Tuesday 28 August 2012

Buying one...

This morning, a colleague pointed out that I'd snapped at her for using the word 'autumnal' during August. It could mean only one thing: the end of the season, with all of its unsettling melancholy, has slipped into view. Only a few more games now, and they already feel under siege from football, the X-Factor and other chilling harbingers of winter. This is always the worst time; for some reason once the last game's over it's alright again.

There is one consolation, though. The bat's done a couple of seasons; it's the nets only for the noble Gray-Nicolls from now on, and the sales are coming up. Not really joining the pantheon, that Nicolls, bloody nice bat, but have never really had the connection with it, that indefinable feeling of oneness that you get with your favourites. Found a few of them in a cupboard the other day, some of them decades old: a vintage County, Boycott-inspired probably, that always looked slightly wider than other bats; a beloved Slazenger with cracks in the face as familiar as my palm (pre-the really thick edges, that one, but still not bad on that score); a decent Powerspot gone in the splice; a Puma that enjoyed one outstanding day... always worth keeping your old bats, because they all hold something.

For a club player like me, the new acquisition has to be savoured, anticipated, relished, because they don't come around too often. There's no manufacturer knocking on our dressing room door with a van full of virgin willow, no sponsor keen to re-sticker with next year's look (though if anyone's interested, you know, I'll do you a little blog every now and again; give you an ad...), so the selection process should be long and thoughtful. 

Have seen some very nice bats out on the field this season. In our side there are a couple of Gunn & Moore's, an Epic right out of the factory with a ruler straight grain that picks up like a dream, and a handsome Luna; there's a glowing Laver & Wood with a supernatural middle; a Millichamp & Hall with some serious ping. In the various oppos we've faced, every M&H has sounded magnificent, and I'm big on how a bat sounds. Can't cheat on the sound it makes, and those boys have a deep, throaty bark that sounds like no other. Most impressive though have been a couple of old Newbery's. Both have seen better days, which makes them even greater, just generous, lovingly made bats that keep on giving and going. Die in the harness, they will, like a couple of aging shire horses...

The retro brands have a lasting nostalgic pull for me, especially the Scoop and the V12, two bats that have given me lots of runs, but no... can't go back, feels wrong. Can't go back in batting because I'm not that player any more, haven't been for a long time so have to resist. Good prices though, and affectionately done.

This time it feels like it has to be something new, a make I've never owned, something light and understated, not flash but definitely, quietly true, a bat that will bring sorrow in the parting when it comes. That's what I want, and I'll know it when I hold it. Sussex, Somerset and Kent are the places on the shortlist, so you can probably hazard a guess...

Tuesday 14 August 2012

The Anniversary

Today is the 64th anniversary of Bradman's last Test innings, perhaps the most famous duck ever made, and certainly the most statistically significant.

John Arlott was the BBC commentator as Bradman came to the crease. Arlott was 34 years old at the time, five years younger than the Don. Rex Alston had described Bradman's entrance, and he handed to Arlott as Bradman took guard. The day had already been dramatic enough, with England dismissed for 52 and Australia already past a hundred when Bradman walked in.

"I'm not as deadly as you Rex," Arlott began, "I don't expect to get a wicket, but it's rather good to be here when Don Bradman comes into bat in his last Test. And here's Hollies to bowl to him from the Vauxhall End. Bradman goes back across his wicket and pushes the ball gently in the direction of the Houses of Parliament, which are beyond mid-off. It doesn't go as far as that, merely goes to Watkins, the silly mid-off. No run."

The scene was set. No-one, Arlott included, could have known immediately the full implications of what happened next. There might have been a second innings for start, but the moment had weight even as it occurred. Here is what Arlott said:

"Hollies pitches the ball up slowly and... he's bowled... Bradman bowled Hollies, nought. And what do you say under these circumstances? I wonder if you see the ball very clearly in your last Test in England, on a ground where you've played some of the biggest cricket in your life and the opposing side has just stood round you and given you three cheers and the crowd has clapped you all the way to the wicket. I wonder if you see the ball at all."

The way that "I wonder if you see the ball clearly" is echoed in his final sentence is the work of a poet. "In through the eyes, out through the mouth," Arlott used to say. He drank it in that day.

Monday 13 August 2012

KP and the Art Of War

Many years ago, when I worked in magazines, I was at a planning meeting headed by the company's chief executive. He wasn't the usual sort you find in jobs like that. He'd grown up in a pub in North London, and he didn't use the burgeoning business-speak of the era. I made a suggestion, a decent enough idea, but it would have cost some dough to pull off.

He knocked it back kindly but firmly and said something that stuck with me: 'never raise the stakes unless you have to.'

It's a very simple bit of advice, but it's not easy to apply because for one thing it it requires you to know when the stakes have to be raised, and for another it goes against human nature, or at least against male nature. 

Kevin Pietersen compulsively raises the stakes when in conflict. At the crease it is instinctive, a fight or flight thing; he understands perfectly the 'him or me' moment and he has described it several times. One came on the final afternoon at the Oval in 2005, with the outcome of the greatest series of them all swaying back and forth and Brett Lee trying to remove his head with a volley of shells that Pietersen hooked at wildly, sending the ball further and further back into the stands. 'Him or me', were the exact words he used afterwards. Another happened at Leeds in the last Test, when Morne Morkel decided to bounce him from around the wicket with three men back, and, jolted by the adrenaline kick, he engaged and won. 'Him or me' he said again.

The same compulsion is evident in his reaction to conflict off the field. Like many sportsmen, he is perfectly attuned to the brutal logic of the game, and sometimes mystified when life does not respond in the same way. He has left a trail of psychic destruction as his career has moved ever upwards, and it's interesting to note, from his twitter account and his public comments, who he regards as his real peer group - players in the very highest echelon: Warne, Gayle, Dravid, Jayawardene, Steyn, de Villiers. He once played in a charity game for Piers Morgan in return for an introduction to Simon Cowell, a man who, to Pietersen, represented contemporary power and achievement.

It's partly why he sees the IPL in the way he does. The competition is a vast, pulsating stage on which the best are treated like the best; paid, feted, sought after, loved uncomplicatedly. With his sharpened playing instinct, Pietersen can interpret the IPL as the ultimate meritocracy, a 'him or me' arena that is watched, absorbed and obsessed over by billions. Through his eyes, it's hard to gaze back at England and the establishment and comprehend why they would not just accept its virtues and adjust the calendar. He feels the 'him or me' moment looming, and he is right.

Pietersen is the classic high-maintenance sportsman, a drama queen, a capricious, self-regarding, insecure outsider with a misunderstood ego. He is also the hardest working, most diligent and inventive of cricketers, capable of organising a meet and greet session off his own back for fans stoically sitting out a rainbreak - publicised on Twitter of course.

In the 90 minutes of endlessly replayable comedy glory that is Spinal Tap, there is a scene following the debacle of the band's performance of Stonehenge where their manager Ian Faith is trying to explain that the miniature triptych lowered onto the stage and almost crushed by a dancing dwarf was made to guitarist Nigel Tufnell's exact specifications.

'Yeah,' counters singer David St Hubbins, 'but it's not your job to be as confused as Nigel'.

There in perfect miniature, is the ECB. It is not their job to be as confused as Kevin. Anyone visiting their shimmering glass offices at Lord's will find an organisation that is essentially made up of managers, a tower of management devoted to the micro-management of the game, from who plays it to how they'd like us to write about it. Management is their job, their credo, their thing.

Much of their management is very good. The last week's has been worthy of David Brent. It's tempting to imagine Hugh Morris writing 'Hugh Morris Investigates' on a piece of A4 and sticking it over his office window as he tries to locate the smoking gun of KP's text message to Dale Steyn.

It is a very British farce that the team's best player is publically humiliated over a message that they haven't actually seen. What is less amusing is the language they have used to justify it. Here is the pernicious side of modern management.

"The success of the England team is built on  a unity of purpose and trust", is a phrase that looks great on a whiteboard, but that means little beyond its rhetoric. Which of the teams that England play again doesn't have "a unity of purpose"? How much trust does a team actually need? The game has been built on centuries of feuding team-mates. As Shane Warne tweeted, there were plenty of players he didn't like and who didn't like him. They were simply required to play cricket together, and to win.

Warne detested John Buchanan, his wallcharts, his bootcamps and his his references to The Art Of War. The great leggie knew that Australia would have won anyway. It's easy to overcomplicate things and then attribute success to the wrong places.

Dave Brailsford is the ur-manager in British sport. He has delivered Olympic success and the Tour de France by micro-managing the controllables like equipment and training and so on. So, to their credit, have the ECB. But Brailsford has also managed Victoria Pendleton, another emotional, driven star who has demanded much of him and his organisation. He found a way to keep her and the rest of team together, because the team was better with her in it.

The ECB's job is to put the best side out on the field for the punters who pay their money for tickets and lay out for their TV subs. Pietersen is emphatically in that XI. Everything else - the bruised egos, the fake tweets, the England player who passed a dressing room TV while Pietersen was batting and said 'get that South African twat out soon', the divided camps dripping their poison to the press - is secondary, and manageable if you know how to manage.

Faced with their equivalent of 'him or me', the ECB have raised the stakes. They really didn't have to.  'Him or me' moments are reserved for on the field, that's where the war is. By dropping Kevin Pietersen they have failed in their only real purpose.