed.