Wednesday 24 July 2013

The Keith Bradshaw Appeal

Many may remember Sara Bradshaw's excellent blog, written while her husband Keith was Chief Executive of MCC.

It ended when they returned to Australia after five years at Lord's, a stint longer than should be asked of any man. Sadly it wasn't simply the stress of residing in the egg-and-bacon minefield that led them home. Keith had contracted cancer, which was treated, but has returned.

Sara has set up the Keith Bradshaw Appeal (click here to find it) which will help to meet the costs of his treatment, and also go towards the Laurie Engel Fund at Birmingham Childrens' Hospital.

Do pay a visit and make a donation if you can. It's Ashes year, but we're all on the same side really.

And good luck to Keith. The pommie bastards are with you. It might not be 10-0 if that makes you feel any better...

Welcome back to the circus

There was a moment during Howzat: Kerry Packer's War, shown last week on BBC4, when you realised what a life-force Packer must have been. It came after he'd signed up the players and the scale of the conflict he had provoked became apparent, to him and to them.

In a room were Australia's top cricketers, men that Packer had persuaded to jeopardise their careers to join him; all of them famous, unyielding characters like the Chappell brothers, Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee, Max Walker, Dougie Walters. They stood taut in their tight shirts and their flared slacks, but underneath was uncertainty and doubt. It rose like cigarette smoke in the room. David Hookes for one had decided to tell Packer he was withdrawing. He'd even rehearsed his speech in the mirror as he put on his kipper tie.

Packer walked in. The testosterone levels, already substantial, rose. The players formed a semi-circle in front of him. He went around each of them individually, asking whether they were in or out. They nodded and grunted in turn. He came to Hookes.

'David?' He said. His gaze was utterly level.

Hookes looked around, swallowed, tried to remember the speech he'd given to the bathroom mirror, couldn't.

'I'm in, Kerry...'

Packer smiled. He cracked a couple of jokes ('what the fuck are you doing here Tangles? I don't remember signing you up...') and the party started. There were lots of parties in Kerry Packer's War (I am unilaterally removing the abominable 'Howzat' from its title), and they were the kind of parties you wanted to be at, with their swimming pools and their girls, their Martinis and their stubbies, the teetotal Kerry always on their edge, in his suit, alone.

At heart, World Series Cricket was a cult of personality, and the personality was Kerry Packer's. What was remarkable was that Packer was only 40 when he made it happen, barely older than some of the players. Lachy Hulme did not particularly resemble Kerry - who does? - but he brought that heavy, fleshy presence to the screen.

The things that age the screen Packer and set him apart from his men are his girth, his widow's peak, his love of breakfast and dinner (he explodes in a Chinese restaurant because someone wants to share his sweet and sour: 'I ordered it, it's mine...') and his other appetites: for a fight, for power, for control, for acceptance; and the cost they extracted. That, and the loneliness that men like Packer have, were all there in Lachy Hulme.

His rages were forces of nature, instant, bullying eruptions that splattered loathing and fear over anyone and anything nearby, and yet the reason that Packer succeeded was the loyalty that he felt and inspired. That is at the centre of any cult. Packer had a secretary who wouldn't leave the office until he did, however late he stayed. He promised Tony Grieg and Ian Chappell jobs for life, and they got them. When Hookes had his jaw broken by Andy Roberts in a Super Test at Sydney Showgrounds, it was Packer who drove him to the hospital. He wanted to do right by cricket, and he did. Once he had wrenched it apart, he pulled it back together as something new, something modern and forward-moving. The scenes at the end of the final episode, as the floodlit SCG fills up, are cathartic and visionary for Packer.

Someone reviewed Packer's War in the Guardian and said that it should have been a documentary. That couldn't be more wrong. Aside from the tremendous fun of dressing actors up as 70s cricketers – a too-chunky Tony Grieg, a strangely fey Clive Lloyd and toe-curlingly good takes on Rod Marsh and Ian Chappell – and the deep joy of recreating the gear – the SP helmet should get a spin-off series of its own – there was a veracity to the drama that documentary can lack.

That may seem strange, but memory and perspective shift as the years deliver their verdict and the old-boy talking heads that prop up the documentary format are often speaking a kind of refracted truth. The drama here went right to it, whether for comedy, in a wonderful scene where a couple of players from each side try on the coloured clothing for the first time and then parade in front of their team-mates, to the sly insights of a cricket groupie interviewed in the stands: 'The West Indies boys, they're gentlemen... Do I go with them? Not the married ones, no...'

The only bum note was the creation of the character Gavin Warner as WSC's catch-all executive, a man ruthlessly abused by Packer; a spare butt to kick. He was probably based on Andrew Caro, and there's an interesting view on the show from Caro's daughter here.

To take that documentary perspective for a moment, it's evident now how much cricket owes Kerry Packer and WSC. There is a way to repay that debt beyond the broadcast rights issue that Channel Nine retain, and that is to admit the players' records from WSC into the books. It was, some have said, the hardest cricket they ever played, and yet the stats lie fallow, given less weight than a county player racking up a century against a team of students or the runs and wickets from long-forgotten rebel tours.

Barry Richards taking a double hundred off Dennis Lillee - now that has meaning, wherever it happened, and it's a reconciliation we could all enjoy. Cheers Kerry, you mad, wonderful old bugger.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Ashton, Ricky and the unbearable sadness of batting

Two images remain from today, one of a 19-year-old lad who may already have played the innings of his life and the other from a 38 year old man who has no more left to play.

There was a moment after Ashton Agar's dismissal at Trent Bridge when he removed his helmet, hair plastered to his head, and gave a wry and gentle smile that contained emotions he probably can't quite express. It was all there though: joy, uncertainty, regret, relief...

His was a young man's innings played with a young man's sensibility. The fleeting nature of days like these means nothing to him yet, and nor should it. His mind was as free as his arms, his uncomplicated love of the game leant perfect expression. It was so good partly because it was so unexpected but also because it was a reminder of what it was like to be 19 years old and to believe that anything is possible.

The other image was a tweeted picture of Ricky Ponting leaving the Oval, bat raised, helmet under one arm, being applauded off after making 169 not out for Surrey in his final first-class innings. The Oval probably owed him one, and  it would have pleased him that this was a meaningful knock that saved a cricket match. But that is over now. His battles have been fought; the war is done. What will hit him soon is how quickly it all went by. Life will be good, but it will never be this.

The frenetic first couple of days of the Ashes seems to be a kind of psychic reaction to the sheer amount of media that now surrounds it. The modern world is screaming at it, online, on television, in the papers, demanding that it match the expectation. The result has been two chaotic days of cricket, vividly enjoyable but ultimately impossible to sustain. The game needs room to breathe.

Ashton Agar might be a new Vettori, or even a Pietersen (at 19, KP was still an off-spinner) or maybe an Alex Tudor or a Jason Krejza or a Richie Benaud, no-one can know. But whatever else happens, his innings will not be surpassed for its out-of-the-box unlikeliness and its glorious innocence.

The gap between it and Ponting's at the Oval, that brief window of time in which sportsmen have their lives and all of us are young, closes before anyone notices. What a day it was today.

Friday 5 July 2013

KP and the acceptance of risk

Well you wait a year for a Kevin Pietersen interview and then two come along at once... The great man has become more guarded as the seasons pass, and he chose his medium carefully: the radio, where edits aside, his voice is unmediated, and also his interlocutors, two former team-mates, Darren Gough at TalkSport and Andrew Flintoff for BBC 5Live.

Any Pietersen interview comes laden with baggage, which is part of the reason he avoids them so assiduously – his last, desperate attempt was a rightly famous youtube upload apparently conducted by his agent; there was something touching about its artlessness. KP always seems to have something he must explain or apologise for or mitigate in some way, and that is the lode that his interviews carry.

There are other sub-texts; the accent, barely softened by his years here, and his tendency to call his team-mates by their surnames can make him sound dismissive or brusque without meaning to, and there is the knowledge that with any slip the unyielding cordon of the press wait behind him, and they drop very little. In one of the interviews he described himself as an introvert, and it's true. His talent, used on the biggest stages, is his voice; his brittle ego a defence mechanism.

And it's a little sad, because Pietersen, when he talks about cricket and his ambitions and visions for the way he plays it, has something to say. What was most striking was his regret at how he has batted sometimes, innings he felt that he had given away, shots played in haste and repented at leisure (join the club, sunshine; we've all got plenty of those). It was almost as if he had looked inwards to see himself as he felt the world had at those moments.

When any great player gets out, there is disappointment and for Pietersen, the gulf between his best and his worst is vast. At his best, he bats in great surges made at a high emotional pitch. In the grip of his genius he feels the rhythm of the game, understands the nature of the contest. He has sometimes spoken of the 'him or me' feeling he has – with Brett Lee at the Oval in 2005, for example, or Morne Morkel at Headingley last year, or his devastating sorties on Dale Steyn and Shaun Tait at the World T20 in the West Indies. He has at times reduced the two greatest spin bowlers in history to passive, shell-shocked casualties.

To do those things requires an acceptance of risk. How much risk any batsman is prepared to accept will ultimately define him. Pietersen, subconsciously or not, accepts and embraces high risk as an essential part of his make-up as a player, and there is something courageous about that choice.

He is fallible, but that adds to the joy he so delicately sustains when he is batting at his peak. The knowledge that it is fleeting, makes it more valuable. Above all, it makes him the most watchable player in the game. He has driven batting forwards. It is worth the days that he does not feel its pull.

Andrew Strauss was on the radio this week too, and naturally he was asked about Pietersen. "He is the best player I ever played with," were the first words out of Strauss' mouth. Andrew Flintoff said much the same. He is using a goal of 10,000 Test runs to urge himself on and he deserves to get them, but his impact on the game is more than just empirical. With time and distance, the controversy and upset that have attached themselves to him will no longer head the agenda, and if KP wants to sit down and talk about batting for a couple of hours, then I'm in. It would really be worth hearing.

NB: Andrew Flintoff is a rather good interviewer. Who'd have thunk it?