Thursday 28 July 2011

Why Andy Flower got it wrong with Monty

Monty Panesar's career has been haunted by Shane Warne's one-liner: 'He's not played 30 Tests, he's played the same Test 30 times'. It was a piece of dressing room wisdom that capped Monty's destructive reputation for guilelessness, the Frank Spencer of left-arm spin.

It somehow seems more than five years ago that Panesar took the first of his 126 Test wickets - Sachin Tendulkar was his duck-breaker, Rahul Dravid his third. Inzamam ul-Haq, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan followed the next summer. Monty was good enough for the best.

Since his move to Sussex, he's been doing pretty much everything right, trying to reconcile the need to grow his game while remaining in touch with the innate skill he produced so naturally at first.

When he had the chance to go and bowl at the world's premier batsman in the nets a few weeks ago, he took the initiative, just as everyone kept telling him he needed to do. He jumped in his car, got himself down to Lord's and turned his arm over for Sachin Tendulkar.

'I thought it would be a chance to get some tips for my bowling,' he said. 'These things are great opportunities and it gave me the chance to add further development to my game'.

Andy Flower took a different view. Flower called Monty 'naive'. Monty, being Monty, will probably roll over and agree. He shouldn't. He is not contracted to England, just to Sussex. He's 29 years old and has responsibility for his own career. If he thinks that bowling at Tendulkar will help him, he has every right to do so.

Flower has been revelatory in his time with England. He is a hugely impressive man, deserving of respect. He is wrong in this instance, though. His concern should not be Sachin Tendulkar, who, let's face it, after 14,000 runs is probably going to get a few more at some point regardless of who bowls at him in the nets or in the Test matches. His concern should be for Monty, who is the sort of man who will take being called 'naive' by the England Team Director to heart.

Even if Flower was able to make his case for Panesar bowling to Tendulkar as being detrimental to England, this was an issue best handled with a quiet word in private. Monty deserved better than a public slapping down in a way that reinforces a perceived weakness in his make-up.

Monday 25 July 2011

Steve, Sachin and the foibles of great men

The deeper states of mind of batsmen remain essentially mysterious. You'd have to search for a long time to find two players mentally stronger than Steve Waugh and Sachin Tendulkar, but they have their foibles too.

Even the Texas courts will not accept polygraph evidence, and yet Steve Waugh wants to see it in cricket [South Korea are said to use it on their football team - any player passing doubles their wages]. The lie detector's natural arena, though, is the piss-artists and pub stuntmen of the Jeremy Kyle Show, where his motley collection of gormless shaggers line up daily to try and beat it, no doubt armed with some facile tip or trick that they think will save their lying asses.

The reason that courts don't accept lie detectors is that they don't work on liars, especially liars who don't believe that they are lying, or that do it so often it's almost a version of their truth. Steve Waugh took a polygraph test and was impressed by the pressure it exerted on him, but that is because he's an honest man responding as an honest man does to the polygraph's psychology.

Waugh is typical of a particular kind of sportsman, one who loves empirical evidence. His belief built as he proved things to himself, as he worked his mind and his game out. Once he believed he didn't look back, as the curve of his cumulative average shows. He might have proved to himself that the lie detector works, but it's not the ICC's get out of jail card, nor is it the match-fixers' get into jail one.

Steve appeared to yield to one talisman as he grew older - that red cloth that rarely left his back pocket. Sachin Tendulkar has one too - his bat. After he'd departed Lord's with a viral infection of day four of the Test, Sky's cameras showed him returning the ground, in civvies but, as Nasser Hussain observed: 'Still carrying his bat with him. It never leaves his side - he won't leave it in the dressing room'.

Admittedly, Sachin's bat would be a grand prize for anyone, but he is a batter who invests emotion in the ones he likes. Many players are far less talented and far more pragmatic about the tool of their trade. Tendulkar of all men could probably make runs with Geoffrey's mother's stick of rhubarb, yet he wields the same bat until it packs up [his last probably made more Test hundreds than any bat ever shaved from the tree] and he still uses buckle-up pads. The great man has some mental props of his own. He is all too human, and all the more glorious for it.

Friday 22 July 2011

Sachin tomorrow

So, it looks like Sachin Tendulkar will walk out to bat at Lord's tomorrow. The numbers are aligned, as everyone knows. Here's something I posted a while ago that I think holds true:

Sachin Tendulkar stands on the edge of the greatest feat of batting in the history of the game. When 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.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Owais Shah plays the shot of the season

The other night at Chelmsford, Owais Shah played the shot of the season. It should not pass unacknowledged. It wasn't a new invention, not a flip or a scoop or a glide; it wasn't a power-mow, a skimming bomb, a cultured hoik. It wasn't from the MCC manual either, not because it lacked orthodoxy, but because it was simply unavailable to most players. It was a piece of skill so pure that very, very few people on earth could have executed it.

I doubt that even Shah expected the result he got. He'd just come to the crease with Essex chasing Kent's 183. The score was 9-1 after a couple of overs. The lights were on, the ball was swinging a little, Essex had to win to qualify from the group. Shah is skittish at the best of times, a fragile, scarred talent, and he began uneasily. Charl Langeveldt and Azhar Mahmood were bowling, taking the ball mostly away from the right-handers. Langeveldt sent one down on a good length, tailing out at about 85mph. Shah picked his bat up, stepped across his crease and shaped to push forwards. In essence that was all he did. As he finished the shot he accelerated a little into the briefest of follow-throughs.

At first, the ball looked to have popped up towards mid-off; maybe Shah had been done a little by the bounce and offered a simple catch. Yet instead it continued to climb. Shah watched it open-eyed. It went up and onwards into the evening sky, cleared the boundary and then carried the two-tier stand and departed the ground altogether. Shah looked down at the wicket. A few of the other players glanced at one another. The ball had to be replaced.

The pace of the game, and its importance, didn't really leave much time for reflection, but that shot was a small miracle of timing and striking. It didn't really help Shah, or Essex, either. He made 27 from 20 balls, and Essex lost by 15 runs. The main talking point afterwards was a catch Scott Styris claimed and had disallowed, yet Shah's shot will stay in the memory for longer than any of that.

Owais's racehorse temperament has cost him with England, but this was a glimpse of the possible. Perhaps only Sehwag could play a shot like it - Shah's was that good.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Guest post with the Bored ones...

Have done a little thing with the BCCI boys, thanks to Naked Cricket...:

As Rahul Dravid was adding the last few of his 12, 314 Test match runs over in West Indies, it was interesting to watch the volume of ‘advice’ from Indian fans that came streaming through the Twitter feed.

If you’d never seen Dravid bat and instead formed an opinion of him from these screams from cyberspace, you might have pictured a timid schoolboy who’d been dragged unwillingly to the crease, where he was now cowering somewhere between the stumps and square leg bent only on surviving the remorseless onslaught of Darren Sammy, rather than the imposing, infinitely skilled player that he is.

Read the rest here

What Mike Atherton has in common with Mick Mars

One played 115 times for his country and is the cricket correspondent of The Times. The other is a member of Motley Crue and once accidentally shot his own girlfriend. One published an autobiography in which he revealed that he didn't like Raymond Illingworth. The other published an autobiography in which he revealed that he believed in aliens. One has a child named after a guitar, Les Paul. It's unlikely that the other has a son called Gray-Nicolls.

There is however some common ground between Michael Andrew Atherton, 43, of Failsworth, Lancashire, and Robert Alan Deal [no, Mick Mars is not his real name], 60, of Los Angeles California. When the histories of their respective occupations are written, neither will quite inhabit the upper echelons frequented by great men, yet both have had their moments too. Athers, for example, resisted Alan Donald for 12 hours in Johannesburg. And Mick Mars wrote Girls, Girls, Girls.

And then there is ankylosing spondylitis, an auto-immune form of arthritis that affects the spine. Yesterday it was announced that researchers have isolated the genetic mutation that causes the disease, which has impacted the lives and careers of both Athers and Mick Mars.

Atherton wrote in yesterday's Times about the discovery [unfortunately it's behind lovely Rupert's paywall] and about how the condition imposed itself on his game. By the age of twenty he was suffering badly enough for him to undergo special exercise and treatment, and he played with it throughout his career. It was usually referred to as 'a bad back', which is somewhat understating the case. Athers is one of life's stoics, but in addition to putting up with Ray Illingworth, Glenn McGrath, Wasim and Waqar, Brian Lara, the press and just 31 wins in those 115 games, it's no surprise that his increasingly hunched, purse-lipped, white-faced presence at the crease appeared to offer him so little pleasure.

Mick Mars' suffering was somewhat overwhelmed by the gargantuan feats of debauchery that Motley Crue fessed up to in their book The Dirt, but in one memorable passage he refers to ankylosing spondylitis as 'a grey ghost' that he he imagined hovering over his body, causing it to gradually lock up. His spine has fused and he is now three inches shorter than he was as a young man. He has had a double hip replacement, which has eased pain so debilitating he once tried to kill himself by walking out into the sea.

After Athers was caught rubbing dirt on the ball in 1995, the The Times accused their future correspondent of 'failing to uphold the values to which his society aspires'. He had to endure Jimmy Tarbuck calling for his resignation. In his next innings he made 99, and in his press conference quoted Roosevelt: 'It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled ... The credit belongs to the man who is in the arena; whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood.'

Both Atherton and Mick Mars have managed that, although Athers would probably accept that a little mild ribbing is due given that he has jumped the fence and become an occasionally caustic critic himself. He wrote yesterday that he hoped the new research meant future generations of Athertons would not have to go through the same thing. Let's hope they can bat though. Or write Girls, Girls, Girls.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Kumar, cricket, life

Next week, the Beeb start a four-part serial on the weather, and how it has shaped British history and culture in big ways and in small. To a long, long list, add the unforgiving rainclouds that dogged Sri Lanka's tour, because it was during those interminable breaks that Kumar Sangakkara wrote his Spirit of Cricket lecture.

It was a lecture delivered in the manner of his batting, with a sure and certain lightness that disguises the treatment being meted out. It was immaculate stuff, sometimes magical, always resolute. The headlines have flowed from it; Peter Roebuck has called it 'the most important speech in cricket history' [a piece of hype it didn't need]; a Sri Lankan minister's initial response was a threat [always the first refuge of the despot, not to mention of the tosspot too].

Yet what was really lovely and resonant about it, and what will ensure that it remains a glowing memory long after the wrangling over board politics are done, was the way it showed cricket and life as symbiotic and intertwined. For Kumar, for Sri Lanka, for many other of us too, one cannot be unwound from the other.

First there was Kumar the kid, six years old, delighted to have his house filled with 35 Tamil friends his father was hiding during race riots, innocently oblivious to 'the terrible consequences' should they be discovered. A few years later, a communist insurgency meant that: 'the sight of charred bodies on the roadsides and floating corpses in the river was terrifyingly commonplace.'

His first cricket coach, rather charmingly still known to Kumar as 'Mr DH De Silva', was ambushed and shot on a tennis court, only surviving because the gun pointed at his head jammed. Then came civil war and suicide bombs, more darkness and more terror. What Sri Lankans yearned for was 'a miracle that would lift the pallid gloom and show us what we as a country were capable of if united'.

It came, the miracle, at the 1996 World Cup, where a disparate, almost rag-bag collective led by 'an overweight, unfit southpaw' became a team that not only won the World Cup but that redefined the way the game is played. 'It inspired people to look at the country differently... it helped normal people get through their lives'.

The team came together and then the country too. And what brought the team together? Well, good old Darrell Hair and his no-balling of Murali in Melbourne in '95: 'few realised it at the time, but the no balling of Murali for alleged chucking had far-reaching consequences. The issue raised the ire of the entire Sri Lankan nation. Murali was no longer alone. His pain, embarrassment and anger were shared by all. No matter what critics say, the manner in which Arjuna and team stood behind Murali made an entire nation proud.'

Cricket and life, life and cricket. After all of the death, all of the riots, the exploding bombs, the non-firing guns, one man no-balls another in Australia at Christmas and a change comes along.

It's not that simple of course, and Sangakkara does not suggest it was, but its impact is undeniable, indelible. After '96, cricketers occupied a new, higher place in Sri Lanka. With power and money came responsibility.

Sanga recounts well the first text message, received by Sanath Jayasuriya in a dressing room in New Zealand, describing 'waves from the sea' flooding in to coastal towns. Back home days later, the players visited the hastily established camps. 'In each camp we saw the effects of the tragedy written upon the faces of the young and old. Vacant and empty eyes filled with a sorrow and longing for homes and loved ones and livelihoods lost to the terrible waves. Yet for us, their cricketers, they managed a smile.'

Incredibly, there was more. Next came Lahore, which Sanga recalled with such poise and humour in his speech that the words lose some of their effect on the page alone, but even here, when death was as close as the bullet that ripped into a seat where his head had just been, Sanga's reaction, on seeing Tharanga Paranvithana stand up after being shot, was: 'I see him and I think: “Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out the next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.” Life and cricket again, a smile in the dark.

A few weeks later, Kumar encountered a soldier, a man who experienced situations like Lahore many times. 'That soldier looked me in the eye and replied: “It is OK if I die because it is my job and I am ready for it. But you are a hero and if you were to die it would be a great loss for our country.” I was taken aback. How can this man value his life less than mine? His sincerity was overwhelming. I felt humbled. This is the passion that cricket and cricketers evoke in Sri Lankans. This is the love that I strive every day of my career to be worthy of.'

Kumar Sangakkara is the man who has expressed this, but Sri Lanka has many more remarkable cricketers, both on and off the field. They don't teach you the kind of stuff they know in a centre of excellence. To them, cricket means everything and, in the right way, nothing. There's an old maxim that usually holds true: if you can play like it means nothing when it means everything, then you will be okay.

King Kumar averages 56 in Test cricket for a reason, and it's not just because he has a good eye. The cricket boards can politik away; Sangakkara's speech was about much more than that. It was about cricket, and about life.