Thursday 30 June 2011

Scale and the women's game

I thought quite hard before posting this [yes, a rarity I know], because it is not intended as criticism, and it's about women's cricket. But having watched quite a lot of the recent quadrangular series here in England, I believe it's a point worth making, because no part of the game, men's or women's, can afford to stand still.

A couple of years ago I fluked my way into the chance of facing England's opening bowlers, Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole, in the nets at Loughborough. Reading it back now, it's a pretty fair reflection of what it was like, and it was a nice experience to have. But it's not an experience that can be easily translated into the middle, under match conditions on an outdoor pitch, and those are the ones that count.

The staging of international games before men's matches is an excellent idea in terms of exposing the women's game to the market, both live and on TV. But it also exposes the differences between them, and more importantly, the differences in scale that are affecting the chances that the women's game has to develop into something that can stand up in the way that women's tennis or women's golf can.

And it is a question of scale, not skill. There is lots of subtle skill in the women's game, but in the modern era the appeal of a well-placed, hard run three, for example, is limited. The women play in arenas designed for men, and it's the arenas that need to change in order to let the game evolve. Elite women golfers are given courses set up for the dynamics of their game, and the cricketers should be too.

I think they should experiment with a 20-yard pitch, as well as a smaller playing area. A shorter pitch would address the balance between bat and ball. A delivery of 75mph travelling 20 yards asks more serious questions of the batter than one travelling 22. Once the quicker bowlers have come and gone, the change bowling - which is horribly exposed at the moment, especially on television - would be sharper too. Batting and bowling would be toughened up, and it's no real problem to re-mark wickets to make the change.

Limited overs cricket gets people through the gate because there are lots of big hits. Just as Tiger Woods can strike a golf ball a hundred yards further than the top women players, so men can clear longer boundaries in cricket. Again, it's a question of scale. The women's game deserves to have its own version of big hitting. It should be able to accommodate the female Gayle or Sehwag, as well as the more classical players that it currently does. The ropes just need to come in a few yards.

At Bristol last week, both women and men's sides used the same boundaries, and by happy chance, England's men and women both made 136. The women's total included eight fours and no sixes, the men's - in a sub-par performance where Bopara and his chums managed to dry up almost completely - also hit eight fours, but five sixes too. Sri Lanka knocked those off in 17 overs, with 14 fours and a six. In reply to England's women, Australia made 114, with seven fours.

The women's game deserves its chance - perhaps the playing field should now be made level.

NB: Scale can go the other way too: I blogged on the problems of Will Jefferson here.

Monday 27 June 2011

Cricket versus nature versus nurture

So England take their counter-intuitive leap into the dark with Alastair Cook at the Oval tomorrow. A man with an ODI strike rate of 71 will be opening the batting for the foreseeable future. Just like Oscar Wilde's wallpaper, either that strike rate will have to go, or he will.

Cook will be asked to play against nature in ratcheting up his hitting. The question is, by how much? It's an odd and indefinable one to answer, but it is a question that cricket asks all the time because, as the old cliche goes, it's the sort of sport that reveals character as often as it builds it.

Samit Patel is another man fighting his nature. The state of the fat professional cricketer is probably more complex than it's given credit for. It's pretty simple to get in the gym and re-engineer yourself if you want to, with all of the help that's on tap, so when it doesn't happen there have to be reasons why. On saturday, Patel, who has achieved some sort of arbitrary minimum standard that doesn't seem to have included losing much timber, was run out not attempting a run.

It was a slack dismissal for a slack cricketer. There are guys like Patel all across sport, guys whose efforts are approximate, who seem ambivalent to their talents and opportunities. They're almost there but not quite. Beneath the self-deprecating grins and all the rest of the image projection is something fragile, something fearful, something preventing them from taking that final step through the door. It can be tough to contemplate finding out what lies at the end of yourself.

Patel appears to be fighting a battle like that one; perhaps it's easier for him at the moment to have people say 'if only' than it is to find out. Bring in the shrinks. Not far from Bristol, scene of Samit's latest stand, an even more majestically-upholstered enigma has appeared like a galleon in full sail.

Clad in always flattering red spandex, hair teased into a mad omelette of tints and highlights, Mark Cosgrove opens the batting for Glamorgan, geographically and figuratively separated from the players he outshone as a kid - he was the Bradman Young Cricketer Of The Year in 2005. He's now about as popular with Cricket Australia as Simon Katich is, and they don't seem as inclined to unravel his mystery as England are with Patel's.

It's a mystery of a different kind, because Cosgrove seems at one with his nature. He is a supremely gifted batsman in all formats, easily as good as Usman Khawaja, far superior to David Warner, and with a touch of X-factor about him. He may not be an athlete, but his hands and eye are lethally fast. He parted company with South Australia last year at their behest ['we were unable to help him fulfill his full potential'] and then went to Tasmania to score a shedload of runs as they won the Sheffield Shield ['at times it looked like he was batting on a different wicket to the rest,' said his coach].

No, Cosgrove's problem is one of image - external rather than self. Quite patently he is worth the few extra runs he may give away in the field. It's just that Australia, in a rebuilding phase, can't be seen to be sanctioning a free-spirited attitude like his, which is ironic, given that his attitude is very Australian in its way. Cosgrove's self-image, unlike Patel's, doesn't need breaking down. I'd bet he'd be a lesser player without the excess pounds, because those pounds are expressing his need to be different and free.

There are no pat answers; a man's nature is complex, for all the nurturing it gets.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Freeing up the free hit

Back in 2006, when we were messing about with Merlyn, I remember a conversation with a coach about the need for a shot that got the ball past the wicketkeeper, as it was the one bit of the park that was guaranteed not to have a fielder on it. Then came Dilshan.

The new-tech game was here, and it continues to dazzle with the breadth of its invention: relay fielding, slower-ball bouncers, switch-hitting - all were in their infancy then. It goes on: Jade Dernbach, just called into the England squad, has different three slower balls. Fifty from the last five overs is considered a simple chase. The idea of the specialist four-over quick bowler has arrived.

Not everything has been thought of yet, though, the free hit being the most glaring example. While it always creates a stir in the crowd, it very rarely produces a major penalty for the fielding side. Bowlers know how to bowl it, but batters have yet to work out how to do it best.

Yet the batsman has one piece of knowledge that should be exploited: he knows, beyond doubt, that he is going to try and hit the ball. That knowledge needs to feed down into technique, just as the knowledge that there was no fielder behind the wicketkeeper did.

So if he knows for sure he's going to hit the ball, why take a normal stance which has been designed for all eventualities? In baseball, for example, the slugger must swing hard, and stands with the bat already drawn back. His feet are set to move less, but to give a huge striking arc. There might be a lesson there, because the bowlers are ahead of the batsmen on this one, and we can't have that, can we...

Monday 20 June 2011

Leave it, Stuart son...

In Gideon Haigh's book Inside Out there's an essay called Fabian Batsmanship, a lovely, subtle piece about the subtlest of arts: leaving the ball. It is, he writes, 'the exchange of an advantage so small as to be in most cases almost immeasurable'. This is brilliant, and true.

That advantage was more palpable than usual on saturday at the Rose Bowl when Kevin Pietersen left the ball with disdainful mastery. Then Kumar Sangakkara stayed inside the line of the swinging delivery so perfectly most of the crowd thought that he was playing and missing until they got home and turned on their televisions for the highlights.

But what is the bowling equivalent of the leave? How do they establish the same kind of tiny but incremental gain over a batsman? It's a pertinent question, especially for Stuart Broad, who is losing some torque on his Test career.

The blunt diagnosis is that he is not taking wickets. Yet unlike a batsman who is not getting runs, a bowler can still have a useful function while they wait for the gods to turn towards them again. They can block up an end, shut up shop and wait - or at least the best of them can. Think of Walsh, or Pollock, or McGrath. When they weren't running through teams - and they didn't always - they ratcheted down into a state of bloody-minded parsimony. They wouldn't have wrung their socks out over you at the end of play, let alone give away a run they didn't have to. They understood that this was their 'leave' - the exchange of an advantage so small as to be immeasurable, and one that would eventually alter the equation back their way.

Stuart Broad, like Steve Harmison before him, lacks that fallback position. When they're getting clouted, they can't seem to stop it happening. Harmi is a speck in the rear view mirror now, and Broad is approaching a crossroads. There are a lot of other quick bowlers coming up behind him. He has already been usurped by Tremlett, and if Onions had stayed fit and in form, Broad may not even be in the side right now.

The rhetoric from Dean Saker is not encouraging. The other day he called Broad 'a warrior'. It suggests that the team management want to massage his ego and still view him as the impact bowler that it's apparent he's not. England really don't need another Harmison. A Shaun Pollock would be infinitely preferable, because Broad has the potential. He just doesn't seem to know where his off stump is at the moment...

Monday 13 June 2011

The not-unappealing flair vortex of Alastair Cook

The other day I noted down the order in which I enjoyed watching the England top seven bat, taking them each at their best. It went: Pietersen, Morgan, Bell, Strauss, Prior, Trott, Cook. Then I began wondering why.

The first three are pretty obvious. Pietersen remains the most extraordinary batsman to have played for England in twenty years. Morgan is an avatar - the first player of the T20 era to track those skills upwards into Test cricket. He's got the same ice-bound persona as Steve Waugh too. And although the ghost of the Sherminator still shines above him like an aura, Bell has the chronometer timing of Alec Stewart and a technique more classical than Vaughan.

Then Strauss. You've gotta love Strausser. Matt Prior, the closest thing the team has to a village blacksmith, duffing teams up either side of tea. Plus the vast and perverse pleasure of watching Trott - obsessive compulsions, rituals, rehearsals, prods, thuds and pushes forever and ever amen.

Which leaves Cook. The two single most euphoric moments of the last Ashes series for me were waking up and logging on to cricinfo [ritualistic superstition of my own, had to be done before the TV was switched on] at the end of day four at Brisbane [309-1] and day one at Melbourne [157-0], and those were both down in no small part to his relentless accumulation. And yet, and yet...

Cook is certainly a throwback to the age of Boycott, a grinder who will break a bowler on the wheel if he can. There's something even earlier about his anodyne good looks, pre-war maybe in their absolute Englishness, and also in his deeply-concealed inner life. Everything he lets slip about his time outside of the game - the long-term sweetheart, the joys of the family farm - is simple, yet batting is complex. There must be something more.

To compare him with Boycott is not really apt, but there is a comparison there. Cook's runs are bloody-minded, disciplined, concentrated. He and Geoffrey are, if not the slowest, then among the slowest players in the team. Yet around Boycott, war raged. It was an almost permanent state, too, a deep and scarring psychodrama that seethed through his career. It was riveting.

Leo Mckinstry wrote a superlative and riotous biography about Geoffrey called Boycs. It has story after story, anecdote after anecdote, moment after moment that rarely fail to astonish. It's impossible to imagine a similar book about Cook. When I think about Boycott batting, I remember most the cover drive with the checked follow-through, and of course that impenetrable forward push. Cook is harder to grasp. He has one really thrilling shot, his throat-high pull-hook [how Cook-like that it falls between the two]. Beyond that, there's a telling square cut, and a checked cover drive of his own, plus the push off the legs. It's hard to keep any of it in the memory.

So Cook is an enigma, but a silent one. I'm glad he's there but I don't yearn for him to stay. He's a very hard player to get a hold on, a vortex, but one we can stare into with a strange kind of pleasure that can't yet be defined as enjoyment.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Abdul Razzaq flies in

Under Manchester's glowering June sky, Abdul Razzaq arrived to play for Leicestershire at Old Trafford last night. He'd been in the country for less than a day and it showed. He wore a shirt with a large piece of white tape obscuring someone else's name, and when he went out to bat he had on his Pakistan team helmet. In his post-match interview, he acknowledged 'my colleague, Mr White', a man he'd evidently not spent a whole lot of time with before they met out in the middle.

That Razzaq belted one ball into a part of Old Trafford levelled by the builders, and the cameras tracked its progress through the mud and under a parked car, just added to the overall feeling of a game surrendering to its blur of fixtures and desperation for money.

Leicestershire endured their odd little civil war last winter, and they are one of the counties usually referred to when stories of those staring into the abyss are written. They are not alone. Rob Key said earlier in the season something along the lines of - and I'm paraphrasing here - 'you used to be able to get a good overseas for about 60k a year. Now they want that for the Twenty20'.

Hence Leicestershire's anxiety to get Razzaq from the airport and onto the pitch. And Razzaq is just one of the players carving a new kind of career as an international gun for hire. He has already played for Hampshire, Middlesex, Surrey and Worcestershire, and who can blame him? His game is ideal for T20, he gives value for money and he endures the chaos and uncertainty of playing for Pakistan. Soon his kind of peripatetic professional life will be the norm for men of his calibre.

Even the most determined of county-goers are hard-pressed to name who might be playing for them in the T20. It makes the game more difficult to market and it's a game that has to be marketed. To deserved hilarity, Surrey wanted to walk batsmen out like darts players, yet their urge for a gimmick is understandable. The Oval is a big place.

Razzaq was brilliant last night. Leicester needed 63 from four overs and he made it look easy. With Paul Nixon and Matthew Hoggard, men who understand what has been invested in Razzaq, looking on, at first twitchily and then with broadening smiles, it was superb theatre in a ground that was either half-full or half-empty, depending on how you look at it.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

There always has to be a story

Something strange happened when Kevin Pietersen walked out to bat on Monday evening - at least it would have been strange had you been reading the papers. He was applauded, warmly, all the way to the crease, and then cheered equally warmly as he played out the final hour or so to set up his innings today.

It was strange, because if you took your perception of the fans' opinion of KP from the media, you might have been surprised at this unequivocal support. You may also have been under the impression that Pietersen was under pressure for his place, because again, this was the media line.

There has to be a story, because this is how the media works. It's interesting that the most intuitive piece on KP was a simpatico analysis from Mike Brearley in the Observer. This was the story that tuned in best to both the public's and the dressing room's view of KP, and yet it stood alone. Brearley, of course, is not a member of the regular press pack.

There is a question worth asking about the press position on KP: who was the last batsman to be dropped from the England Test team? The answer, excluding injury replacements, is Ravi Bopara in the Ashes of 2009. Before that, it was probably Ian Bell, who pushed selectorial patience beyond the limit in Jamaica. Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood and Jonathan Trott [in South Africa] were all nursed through lengthy droughts, as Pietersen would have been. His drought, comparatively, has been less severe, yet this point was rarely made.

So did the media want Pietersen to be dropped? As individuals, probably not. But as a story, it would have gone big and KP felt its weight. Like football, the media agenda for cricket is now short-term, even as the England team's strategy stretches the other way.

If Pietersen continues to revive, he will leave a vacuum behind him. It may be filled, even more remarkably, by Andrew Strauss. For the media, his retirement from short-form cricket loosens his grip on power. Now, his dismissals by left-arm bowlers are lining up behind him as more ammunition. A full two Test matches after an Ashes win for the ages, whispers are beginning.

Strauss has got out to a lot of left-arm over bowlers, and like Pietersen, he has a technical issue to address. But batting is a process not a destination, and things change all the time. A generation ago Strauss would have faced Wasim Akram and very few others. In the last year he has encountered Bollinger, Johnson, Amir and Welegedera with Zaheer Khan to come. He is an opener, and openers get out to opening bowlers.

This short-termism is not so much the fault of the journalists as the the wider media, which has increased in speed to keep pace with life. The culture in general is more disposable and it burns through information in its many forms. The England Test team does not run at sufficient speed for its purposes, and a gap between the story and reality is emerging. There always has to be a story, but increasingly, it's created by the authors rather than their subjects.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Melancholy and the infinite sadness of Ian Bell

So, England came close to declaring on Ian Bell when he was 98 not out. What stopped them was Andrew Strauss's argument that a mood of 'melancholy' might be created around the team. As melancholy is an important emotion in life and one woven into the fabric of the game, it was good to see Strauss's England respect its influence and get their unlikely reward.

There's an obvious parallel with Sydney 1995, when Mike Atherton pulled the plug on England's second dig with Graeme Hick on the same score. That was an extraordinary, weather-affected game too, eventually drawn after first Australia looked like they'd chase England down and then fell in a heap before clinging on. 'Atherton lost patience and ungenerously declared,' the Almanack thundered. 'He had batted far more slowly himself'.

There was plenty of support for Atherton's decision at the time, though. There was a view that the England team needed steel, a kind of Australian-style macho, no-bullshit, no-frills, low indulgence of the individual which in turn would make the unit stronger.

It did not allow a lot of room for melancholy, although there was always plenty around Hick, and around Atherton, too. It's a worldview that seems very 90s now. In cricket, more than almost any other team game, it is about the individual. It has to be. There's no point pretending that individual achievement doesn't matter, or that the team must always take precedence. Instinctively, Strauss, with the team in mind, invested in Ian Bell's happiness. It was a decision that might not have paid off in the short term, but it was guaranteed to at some point, because as Strauss understood, it would have made every individual in the team feel good.

Sometimes, you just get back what you give out. Athers and Strauss did when they made their different calls.