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...