Wednesday 29 September 2010

The Enigma: Variations [part 232 in a series...]

Ed Smith, cricketer turned journo, is the latest to have a crack at the coding embedded in the enigma that is Mark Ramprakash, and others of his ilk. Ed got a whole BBC programme, an episode of Inside Sport called 'Is Professionalism Killing Sport?' to find out. And Ramps was once more a siren, singing him towards his doom on the rocks.

Smith has a double first from Cambridge [this fact is mentioned, breathlessly and often, in BBC pre-publicity] and perhaps it blinded his editors to the lack of rigour he brought to his argument. Or maybe, in fairness, he made a programme that later had a tabloid title imposed upon it. Either way, Ed ballsed it up.

He got such access too. His interviewees included the Dark Prince of English batsmen, alongside Ryan Giggs and Colin Montgomerie. Smith hung his theory on his own fleeting Test match career: 'Would I have scored more runs if I'd worried less about my technique and just relaxed?' he asked [answer: no]. This immediately muddied his position. He aligned relaxation with amateurism, and amateurism with a youthful enjoyment of the game.

Ryan Giggs rapidly exploded this theory, although the editors didn't seem to notice, when he explained that his best football came at the age of 30, when he'd become more professional, stopped drinking and trained harder.

Montgomerie was called in to comment on the case of Tiger Woods, Smith's Exhibit A, who had become 'joyless'. No more joyless, though, than when he was winning 14 Majors and a billion dollars as he slept with a succession of gorgeous women [oh Tiger, tell us, where did it all go wrong?].

And then Ramps, who gamely conceded on camera that he had never enjoyed playing for England. Not enjoyed facing Marshall, Walsh, Ambrose, Bishop, Waqar, Wasim, McGrath and Warne - good lord...

This was a good-hearted programme, but its strands needed unpicking. Amateurism was a smokescreen. There are exactly the same number of people at the top of sport as there were in the days of Spitfires and Denis Compton. They may approach their lives more formally now, but they occupy familiar ground. Relaxation, being able to perform under pressure, has nothing to do with amateurism, or childishness.

Giggs gave Smith the clue, when he described his famous FA Cup semi-final goal against Arsenal. 'What were you thinking about?' he was asked. 'Nothing' came the reply. Here is the key: entry into a state of pure instinct, unimpeded by conscious thought. The best have an ability to remove their brain from the equation. The physiology of that would make a truly interesting programme.

Smith's initial question of himself - would he have scored more runs if he'd thought less about technique - had a touch of ego about it. Here is another truth: ability has its ceiling, its outer limits. Anyone watching him bat could see that he had arrived at his. There is no shame in that.

He did not go away from Test cricket and make a hundred first class hundreds, as Ramprakash and Hick have done. Those vast, sad codas to their lives are in part acknowledgment of the unfulfillment, and of that part of themselves that they were unable to overcome. It was about the complex uncertainties of being human. That, though, doesn't fit easily into a catchy programme title.

A final point must be considered, and it's a brutal one too. Lots of the best sportsmen are a bit thick. It helps. Strangely, so does professionalism - from an early age, all they'll ever do is play, thus ensuring that a certain unawareness of the outside world persists.

One of cricket's great paradoxes is that in its simplicity, it is complex. It attracts thinkers, brooders, obsessives, and then it drives them mad. It really would help, Ed, if you were thick...

Saturday 25 September 2010

Doing lines

The first class averages were once the implacable judges of a season. You used to have to wait for them, too, in the pre-information age. The newspaper would print them eventually, as would The Cricketer, those long lines of evidence, Boycott usually on or near the top of the batting, the bowling the preserve of saturnine gods WW Daniel [Middx] and ST Clarke [Sur], deadly quicks born out of time. Further down, loaded with ennui, the stats of BA Richards - 50-odd was enough for him, double that not enough to sate Geoffrey.

Those glowing few decades seem like mirages now: King Viv, Joel Garner and Beefy playing entire seasons at the same club, Macco Marshall bowling hundreds of overs for Hampshire, the captain of West Indies carving a life at Old Trafford, England's players returning by rote to their counties as Tests concluded, Hadlee unplayable at Trent Bridge, and so on, apparently ad infinitum, until it wasn't.

Now those stats are immediate and mitigated. At the PCA awards Neil Carter took the player of the season award for 617 runs and 51 wickets, just over half the traditional 'double', yet the weight of his stats grew once the century and two fifties in a winning CB40 campaign and his 16 T20 wickets were added in. In time-poor times, no-one has the time for old-school stats.

But they remain fascinating. The most obvious point made by the batting figures is that it was a bowlers' season. Even the brooding prince of English batsmanship, the Heathcliff of Div Two, MR Ramprakash, had to settle for 1,595 runs at 61.34 in the year he turned 40. What a player he is.

What shines through the stats is the nobility of the competition. The Championship went down to its final day, a shattering one in a shattering week for Somerset and Marcus Trescothick, a man who continues to enrich the game. It's ironic that, in understanding his despair at Somerset's empty season, it became easier to see what we have gained from his international absence. During a summer when international cricket seemed endless and, in that endlessness, corruptible, men like Trescothick had the force of history behind them.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Born into this

Watched a nice documentary last night about Sunningdale prep school, where boys as young as seven are sent to board by both old and new money in the hope that their offspring will go on, as most of the intake do, to Eton, Harrow or Westminster.

They were nice kids for the most part, excepting one who might well have been a robot. He'd persuaded his parents to allow him to relocate from Shanghai on his own so that he could attend [at the end of the first term, he was asked what he'd learned and he said, 'to be more independent'. More independent than he had been a few months previously, when he'd decided to relocate from Shanghai by himself as a nine-year-old, that was].

It took me back to the days when I played cricket the most seriously, as an U17. The club I played for had a strong side for the first half of the summer, and an even stronger one in the second, when all of the public schoolboys turned up. They'd roll down the driveway of the ground in the crumbling Volvos and ancient landrovers owned by their parents, dressed in terrible clothes, dragging cricket bags that looked like they'd been in the family for generations. It was an old money, empire thing. The shabbier they looked, the richer they were, generally.

They were all good lads, and good players too, well schooled. We won a lot of matches together. We even got a game against the club first XI, the midweek team admittedly, but they had one ex county player in the side, and it was a decent match, from what I remember.

What was interesting, and what yesterday's film reminded me of, was their acceptance of their fate. In its way, it was as forcefully apparent as it is at the more desperate end of the social scale. While some of us held woolly ambitions to play cricket as a career [including me - at least until The Day Of The Pig], they were resigned to their progression from public school to Oxbridge to middle-ranking position in the city or the family business [one guy used to refer to his father, somewhat dismissively, as "a shopkeeper", which was true after a fashion - he owned a chain of supermarkets]. My best mate amongst them had the sad air of a man whose life held no surprises at all ahead. He had already met the friend of his father's who would be employing him for the next forty years, and been shown around the office. I think of him now and again and hope that he decided to drop acid and start a commune but I doubt it. The sense of duty was bred into him and into all of them.

Their kids might well be playing by now. The seasons roll on.

Monday 20 September 2010

Ijaz Butt: A Statement

Ijaz Butt today unveiled what he called 'incontrovertible evidence' that England players had been paid to lose games.

'It's quite clear for all to see,' he said. 'In the 1990s, an organisation called the England and Wales Cricket Board began paying players like Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart and Darren Gough huge sums every year to lose series after series. They did so quite openly. Australian people used to laugh at them because of it.'

'I can prove it all. The ECB then began using a character called Duncan Fletcher as a middleman between themselves and the players. Fletcher stayed in hotels with them night after night and he instructed them to begin winning. This they did, and men like Andrew Flintoff made even more money on and off the field. It's obvious. I'll be telling the ICC all about it.'

NB: In other sporting news, Butt revealed evidence that the famous and much loved drinker Ricky Hatton had been seen pursuing a career in boxing. 'For several months Hatton would cease being an alcoholic altogether, and these periods would conclude with him being involved in a boxing match. He tried to pull the wool over my eyes by drinking heavily again immediately afterwards, but I saw it. I keep my eye on all of sport...'

Sunday 19 September 2010

Freddie Redux

Last night the Beeb screened another of Peter Morgan's dramas about Tony Blair, this one about the 'special relationship' between TB and Bill Clinton. In an early scene, just after Blair had become PM, Hilary Clinton told him at dinner to plan his own legacy right away. 'If you don't', she said, 'then they'll start doing it for you'.

It's advice that doesn't only hold true for Tone, who gave it his best shot [and continues to do so...]. Andrew Flintoff's legacy has been much in the news this week, and it's been interesting to note how equivocally he's been written about. There has barely been a column without a pointed mention of the big lad's love of an endorsement or a quid. Michael Vaughan - Brearley to Fred's Botham [sort of] - conceded too that Fred had been 'difficult to captain' post-2005.

Flintoff exists in an age where his sporting legacy lives on separately. A few years of insipid reality TV shows might dilute the potency of his everyman appeal.

But cricket will, I think, be kind. There was a little hubris at the end, and a little too much awareness of his image, but for the wholeheartedness of his endeavours he will be loved.

Fred bowled the single best over I've ever seen, at Edgbaston in '05. It's been summoned in almost every elegy this week, but what's not often drawn is its context, and context, in these things, is everything.

The narrative of the series was not yet established. England were still England. Australia were still immortal. England had been drubbed at Lord's. They'd come back spiritedly on first innings at Edgbaston, but a second innings collapse, resisted only by Fred who got 70-odd, set Australia 282 to win.

Hayden, ego not yet brought low by Hoggy and Jones, and Langer ripped at Harmison and Hoggard. They had 40-odd on the board in no time. It was very much business as usual - 240-ish to win, 10 wickets in hand, a customary 2-0 lead in sight.

That Flintoff over was his first of the innings. How remarkable. Perhaps he'd already got inside Langer's head, who knows? [JL would later be unusually effusive about Flintoff, but not yet]. Whatever, he went around the wicket, got some bounce and Langer played on. It was what happened next that made things extraordinary. He squared Ponting up, cast doubt where there was none. He bowled a no-ball on the sixth delivery. Ponting must have wanted to tell the umpire not to bother. Then the last ball, flickering away, Punter's bottom hand steering his edge at it, and oblivion. Perfect.

You can make a good case for the series turning on that moment. You can make a good case for Flintoff's second life beginning there. Freddie made it happen without knowing that he had. Now he just has to deal with it. Great over though... in context.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

A touch of the vapours

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth...* Yeah, Shakey may have beaten me to that one by a few hundred years, but it feels like the right time to be melancholic; there's no more summer in the air, the last first-class overs go down tomorrow, club outfields are beginning to grow long as the final matches ebb away. Last week the sun came down at a low angle and because of all the rain the grass was an almost iridescent green, just like it is in that picture of Steve Waugh walking off at the SCG late in the day after one of his final innings, a deep shadow cast behind him.

Today I picked up a book that mentioned Alf Gover and it got me thinking about the old man. It was all so long ago, yet it's still sweet and bitter in the memory. I googled some pictures of the school and I could almost feel what it was like to be there, and it was strange and sad to think it exists now only in the minds of people who knew it. It made me want to find some of them, but then maybe best not.

The end of the season. It always comes for you, one way or another...

* Is that the greatest passage in the English language? I didn't used to think so - I was a St Crispin's Day man - but at these times of year, with the weight of experience, maybe it is. Till next spring at least, then it's old Henry again...

Monday 13 September 2010

Big man, not much damage

A gambling analogy might not the be the best, but in a summer in which Pakistan have never failed to be anything less than gobsmacking, they've pulled one last card from the deck: Mohammad Irfan.

Maybe he's 6'8; perhaps he's 7'1. The tape measure doesn't seem quite sure, but one thing is certain. When he comes running in, he looks like the massive kid in a school match told to open the bowling because he's the biggest.

On TMS there was a discussion about how, despite being 7'1, he's not very quick and doesn't get much bounce. Their conclusion was that he doesn't have a delivery stride as such, he just lets it go when he arrives at the stumps.

Maybe it's another scale thing. People may be getting bigger, but the dimensions of the game have remained the same. If he did have a long, bounding delivery stride, he'd probably have to start it from about the point Paul Collingwood marks his run.

Before Irfan leaves the country, he should bowl at Will Jefferson, the world's biggest batsman, if only for the delight of stattos everywhere...

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Andrew Strauss's Bat

Fed up with hearing about and thinking about spot fixing. Not enthused by five ODIs against Pakistan. Only mildly amused by Dimi Mascarenhas calling Geoff Miller a knob on Twitter. Slightly more amused by Geoff Miller continuing to pretend he doesn't know what 'this twitter' is. In need of something to remind me of what the game is really all about.

Found it in this post from Jrod at Mountain Chickens, a blog about an Australian being schooled in the arts of the game in the land of its birth. He was playing a match against a bunch of accountants. One of them started hitting Jrod even further than usual:

'In this game we had an injured batsman come out. He played a sweep shot early on that just seemed so effortless as it went to the rope, but the noise was amazing. Two balls later he hit a cover drive even harder, and that is when the mumurs started.

"He is using Andrew Strauss's bat"

"His mate plays Middlesex 2s"

"That is a proper Test bat".

It was being spoken about as if it were Excalibur.

Next the guy hit me over my head and into some nearby paddock, and this was no longer a cricket bat, this was now a myth.'

I love this sort of rumour. It plays in so many ways. On the mortal plane, it asks whether such a thing as a 'proper Test bat' exists. On the metaphysical plane, it wonders whether a bit of hand-carved wood can be something more, something transformative.

On the mortal question, well there probably is such a thing, especially now. Batmakers obviously set aside the very best clefts of willow for their pros. And most pros seem far less wedded to one or two particular bats. Thus they can be pressed less, shortening their lifespan but heightening the trampolining effect of their power.

As for the magic of a bat, well who knows? I'll never forget the bat that never was, a bat I found in a shop but didn't have the money to buy. It was a Stuart Surridge jumbo, short-handled, a beast of a thing that picked up like it was an extension of my hands. I've never felt anything like it before or since. I'd have loved to have batted with it just once.

It's great too how rumours can spread, even in the course of a game. I remember playing in one where their quick bowler was said to have 'opened the bowling for Wales'. The other classic is having a player who is related to a pro. That one goes around at least once a season.

These things are what the game is about, and they make it what it is. Good work Jrod. Just keep telling yourself it was the bat... [and happy birthday too, to the Balls, in all of its wickedness...]

Monday 6 September 2010

Who, what, when, where, how

Not much time to blog today, but here are two pieces worth reading, the first from Nick Harris at Sporting Intelligence on The News Of The World's approach to Yasir Hameed, and the other from Aniruddah Bahal in Open magazine on how the NOTW sting went down.

Friday 3 September 2010

Sting theory

And so it's clear - the defence of the Pakistan Three will rest on the testing of the News Of The World evidence. It's the logical way to go for them, because, as blogged here, the burden of proof for a newspaper story is different to that required to take away someone's ability to earn a living, and its remedies are civil rather than criminal.

As Rob Bagchi writes today, the NOTW has a patchy record in terms of its stings. They look good in the paper but then don't always stand up. There is often an element of entrapment about them that can be exploited by those entrapped.

Sunday will be a big day. The NOTW almost always hold something back for a second week. As usual they will have one aim: to sell newspapers. Everything else, from the fate of Mohammed Amir to the impact on cricket, is simply collateral damage in their endless war.

The success of the ICC and ACSU in identifying any spot fixing will depend entirely on their ability to wrench the story away from the newspapers and produce their own evidence, something far harder to do.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Sigh of relief

Relax everyone. Ijaz Butt's here to sort it all out.

Feeling better yet?