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.