Friday 30 July 2010

Late baby, late

I like to think of Duncan Fletcher siting in front of the cricket on the sofa at home, still in his England top, sunhat and shades. Periodically, Mrs Fletch will find that he has silently arrived at her shoulder, where he'll whisper in her ear something like, 'KP's head has fallen outside the line again'...

He remains a supreme technical analyst, which is why his Guardian columns are always good value. Yesterday's was about playing swing bowling. He points out the error of Shane Watson's ways before advocating again his trademark forward press to counter late-ducking swing at pace.

That still requires two movements of the batsman, and even Fletch admits it's a hard thing to get right. To me it's just a new take on the old maxim, 'see it early, play it late'. The very greatest batsmen, Tendulkar for example, just stand still while they pick up the line. It's easier then to play later, because there's less going on.

Eion Morgan played beautifully late yesterday. People wonder how he seems to score so quickly without battering the ball. The answer is that he gets full value for his shots because he so rarely hits it at the fielder. Like Lara he strokes it where they're not, waiting for the ball and using subtle angles of the bat. Fletch approved, I'm sure...

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Cricket in Leeds, cricket in Columbo

In Leeds last week, the ninth wicket of the Test fell in the 32nd over. Australia had scored 86. In Columbo, it's lunch on day four. The ninth wicket of the match has yet to fall. Both sides have batted. 1,119 runs have been scored from 292 overs.

They're all playing the same game, or at least that's the theory.

Monday 26 July 2010

To serve them all his days

Sussex faded away passively last night in their T20 quarter-final with Notts. They were missing a couple of guns in Prior and Dwayne Smith, and there was an unfamiliar little hole in the lower middle-order too. Robin Martin-Jenkins has slipped away to a better place.

RM-J was a name like no other, not just because of the famous - and rightly proud - father, but with its feel for the amateur days of decades past. There was something of the curate about him, and the Sussex faithful would sometimes serenade him with a chorus of 'RM-J my Lord' as he bustled in with his quicker-than-you-think medium pacers.

So fittingly he has gone to a higher calling, retiring mid-season to take up a place as a geography and religious studies teacher at Hurstpierpoint college on the Sussex Downs. There, his anachronistic life will continue: Hurstpierpoint is one of those schools that only really exist in England. Each Ascension Day, every member of the college climbs a nearby hill and at the top gather together to sing Hymnus Eucharisticus, a big hit in the 17th century. At Christmas, there's a boar's head feast, the boar carried through cloisters as the choir sing Caput Apri Defero, a big hit in the 15th century. The school has performed a Shakespeare play every year since 1854.

In all it sounds quite a lot like a county dressing room, albeit with slightly different songs and more Shakespeare. It's somehow comforting that RM-J will see out his days there, a man gloriously out of time.

Saturday 24 July 2010

There will be blood

It was an end of empire sorta day today in Leeds. Pakistan beat Australia for the first time in 15 years, and if you think about it, that was probably a breach of the last of the records laid down in the immortal era of Aussie dominance. In the last couple of months, they've lost a best of five one-day series to England after three games, lost two T20s to Pakistan and drawn a Test series with a side whose new captain quit after one match.

There will be blood, most likely Marcus North's, although England would be delighted if they retained him. Slots in the Australian batting order used to be once in a generation things. More people were abducted by aliens than got one of those six spaces. Now the stasis is broken.

The old way would have been like-for-like, maybe Usman Kawaja for North. But maybe the time has come for a more daring reshuffle. There is an opportunity for them to shift Michael Clarke to three before he becomes Test captain, allow Punter to adopt the late-era Border/Waugh role a little further from the early gunfire and perhaps get Watson out of the stop-gap opener role to something more suitable in the middle order.

There should be a little succession planning, too. An unsuccessful Ashes with a barely-changed order could see a cull involving Katich, Ponting and Hussey, who are all nearer 40 than 30. Plugging those holes all at once might take years.

John Buchanan was fond of Sun-Tzu. One of the old warlord's faves was, 'always do what your enemy would want least'. So which would England want least? This:


Or this?


With Haddin at seven and Smith at eight, the latter would beat England.

Friday 23 July 2010

44,039 and out

As someone once said of someone else, nothing became him so much as the manner of his leaving. Murali's joy yesterday was, as it usually is, infectious. As a player and as a man he has overcome much.

The only question worth asking when considering his legacy is, was he good for the game? The only possible answer is yes, and more than that, his good stretched beyond the game. Even the vexed question of his shoulder revealed something about the nature of bowling and straight arms. Can anyone truthfully say that things would have been better without the demonic whirr of his off-spin?

So it was good to feel the joy in some of the writing about him. Here's Mike Selvey in the Guardian on why he'll never be overtaken [on that point, Selv finds himself in disagreement with Graeme Swann - wonder who Swanny thinks will do it...?], and a couple of terrific pieces on facing the man from opposing ends of the batting order, firstly from the last man to take a hundred from him, Viru Sehwag, and then from the tail-ender's tail-ender, former Notts spinner Andy Afford. Guess which one Murali didn't get out...

Thursday 22 July 2010

Greatness due

Barry Richards was 65 yesterday, but in the mind's eye he remains young, blue cap pulled down over a fuzz of hair, the white teeth and the gunslinger's eyes, feet close together in his stance but then that huge stride and the glorious, utterly certain arc of the bat, and the ball flashing through cover or down the ground.. Ah yes, the legend still lives.

There's never anyone else quite like your childhood hero. Richards had an aura that time cannot diminish. He lost his Test career for a far wider good, but the sadness hung over him because his talent was so obvious, so great. We and he never saw the limits of it. What's certain is that they were distant and unexplored. Richards could summon his brilliance almost at will. He made 80 first class hundreds, nine of them before lunch. He scored 325 in a day against an attack that featured Dennis Lillee. He was the dominant half of the greatest opening partnership of all in county cricket, and as Gordon Greenidge wrote in his autobiography, 'it was not uncommon for the applause to be ringing round the ground for his fifty while I was still in single figures'. And Gordon was not a man know for his reticence in attack.

Richards was sometimes disillusioned by the prospect of yet more bowlers, yet more runs, a disillusionment unfathomable to those of us who would love a fleeting afternoon with a fraction of his skill, yet understandable too because he yearned for greatness due, he knew that his batting needed the validation of the greatest bowlers at their fiercest running in at him.

He had that sometimes, and maybe more often that he thought. His was the last golden era of county cricket - Hampshire's other overseas player was Andy Roberts, and there was no bowler that Richards did not have his chance with.

So happy birthday Bas, and don't sweat the little things. You were the man, and you live.

Monday 19 July 2010

The drugs do work

Much is written about the potential damage to the game caused by the IPL, T20, full grounds and lots of money. Some of it may be true, although the future has a way of not doing what you think it will.

T20's big threat is the one no-one is writing about. I realised it again when I heard a county coach saying something along the lines of, all the young players he now had coming his way 'just want to get in the gym, bulk up and smack the ball miles'. It's entirely logical that they should, too.

Some of them will want it more than others, and some of them will do it with drugs. It's inevitable that cricket will have a steroid bust within a few years. It only needs to look at baseball - a close cousin in terms of the required skill sets - for a nightmare vision of the future. For a while baseball was like the wild west, guys getting jacked up and obliterating hitting records that had stood for decades with little fear of punishment or regulation. Ultimately it was only the opprobrium of the fans, who took exception to cherished records having asterisks placed next to them in the books, that ended the freakishness.

Sports like cycling, bodybuilding and athletics have been giant labs for steroid makers for years. The manufacturers and the suppliers and the coaches remain a distance ahead of the testers in terms of knowledge and ingenuity. There are, no doubt, new versions of drugs being used now that will not be detected for years. The last major bust - of Victor Conte's BALCO lab in San Francisco - did not come about from positive testing, but from a whistleblower. Otherwise, Conte, and by extension Marion Jones, Tim Montgomerie and Dwayne Chambers, might never have been caught. Cycling's regulators are now freezing samples for testing decades into the future, when they've finally worked out what they might be looking for.

The truth about steroids is that they work. That's why athletes take them. Applied with knowledge and care to the right dietary and training methods, they are low risk, high reward drugs.

Cricket has never had a problem, and so its culture is not prepared for one. It's a bit like a big house with its back door unlocked and the owners on holiday. The combination of financial reward, worldwide fame and a variant of the sport increasingly reliant on power mean that the drugs are coming. It had better get ready, like it or not.

Thursday 15 July 2010

The curse of the Lord's Honours Board[s]

The man who inks the famous honours boards at Lord's - those small wooden panels that grant cricketing immortality to the names upon them - finally got as far as the letters S-H-A-N-E W-A yesterday.

But then he had to finish them off with a T-S-O-N after Watto's shock spell of wibbly-dibblies under the glowering skies. He'll be there forever, unlike Warnie, whose best return at Lord's was 4-57.

The board will, in all likelihood, never bear the name of RT Ponting, either, nor those of Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar. It's quite astonishing that the giants of modern batting have played a combined 11 times at Lord's and their highest individual score there is Lara's 54. Imrul Kayes can beat that, as can Mitchell Johnson.

Murali's name is not there either - his best is 3-158.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Being aware of Shane Warne's awareness

Warnie's back in the commentary box at Lord's after doing all his chips at the World Series of Poker. And he's brought a new phrase with him: 'match awareness'.

Unsurprisingly, Mike Hussey was best at match awareness, showing it when he clobbered Danish Kaneria for a six and four to take the pressure off Tim Paine, who was becalmed on debut; and when he kept nicking the strike.

Mohammad Asif was the worst at it, because he was allowing Hussey singles with his slacker fielding.

So, 'match awareness'. Expect all of the Sky Boys to be using it before long. It's when you do something good or bad, in a match situation.

NB: Asif's fielding was slack by world standards. By Pakistan's standards, it was perfectly acceptable. It's another reason to love Pakistan - they don't give a toss about fielding. It's for squares [let's introduce the term 'square fielding' for one of those long sprints around the boundary followed by a dive that rakes the ball back into play, forcing you to run after it again before you can throw it in, saving an absolute maximum of one run: 'that was a terrific bit of square fielding down at third man by Ian Bell...'].

Monday 12 July 2010

The awe-inspiring ugliness of Jonathan Trott

Sportsmen, unlike sports fans, are generally pragmatists. For lovers of aesthetic beauty, cricket is a game of how. For the people who play it for a living, it's a game of how many. But even pragmatism has its limits, apparently.

Having watched him bat for hours already this year, it's evident that you can only tell if Jonathan Trott is in form by looking in the scorebook. If there are runs in there, he is. If there aren't, he isn't. There's no point looking at him because it will just provoke pain: the endless obsessive ritual of chicken-scratching the crease, the frowns and grimaces, the rictus of tension in the neck...

And that's just before the ball comes down. When it does, it might be shovelled through midwicket off the back foot, or bunted behind square with a cut, or functionally push-driven through cover [with a truncated follow-through, natch - no flourish necessary].

Trott hurts the eye. He is not alone in this. What's interesting is how far aesthetics intrude into the judgement of a player. To take an obvious example, compare David Gower to Allan Border. Gower - 8,000 odd runs at 44. Border 11,000-ish runs at 50. Yet when greatness in batting is discussed, Gower is mentioned, misty-eyed, as often as nuggety AB is left out. In the mind's eye, Gower exists as an idyll. It's a struggle to remember too many of Border's shots [especially if you're English...], and yet palpably he was the better, more important cricketer.

Trotters is used to mixed messages. After one Test he was a saviour. After South Africa, he was a weirdo, after Bangladesh a dupe. During this summer, a career that has brought him a Test average of 50 with one hundred and one double in nine games, and an ODI average of 70 with a hundred and a 90 in six matches, he has been regarded with a combination of suspicion and doubt.

Partly, that is because of aesthetics. Stress tells on his face and his body language. Unable to offer anything that looks more than functional, it's hard for him to excite the imagination, even of the pragmatists in the dressing room. If he'd produced exactly the same set of figures, but batted like Mark Ramprakash while he did it, we wouldn't even be having the conversation.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Bowling, Warnie...

Having faced Murali [see post below] I knew that Henry had been touched by a kind of mad genius when he came up with Merlyn. He'd built it in his barn, essentially alone, from bits of old things he had lying around, and here was a miracle from a kids' comic book- a machine that could replicate any bowler.

'In fact,' he said, 'it can do more than a bowler can. If you wanted to set it up to bowl a ball that turned twenty feet, you could'. It could also deliver extreme swing at extreme pace - upwards of 100mph. Matthew programmed it, just to show me. The ball came out like a laser, a red blur that screamed into the bottom of the stumps and scattered them yards back into the net. No man could have hit it. Henry had named Merlyn after the Welsh magician of Arturian legend. It was a fitting one.

The exact experience of facing Murali or Warne or any bowler was of course only possible in person. There were some parts of that experience that no machine could overcome. In his book The Art And Science Of Cricket, Bob Woolmer writes about the heavy amounts of information that a batsman gains before the bowler delivers, key indicators of length, line and pace that come from the run-up and action. The great players read these better than the rest. Facing Merlyn, they are denied you. He has no run-up [how cool would it be if he had...] , just the traffic light and the dead man's glare. Matthew estimated that you had to allow 10mph for the lack of a run and a bowling action - for example, to replicate pace of 90mph in terms of reaction time, Merlyn would have to be set at 80. All of these clues were programmed in.

And yet facing a machine had ghostly hints of playing Warne. As Merlyn's washing machine head was lowered to the right height, I was already facing a man who wasn't even in the same hemisphere as us. Because any version of Warne comes with his own meaning, his own heft. You're not thinking the one simple, pure thought any batsman should think - 'watch the ball'. You're thinking, 'right, well, the first one will be his stock ball, the huge, drifting leg break, so don't close yourself off, get your pad out of your way, play it with the bat, don't go hard at it, and whatever else you do, for f**k's sake don't chase it when it turns... But then what if it's not the leggie first because that's too obvious, what if it's the slider, or the zooter, or...'

The traffic lights changed. Out sailed the ball in a perfect arc, high and clear. The drift came much later than it looked like it did on TV, and it was more extreme too, crossing the width of the stumps from off to leg, burrowing down through the air with late dip. It pitched somewhere around leg and screwed itself into the mat with a pop, spinning back out hard across the stumps, against the direction in which it had come. I'd lunged forward at it, guessing really, and it zipped right across the face of the bat, missing everything. The keeper would have taken it about a stump outside of off, at almost waist height.

Martin Amis once wrote that real ball-players had 'a natural severity' about everything they did. He was right. This was a different world, with different physics, and not many people could enter it. 'Warnie's leg break, which came down again and again, was subtly different each time, turning a little more, a little less, and each time with that natural severity, spiky and hard. I got a bat on a few. The thought of an attacking shot was almost laughable. The flipper stayed low and zipped into the bat. The googly was pickable only on line. Two overs of it was enough. Two overs of it was exhausting.

Merlyn showed another gap in experience, too, another world to cross. This was a net in a village in Wales with no-one watching. What would this be like in a Test match, maybe your first, with the physical presence of Warne, the aura and the history he brought with him? How do you overcome that?

'Who played it best?' I asked Matthew when he was talking about how the England team had used the machine. 'Ian Bell,' he replied. 'He was like a wall'. Ian Bell, who'd melted at the sight of Warne with a ball in his hand.

Driving home, I thought of Kevin Pietersen, who at Lord's on his debut had hit Warne into the Pavilion balcony. Later that summer, he would reverse sweep Murali for six, and usher in the new age of batting. I understood even more how rare his talent was, the distance apart he stood from the rest of us.

When I shook Henry's hand I told him that if I was rich, I'd commission him to build me a Merlyn. I'd set it up in a barn somewhere and play the world's greatest bowlers whenever I liked.

'Yes,' he said. 'Lots of people say that...'

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Facing Murali [or rather 'Murali']

I have not faced Muttiah Muralitharan. But I've faced the nearest thing to him on god's mighty earth - and I'm not talking about Robert Croft here. In 2006, through a combination of strange and fortuitous circumstances, I drove up into the green hills of South Wales to a sports centre in the middle of a pretty little town to bat against Merlyn, the world's greatest bowling machine.

Merlyn was widely attributed to have helped England win the Ashes the previous year due to its ability to replicate any bowler alive, and in England's case Shane Warne. It had been built out of an old washing machine by a terrifically entertaining eccentric called Henry Pryor, and it was quite miraculous. It went everywhere in an old horse box, and required two men to push it. It had a kind of traffic light system on the front to indicate when the ball was coming, and a large, blank, unblinking eye in the middle, an eye that stared down the wicket like a dead man's before the ball spat from it. On top was a kind of perspex shield that Henry called 'Flintoff's Foil', put there to protect the operator from Fred's ferocious return hits. 'He really slaughtered it,' Henry deadpanned '...when he connected'.

The plan was that I would face two overs of Murali, two overs of Warne and then, to demonstrate the ability of Merlyn to bowl swing, two overs of Matthew Hoggard. A few days beforehand, I'd spoken to someone who had faced the real Murilitharan. 'What's it like?' I'd asked.

'Well,' came the reply, 'you can probably tell which way the ball is spinning sixty per cent of the time. So that leaves forty per cent, which is hard. But the really hard thing is his eyes. You see these huge white eyes staring down the pitch at you. Hypnotic. Then you have ten Sri Lankans standing round the bat, yapping...' He made a 'yap yap' gesture with his hand and sighed sadly.

Merlyn's dead eye stared at me. He was being operated by Henry's son, Matthew. Henry sat in a plastic chair outside of the net, smiling. Matthew punched the computer pad. The machine began to vibrate deeply, its motors whirring. The traffic light went from red to green.

Forget about seeing the ball spin. You could hear the ball spin, such was the torque on it. In the air it was whipping around viciously, swirling in a thermal of its own creation. It flew high above the dead eye of Merlyn, high above my eyeline, as if something underneath it was pushing it upwards. Then it drifted a little in line away from off stump, and then, as it got nearer [and louder], in the last couple of feet of flight, it dipped, landing a good two feet before it looked like it would. Then it bounced as if it had been thrown into the pitch, lept upwards again and smacked into my bottom hand before dropping to the floor.

After a few balls, it got slightly easier to pick how far it was going to spin [yards] and how high it was going to bounce [higher than you thought possible for an off spinner to bounce]. You could get on the back foot, deep in the crease, and knock it away. You could get right forward and hope it hit bat or pad cleanly. You could, with a horrible fear-sweat creeping down your neck and a feeling that the entire universe was now implacably against you, stay in, on a ball-by-ball basis, if your mindset was switched to pure survival.

But you're only going to have an experience like this one once. So why would you do that? Merlyn was programmed to be 'human', in that he would bowl the occasional bad ball. One looked like a full toss. Late in the flight, I realised it was a full toss, and got enough bat on it to get it through mid on, if there hadn't been one. I got semi-cocky. The fear-sweat diminished a degree or two. I waited for the next one from Merlyn's implacable dead eye.

Here it came again - another full toss! I was out to meet it this time, 'Murali' was getting belted. Then it whirred, then it dipped, and then pitched just in front of me and took off - there's no other description for it - took off from leg to off, past the bat, past everything, me stranded halfway down the wicket.

There was laughter. Matthew shouted one word from the far end. 'Doosra'. Then they started laughing again.

It was absolutely unpickable. It looked like a bad ball till it turned out good. I had faced 'Murali'. And I had been done. I had the smallest inkling of what the real thing might be like. Those open eyes. Those men around the bat. That sound that the ball made. That sound...

NB: Will blog tomorrow on facing Warnie. Or rather 'Warnie'.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Shaun of the Undead

There was a wild thing on the loose at Lord's, something freakish from a bad horror movie let out of its cellar, chucked a couple of chunks of raw meat and allowed to roam free over the glowing, hallowed turf.

Shaun Tait's re-emergence, based around this little concept, did something that all others have failed to: came up with a way of enlivening those middle overs in ODI cricket. The very fact that Ponting was forced, by Tait's physical capabilities, to bowl him in one and two over spells, reinvented the pattern of the innings. Here, albeit by accident, was a new tactic, a blueprint.

T20 has given Tait back to the game. He and Nannes were thrilling at the World Cup, too. It's unlikely that Australia would pick Tait and Mitchell Johnson in the same Test match side [how many other bowlers would you need in the team to cover off the various injuries, brain-fades and meltdowns that those two might have at any moment?]. Tait, ultimately, is not a Test match cricketer. He is something new, something different, something modern. He's a freak who foreshadows the forthcoming era of the freak.

Friday 2 July 2010

Objects of Fetish V: Bigger, thicker

I think I've seen a few of these bad boys on show in the domestic T20 competition, albeit [and inevitably] re-stickered to allow for sponsorship.

It's from Black Cat Cricket, a London maker of bespoke bats, and it's a far more intuitive response for the need for big wood in T20 than the Mongoose. The handle's longer, the blade shorter, thus keeping the weight - if not, you'd assume, the balance - pretty standard at a saucy 2lbs 8ozs [for Glamorgan last night, Mark Cosgrove had a standard bat of similar dimensions to the Joker - it weighed 3lbs 4ozs].

As for the edges - man, you could get the first few pages of Lolita onto them, and they couldn't be any ruder. You must get a little shiver looking down at those as you await the bowler. Oh yes.

Thursday 1 July 2010

The Eye has it

KP's somewhat dubious LBW at the Oval yesterday prompted a debate about Hawkeye on TMS. Jonathan Agnew said he'd attended a recent demo of its powers at Lord's that had convinced him of its accuracy, despite previously holding the view of most people who watch a lot of cricket that some of its projections are about as accurate as an old umpire's eyesight in the summer dusk.

He cited a leg before decision on AB De Villiers from the winter, which all who saw it felt was plum, but was overturned by Hawkeye on height. It was replayed in the demo, and proven correct.

However, and here's the question: Hawkeye works on absolutes. It predicts the path of the ball based upon what has happened to it until it's been intercepted by the pad. Which would be fine if the flight of a cricket ball was always predictable. Hawkeye wouldn't, for example, be able to forecast one that goes past the stumps and then suddenly swings just before it reaches the keeper, as happens often at Lord's. The greater the distance it's asked to predict, the more fallible that prediction must be.

If the flight of the ball was always even, the batsman wouldn't miss it that often, would he? Wasim Akram's toecrusher, veering in at the absolute death, would defy Hawkeye. The problem with Pietersen's decision yesterday was that the device claimed the ball would have struck leg stump full face, when all of the visual and instinctive evidence suggested it might have brushed the outside of the stump at best.

Hawkeye is a good thing. It has improved the game. But it really can't claim to be infallible... after all, what is?