Sunday 27 February 2011

Different bat, same old, same old...

Sachin finally changed his bat then. The new one seemed to go okay...

Saturday 26 February 2011

Shoaib kicks ass early doors

In his famous piece about the Kasparov versus Karpov chess match - one of the most vicious and destructive of all 'sporting' encounters, which lasted an entire winter and almost destroyed Karpov's mental and physical health - Martin Amis noted that cheating, or at least gamesmanship, was more than possible, even in a board game.

'Sit your opponent with the sun in his eyes' said one player; another smoked 'a particularly noxious cigar' at the board; another let his cats weave around the place on the off-chance that his opponent would have an allergy. Boris Spassky once messed with Korchnoi's mind by spending the entire match in a curtained booth on the stage, emerging only to make his move. When he did appear, he wore an off-putting sun-visor.

The point is that when things get intense, it doesn't take much to ratchet up the pressure even more. I thought of those things when I saw Shoaib's boots in Pakistan's first game - pure white they were, with long tongues that flopped up and down under the brilliant green of his trousers. What a sight he was, too, sweating like a boilerman from ball one, rolling from side to side with the effort of his charge to the crease. Still quick though, and cunning with it.

On closer inspection of the boots today against Sri Lanka, they have 'S.A. 100.2 mph' embroidered on them in red stitching. Superb. He even took one off and replaced it with another style of boot entirely. He's only just warming up, be sure of that.

For me, Shoaib's been the star of the World Cup so far. Pakistan look up for it. They'll probably lose the next one by about 300 runs, but they're dangerous.

So is Sreesanth, the other candidate for man of the tournament up to now. 'Everyone played well, except Sreesanth' said Sehwag after India's opening win. He was then told to stop irritating his team-mates. Yesterday in the nets, he hit Yuvraj on the helmet with a beamer.

The World Cup is up and creaking. In about a month, it might even get good.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Wisdom of the Ancients

One of cricket - and sport's - great archetypes is the aged and taciturn coach, the kind of man who will watch silently for half an hour and then impart, often via a single and devastating sentence, a thought that changes not just how you play the game, but how you see it.

My own was the great Alf Gover, a man I wish I had appreciated more. I thought of Alf when I read this interview with John Jacobs, who has coached golf to Open champions and desperate hackers for sixty years. There is wisdom here that comes only from decades of observation. It doesn't come second-hand, from books or anywhere else.

Jacobs has distilled his philosophy down to one thought: you can learn everything you need to know about a player's swing by watching what the ball does once it's been struck. It's fantastically obvious and wonderfully true, and it applies equally well to cricket. All that matters is that moment when bat meets ball. You could discover how to coach anything by talking to John Jacobs.

NB: It's interesting to contrast the Jacobs interview with this one. It's with Tiger Woods' much-hyped new coach Sean Foley. He quotes Ghandi and Aristotle in one answer. I know who I'd rather have coaching me. Good luck, Tiger...

Monday 21 February 2011

KP: Year Zero, Ball One

In club cricket opening is the only place to bat, as any fule no. If I'm not opening, I'm not playing, pal. It offers the opportunity [not often taken, admittedly, but glorious when it is] to do what Virender Sehwag did in the first match of this World Cup - play a swaggering, gratifying, alpha-male innings whilst developing some sort of injury that gets you out of fielding later on.

Club cricket is for the most part a short game, hence the imperative not to waste any of it. In the pro ranks there's always another innings, but the shape of 50 over cricket gives opening an appeal that other formats don't for the alpha batsman. In Test cricket it is the ultimate examination of skill and nerve, and thus suited only to certain players with particular temperaments. In T20 matches, someone always gets out early, so the number three is essentially an opener too. In 50 over cricket, though, its appeal glistens in a particular way: the powerplays, the high-vis new ball that cracks off the bat, the bowler concerned with defence and attack, the chance to build and pace an innings.

It's no surprise then that many of the biggest, most anticipated and feared batters of the modern era open in ODIs: Hayden, Gayle, Gilchrist, Sehwag, Tendulkar, McCullum, Watson, Jayasuriya [the proto-ODI opener] and so on. No surprise either that KP fancied adding his name to the list.

It's a smart move in lots of ways. It suits his game on the sub-continent, it offers him a challenge, it boosts his misunderstood psyche. Pietersen is indisputably a big-game player, recently to the exclusion of almost everything else. As the T20 world cup proved, he's well suited to tournament cricket, with its unfolding narrative and building momentum. He's somehow attuned to things like that. For a deeply idiosyncratic man, the most idiosyncratic place in the order might be perfect.

Friday 18 February 2011

50 0ver and Out

This World Cup has an end of empire feel about it, from the $18m opening ceremony featuring yesterday's rocker Bryan Adams to what Jonathan Agnew described this morning as 'a month of matches designed to knock out the minnows'.

The 50-over game belongs to the last century. This will be a final World Cup for some of the players who worked out the format and then exhausted its variations over hundreds of matches: Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis, Muttiah Muralitharan, Ricky Ponting have set records that will not beaten, but that will in time reflect an era.

The first match of the competition will be the 3,100th ODI. The format will not reach 4,000, at least in its current style. The new century has brought with it a new game, new players. T20 is accelerated, intensified, condensed, not just in length of games but in the length of its tournaments. Contrast the last 50 over World Cup in West Indies with the T20 tournament there last year, and contrast this World Cup with the IPL that follows.

Repetition has killed 50 over cricket, both in the methods of play, and the commercial imperative to keep staging it. What percentage of those 3,100 matches have been rendered meaningless by one or both?

Perhaps a tournament in India can keep it staggering on, but if it can't, nothing can. There are kids today who are growing up wanting to be Test players, and there are kids wanting to be T20 players. You don't hear many saying 'I'll make my career in 50 over cricket'.

On the pitch, invention might solve the problem of the middle thirty. Maybe a team will decide to forget about the 50 over limit and bat in T20 style until they're out. It would be interesting to see how many they got. Perhaps someone will bowl death overs from the start. There are new techniques out there.

The radical surgery required though is to the calendar. The way to make something desirable is to make it rare. It won't happen of course. Like an old car, 50 over cricket might as well be run into the ground. There are new things ready to replace it. Welcome to the endgame.

Monday 14 February 2011

Burn a little brighter now

A final, sort of free association addendum to the post below about Trevor 'The Boil' Bailey: as ever that era of the media brought to mind John Arlott, and then his unlikely, touching and longstanding friendship with Ian Botham, himself a current occupant of 'the comm-box'.

The outsider's view of that friendship is hostage to the public image of Beefy as a no-nonsense man's man whose rare collisions with the written word might occur via something by Tom Clancy. Yet that is to misjudge both men.

They met, according to Botham, when he was a 16 year old at Somerset and he was summoned to lug two of Arlott's hampers into the press box at Taunton. Arlott opened one, which was filled with wine, and asked Botham if he'd ever tried any. He proceeded to uncork several bottles and then the other hamper, which contained cheeses chosen as accompaniments. Botham had met the man he describes as his mentor. The friendship ended many years and many legends later when Arlott died on Alderney at 77. Botham was his neighbour at the time, and would visit him every day.

'At the end when the emphysema took over and he was struggling with speech he had an oxygen mask and I often had to empty his bag for him,' Botham told the Guardian in 2007. 'But he liked me being there because I knew to wait and let him finish his sentences between gasps. I didn't try to say the words for him because I knew how much they mattered.'

Anyone meeting Arlott when they were just 16 might have felt the same. As his obituary in Wisden noted, 'he was a man of deep humanity'. What's more interesting is what Arlott might have seen in Beefy. There was his talent of course, and his Falstaffian love of cricket and life. But there was much more than that. He could, by his own admission, be deeply selfish and annoyingly laddish, and conservative and reactionary. But he is also a man of great heart and loyalty, a man who has spent a lifetime raising millions of pounds for cancer research after spending just one afternoon at a children's hospital, a bloke who inspired equal loyalty in his friends and from others who've never met him.

Botham, you suspect, works quite hard to keep that side of himself hidden. Not everything can be public property. There's something else, too. Arlott did express a regret that he retired from commentary in 1980, and missed the chance to go through '81 with Botham.

Beefy was one of those players who stirred something in the spectator. In a fabulous piece on trying to write a book about the snooker player Jimmy White, Jonathan Rendall says: 'It doesn't really matter what people like Jimmy do; it's how they express it. They have "it", whatever "it" is, in the way that great painters, writers, poets and violinists have it. They're rare. So when they fall, they must be saved. It's a shame no one thought to save [Alex] Higgins - although technically there's still time - but I suppose the same could have been said of Dylan Thomas. That's my theory, anyway'.

Arlott was a friend of Dylan Thomas, as well as an accomplished poet and a connoisseur of wine and cricket and life; in short an aesthete, and he recognised another when he saw one. It's a shame that, with the demise of the pro broadcaster, a player like Beefy might not meet a man like Arlott in similar circumstances again.

Friday 11 February 2011

'And after Trevor Bailey...'

The death of Trevor Bailey is another disconnect from the past. While most of the obituaries [rightly] focused on his playing career, to later generations like mine Bailey was known firstly as a voice on TMS. He appeared, with Fred Trueman, as one of the expert summarisers, men who sat alongside the commentators and provided the earthy insight of the trenches - Trueman the autodidact philosopher king, regally dismissive of flannel and Southern nonsense; Bailey the flint-hearted pro with an unexpected aesthetic eye.

Henry Blofeld gave a radio tribute this week, remembering how easily Bailey had slapped him into place early in his TMS career: Blofeld had said - hyperbolically by the standards of the mid-70s - that Greg Chappell had just provided an unmatchable example of an off drive. 'Greg Chappell of course,' sniffed Bailey, 'is better-known for the on drive...'

Both Trueman and Bailey were ribbed back by the commentators, Trueman for his tendency to rose-tint the past [especially any aspect of it that involved him], and Bailey for his legendary ability to remain at the crease almost runless for many hours at a time. It offered an interesting distinction between the pair. Fred didn't much like any challenge, however light-hearted, to his ability, whereas Bailey would chuckle happily at the same, and rejoiced in his nickname of 'The Boil'.

What we have lost, apart from a man who, even at 87 went before his time in awful circumstances, is that balance between pro broadcasters and pro players. TMS clearly delineated between them: the broadcasters commentated and the pros offered analysis and opinion. Bailey was not expected to describe Botham, as Arlott unforgettably did, as 'coming in from the Kirkstall Lane end like a shire horse cresting the breeze', just as Arlott wasn't obliged to hold forth on facing Wes Hall.

Some cricketers have been able to do it, Richie Benaud their nonpareil, but today, especially on television, all other talents have been lost. A richness has gone from the media surrounding the game. Arlott and Bailey would have very different careers today.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Taj Malik - Local Hero

Much praise has been righteously showered on Out Of The Ashes, Tim Albone and Lucy Martens’ film about the Afghan national cricket team, screened last night on BBC4. All of the big themes are there, as many have noted, but what makes it glorious and human are the small moments that catch those essential truths about all sides, amateur or pro, wherever they’re from.

The team go to the Channel Islands in an ICC comp, and when they make it through a tense semi-final despite never having seen a grass pitch before, the coach, Taj Malik Alam, makes a call home that every player is familiar with – to the wife or girlfriend or partner or kids explaining that yes, the game has only just finished, and no, you won’t be back for a bit yet. In Taj’s case, it’s longer than normal, him being in Jersey and having a big final still to play, nonetheless, it’s all there in his face as he explains.

Taj is one of the stars of the film, a man at the other end of the human spectrum from Andy Flower – if Flower is a closed book, Taj, a man with an even bigger job on his plate, is palpably readable, walking around the boundary chaining ciggies, head often in his hands, hostage to all that is uncontrollable out on the pitch. Every club has a guy like Taj as its heart and soul. Later, back in Afghanistan, we find him in his personal nirvana, on what looks like rutted scrubland with a ramshackle wooden hut beside it, but which is unmistakably oval – and you can see what Taj is thinking once again.

In the dressing room, the standard arguments rage amongst the usual collection of drama queens and prima donnas that make up teams across the globe. ‘I wasn’t out,’ one batsman claims, ‘he got that wrong’. ‘Don’t give me your bullshit’ comes the immediate and angry reply from someone who’s heard it all before, and will again.

As the final, against Jersey, unfolds and Afghanistan find themselves needing just 86 for an unlikely win, the same batsman is pointlessly run out and walks off shouting the immortal lines: ‘Why do you make me play with a bisexual? He is a bisexual.’ Simon Katich was probably mumbling much the same thing in Adelaide. Afghanistan somehow edge over the line, and all of the tension and the fear melts away as Taj dissolves into tears, only to find himself almost immediately confronted with the booming Yorkshire tones of a jaunty Geoffrey Boycott, on hand to present the trophy – a wonderfully unlikely scene.

Afghanistan go on to Argentina and ultimately, staggeringly, to the World T20, but they go without Taj, who is brutally sacked after the Channel Islands trip in favour of former Pakistan Test player Kabir Khan. ‘This is the Afghan,’ says a cab-driver. ‘He doesn’t like what the Afghan says. If Pakistani, Indian, English say it, they like it…’
Well, it’s not just the Afghan, pal, as a glance at the list of international coaches will show you.

Taj can be proud though, and not just of his huge heart. The game is the game, wherever and whoever you are, and I hope he’s there now, at the side of his pitch, watching it grow.

NB: Jrod has an Out Of The Ashes giveaway over at CWB - well worth a go.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Unbelievable tekkers

A nice piece with Allan Lamb in the new Wisden Cricketer. Asked 'what made you so successful against quick bowling?' he replied: 'I had a technique that worked. On quick wickets against quick bowling, you don't get in behind the ball because, if it lifts a bit off a length, how are you going to get out of the way? You stayed inside the ball so you could cut, or outside so then you could pull. You had to duck or play, there was no fending on bouncy wickets.

'Against the really quick bowlers I would watch the wrist. Sometimes you could see the seam, and the quicker the wrist came down, the shorter the ball was going to be. That was vital. I didn't love playing against them but it was always a challenge'.

There is a huge amount of truth and insight here [yes, from Allan Lamb...], perhaps most of all his thoughts at the beginning and the end of his answer. The measure of a technique is its effectiveness; the reality of quick bowling is that no-one likes facing it [and speed is relative to ability, so the feelings it invokes are universal].

The detail of Lamb's technique, as described, is not textbook. It sounds more like Phil Hughes than Geoffrey Boycott. That's why technique cannot be applied or evaluated equally to all. Boycott, for example, or Atherton, were rather good at fending. It's an individual thing.

It's also why Peter Roebuck's otherwise well-wrought argument over the 'nonsensical' changes in technique for T20 cricket is not quite convincing. Technique, to me, is like language. It is not a static thing. Rather, it's alive and vital, always being added to and adapted as well as used classically. To draw a rather gallumphing allusion, we no longer speak like Shakespeare, but the beauty and rhythm of his language retains all of its power.

No-one bats like Grace any more, and perhaps only Dravid leaves the ball like Boycott, yet technique is as alive and as mutable as it has ever been. No single player will encompass it all. The key will be the same as always: to the fit the relevant parts to what you're trying to achieve.