Tuesday 31 August 2010

News of the Screwed

The world does not really require any more comment on spot fixing, so relax - there will be none here. But there is one small element of the story that is worth mentioning.

On 2 and 9 May 2010, the News Of The World, the paper that ran Sunday's allegations, exposed John Higgins, a champion snooker player, as a match-fixer too. The stories were accompanied by a video, not dissimilar to Sunday's, that showed Higgins and his manager agreeing to fix the outcome of a snooker match. Higgins was suspended by the WPBSA, snooker's governing body. Snooker is another sport that has been haunted by fixing, and its existence as a revenue-generating TV machine is under far greater threat than cricket's.

Yet the Higgins case, superficially a damning one, has not yet stood up to examination. An investigation led by the website Sporting Intelligence raised some serious questions about the veracity of the video and the story itself. Higgins will face a disciplinary hearing in September, and he maintains his innocence.

His case is unconnected to the Pakistan one, and yet there is a gap between the requirements of a newspaper story and a proven case of spot-fixing in cricket. The News Of The World is concerned with selling newspapers, not helping cricket solve its problems. Another story is expected next Sunday, perhaps concerning the Australia-Pakistan Test in Sydney last winter.

The evidence seems far firmer with regard to Pakistan than it does with Higgins, and perhaps it is. But it might be worth not chucking any more tomatoes at donkeys until it's been properly interrogated.

KP: Naturally disappointed

"It's a fuck up..."

"While I'm naturally disappointed to have been omitted from the England squad I fully understand the reasons why..."

Between those two sentences, both attributed to Kevin Pietersen, lies the work of the ECB media relations department. Say what you like about the rest of the ECB, those media relations boys know their gig. Into their cavernous depersonalisation machine goes the phrase 'it's a fuck up...'. At the other end emerges, 'I am naturally disappointed...'

KP's true feelings do not expose the media department. Their many hundreds of press releases per season contain not one word that could actually have been uttered by a genuine human being, let alone a professional cricketer. But they do reveal a rare bad day for Andy Flower, Geoff Miller and the selectors. The thinking behind Pietersen's exclusion is sound. He will go to Surrey and have the chance of a couple of first-class games and the opportunity to bat for a long time, probably with Mark Ramprakash. It will do him more good than reverting to slog mode for a couple of T20s and the ridiculous number of ODIs [Five? Do we really need five?] that will be now be played out by one side that's suspicious of the other and one side that will be absolutely shattered whatever happens.

Yet before this morning ['what a fuck up'], they obviously hadn't sat down and explained it to him. Pietersen is a sensitive man, low on confidence. He needs to be handled gently, and you would have expected Flower, if not Miller, to have realised that.

A poor day for the selectors was rounded out by the choice of Steve Davies, re-opening the ODI wicketkeeper debate for the 3,708th time [note to subs: check precise figure with ECB media dept.] There is a consistency of selection in the Test side that is lacking here. What exactly did Kieswetter do wrong, except suffer a small dip after the World Cup win? It's a question he's entitled to ask, and Miller should be expected to answer, ideally without passing his comments through the media department first.

Say it ain't so, Joe

Say it ain't so...

Friday 27 August 2010

Should young people be allowed to play county cricket?

Young players at Leicestershire have 'been whipped into a state of hysteria,' according to Chief Executive Mike Siddall. Elsewhere, an unnamed batsman has celebrated his hundred 'by simulating a sex act'.

Say what you like about Mark Ramprakash, he's not going to dry hump Rory Hamilton-Brown the next time he passes three figures...

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Barmy Army - The Free Ad

This one's for Hayley, who's been devotedly plugging the Barmy Army Ashes trips with comments on every post below.

You can win a trip to the MCG and SCG Tests, where the Barmy Army personally guarantee that you will see England complete a 5-0 whitewash of Australia, here.

To join up with them for any part of the tour, go here. I sat by them at the Gabba in '98, year of the mighty face-saving storm. See, they can do anything. They might even give you a grail containing the tears of Adam Gilchrist this time, so check them out.

Days of Grace

A bomb went off at Grace Road yesterday, one of those comedy cartoon ones that has 'BOMB' written on the side in big white letters and a long fuse that slowly burns down while it gets passed between the characters, everyone wondering who'll be left holding it when it finally explodes. Matthew Hoggard, Tim Boon and chairman Neil Davidson turned out to be the ones covered in soot.

As with lots of wars these days, it wasn't entirely clear afterwards who had won. Hoggy, being Hoggy and one of England's stoutest yeomen, has all of Leicester on his side, including the players, staff and membership. But this is county cricket, and this is England, and so Neil Davidson has his job title and the minutiae of company procedure on his [The Skiver provides an excellent summary here*].

Ex-milkman Davidson then did what all chairmen under the cosh do - he immediately went on holiday. Poor old Hoggy, who must be wondering exactly what he has done to offend the Gods over the past couple of years, had to go and bowl at Mark Ramprakash. Ramps only got 179 not out. Under that famous stack of hair, Hoggy grimaced and ran in once more, uphill and into the wind.

* J-rod was presumably otherwise disposed appearing on the radio. I was driving home minding my own business when he turned up on Five Live, defending the indefensible Ricky Ponting. I almost crashed my car...

Monday 23 August 2010

The Ian Bell Number

There is talk of a black ops stats department at the ECB, a group of well-funded geeks running offbeat numbers for Andy Flower, who is a notable convert to the ways of Moneyball ["It really opened my eyes to a different way of looking at stats... I don't think we've tapped the potential of how stats can drive our strategy... [The stats department] are doing some really interesting work. Some of what we think we know we don't want others to know"].

In this sharp-edged numerical wonderland, the simple batting average is now a lumpen tool, lacking the meaning that analysts like Flower need. Last week came The Bradman Class: An Evaluation of Batsmen For Test Matches 1877-2006, a further attempt at producing a figure that gives a value to the quality of performance locked away within the broader mean of the average. Andy Bull examines it nicely here.

What they're really in search of, but might never find, is the Ian Bell Number. Bell has the kind of Test average that denotes a fine player, a mid-40s figure that sets him alongside Strauss, Collingwood, Cook and below obviously better men like Pietersen, Sehwag, Dravid, Jayawardene.

Yet it's a figure that also puts him level with, for example, Graham Gooch and Gordon Greenidge, and above Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart. What's needed, think statisticians, is a degree of difficulty figure that sets a player like Bell in his proper context [the upside for Bell is that his number would be climbing, given his recent toughening up] .

Moneyball is a terrific book, but one of its outcomes has been the assumption that there is a statistical measure for everything [not, incidentally, a claim made by the book itself]. It also assumes that statistical data is predictive as well as reflective. Where humans are concerned, though, there is always that element of unknowability, and within that lies the true beauty of the game.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Bill for stickers

Well then, an out of form left hander whose batting had gone backwards did get a few yesterday - but it wasn't Alastair Cook. Cookie still can't buy a run. Stuart Broad - remember him, one time England number six in the making - did what he used to do, swung merrily and actually connected for once.

Some say Broad's batting went into reverse because he's not actually getting any batting, others think it's because he can only swing or block and he's been sussed out. It's none of those things though. Broady only went and did the classic didn't he? He changed his bat sponsor as soon as he started scoring runs.

Always fatal, that. Broad went from proper bat-making comrades Gunn & Moore to horrid arrivistes adidas. Graeme Swann went from Gray-Nicolls to Gunn & Moore and the same thing happened to him. Bit of hubris, really.

Just shows the perils of sponsoring tail-enders, eh?

Monday 16 August 2010

Headline of the day

'Ponting targets Ashes Whitewash'

Don't be so negative Ricky, you might not lose 5-0...

Sunday 15 August 2010

The unforgiving minutes

There's nothing like a few games of cricket to get you pondering the big questions. Is the universe benign, for example? Or is it hostile? Or is it simply implacable? Of course, in the wider context of events on this mad, bad planet, such queries are irrelevant, but even so, in a little green corner of Hampshire yesterday, for those of us lucky enough to be absorbed by our pointless and beautiful sport, they were worth asking.

The answers for those contesting T20 finals day were many and varied. For Nottinghamshire, the best side there, robbed by rain that seemed to have been turned on by some kind of malicious timer switch, it was undoubtedly hostile. For Hampshire, the winners who tried, at the death, their very best to throw it all away, it was a fateful repayment on the loving - if ambitious - investment in the county by Rod Bransgrove. And for Kieron Pollard, the ur-T20 symbol of the age, holder of a reversal-of-fortune catch one moment and recipient of a dramatic, game-ending injury the next, it was a universe unswayed by triumph or disaster.

The demise of Notts was almost comical. The rain that ended their semi-final began to fall heavily at the precise moment they fell behind the Duckworth-Lewis rate, and persisted only to the minute at which it was appointed that the game be abandoned. As noted before, Duckworth-Lewis does not work well for T20. Over the shortened distance there's not yet enough data to reflect what the usual outcome of a game would be. In this case, the batting side would have won seven or eight times out of ten.

Having sneaked through, Somerset lacked the bowling power to halt Hampshire's charge, only for the ghost of a ludicrous collapse against the same opposition earlier this year to haunt Dominic Cork's unlikely lags. Folding like a pack of cards, with a runner on for the last ball, a manic leg bye was enough. By that time, Kieron Pollard was in an ambulance, brained by an apologetic Corky. Fate was running wild.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Harmi: patience required

Imagine the scene: The Gabba, 25 November 2010. Australia versus England, sold right out. Ponting wins the toss. That gorgeous, almost tangible hush descends as the clock ticks towards 11. Andrew Strauss takes a look at the new Kookaburra nut and tosses it to... er, Steve Harmison.

Well one man can see it happening, and that man is... well it's Steve Harmison actually. Harmi remains that same enigmatic bundle of promise and disappointment that he always is, every glorious spell where his body hums and the batsman has that unmistakable feeling of heightened reality as the ball flies at him faster than he thinks possible counterpointed by the memory of the hangdog face and the dropping pace, and, hovering above it all, that first ball at Brisbane last time.

In Brian Viner's excellent interview, Harmi fights his corner admirably ['I've been number one in the world, I've won the Ashes twice'] and he reveals too the sportsman's classic blindspot: himself:

'I'm really pleased for Steven Finn... He'll make mistakes but I hope people are more patient with him than they were with me'.

Ah, Harmi, if only...

Monday 9 August 2010

KP: Blood on the carpet

Tales of hubris and arrogance involving KP aren't particularly rare, and yesterday provided another one. Yet all of it this time is emanating from Hampshire, who don't want to pick him for T20 finals day on saturday because it might 'disrupt the line up'.

Notts have no such worries about using Broad and Swann, and as a result more than a third of their side will have the experience of playing in a World Cup final.

Hampshire are ignoring the opportunity of reuniting two of England's top three, and are turning their back on the man of the tournament in the West Indies. But there are surely only two questions they need to ask: is Pietersen motivated? Will he improve the team? The answer to both is surely yes. He needs an innings and the platform is one he responds to.

The settled side argument put forward by Hampshire is a smokescreen. It wasn't settled enough to stop them paying big money for Abdul Razzaq, and Lumb has only just come back from being dropped. In truth, they don't want to play Pietersen because he's leaving, and was brusque in the way he announced it. Why not just say so, in that case?

There are no cricketing reasons for him not to play, and Hampshire are a professional team, not a club side. Sentiment plays no part in pro cricket - as Alistair Cook is likely to find out when the Essex team sheet goes up...

Sunday 8 August 2010

Enter the [fat] dragon

Real life rather rudely intruded on this week's noble ambition of lying around watching cricket, but the Surrey-Glamorgan pro-40 do at the Oval should not pass without comment. The bald reality of the result on the scorecard, Surrey win by 39 runs [d/l method], is a bit like describing Moby-Dick as a book about a bloke chasing a whale. It's true, but there's a little bit more to it than that.

Like Ahab, Glamorgan were pursuing something massive in dodgy weather - 386 from 38, which was D/L-ed 'down' to 227 from 20. Enter the dragon, Mark Cosgrove, floating across the floodlit green in Glamorgan's fire-engine red kit, an item of fashion that on the more slender fellow looks like something Culture Club might have worn on Top Of The Pops, but stretched across the mighty Cossie frame resembles a top-notch darts star approaching the oche.

Underneath his helmet, Cosgrove also has the look of a heavier Barry Richards - it's something to do with the toothy smirk and fuzz of hair - and he carries with him the same sense of the possible. He thrashed a gloriously defiant 88 from 55 in a dead-loss of a chase, but by god there was something magnificent about it, too. His eye is extraordinary. Many times he backed away to leg, and if the ball didn't quite land in the slot, he simply dropped the bat on it with the same insouciance as a golfer tapping in a putt one-handed. When he swung and connected, the ball departed the arena with sonic force. No-one has bat-speed like Cossie's.

Everything he does is set against the backdrop of his size. The commentators have a sob in their voice as they describe his travails with the ACB. 'If only' is the default position on his career. Yet there is an alternative view. Cosgrove is actually keeping cricket democratic. He could buckle down to the protein shake and push-up routine if he really wanted to, but he doesn't. Instead, he's a maverick figure, a lone sail on the horizon, a big man who knows that, in the end, it's just a game so why not enjoy it as you want to?

It makes him more human and more watchable. He's one of cricket's great archetypes and I'd bet that more kids will pick up a bat through seeing him than will through watching Marcus North.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Steve Harmison: good for the fans

Hampshire are playing Durham at the Batsman's spiritual home, May's Bounty in Basingstoke, the ground where John Arlott first watched the game, where Andy Roberts once roared down the hill and skulled Colin Cowdrey, where Richards and Greenidge packed the marquees, where the trees hang over from the school and shade the seats in the far corner, where Alvin Kallicharan once hit two in a row into the road near Arlott's favoured pub, where county cricket always fills the ground.

It's not good enough for Steve Harmison of course. 'Considering the way the ECB are spending fortunes on drainage at most county grounds, you have to ask whether we should be coming to places like this,' he sniffed after a storm left puddles on the outfield. 'If this was the Riverside or the Rose Bowl, play would start at 11am tomorrow. This game might not start any more. It's good for the fans to get close to the players and there's a nice atmosphere, but I'm not sure there's still a place for it.'

Steve Harmison's figures in the game so far: 28-4-106-1.

Update: Play to start at 11.30. Get your boots on Harmi...

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Andrew Flintoff: 21st Century Schitzoid Man

'Two Andy Gorams.... There's only two Andy Gorams' sang the fans when the former Scotland goalie - and useful cricketer - was diagnosed with a mild form of schizophrenia. The Barmy Army may never have the chance to sing Andrew Flintoff's name again, but there are at least three versions of Freddie to consider now.

There is Flintoff the cricketer, who played like we all wanted to play, with heart and without fear, full-blooded and noble, uncomplicated. That is a loss worth marking, a hole hard to fill. There is Flintoff the commodity, frontman for Red Bull and Dubai. And somewhere in there is Flintoff the man, slightly more complex than portrayed, a character with a natural common touch, yet a fellow aware of his worth and willing to create and exploit his own iconography.

Injured and laid low, Flintoff can do little more with his cricketing life. Now it is all about his second life, his afterlife, and that has already begun to colour his reputation. A growing ambiguity towards him has been noticable in the press. The spin that now surrounds Flintoff has, like most spin, become counter-productive.

As Mike Selvey noted yesterday in a spiky column, announcements of Flintoff's injury travails are now routinely preceded by a story concerning one huge deal or another with a far-flung cricket team. On the radio this morning, Michael Vaughan, who shares Flintoff's management company, was selling the latest knock as 'a little setback - he'll just have to be more patient'.

The truth is that Flintoff is more likely not to play again than he is to become the nebulous freelance cricketer that his management company have modelled for him. Ironically, there would be a much greater weight of support behind Fred if they just came out and admitted it. We could understand his eagerness to have us drinking Red Bull more readily then. Instead, he looks as hapless and uncomfortable as Ian Botham did when me met that bloke who was going to make him the next James Bond and he was forced to parade around in a ludicrous striped blazer talking about Hollywood.

There is sadness for Flintoff the cricketer, resentment towards Flintoff the corporate construct. It's only his management that can't see it.

Sunday 1 August 2010

KP: getting the fever

Ashes fever has some men in its strange grip already. A delerium is drifting through the English media. Some of them even think Kevin Pietersen should be dropped.

As Shane Warne said yesterday, averages don't tell you everything, but they are instructive. Pietersen's 'slump' over the past year has seen him average 42 in Test cricket, a figure also known as the career stat for the other batsmen in the top six. There was also the matter of his man of the series performance in the T20 World Cup as more evidence, as if it were needed, of his big game temperament. The misinterpretation of his ego has been reflected on before, and Mike Brearley put a calm hand on the fevered brow yesterday too.

Those figures, anyway. Against Australia, Strauss averages 38, Collingwood 35, Cook 25 and Trott, from a couple of innings an unrepresentative 80. Of the side's much discussed 'depth', Ian Bell averages 25 and Ravi Bopara 15. Pietersen has made 1,116 runs against them at 50.72.

Warnie's point was that it's when you make the runs that counts. Strauss was the only man on either side to make two hundreds in the 2005 series and he got another in 2009. Collingwood has a double hundred in Australia. Trott made a hundred on debut. Pietersen has hundreds home and away. The ingenue Morgan has an ODI century against them.

By contrast, Bopara melted and Bell, who has played against them more times than Pietersen, has one innings of note, in the first dig at the Oval. He has passed 50 eight times without making a hundred, and in one more game than Pietersen, he has scored almost 500 fewer runs.

If England can get their best side on the park, they have a fair chance. It's a chance than thins with proper examination of their 'depth'. KP will be fine and is key as ever. The problem positions are at two and three in the order, and neither Bell or Bopara can bat there, as any stat you like will tell you.


TMS had the actor Jim Carter as the lunchtime guest yesterday. He's also the president of Hampstead Cricket Club, and he told a great little anecdote about Andrew Flintoff, who had just been down for a benefit game.

Fred had been told not to play because of his knee, but went into bat nonetheless to face a 15 year-old leg spinner. To cheers, he studiously blocked out the first ball, before launching a crowdpleaser into the surrounding streets from the next. From the third, he knocked up a catch, walked down the wicket, shook the young man's hand and then took off his shirt and signed it for him.

It reminded me a bit of Davis Miller's great magazine piece My Dinner With Ali, in which Miller, a champion kickboxer who'd idolised the Greatest all his life, got to spar with Ali on his front lawn after a chance meeting. Miller was disappointed at first at Ali's lack of speed and clumsiness until he later caught sight of Ali shadowboxing secretly and alone, his fists and feet moving with blurring speed. Miller realised that Ali had just wanted him to enjoy his moment with the champ.