Thursday 27 October 2011

There may not be an answer to the question of Jonathan Trott

Andy Flower's face doesn't do happy very happily, but displeasure writes itself eloquently across it. After England's final defeat in Kolkata he looked like a man extracting a wasp from a loose filling with his tongue. In his 50 over team, there aren't just questions over the so-so players, there are questions over the successful ones, too. If he was to list, in order, the batsmen over whom there is no quibble, it would start and end with Eoin Morgan. Next - equivocal only in the minds of the press - would come Pietersen, then the made bed we must lie in, Alastair Cook. And then it's the ICC cricketer of the year, Jonathan Trott.

Trott occupies that category of batsman for whom flair is another country [current proprietor S. Chanderpaul, notable residents Simon Katich, Paul Collingwood, Graeme Smith]. There may be little aesthetic pleasure to his game, but there are consolations, and not just in the scorebook. Behind Trott trails the obsessive-compulsive's checklist of ticks and rituals, the mad-ass rundown of scrapes and sidesteps of a man who must impose clarity and order. Once he has done, he is set. His mental landscape is entirely different to Lara's or Pietersen's or Ponting's, players who need the challenge to escalate as they bat, and who will escalate it themselves if the bowlers won't.

There is something ineffably English about debating the merit of a man who has the best record in the team, is the cricketer of the year and has, with 1,310 ODI runs, 172 more than anyone else in 2011, yet that is his lot, because he is a man out of time. Had he played ten years ago in the pre-T20 era, when the possible was comfy and predictable, he would appear without argument. But the possible is no longer comfy and anyone can score anything; limited overs batting is now the art of vicious, unpredictable acceleration set around periods of accumulation. These are the surges that will define games.

The broad, non-penetrative measures of average and strike rate cannot and do not tell the story of those surges. In a small room in Loughborough, England's analysts have recorded every ball delivered in international cricket in the last five years. While Flower does not talk publicly about what they've found, you can be sure that he will pondering stats like those in Mohali, when Trott made 26 from 25 deliveries in the last 10 overs of England's innings, and the numbers that tell him that Trott has scored at better than a run a ball in three of his 38 ODIs.

Put simply, Trott's runs are useful at certain points of the innings and less so at others. They suit games that have middling totals of 250-280. This is what makes him a percentage selection. The choice of Cook as captain and by default, opener, has also compromised Trott's value as the man to bat around.

The rest of the order needs to coalesce before Trott's position becomes clearer. It's not inconceivable that the answer is for him and Cook to open together, and for batting below them to be supercharged by Bell, Pietersen, Morgan and Patel, with Keiswetter or Bairstow keeping wicket and batting deep, plus the option of Bopara and the versatility his bowling brings.

Trott's game may not have fully flowered. His success so far has lain in ruthless elimination of error and risk. Collingwood introduced his thump over cow corner and, allied to his scampering, his fielding and the odd inspired spell of bowling, it made him the essential selection that Trott is not. Even Chanderpaul can and has destroyed teams in short bursts. Trott has bullishly claimed he can hit sixes, so maybe he should try. It's no longer a luxury, a skill like that.

Flower is trying to overcome a notoriously cautious culture, and one scarred not just by failure but by humiliation and embarrassment. This is the nation that opened in a World Cup final with Brearley and Boycott; that for a decades would have loved to have enough talent at its disposal to just get into position to choke. The really adventurous long-term selection as 50-over captain was Eoin Morgan, which strangely, would have shored-up Trott's position. With Cook, they have hedged to some degree. Whether he or Trott make it to the 2015 World Cup is a question that at the moment has no right answer.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Butt, Amir, Asif and the News Of The World's Last Stand

There's an old story, usually attributed to Mark Twain or Churchill, of a man who gets talking to an attractive woman on a train. After a while he asks, 'madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?' The woman tells him that she would.

'Well then, would you sleep with me for a shilling?'

'Sir! What kind of woman do you think I am?'

'We've already established what kind of a woman you are. We're just haggling over the price'.

This anecdote of woolly provenance is as good a description as any of the methods of Mazher Mahmood, aka the Fake Sheikh, star witness at Southwark Crown Court in the spot-fixing trial of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir.

For a time, Mahmood, for all of the mystery that surrounds his physical appearance, was the most famous journalist in the country. Yet one of the ironies of the trial is that he gave his evidence in a media landscape that had altered irrevocably in the months between the publication of his story and the commencement of proceedings. The paper for whom Mahmood wrote his piece no longer exists, and neither, arguably, does the appetite for his stock in trade, the celebrity sting.

The News Of The World's defence of Mahmood's methods was generally that his investigations had led to 250 criminals being brought to justice. But it's also true that some of the crimes he reported would never have occurred without his involvement. In 2006, the media commentator and former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade wrote a piece for the Independent entitled 'Why I'm Out To Nail Mazher Mahmood'. He said: 'Mahmood's methods debase journalism. They often amount to entrapment, and on occasion, appear to involve the methods of agents provocateurs. People have been encouraged to commit crimes that they would not otherwise have conceived'.

Mahmood's rap sheet in that regard is long. Most notorious is his 2002 'world exclusive' story of a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham. The reason it was a world exclusive is because there was no plot. After the men accused by Mahmood had spent seven months in prison on remand, the trial collapsed over the unreliability of the main witness – and Mahmood's major source – Florim Gashi. The News Of The World's role was referred to the attorney general, and it transpired that Gashi had been paid £10,000 by the newspaper, and had played a role in four other of Mahmood's stories.

In 1999, Mahmood's investigation led to the conviction of Joseph Yorke and another man on drugs charges, yet the jury sent the judge a note explaining that had they been able to take into account the 'extreme provocation' to which Yorke was subjected, they would have issued a verdict of not guilty. The judge agreed and passed only a suspended sentence. And in the conviction of the actor John Alford for supplying cocaine, also in 1999, the judge said that 'entrapment had played a significant part, but so had greed'.

There were more. In 2005, a man was jailed after he admitted selling Mahmood and the News Of The World a fake story that he was 'the fifth London bomber' in the 7/7 attacks. The police wasted more than 4000 hours of time investigating the claim after the paper splashed on the story. The man, Imran Patel, said that had been promised £5000 by the News Of The World. In 2006, three men, Dominick Martins, Abdurahaman Kanyare and Roque Fernandez, were acquitted of plotting to buy a substance that could be used to make a 'dirty' bomb, and Mahmood's methods were again questioned, this time by the BBC.

In 2010 Mahmood exposed the world snooker champion John Higgins over plans to fix frames in four tournaments across Europe. After an investigation, Higgins was banned from competition for six months for failing to report an illegal approach and discussing betting, and yet his acquittal on match-fixing charges came in part after Mahmood himself gave a full statement to the inquiry and turned over his unedited videotapes and transcripts.

The Higgins case perhaps best of all illustrates the ambiguities of these kind of stories. There is an excellent summary of it at the Sporting Intelligence site, including an interview with the man who investigated Higgins, former metropolitan police detective David Douglas, who says, 'The News Of The World are very clever at what they do, very clever indeed'.

Well not any more they're not. The paper has gone, closed for its involvement in the phone hacking scandal that might yet cost Rupert Murdoch control of his business. In retrospect, Mahmood's best stories were his more harmless ones - the shagging footballers and feckless club directors who insulted their own fans under the Fake Sheikh's wily prompting.

None of which is intended as a defence of Butt, Asif and Amir - especially the first two, Butt with his mug-purchase watches and ice-cream parlour deals; Asif with his schoolboy excuses and previous as long as your arm. It's just that this is another case that wouldn't have unfolded in the way it has without the presence of Mahmood and his robes and his bag of money – this time £140,000. You somehow wish for something as odious and damaging as spot-fixing to have been exposed by an organisation a little more noble. It's not exactly Watergate, is it... and it is probably the last of its kind.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Take this one on the chin, Swanny...

A passage in Graeme Swann's book - which bears a title so punsomely dreadful that it wouldn't make a caption in the back of Nuts magazine - has poked life into an old story.

He writes: There was a strange dynamic between Andy Caddick and Darren Gough. I found it really weird. They absolutely hated each other but pretended to get on in this pseudo friendship. Their jealousy towards each others success made me feel uneasy.

On hearing of it, Gough, already stoked up by an allegation elsewhere in the book that he'd sucker-punched Swann while he was standing at a urinal - you'll have gathered by now that The Breaks Are Off might not take its place next to Cardus on Cricket in the pantheon - used his radio show on Talksport to rip a few snorters into Swanny's rib-cage. Paraphrased, his response was something like: 'It's absolute rubbish. Me and Andy were competitive, but we were friends too. Before every game together we'd do something like go to the cinema or have a meal or play golf. We're playing golf in a couple of weeks actually. Caddy's one of the few players I've stayed in touch with. I've stayed at his house for a week. I texted him the other day. Why would I do that if it were a pseudo friendship?

'There was a bit of jealousy because I was the golden boy and I got all the contracts, and that might have been a bit because I were a proper Englishman and he were a Kiwi, and we were competitive. If you look at how close were were in the wickets we got, of course we were. But to say there were cliques in the team and we weren't friends is rubbish. That team under Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher and Lord MacLaurin started the process of where we are today.

'You're always better friends with some people in the team than others, but that's not a clique. Vaughan and Collingwood and Giles were always together. Freddie and Steve Harmison were inseparable. At the end of my time, I was always with KP. In this team now, Swanny's always with Jimmy Anderson and Bressie, they spend all day on Twitter winding each other up. Is that a clique?'

It took him less time to say than it does to read, and he seemed far more exercised by it than he had been by the punch allegation, which had come the day before and over which he'd rung Swann direct. Perhaps it's because the story has been so persistent over the years, and it rankles.

In truth there was an almost symbiotic link between the two, in that they unconsciously echoed one another's performances. Gough played 58 Tests and took 229 wickets at 28.39 at a strike rate of 51.6, a best of 6/42 and 14 five wicket hauls. Caddick played 63, taking 234 wickets at 29.91 at a strike rate of 57.9, a best of 7/46 and 13 five-wicket bags. Gough had the edge as a limited overs bowler, Caddick took 1,180 first-class wickets to Goughie's 855.

They played 25 Tests together and were mostly formidable, except in the Ashes of 2001. England's comparative mediocrity during their era can be blamed on many things - three batsman who played more than 100 Tests and averaged less than 40, the failure to develop Hick and Ramprakash, a chaotic selection policy, the lack of central contracts, all of the usual - but not on players with records like Gough and Caddick, who, statistically at least, outbowled Flintoff and Harmison.

You can imagine both having their moments. You might think Gough had a heart like a dustbin lid and Caddick maybe less so, but then look at their numbers. That can't be true, although Gough's bravery in the face of his terminal knee injury pre-dated Flintoff's Leviathan efforts when faced with the same. Caddick by all accounts could be quirky. David Lloyd even called him nerdy, and maybe he was sensitive and inconsistent, but again, the stats say not that often. Anyway, which fast bowler is entirely sane?

Swann's recollection appears coloured by the myth, by the story. He has carefully constructed a personal mythology of his own, and his book will reinforce it. He's in a glass house throwing stones with this one.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Vale Graham Dilley

Cricket has too many metaphors for the end. Like the song says, when an old cricketer leaves the crease it's sad enough, and when it's someone not yet old it's sadder, and crueller, than that. Lots of people in the game have spoken warmly of Graham Dilley, who died today. To those of us a little further on the outside, whose memory of the man was suspended in about 1986 when he was still an affable and diffident giant, part Viking, part REO Speedwagon bassist, his passing seems even more abrupt. Not him, surely, and not now.

Of course he had coached, with great success, and had lived his life in the game, but in his diffident way, he was out of the spotlight and so, perversely, he remained trapped by his brief moments in it. He only played in two Test match victories [despite appearing in 41 games - how very English that is] but the first of those is probably the most famous win of all, at Headingley in 1981, and even then he is famous within it for an innings and a catch, rather than for his bowling. Indeed, so far had he fallen at that point, he found himself, a week later, playing for Kent seconds against the Army.

His other win came on that happy tour of 1986-7, when he was part of the team that couldn't bat, couldn't bowl and couldn't field and that beat Australia 2-1. It was the tour on which the famous wicket, Lillee ct Willey b Dilley, was willed into existence. According to the testaments, he was the kind of man you needed to know before his true personality came out; Pat Murphy, the BBC radio journalist who wrote a book about a season at Worcester with Dilley and Graeme Hick, recalled late nights putting the world to rights over a few beers and a packet of fags - the book's title, Hick And Dilley's Circus, was surely cooked up then.

Two more diffident - that word again - destroyers you could not find. If ever you wanted to study savage talent wrapped in a pacifist's temperament, look at Hick and Dilley. Like Hick, Dilley had all of the physical gifts. He approached the crease on the angle from a run that sometimes seemed to take about five minutes, so long and curved was it, and yet the delivery stride was a thing of beauty, the front leg extended high while the whole body appeared balanced on the one dragging toe of his back foot, the javelin sweep of the arm delayed until the final second when it unfolded in a whir of long levers. Dilley was quick, sometimes brutally so, and that action let him swing the ball away very late, the batsman's nightmare. Had he possessed Botham's uncomplicated ego, he might have had another 150 Test wickets. As it was, he was way too good for most county players, as 648 first-class notches at 26.84 suggests.

It's strange how many of those Headingley men were on a last chance. Botham of course had been removed as captain, and was selected at Brearley's insistence. Willis, in his own mind at least, was bowling for his career, and Dilley was dropped after the game. How unjust that was; he had shown as much of the right stuff as anyone. His death somehow sends that match further into an ephemeral past.

Dilley may have prospered more in the scientific now, like his contemporary equivalent Chris Tremlett, another unassuming big fella. Instead he played through tumultuous times yet remained a gentle presence in them. It serves his memory well.

NB: thanks to Tony for pointing out the error above - Lillee ct Willey b Dilley came in '81 not '86. In the mind's eye, Willey was at either third slip or gully, but I could be wrong about that too...

Sunday 2 October 2011

March of the Andrew Symonds zombies

About ten years ago at the Gabba, I watched a ghost walk into bat. It was Vivian Richards, and he was unmistakable, still taking an eternity to reach the crease, nothing more than a cap on his head, those middleweight's shoulders rolling as he sauntered out under the late-season sun.

The resemblance ended there. This wasn't the Viv Richards of memory or dreams, it was Viv as he approached 50, a long-retired cricketer playing with his friends in a charity match. He still looked the same, still moved in the same way, but it had been a long time, and he could barely hit the ball off the square.

There was a sigh as he got out, but it was a sigh of relief almost, because no-one wants to watch their gods become mortal with age, and anyway, Goochie was blasting away at the other end and it was a terrific afternoon. The match offered something that only those sort of matches used to be able to do.

Not any more. One of the less remarked upon aspects of T20 cricket has been the rise of these simulcrums. There was one on the field yesterday by the name of Andrew Symonds. It looked like Symonds from a distance, but when the camera honed in, the face was lined and weathered, the waist had thickened, the hamstrings had tightened. It moved like Symonds used to move, only more stiffly, more slowly. There was another one on the other side, too, a version of Justin Kemp that just seemed to have staggered, unshaven and pawky, out of the nearest pub.

It's pretty obvious why Symonds wants to play for the Mumbai Indians [a team name that is increasingly loaded with sardonic humour], and why Shane Warne and Matthew Hayden want to play in the Big Bash. But why do the teams want them?

It's a strange and telling phenomenon. The thought that any of those players could, for example, appear in next year's T20 World Cup is so distant as to be laughable. Even Australia aren't that desperate. It's pretty unlikely that a stretched county side would lay out their hard-earned on them when young and hungry muscle is available on the cheap. But the IPL and its little me-too the Big Bash don't run entirely on excellence; performance is not their sole criteria. They need to keep the tills ringing with a little bit of showbiz too, so the appearance of the undead cricketer in their elasticated kit serves its purpose. You wouldn't have wanted to watch King Viv doing it though...