Saturday 30 January 2010

On winter ground

Just up the road from me is a cricket ground which has been played on every year since 1770, the year that Marie Antionette arrived at the French court and James Cook discovered the coast of Australia. 

It's a typical village ground, by the pub and the duckpond, with a road barely one-car wide around three sides of the boundary, surrounded by old stone houses now worth millions. Today the low winter sun lit it up, frost still clinging to the iron posts that fence off the square. All of the humps and slopes on the outfield made by those hundreds of matches stood out in relief in the hard light. 

You can walk across it on a morning like this and think of Mumbai and Trinidad and Sydney and Columbo and a hundred other, grander places where cricket has travelled to from here, and of the many great players who've never seen this ground, never heard of it, but who have something in common with it. It's quite a place, even in winter.

I've played on it a few times, mainly in junior cricket, and done alright there too. Today, that felt kind of good.  

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Song for clay

Today I had the pleasure of talking to a Professor of Caribbean Studies for an hour or so about West Indies cricket. His understanding was so acute, his arguments so lucid that if the region's administrators had been in the room they may have emerged to find the path forwards illuminated a little more brightly.

The Prof is Guyanese, and as I left I asked him why their batsmen mark the crease by banging a bail into the ground.

'The land is Amazonian clay,' he said. 'There's very little sand. In the dry season, it's as hard as concrete. Most of them don't have spikes. They wear soft shoes. Banging the bail in is the only way you can make a mark in Amazonian clay'.

NB: He also gave me a copy of his latest book, which I look forward to.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Things we need this century that we didn't in the last

If I were a manufacturer of cricket gear, I'd be working on a heat-resistant or frictionless bat tape that could be applied to the edges as normal but that doesn't show any contact under Hotspot.

And I wouldn't be telling anyone about it, either...

Thursday 21 January 2010

Ssssh - it's you know who

It was common knowledge throughout the cricketing world that sledging Vivian Richards was on the whole counter-productive. Younger county pros coming up against the great man for the first time were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to button it when he arrived at the crease.

Unfortunately, skippers could do nothing about the crowd winding him up, as a terrific interview in the new Wisden Cricketer reveals:

Did anyone dislike your famous leisurely walk to the crease?
VR: 'There were crowds who wanted to test me, especially in a hostile environment like Yorkshire. 'Hurry up' they'd say. That's why, when you look at the records and you see Vivian Richards' record against Yorkshire, I think I could be high up where averages and runs are concerned. Sometimes you get crowds who give you that opportunity to hate everyone. My beef was with them. And the guys who were representing them on the field were going to suffer. That was a simple, plain fact.'

It didn't help England much either:
'You had guys who didn't believe in the black man. If you feel you are superior to me, you should be knocking me over every goddamn time. There were a few assholes out there. All these factors were motivation for how my innings would go'.

And we all know how most of his innings went. That's why he's the King, my friends...

Monday 18 January 2010

Dinner For Five

The ideal dinner party question has long been a staple of newspaper interview Q&As. The Guardian has it in its Saturday mag at the moment. It's always a variation of 'which five guests would you invite to your perfect dinner party?' to which the chosen sleb says stuff like 'Shakespeare, Tiger Woods, George Best, Pamela Anderson and Genghis Khan' or some combination thereof.

Last night I was pondering, as I often do, the great WG, when the dinner party question cropped up. So, for a cricketers-only private bash, who would it be? For me, it's

WG Grace
CB Fry
Bad Baz Richards
Geoffrey Boycott
Shane Warne [well, you need a bowler to sledge]

And there'd be a fine port waiting for the good doctor by the fireside...

Six against five

England's capitulation yesterday can be put down to attrition as much anything else. The six batsmen, four bowler equation has them trapped over long series: they require six batsmen to score all the runs that you need with four bowlers, but they have four bowlers because five batsmen can't score enough runs. 

History says that unless your four bowlers include names like Marshall, Holding, Warne or McGrath, you need five. England need five. The difference on the speedgun at the Wanderers between Anderson and Broad and Morkel and Steyn was telling. England's bowlers were knackered, and the resting of Onions actually made sense, even if there's a debate to be had over his replacement.*

The solution must lie with five batsmen. Six makes it too comfortable, too easy to phone it in for a match or two. Which five should now be the puzzle, starting in Bangladesh. My money is on Ian Bell opening with Cook... You read it here first.

* Matthew Hoggard must have been looking at Sidebottom's speedgun readings with a wry eye. Steve Harmison - from memory the last England bowler before Sidebottom to puke on the pitch - must be pondering his big red face. So what hold does Siders have over the selectors? He even gets to bat above Jimmy Anderson, which is an interesting choice, to say the least. 

Saturday 16 January 2010

Flintoff's Knee: more Grassy Knoll news

Events at the Wanderers prove that cock-up tends to trump conspiracy [especially when Daryl Harper has his hand on the tiller], but what are we to make of the news of Andrew Flintoff's knee, so easily buried by current events?

Because Flintoff's operation has gone so well, he's er, had to have another operation. 

'The latest update from the specialist indicates that Fred's right knee is recovering better than anyone expected following surgery for a micro-fracture,' said Mike Watkinson, Lancashire's Director of Cricket. 'It's this very positive report which has led to Fred's decision to play more than just one-day cricket for Lancashire'.

So positive that Flintoff has undergone 'a routine arthroscopy to check on the healing of his knee' - a workaday glimpse inside the joint that will take a mere six months to recover from, and involve him missing the original return dates he  set of England's ODIs in Bangladesh and the far less lucrative knockabouts in the IPL 2010. 

Indeed, it's an operation so unremarkable that Flintoff didn't bother including it on the latest progress update on his official blog, posted on December 22, let alone mention the possibility of it happening at the time of the original surgery, which came two days after the last Ashes Test.

Michael Vaughan was first to reassure the public that Fred had nothing to worry about via his stint on TMS, reassuring at least until one remembers Vaughan's position as business development manager at ISM, Flintoff's management company. 

None of which is intended as a dig at Andrew Flintoff, someone who has greatly enlivened England's cricket for a decade. Such blatant media spin reflects less well on his advisors. He's fighting for his career at the moment, and all lovers of the game will wish him well. 

Friday 15 January 2010

Double jeopardy

The moon landings faked, Lady Di offed by Prince Philip the 12-foot Lizard, 9/11 as an inside job... now add Graeme Smith given not out caught behind off Ryan Sidebottom at the Wanderers, 15 January 2010. Remember where you were when it happened.

TMS were first with the information that Daryl Harper, the third umpire, was not given the sound feed by host broadcasters SABC, and thus failed to hear what the rest of the world was hearing via many replays - the beefy nick from the beefy edge of the beefy Saffer skipper's bat.

Boycott was on air at the time and was instantly engaging, pointing out that most systems take time to settle, and that the ICC's Dave Richardson had done a good job in progressing the UDRS from its shambolic beginnings. He added too, that its advance is as inevitable as its mistakes.

All is true, but equally, like the slightly shifty enquiries so beloved of the Brown Government, the reliance on broadcasters for the decision-making equipment does open a gap in which conspiracies, however unlikely, can prosper. Long before the UDRS, when technology was just a TV toy, there were whispers that producers were adjusting pitch maps inwards when home sides were facing leg before shouts.

It's a point made here several times - the game must provide and pay for the equipment. And if an umpire like Harper is told the sound feed or anything else isn't available, he should be able to ask why not.

Smith got away with one, as players have been doing since the dawn of the game. But somehow the injustice is compounded when a player gets away with it twice. Buy a lotto ticket this weekend, Graeme, because your luck's in...

NB: Boycott is on rambunctious form at the moment. As well as his duties for TMS, he occasionally provides a pre-play report for the breakfast show on Radio Five Live, where he's generally interrogated by Sheila Fogerty. There were some hair-raising moments when he started, usually due to his dismissive references to Fogerty as 'luv'. But lately they've become quite a double act, to the point that this morning Fogerty felt emboldened enough to ask Geoffrey if the rumour they'd just heard that he has 'Sir Geoffrey Boycott' printed on his cheques was true. 'Oo told you that?' The great man asked. 'A South African journalist did...? he must be a double agent...'

Update from the Grassy Knoll: 'Just hearing that third umpire Daryl Harper had his volume dial set on four out of 10 when Smith's caught behind appeal was referred to him this morning. This just gets more ludicrous by the hour. Expect statements from the South African Broadcasting Corporation and the International Cricket Council in an attempt to mollify this debacle' [BBC, thanks to Brit for the spot...]

Thursday 14 January 2010

Pull the other one

Two out of form batsmen, two pull shots, one caught, one dropped, one gone for seven, one 137 not out... Well you know - is there a god or isn't there? Depends on which player you ask.

Last night I sat up to see the start of Australia-Pakistan. Katich lumbered in front of one early and got video-replayed out. Ponting came in and hoiked his first short ball to Mohammad Aamer. Didn't have to move. Spilled it like the U17 player he is... Ponting, remarkably, carried on pulling. It took him about two hours to hit one even half-decently.

This morning, Pietersen got in early against South Africa, drilled one down the ground like a man who'd remembered where his stumps were, then hoiked a short ball straight to midwicket. Wayne Parnell caught it like the U19 player so recently was.

Both shots seemed nervously offered, both though came from the machismo of the big player. Ponting played it because he'd told the press he was going to. He was raging against the dying of the light. Pietersen played it because in his head he's the kind of player who plays the pull shot. No surrender.

A coach will tell you to put the cross-bat shots away until your timing comes back and you can read the speed of the pitch. Yet Pietersen and Ponting and the like stand above conventional wisdom. They'll tell you that the pull shot is the symbol of their dominance. They just have to accept the capricious nature of fate from time to time.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Note to Graeme Smith, Mickey Arthur et al

Although it's rather confusingly known as international cricket, you're only allowed to pick players from South Africa* to play for you.

* So are England, though. 

How we hate it when our 'friends' become successful...

The sunday papers are awash with the glorious rehabilitation of Ian Bell [yes, him again], which highlights that quandary all followers of team sports will find themselves in from time to time: how does it feel when the player you don't think should be there does well?

It's a strange state of mind. Their success in some way rebukes your judgement, confronts your arguments against them, makes you feel dumb. And yet success it is, for the good of the team.

It depends a little on whether your dislike of the player is rational and reasoned or whether it's personal, whether it hurts. Prejudice is one of the natural states of fandom, after all. I can say with a clear conscience that I enjoyed watching Bell bat in both innings at Newlands. They showed his range as a batsman, and, as most innings do, provoked his weaknesses too. He came through for his team in a meaningful last afternoon's cricket, and it was not just an individual victory - it rather pleasingly reinforced the decision making of captain and coach. And it shoved it up the Saffers, too, of course...

It's notable also how success recasts Bell's efforts in the Ashes. His couple of patchy of fifties, especially the one in the first dig at the Oval, have a different glow; their positives, rather than the negatives, are reinforced.

A note of caution: Bell himself seems to be under the impression [in his interviews at least] that he has repaid the investment in him, a notion Andy Flower went to some lengths to disabuse him of yesterday.

NB: An insightful piece from Michael Vaughan [yes, really] on the KP conundrum today, too. Wonders will never cease...

Friday 8 January 2010

Bell and Colly and the infinite sadness [of Graeme Smith]

In common with other outlets this column might have given the impression that Ian Bell was undeserving of his place in the England side, never scored runs unless other people did and responded to pressure a bit like Lance Kluesener used to. 

In fact, we're happy to acknowledge that Mr Bell is the new Steve Waugh, flint-hearted with gunslinger's eyes, the wicket the oppo want back in the hutch most...

Well sort of. Credit where it's due, Bell was tough, resilient and played the situation. I'll buy the rest when he does it regularly. There were many words on 'breakthrough innings' from Ramprakash and Hick, too.

Steyn's spell to Collingwood after lunch was supreme Test match cricket. Steyn was magnificent, Colly unyielding. It's how things should be. 

Smith made one mistake: not realising England were playing at a venue beginning with the letter 'C'. Cardiff, Centurian, Capetown...

NB: Credit too to England's captain, coach and selectors. They have fit the system to the available players, rather than vice versa. They will need five bowlers at some point, if only to stop Jimmy Anderson taking years off his life... 

Thursday 7 January 2010

KP: opinion divided [again]

There must be something 'wrong' with Kevin Pietersen, because he's not scored a hundred a full six innings into his comeback - that's the media view at least. There were contrasting opinions as to why from Mike Atherton on Sky and Geoffrey Boycott on TMS [paraphrased here].

Athers: 'He's at that stage of his career where he has to decide what he wants from the game. Players get married, kids come along, travelling's different, priorities change and you have to ask yourself what kind of player you want to be remembered as, how much the game means to you, how many runs you want to score.'

Boycott: 'He's a big man, six feet four, and his height means he can get much closer to the pitch of the ball than most players. But he's only taking half a stride. His bat's two and a half feet in front of his pad, he's walking towards the ball, his front leg's stiff and his whole right side is getting turned around. He just needs to play straight'.

No prizes for guessing which one of these men played in the era of the sports psychologist...

'He's a great lad, I like him a lot and I like his batting,' concluded Boycs. 'But he won't listen to anybody. He just says, that's the way I play, take it or leave it'. 

Remind you of anyone, does he Geoffrey?

NB: Not that the great Yorkshireman is blind to the new age

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Ooooh, you are awful...

Watching Paul Harris bowl with a couple of close catchers, it was apparent that the shout of 'oooh' that used to be reserved for one beating the bat or at least producing some form of doubt from the batsman is now uttered when the ball rings from the middle, or when a bog-standard delivery is patted back down the wicket. 

When did that start, exactly? Have they always done it, and we just never knew without stump mics? Did Fred Titmus used to grunt after every twirl? Did John Emburey do it to King Viv? Or did it originate as a Warne mind-game - 'yeah, you middled that mate... just like I wanted you to...'

Answers on a postcard...

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Years Of The Bat

Bowlers, those poor saps, have never had it so bad. Or maybe they've never bowled so badly. A quick glance at the Test figures for 2009 prompted this entirely arbitrary and unscientific bit of research:

Year: 2009
No. of batsmen averaging more than 50: 27
No. of batsmen making 1000+ runs in the calendar year: 7

No. of bowlers taking more than 30 wickets: 9
No. of bowlers averaging less than 30 per wicket: 15

Year: 2005
No. of batsmen averaging more than 50: 18
No. of batsmen making 1000+ runs in the calendar year: 7

No. of bowlers taking more than 30 wickets: 15
No. of bowlers averaging less than 30 per wicket: 22

Year: 2000
No. of batsmen averaging more than 50: 16
No. of batsmen making 1000+ runs in the calendar year: 2

No. of bowlers taking more than 30 wickets: 9
No. of bowlers averaging less than 30 per wicket: 29

Year: 1990
No. of batsmen averaging more than 50: 11
No. of batsmen making 1000+ runs in the calendar year: 1

No. of bowlers taking more than 30 wickets: 8
No. of bowlers averaging less than 30 per wicket: 14

Year: 1980
No. of batsmen averaging more than 50: 5
No. of batsmen making 1000+ runs in the calendar year: 0

No. of bowlers taking more than 30 wickets: 9
No. of bowlers averaging less than 30 per wicket: 21

Year: 1970
No. of batsmen averaging more than 50: 8
No. of batsmen making 1000+ runs in the calendar year: 0

No. of bowlers taking more than 30 wickets: 0
No. of bowlers averaging less than 30 per wicket: 6

i] I've only counted the 50+ averages of those who've scored more than 250 runs, and the bowling averages of those who've taken more than 10 wickets

ii] In 2005, Shane Warne took 96 wickets [!]

iii] In 2000, Andy Flower was one of the two batsmen to make 1000+ runs, from just 9 Tests

iv] The amount of runs and wickets becomes less relevant the further back you go, purely because of the lower number of Tests played.

v] In 1970, pre-ODIs, the most Tests played by any one player was six. Ian Redpath made the most runs in the year - 530.

vi] It's interesting to try and weigh say Boycott's average of 47.72 against for example Gautam Gambhir's 56.73 [and that's not to diminish the excellent Gautam].

Modern Isms

An example of the tangled and connected nature of the world courtesy of Tom Redfern at Get A Hundred.

Sport and politics, eh?

Saturday 2 January 2010

Bo selector

England's selectors were last night said to be 'as united as ever' in their desire to continue to pick the iconic cricketer Ian Bell on the tour of South Africa and beyond. 

'People say it must be a decision of huge symbolism for the country,' commented Geoff Miller, 'but we don't shirk that responsibility. Ian's presence in the side sends a message of hope to all of those young kids who aspire one day to hold a central contract. Moving him up and down the batting order until he finally gets some runs says, 'once you sign that contract, you will not be dropped'. Ian represents that significant minority of Test batsman who find it hard to average 40 in this age of useless bowling and flat wickets'. 

In the back of Miller's mind was no doubt the lack of public outcry when Bell was uncontroversially dropped in the West Indies last year, and later when a man who'd played one game was handed his spot at number three. 'We do have the contingency to push Ian down as far as number eight behind Swann and Broad if we have to,' Miller concluded. 

Nelson Mandela sent a message to the ECB praising Miller's stand. 'It is a beacon of hope to our own country to see Bell walking out when the fourth wicket falls and there's a collapse on,' he said.