Thursday 26 April 2012

Vale, Simon Massey

The other morning, I'm not really sure why, I googled an old friend and team-mate. His name had come into my head, and it made me smile. I knew he'd have been playing somewhere because he always was. The first result was a notice of his death at 50 years old, just a few months ago.

I don't suppose I had seen Simon for ten years and it had been far longer since we'd played together, but the time didn't feel like distance. Sitting in front of that screen with its unwanted message, the memories became almost overwhelming. Bloody sad, too.

His early hero was Tony Greig. A while back I was going through some old boxes in the loft and I found a magazine that he'd made himself and photocopied. It had a pencil drawing he'd done of Greigy on the cover, playing a drive in those SP gloves he used to wear. Simon looked the complete opposite to Greig, he was short and powerfully built even as an U17 player, but he approached the game in the same fearless way. The first time I saw him bat he hit seven or eight sixes when puny kids like us, a few years younger, could only dream of doing something like it.

He always wore a sunhat when he batted, and in an act of hero worship of my own, I drove my dad mad to get me one. He came home one day with an odd acrylic sort of thing that I took down to the club. 'What's that?' Simon asked, 'a bloody hairnet?' He did it kindly, though; he was always good at dressing room banter. He could do it effortlessly, with his stream of terrible jokes, and he never went too far with them.

We started going to nets together and because he was older and better, I got better too. He could bowl as well as bat. He was bloody quick, with a very sharp bouncer and he could bowl really extravagant inswingers. One summer soon afterwards, when there were stories that Hampshire were interested in him, the county side came down to our club for a benefit game. He must have been around 18. He went in, and all I remember was that he got hold of a really powerful pull-shot off of Nigel Cowley, and Richard Gilliatt, who was Hampshire captain then, caught him on the boundary on the Pavilion side of the ground, the kind of catch that professionals take easily but club players drop.

He got on the staff though, and I remember being amazed to discover that he'd been employed mainly as an off-spinner, even though I'd hardly ever seen him bowl it. This was back in the days when contracts were only really for the summer, so in the winter he started coming down to Alf Gover's school with me and my dad. After lessons, we'd stay all afternoon, bowling at anyone and using a net for ourselves if there was one spare. He eventually got a job there coaching, too.

We had some mad drives home down the A3, Simon at the wheel in the outside lane, the car strewn with gear and rubbish and him telling funny, mostly unprintable stories about the other players at Hampshire. When I think about it now, what I remember most is laughing: the time he turned up with an ill-considered perm, his impressions of various team-mates, the nights he made me go to the gym with him, where he could bench-press god knows what and I had to re-set it on the lowest weight, this weird make-it-yourself-by-adding-water orange cake he used to buy at the supermarket...

He stayed at Hampshire for two or three years, I think, and life slowly took us in different directions (especially after my realisation that I was nowhere near good enough to play the game for a living on The Day Of The Pig, a trial at Northlands Road that Simon organised), but I always felt like I would run into him again, and the few times I did, we picked up exactly where we left off.

He didn't make it as a first-team pro. I always thought he was unlucky. His off-spin, which I faced a lot, wasn't even the best part of his game to me. He was a tremendously powerful batsman before that kind of hitting was really in vogue, and he could bowl all kinds of seam and swing, and field brilliantly too. Most of all though, he was wrapped up in it. I don't know how he felt when he had to let it go, but I can imagine, and I know he gave it everything.

Looking back at some of the online messages from the teams he played for, it's obvious that no-one could have loved the game more. He left an impression everywhere he went, for his fearless cricket and off field jokes. I'd sometimes see the notices he put up around town for the summer coaching courses he ran, with 'ex Hampshire player' on them, and a picture of him. That was typical of Simon too.

Not that long ago, I saw a story on cricinfo about Henry Allingham, then the last man alive to have seen Grace play. In the picture, there were a couple of guys holding onto Henry's arm, and one of them was Simon. I don't know how he did it, but he deserved that, being one degree of separation from the great Doctor. They were both cricket men.

In his obituary, I was so glad to see that his coaching had been recognised, and that he'd been working at the Oval at the indoor school, because the best thing a coach can pass on to anyone is enthusiasm and love and that was what he had. He was a playing member of MCC too, and the Berkshire Gentlemen.

As the years went by, I sometimes thought of looking him up, seeing if there was a net on somewhere. I never did, and now I can't. Simon, I am so very sorry, and so sad that you're gone. You were too full of life for that, and bloody brave, and if it's not trite to say so I hope you're looking out on a good green field, and padded up. The game is richer for having had you in it. Thank you, old friend.

Friday 13 April 2012

The potential greatness of Michael Hussey

Any batsman aspiring to greatness should want to be great in all situations: all conditions against all types of bowling in all formats. It has always been that way, since Grace yearned to go to Australia - admittedly partly for the cash and the honeymoon, but also so that they could witness his mastery.

Here is a set of averages that suggest contemporary greatness: Tests 50.62; ODI 48.27; T20I 37.85; First class 52.32; List A 44.43; T20 41.46. They belong to Michael Hussey, a batsman to whom hype, and by extension full consideration, somehow refuse to attach themselves.

Almost everything about Hussey mitigates against anointment. He didn't get into the Test team until he was 30 years old, hardly a prodigy, and then it was as an opener, a position he quickly ceded to a returning Justin Langer. His vast early successes - a thousand Test runs in 166 days, an average of 86 for his first two years, another of 100.22 by his 32nd ODI cap - were airily dismissed as unsustainable (you don't say) and compromised by the relentless excellence of the team he was playing in. Hussey was simply working over opponents already half-out on the ropes.

Then there was the question of his image. In amongst his team of hard-nuts, wise-asses, muggers, brawlers, flawed geniuses, Hussey, sweetly, was the self-styled 'Mr Cricket', that rarest of things in pro sport – an enthusiast. It was almost heartbreaking when, in the gauche early days, he went out in a T20 international with the nickname on the back of his shirt.

The averages returned to a mortal framework during the rough run of 2008-9, and yet still he scurried to the crease in that way of his, like a man trying to get past the local delinquents on his way to the shops. He had enough about him to know that things would turn back his way, because there was no discernible weakness in his game, no gaping hole in technique. He was just getting out, as everyone does.

It's easy then, to explain why Hussey isn't great. It's tougher to to accept that he might be. But here it is: last week, he eked out the the thirty-odd runs to win a tight Test in Barbados. Eighteen months ago, a plane hop away in St Lucia, he won a T20 World Cup semi-final with 60 from 24 balls, an innings of shattering brilliance. Inbetween times, he made 195, 93, 52, 61 and 116 in consecutive knocks against England in an Ashes series in which his colleagues were humiliated.

Any bowlers, any conditions, any format from anywhere in the order, Hussey is ready. Even the way he applies his sunscreen says something about his character. The prominent nose is smothered, and the lips, but so too are the lobes of his ears - sure enough, they can be glimpsed through the sideguards of his helmet. This is attention to detail from a man determined to give himself every chance.

It's all done with deference to the team and to the game. If he has an ego - and he must have - it is well hidden, or more likely channeled into his love of the fight. Australia are never beaten until Hussey is done.

He fulfills a less-acknowledged role in the team too, one that he assumed from Adam Gilchrist. In a side that has pathologically pushed combativeness to its limits - and on occasion beyond - Hussey has offered another face. He is unyielding on the field, but unimpeachable in his sportsmanship. He has soul as well as heart, and when Australia began to lose again, Hussey did so nobly. Ponting could have crossed into dark waters with an Iago as his lieutenant. Instead he had Hussey to offer good sense and sympathy.

Gazing out from the team photos under his baggy green, there's something ingenuous about Hussey's face. Give the image a sepia tint, and he could be a first world war digger, a man from a more innocent age. He even managed not to laugh out loud when Shane Watson was asked to bat at three for Australia. There's no opposition in the world that would swap that arrangement for one involving Mike Hussey. That's the real measure of his worth.

Friday 6 April 2012

Do Umpires Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Last week the writer Jon Ronson had a run-in with a group of university lecturers who had created a twitter account very similar to Ronson's own, and used an avatar made from his picture.

It wasn't a fake account as such, although there was some disagreement over what it actually was. Ronson called it a spambot, the lecturers said it was an infomorph. What it did was to source information from Ronson's wikipedia entry and his geographical area of London, use it to invent a persona for itself, and begin spewing out tweets. Some of it was nonsense, some of it was, by default, funny. Ronson quite rightly felt put upon, and made a little film about his confrontation with the spambot builders (This was funny too - Ronson: 'It tweeted 'I like time and cock'! Lecturer: 'And do you?'; Ronson: 'Yes! I mean no!')

The infomorph's future application seemed to be as a kind of outrider of the virtual horizons, sent ahead to a particular location to pull in information and relay it back. As such it had certain random, human qualities. By exercising those, it could infuriate as well as serve. I thought of it when David Hopps at cricinfo referred to 'the philosophy' behind the DRS, because the philosophy is what it's about, and that philosophy is becoming obscured by the DRS' more immediate effects.

In essence the DRS exists to enhance human judgment rather than replace it. It's not the technology itself that has reshaped the game, but the humans using it. Umpires have given more decisions because DRS has shown them that they're right to do so. In turn, it has changed the way bowlers bowl and batsmen bat, how fields are set, how long matches take. What the technology has revealed is how accurate humans can be.

Emboldened, our human accuracy is now questioning the judgment of the machines. This is a good thing, and the predictive element of the ball-tracking system, patently wrong in some cases, will either improve or become something else.

When DRS began we expected it to produce absolutes, because that is what technology does: it has lumpen computing power beyond our reach. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, that is not what has happened. Instead, it has required interpretation; it has posed questions, demanded more from us.

At the heart of DRS has been a paradox of the Schrodinger's Cat kind, that a player can be both in and out to the same ball depending on the umpire's initial judgment. This is something that wasn't foreseen, and it is sometimes hard to defend. For a long time, this blog was against it. An ambiguity like this one runs against the existing concept of technology, which is there to give us an answer, not to throw the question back.

Were this paradox to be applied strictly to the first stated aim of the DRS - to overturn blatantly bad decisions - then there would be no paradox, because it only occurs on marginal calls. But the 'obvious howler' position has never been workable. Ironically, you don't even really need DRS to resolve those, just a TV replay. Instead, we quickly reverted to the usual human requirement for technology: be certain for us.

Now we've discovered that in cricket, rather marvellously, not even technology can be certain, and this demands, as David Hopps suggested, a philosophy for the way we use it. One of the most accurate measurements that DRS has given us is how good the umpires are - right way over ninety per cent of the time. That is the building block for the technology to use in its next phase.

DRS needs to be regarded as an augment to, and an enhancement of, umpiring. For it to become a more organic part of that process, it can't remain a tactical part of the game. The deeply flawed logic that each side has two successful appeals per innings not only blurs the lines between players and umpires, it politicises decision-making and mitigates against fairness (for example when a player left without review is wrongly given out or a fielding side has no remedy when pushing for a win). We're now in the ludicrous position where certain captains are praised for the way they work a system instigated to increase equality, and umpires have been hacked off at the knees by their colleagues for giving perfectly defendable decisions.

Instead we should regard the three umpires and the DRS as a revolving team, and remove the term 'review' from the acronym. The solution is simple enough: the umpires rotate throughout the game, each taking a turn handling the technology on a session-by-session basis. As an integrated unit, each decision can be made using technology where appropriate. The on-field umpire may give an immediate judgment, or he may use the third man before offering it. It's a small shift, but one that removes the notion of the technology bringing an element of challenge to the process.

This way, the DRS - or DS as it might be renamed - fulfills its philosophical aim as an enhancement, while acknowledging the obvious glory of the game; that whether playing or umpiring, it is a fully human endeavour, sometimes random, occasionally maddening, always evolving.