Wednesday 30 March 2011

Life Under The Pump

In that cheesy, sobby, magnificent old movie The Shawshank Redemption, there's a scene in which Morgan Freeman's character, world-weary, repentant killer Red, finally understands the protagonist Andy's love of rock-polishing. 'Geology's like everything,' he says in that celestial voice, 'it's just pressure and time'.

Whether Sachin makes that 100th hundred on Saturday, or if Murali takes a wicket with his last ball [or whether there's a real Hollywood ending, and both things happen], the CWC 2011 has been all about pressure and time.

Geoffrey Boycott was lambasted for his comments on the withdrawal of England's Michael Yardy with depression. The condemnation was merited if self-righteous, but Boycott, who was offering an opinion on radio immediately after hearing the news, was clumsy rather than thoughtless. Indeed, he went through something similar himself after the death of his mother and his sacking by Yorkshire, which made his thoughts worthy of further examination. His initial reaction was to look to Yardy's on-field performances as a cause. That's inevitable, given Boycott's own obsessive personality, but it doesn't make the point entirely invalid. Humans are humans, and it is always a difficult moment when one comes up against the limits of their ability, especially when that ability has done so much to define their self-image.

What's more fascinating is whether a team can have a collective psyche, and if so, whether that psyche can dominate the individual within it. How else do you explain South Africa? And how do they explain themselves? The application of pressure made the unit fold again. Can something as intangible as the past really play a part?

Time has proved one of the best defences against pressure, or at least experience has, and experience is really time by another name. In different ways, Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar have resisted it. Experience gives you options, offers perspective. They have provided the most enduring memories of the tournament - fitting given the time and pressure they've embraced and withstood.

Monday 28 March 2011

Shaun Tait Retires From Bowling

Australian paceman Shaun Tait has today retired from bowling in order prolong his bowling career.

'Playing cricket doesn't really suit my body, but this way I can still make myself available for the IPL auction without having to actually bowl. I'm sure plenty of people would still like the name Shaun Tait on the team sheet, even if I'm not playing.'

'I'd hate to retire from receiving those pay cheques,' he concluded. 'This way, I'm much more able to manage the strain on my bank accounts'.

NB: In seriousness, Taity's decision brings this day closer.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Ricky Ponting And The Ides Of March

Australia, or at least the Australian press, seem to be the only ones who don't think the side has a shot against India tomorrow. The obituaries are already old news, written when the quarter-final line-up became apparent; the story has already moved on to when and how Ricky Ponting will be sacked.

Conspiracies abound, the Ides of March are here. Ricky has been knifed, it's just not entirely clear by who. Was it the anonymous Cricket Australia drone who briefed against him at the press conference? Was it the survey that said cricket in Oz needs to reconnect with the younger fans? Perhaps it was the tattooed, metrosexual Brutus himself, Michael Clarke, who Ponting 'privately believes' has been undermining him?

It's odd to see them this way, stabbing each other in the back - not least because in Australia there are plenty of people willing to stab you in the front first. The blowhards had their say on Ponting after the Ashes. Here is something altogether more sinister, less straight-up, less Australian.

For so long, Australia's strength has been its strength, its sense of common purpose. Every player, however great - and there are plenty of those - bowed to overall goals of the team. Now, there is no great team and just one great player, and look what is happening to him.

India are exactly the sort of side Australia used to relish destroying, a team seeking dominance that could nonetheless be dominated by imposition of will. Mental disintegration they called it. Now things are disintegrating around Australia. They are even questioning the long-cherished, no-quarter tenets of their game, comparing Ponting's refusal to walk unfavourably with Tendulkar's decision to. When you cop it for not walking in Australia, the dogs are at the door.

Australia are crumbling from the outside in. One thing that's certain about Ponting is, he won't crumble himself.

Like the old saying goes, sometimes you don't know what you got till it's gone.

Addendum: Reading the above back, I suppose the point I'm lumbering towards is not that Australia's captain may change - that's a judgement call that can be fairly made either way - it's that the culture around the team has changed, and not for the better. Border, Taylor and Waugh departed with varying degrees of 'encouragement', but the culture around Australian cricket remained, and the successor on each occasion was a man of substance. None of those certainties exist now.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Chris Gayle Flicks The Switch

Power is an odd thing in batting. It's not absolutely necessary, or at least for a century and a half it wasn't. There's a great story about Geoffrey Boycott berating his batmaker because he'd been offered a gun bat 'that will really fly Geoffrey'. 'I don't want it to bloody fly,' the great man retorted. 'I want it to roll to the boundary. I still only get four for it'.

This is true of course, yet there is visceral shock to how hard the ball can be hit that has a psychological element to it. It's about dominance, even fear. I first experienced it in the nets at Alf Gover's as a young kid when Carlisle Best turned up. The ball came off his bat like a shell. Monty Lynch used to practice there often, and he could really lace it.

Currency has changed now, of course. You can talk about bat technology, shorter boundaries, the IPL, money, and you'd be right, but the real revolution is in the heads of the players. The culture has shifted, the sense of what's possible has moved. Hitting a long ball is now coached as legitimately as the forward defensive. It's in the mindset now.

There are lots of players who hit it miles. There are fewer who repeat the skill over and over. And then there's Chris Gayle. People hit the ball further than Gayle, but no-one hits it harder. Gayle doesn't go for distance, he goes for trajectory - flat and lethally powerful. His technique, with legs wideset, means that he will almost always carve square or hit straight, and he does so with fearsome velocity.

Yet what's more remarkable about it is its apparent randomness. Against England the other day, there was no logic to his onslaught - in fact it seemed to inject a mania into the West Indies chase that soon converted into desperation. They only needed 240-odd after all. But it's Chris Gayle's nature. He is a man at the mercy of his muse. When it happens, it happens. Very rarely in Test cricket he has subdued it and dug in for a hundred. The rest of the time, he surfs his own wave, a man apart.

He's inspiring and frustrating, comatose in the field and then savagely alive when he bats. He's sponsored by an obscure Pakistan-based batmaker when you would imagine that every major manufacturer in the world yearns for him to carry their stickers, because there's something about the way he hits the ball that is unique. It's like a Tyson punch, in that it looks the same as lots of other punches, but carries a force that comes from somewhere beyond. When Gayle flicks the switch, without rhyme or reason or warning, the ball travels with more intensity than it ever has before.

Monday 14 March 2011

Tendulkar: Greater Than The Don

Sachin Tendulkar, I think, stands on the edge of the greatest feat of batting in the history of the game. When [and it is when - his batting is an absolute at the moment] he registers the 100th hundred of his international career, he will achieve something that, like Bradman's average, will never be superseded.

It's human nature to try and measure achievement and to be driven to close to madness when it proves impossible. Time and its changes usually mean that it is. But Tendulkar's argument as the best ever is gaining weight.

It's a question of degree of course. Bradman's is measurable. He is, statistically, more than 30 per cent better than anyone else who has played. That's a stat that makes him not just the greatest cricketer of all time, but by the gap that he created, the greatest sportsman of all time. To draw facile comparison, Usain Bolt would have to run the 100 metres in six seconds to equal him; Tiger Woods would have to win another ten Major Championships.

Yet Tendulkar edges closer. One hundred international hundreds will put him more than 30 per cent clear of the next best, Ricky Ponting who has 68. Only one other player has 40 Test hundreds [SRT has 51] and that's Jacques Kallis. Yet Kallis has 'only' 17 ODI tons. There is Tendulkar and then there is daylight.

The Don of course scored with greater mass. If he had continued at his career rate, he would have made 100 Test hundreds in roughly 250 innings [Tendulkar has batted 290 times for his 51] but that presumes Bradman would have been able to continue. All of sport's geniuses, from Ali to Woods, have been slowed down and altered by life. No, what separates Sachin even from the Don is endurance.

Tendulkar has spent more than a year of his life playing ODI cricket, and a lot more than that in Tests. He has played the game internationally from the age of 16, and he's now 37. That's 57 per cent of his time on earth. He has played 626 Tests and ODIs in that time. Bradman played for 20 years, for a combined 234 Test and first-class games. The pace of life and the pace of the game is irrevocably different.

Efforts have been made to calculate what Bradman's average might have been had he played today, given the differences in bowling and especially fielding, and it comes out to around 77. What's unknowable is how modern life and the demands of the game would have impacted upon him. There is empirical evidence of Sachin's apparently unquenchable desire.

You'll get no argument from me if you want to surmise that Bradman could have scored a hundred international hundreds. But Sachin is actually going to do it, and given the likelihood of ODI cricket [and perhaps even Tests] surviving for long enough to prove that anyone can outstrip him, his record will stand forever, as distant and unreachable as anything of the Don's and as worthy of consideration as the greatest ever. It's hard to imagine that Bradman was better.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Random Observations Up To And Including Match 29

No-one, surely to god, can ever have been a better player than Sachin Tendulkar.

Behind most successful batsmen there's Kamram Akmal.

Jacques Kallis's hair transplant has sprouted better than Michael Vaughan's.

Kieron Pollard can hit it miles one-handed.

Ross Taylor didn't get enough credit for his batting against Pakistan, however bad the bowling. His use of the crease was a lesson.

Robin Jackman discovers the value of research [whilst commentating on the Netherlands]: 'The bloke at cover just dropped it'; 'Yes, I mean you, number seven'.

Johan Botha's action hasn't exactly improved with time.

Someone's making up this 2.5m thing as they go along, aren't they?

You don't stand much chance with caught behind reviews without snicko or hotspot.

Jimmy Anderson can't remember that you're supposed to bowl yorkers at the end of an innings.

Are Australia still out there?

Graeme Smith knows that South Africa don't choke.

We're halfway through now, aren't we?

Monday 7 March 2011

KP And The Ambiguous Frontlash

73*, 53, 42*, 47. A little run of figures there that may be worth remembering, although with the short-termism that infects other sporting media showing itself more often in cricket now, they probably won't be.

They represent Kevin Pietersen's last four innings at the T20 World Cup all the way back in the dim and distant past that is last May. They sit quite nicely alongside his Man Of The Tournament trophy and England's only global limited-overs title. Within them is the utter destruction he wrought on the world's quickest bowlers, summed up when, in the final, he walked down the pitch to Shaun Tate and dumped him into the crowd over long-off. The last of the fight went out of Tate then.

Pietersen's first innings in the competition, by contrast, were 24 and 9. As he has done throughout his career, he became caught up in the escalating tension and euphoria of the game and delivered when it mattered. The list of those occasions is long, and stretches back to his ODI breakthrough in South Africa. His batting is studded with such moments. He is that rarest of beasts - the big-match man. The prime years of his playing life, the early 30s in which most batsmen are at their most productive, will answer one lingering question: is KP a great player, or simply a player of great innings?

Yet the ambiguity of the media towards him runs deep. Yesterday saw a series of pieces on the theme 'are England better off without KP?' - an idiotic question that was answered in one radio poll with a 95 per cent 'no'. The punters are ahead of the curve on this one. Andy Flower's fairly standard remarks on the matter have seen a variety of hacks desperate to imply a subtext that supports their theory that England are glad to be shot of him. Flower, the arch pragmatist, is merely playing the hand he's been dealt.

No team is better off without their most galvanising player. England can still do well, but the ultimate marker of a man's worth is the view of those who have to face him. Bowlers like Tate, Steyn, Lee, Zaheer and the others who've run in to him when the chips are down will look at the teamsheet and smile.

NB: Simon Hughes has a far better piece in the Telegraph on England's current state. No wonder the players are getting fractious....

Friday 4 March 2011

Rock of Ageds

The post below had some fine comments that veered back in time to the immortal summer of '76, the summer - indeed the year - of King Viv, and also of Michael Holding and the emergence of the West Indies war machine. England found themselves up against this new and deadly force relatively soon after they returned, shellshocked, from Australia and the first onslaught of Lillee and Thomson. Their response, in retrospect, was remarkable.

In a pre-helmet, as much short stuff as you like era, and in the line of fire of perhaps the two most extreme pace attacks of all time, England turned not to youth but to age. Colin Cowdrey, 41, flew to Australia in 1974 wearing a pinstripe suit and when he got to the middle, famously introduced himself to Jeff Thomson with the words 'I'm Colin Cowdrey,' [to which Thomson replied, 'that's not gonna help you, fatso']. The following summer, 33-year-old David Steele became 'the bank clerk who went to war' - still wearing his specs. Brian Close, who'd made his Test match debut in 1949, four years after the war, joined Steele in facing up to Holding, Roberts, Holder and the brutal Wayne Daniel.

Close was Viv Richards' mentor, county captain and great friend. When he was felled at Old Trafford [against bowling that even the Almanack was moved to record 'was frequently too wild and hostile to be acceptable', and for which Holding was warned by the umpires], Richards was moved to ask him 'are you alright, skip?' 'FUCK OFF' Close roared in reply.

Come the last Test at the Oval, after what was essentially two years of this stuff, England took account of the fallen. Cowdrey and Close had been beaten by age, if not nerve. Boycott and Edrich had, for various reasons, withdrawn. Brearley and Woolmer were callow. Steele was still there, along with Chris Balderstone, who got a pair. With a vacancy for an opener, England went back to Dennis Amiss, 33, who responded to the bombardments he had endured in the past by reinventing his technique, and turning to face the West Indies guns square on. It was a bravura move, as much psychological as technical. He made 203 in a losing cause.

It was, in retrospect, a fascinating time. It's hard to imagine a similar thing happening now, because the game is so different. Batsmen went in knowing that there was a very real possibility of serious injury. It took a particular kind of character to do it.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

The Shock Of The New

One innings from the past came repeatedly to mind today as Kevin O'Brien blazed Ireland to victory in Bangalore: Test match number 1594, 16 March 2002, England v New Zealand at Christchurch, Nathan Astle c Foster b Hoggard 222.

Like O'Brien's, Astle's was an innings that began with a team so deep in the mire that only the tops of their heads were visible. Set 550 to win, he came to the wicket with New Zealand at 119-3. Even though he put on 50 with each of the next three batters, the seventh wicket fell at 300, and the ninth at 333, still 217 short. When Astle finally got out, having hit 28 fours and 11 sixes, New Zealand needed just 99 more to win, and there wasn't a person watching or playing who hadn't started to think that he might get them. It was hurricane force batting, an outlier of an innings.

That feeling of creeping dread overcoming well-established complacency was repeated as O'Brien swung for the fences today. Astle recorded the quickest Test match double hundred of all time, O'Brien the fastest World Cup hundred. England survived Astle, but not O'Brien.

Astle actually went from 100 to 200 in 39 balls on that day in Christchurch. A four over spell of carnage cost England 61 runs, despite one of the overs being a wicket maiden. As Wisden noted, 'a cricket ball has rarely been hit so cleanly, so often'.

Subsequently, it probably has been. In Astle's wake came triple hundreds of sustained violence from Chris Gayle and Virender Sehwag. Then came T20, with its redefinition of the possible. O'Brien is a young guy who has been witness to a much broader horizon than many of the great players he blasted past today. In a way, he was able to bat like he did because T20 cricket has made it less remarkable. His 50-ball record may not even survive this tournament.

None of which is meant to diminish his achievement. England were complacent and bowled and fielded badly, but O'Brien won the game rather than England losing it. We may come to look back on it, as we do on Astle's, as a moment when the future arrived.