Tuesday 26 February 2013

'I'm coming anyway': Batting and fear

As a kid, I had a book called Boycott On Batting (okay, okay... I know)  the selling point of which, alongside the accumulated wisdom of the great man at a reasonable price, was a rather neat little gimmick. Down the edge of each page were a series of photographs that showed Geoffrey demonstrating four strokes in a darkened net. When flicked through quickly enough Boycs came to life, his legendary forward defensive available stop-motion style.

Well it's what we did before youtube, kids... The other day, I watched Nick Knight interviewing Brendon McCullum about Twenty20 batting. Just as enough monkeys with typewriters will eventually produce a coherent sentence, Knight and a microphone finally coalesced and made a revelatory little film, aided by his own considerable expertise as a limited overs player.

What hit home was not just the technological remoteness of the decades between Boycott On Batting and Brendon McCullum, or the shifts in playing technique. It wasn't even the amount of 'product' Brendon had in his hair. Instead it was the psychological change, one that drives at the very heart of batsmanship. Boycott's game was based around his famous saying, 'I can't score runs if I'm in the pavilion'. McCullum's short game is dictated by something else: 'It's [about] not having the fear to get out. You've got to be able to make plays that carry an element of risk with them'.

It doesn't sound much but it is a giant, counter-intuitive leap and we are the only witnesses to the generational divide that it spans. In a few years, all of the players that grew up with the singular notion that batting begins with the intention to stay in will be gone, and that means that even Test match cricket, already accelerating at a rate that defies most of its history, will become a different game.

That's alright. In fact, it's more than alright. Every generation should do its own thing and leave its own mark, informed by the past but unencumbered by it too. The old school tends to get bogged down in debates over what has been lost, but McCullum's interview also carries the thrill of possibility.

He's fascinating to watch here, as he takes block relatively conventionally but then sets himself with feet spread far enough to eradicate notions of conventional front foot and back foot play. Instead his foot movement is abbreviated in favour of a broad base from which he sends his weight forwards or backwards in the crease. Like Boycott, he is well briefed on how his opponents will bowl and he has in mind some shots that will ease the pressure of his first few deliveries.

There's no great mystery to the rest, but then there was no mystery to Geoffrey's method either. McCullum wants to get boundaries away early if the ball is in his 'areas' (did Geoffrey have areas? Not in the same way, because his technique was based around the classical response of 'the right shot to the right ball'). The heart of McCullum's innings is the shift between 20 runs and 40 ('as fast as possible') and it's here, usually against spin, that staying in becomes a lesser goal.

Standing rather incongruously in front of a set of plastic stumps, he shows Knight how he re-marks his guard an extra six inches outside of the popping crease. 'It's only a small amount, but it creates so much more opportunity'. Knight, who has not been retired for that long, asks why he'd do it, and the answer is brutally simple.

'Because I'm coming anyway,' McCullum says, as the film cuts to a shot of him walking down the pitch to smite the ball miles into the stands. 'If I get stumped by an inch or a metre it doesn't matter...'

Boycott's fear was not of physical pain. His career as an opener was a monument to sporting courage. His fear was of the pain that dismissal brought, a feeling that could linger for days. McCullum and everyone else in the modern game have learned, at least in the short form, to eschew that fear, to set it aside, to accept that failure means less than it once did. It's a different kind of courage.

'I'm coming anyway'. That's why batting, and cricket, remains both knowable and unknowable and infinitely interesting, because however much you might want not to care, the survival instinct is strong. The game wrangles with this. Kevin Pietersen's batting has in part been defined by what much of the press see as a kind of mad impulse to hit the ball. 'It's the way I play,' as he often says. It is, and it has felt alien in this old land. But less so now.

Of course T20 cricket exaggerates the notion. Aggressive, new generation players Joe Root, Faf du Plessis and Moises Henriques have played hearteningly long rearguard knocks in Test match cricket in the last few months. Yet that first impulse is shifting and the game is shifting with it.

It's coming anyway.

NB: Listening to Brendon, Stuart Broad might want to rethink his slower ball bouncer...

Monday 18 February 2013

DRS: manifest destiny

Ah dear DRS, what a week you've had... All of us on your case, apologies issued at close of play, batters and bowlers, commentators and fans, equally disgruntled. And all you've done is exactly what you've always done: offered up that empirical evidence for us quirky, unpredictable, emotional humans to translate however we choose...

It could have happened in any week, it just happened to happen in this one. And it will keep on happening because what we are seeing are not flaws in the technology, but in its application. Even for a game as deeply idiosyncratic as cricket, DRS works idiosyncratically.

Its inception is odd for a start, because each piece of it - the pitch map, hot spot, its predictive element - was developed for another purpose: TV and the enlightenment of its viewers. As soon as it became obvious that the couch-bound layman had access to the game in a way that the players, umpires and people in the ground did not, its advancement was inevitable. That remains an awkward starting point.

The deep fault lines within the system still exist. The Schrodinger's Cat principal that a batsman can be both in and out to exactly the same ball; the politicisation of decision-making by involving the players; and the arbitrary limit on the number of correctable mistakes via the two unsuccessful appeals per team rule are rarely questioned, yet they are intrinsically odd.

But it's the other founding principal, that DRS exists to avert 'obvious howlers', that also needs to be challenged and struck out. DRS is being used by the umpires as a finely-calibrated tool to make borderline judgements in every game.

Under the current adversarial system, a dismissal like that of Jacques Kallis in the first innings of the Newlands Test against Pakistan is wrought with unfairness. Kallis was given out caught at bat-pad by the on-field umpire, and then leg before wicket by the third official. But that unfairness originates from the system, not the evidence provided by the technology.

Let's reconsider that decision under a revised system in which the umpires and the technology are given their head. The new rules are simple. The two on-field umpires and the third umpire are a revolving team, taking it in turns to move to the TV box session by session. On appeal, the standing umpire makes a provisional decision. If it contains an element of doubt, the third umpire reviews it immediately as a matter of course and an on-field signal is made to convey that fact to the players. Working in partnership, the umpires discuss and review the technical information. Errors are immediately rectified. Questions of where the ball pitched, whether it struck the batsman in line and whether it was hitting the stumps are given a definite parameter - was the centre of the ball landing on/hitting the right spot - and a decision is made.

Here, the source of the original decision against Kallis would be irrelevant. Whether he was out caught or LBW in itself would not be contentious, because the system is simply trying to arrive at the correct decision: was he in or out?

In Kallis's case there seemed to be an element of grandstanding from Billy Bowden, the third umpire, who decided that although Kallis hadn't hit the ball, he was still out leg before wicket. There should be some sympathy for Billy here. Under the current system, the third official has no individual freedom to give a decision, despite that official being a member of the elite panel and a part of the officiating team at the game. Yes, there may have been an element of ego in Billy taking on an adjudication that was beyond his remit in the playing conditions, but it is what he's used to doing. It goes against the instinct of an umpire to give what he feels is an incorrect decision because he's bound by an illogical rule.

If Bowden had been part of a team moving on and off the pitch and into the box session by session, and had been able to discuss with Steve Davies what he had seen not just in the light of Davies' initial judgment but as part of a team making a single decision, the outcome might have been correct. Under the system suggested here, the only decision that Bowden would then have had to make would have been whether the centre of the ball was going on to strike the stumps (it wasn't so Kallis should have been adjudged not out).

There are flaws in this framework too. By handing each team two reviews, the ICC can conveniently limit the number of decisions under technological review. This saves time. Under a freer system, it's inevitable that almost every decision would be reviewed. Yet the ones that currently go unchallenged would be quickly sorted, and the nonsense of a team that has exhausted its reviews on a couple of borderline appeals and is unable to then right an obvious injustice would be over.

The principals of DRS should simply fall in line with the abiding ethos of umpiring. It is there to be impartial and fair to both teams. It is there to make things right. It deserves to be given the chance to do so.

Even the BCCI might like it then...

Sunday 17 February 2013


I remember clearly the first time I was ever run out in proper game. It was on a ground called Castle Field, which had a slope from one end to the other and an outfield that never seemed to be cut low enough. I must have been about 13 or so, playing in a Fourth XI sunday match. I'd thick-edged one past gully and the ball was meandering up the hill towards the boundary. It was an easy two, but the guy I was batting with, the skipper no less, wanted the strike. He was old - well, so's everyone when you're 13 - and slow too, but he was the one running to the keeper's end so once he'd come a few strides down the wicket, the tops of his old cane pads flapping around his knees, I ran too.

The fielder hurled the ball high up into the air, and by the time I heard the call of 'your end' I still had half the pitch to go. Even so, the only way I wasn't going to make was if the throw was a direct hit, and what were the chances of that, in a fourth XI game on big old Castle Field on a sunday afternoon?

It sailed down the curve of the slope, bounced twice and hit off and middle about halfway up. Even now I recall my disappointed indignation. I might have even blanched at the whoops and cheers from the other fielders (oh, but not now... precious 13 year old, obviously coached, all his own gear, strike rate of approx. 0.001, run out by a fluke throw from a distant boundary - farewell, little shit).

But what brought it to mind the other morning, early, as what passed for daylight struggled through the clouds, were memories of the player at the other end, Derek. He was an extraordinary figure, ever-present for several summers, yet when you're a kid you don't really question why someone like Derek is there, doing what he does in the way that he does it.

Along with captaining the fourths, Derek ran the entire colts section and sat on all sorts of committees and selection panels. There never seemed to be a match or a nets session or a quiz night that he wasn't at in one capacity or another, and he was not the kind of figure you'd forget. He was 50 or thereabouts (no-one knew his age, or his birthday or anything like that) with the air of a different generation about him, a man untouched by the 60s or 70s let alone the Thatcher years that we were living through, his hair rigidly side-parted, shapeless tweed jacket, brogues; when he played, tradional creams that came halfway up his stomach, big buckled pads encrusted with whitener, button-up shirts and an old Gray-Nicolls, thin as an after-eight mint and with no apparent middle. He kept wicket, too, in ancient gloves and ancient pads, a moth-eaten blue cap on his head.

Derek played the game with a kind of grim determination, his lips often pursed, the physical effort of it all taking an apparently instant toll in his rickety body. He never seemed to enjoy it much. Instead he appeared to be concentrating very hard on everything. He didn't have a nickname, he wasn't involved in the dressing room jokes, and yet cricket was his life. He had a large house near the ground, where he lived alone except for a large, unkempt dog, and seemingly enough money not to have to work. Even on the quietest days, he'd be at the club finding something to concentrate on.

He neglected himself in more ways than one. These days he might be thought of as in need of help, but then he was simply another oddball character, eccentric and closed-off in a very English way. That same Englishness perhaps stopped anyone asking if he was okay. Neither party could have overcome the embarrassment. But still, he had the club and he made it his life; the two were symbiotic.

It was Derek who'd invited me to nets the first time I ever went there. The main ground was beautiful that early summer's night, green and sun-dappled, the practice wickets cut in one corner near the old school wall and the groundsman's hut. It felt magical. That feeling is one we all continue to seek from the game.

I heard that Derek passed away only recently, and I was surprised and pleased to see in some lines about him that he'd played 19 times for the Firsts, way back when. He'd been pretty useful once, even though he'd never mentioned it.

A couple of people from the club were with him when he died, which was fitting. Like Pete, whose dream was to hit the first ball of a game for six, and Cyril the keeper and his extraordinary box, he remains an indelible childhood figure. Rest well Derek and no, there wasn't a third run, was there...

Wednesday 6 February 2013

What the IPL auction says about the IPL

During a rare drinks break last season, the opposition were talking about a guy they'd recently encountered who had taken the field with a ferocious hangover, an obstacle he'd attempted to overcome with frenzied hitting and some loud swearing. He was an Aussie pro who'd come over on a short contract with Hampshire, and I remembered watching him bat on TV in a T20 game, when he'd got out to a shot so terrifying that Stephen King would have struggled to adequately convey its skin-crawling horror.

Fast forward six months or so, and Glenn Maxwell was on the field in Australian colours even as he was being bought for one million dollars by Mumbai Indians. It was the headline figure at this year's auction, and Maxwell, with his promise of either-way explosiveness, became emblematic of a take-a-punt-with-someone-else's-money culture, a world in which a Glenn Maxwell was worth two and-a-half Ricky Pontings; where Matt Prior was left on the shelf while a one-cap South African called Chris Morris (who he? presumably not the UK's arch-satirist, although...) trousered $625,000; where a 21 year old bowler who had withdrawn from competitive cricket to sort out his run-up had been bought up for $700,000 as Big Vern Philander sat forlornly by a phone that never rang. 

To fall for this narrative, though, is to enter a maze of relativism from which there is no return. The auction obeys only the internal logic of the market, and although the market is skewed it is a pure thing, about nothing but relentless competition. It is skewed by the the money cap, skewed by the need of individual teams for very specific acquisitions, skewed by the availability and the watchability of players, and this is where it gets misjudged. It works just like transfer deadline day in football, or like sealed bids for a desirable house, on the fear of missing out, on the very human need to get for yourself what someone else has wanted.

However, sport in its purest terms is a meritocracy, and so is the IPL marketplace. Looked at in that light it reveals something about T20 cricket and where it is headed. The teams already have their marquee names and the big beasts from overseas - the Gayles, the Watsons, the KPs - are under contract. The marketplace at auction is about augmentation, about adding to what's there.

So what do they value? It's clear that they want to acquire intensity. Margins in the short form are narrow so advantage can be gained very quickly, and it can be overwhelming. Maxwell made his name at Hampshire by taking 22 from four deliveries off the bowling of James Tredwell, and he holds the record for the fastest 50 in Australian domestic cricket, from 19 balls - essentially three overs. Chris Morris made 12 from seven balls at the death to win a Champions League T20 game. Fidel Edwards bowls very fast for one or two overs. Nathan Coulter-Nile and Kane Richardson both make the ball bounce at pace. It is these small, occasional advantages that are being sought out and paid for. In this, T20 is divorcing itself from the longer game.

The IPL has provided the blueprint for franchise cricket everywhere else. It has offered a heated, accelerated, heightened version of the game, and it has broken the grip of international cricket on the world stage.  It has produced a vast informal network for information to pass between players who might otherwise not know each other, and it has been a ubiquitous showcase for the new skills that have arisen as a result. It has offered cricket a celebrity edge that it needs in the new world order. It is mad and deeply flawed and probably financially disastrous, but then so is football's Premier League, and that struggles on somehow.

It's a huge disappointment that Pakistan's players are not there, for they would enliven it greatly. The ECB's and now the counties' myopia and protectionism are damaging to the development of our players and the future of the game. It's no coincidence that England's best T20 players play franchise cricket. There's a vague case to be made for limiting Matt Prior's availability, but Hales, Butler, Wright, Lumb, Bairstow and the rest should be there.

Here's a stat to consider. Ricky Ponting has played a total of 47 T20 games in his career. Glenn Maxwell has played 49. Things aren't always as they seem. Maxwell will never approach Ponting's hem as a cricketer, but then the IPL auction was not about rewarding greatness. It was about novelty and spectacle, reinvention and fun, because these notions drive it quickly towards its future.