Tuesday 18 October 2016

Mourinho and fear

Given a different life, Jose Mourinho would make a fascinating cricket coach. Last night Manchester United drew 0-0 with Liverpool and had just 35 per cent of possession in the game, the lowest figure since Opta started recording the stat in 2003/4.

The usual modifier to use would be 'despite having just 35 per cent of possession,' but Mourinho considers possession of the ball differently to most football coaches. When I was working on The Meaning Of Cricket, I wanted to write about fear and anxiety and how it can impact on both batsmen and bowlers, and I came upon Jonathan Wilson's brilliant piece for The Blizzard magazine, The Devil And Jose Mourinho.

The piece listed Mourinho's seven-point plan for winning big matches:

1. The game is won by the team that commits fewer errors.

2. Football favours the team that provokes more errors in the opposition.

3. In away matches it is better to encourage mistakes rather than try and be superior to the opposition.

4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.

5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of a mistake.

6. Whoever has the ball has fear.

7. Whoever does not is thereby stronger.

Never was this strategy more evident than last night, a result Mourinho described as "a point that stopped them winning three". He negated Liverpool's on-trend 'high press' with the simple tactic of having his goalkeeper boot the ball up the field rather than pass or throw it out to his defenders.

What I found most interesting about Mourinho's rules was his bald acknowledgement of the role fear plays in big games and tight situations, and how he develops tactics to manage that fear. It's rare in sport that the word 'fear' is used, such are its connotations around notions of courage and professionalism, and yet as Mourinho knows, it exists in myriad ways.

 In T20 cricket, fear has almost disappeared, partly because the length of the game attatches less weight to individual failure and also because the whole mindset is about the acceptance of risk. In the longer game, where small mistakes can have a big impact, sometimes days later, things are different.

Mourinho, I suspect, would be brilliant in his analysis of these attritional moments, when a 'negative' tactic, like playing on a batsman's nerves by keeping the ball wide, or drying up runs from a favourite shot, can impact on ego, self-image, anxiety, fear...

There are far more such nuanced siuations in a long game like cricket than a short one like football. Mourinho's understanding that sometimes, handing the ball and the 'advantage' to an opponent can often make them crack, would I'm sure have its effect, especially when a single mistake can be fatal for an individual.

Sunday 17 July 2016


In the mid-1700s, the men who would emerge as the premier batsmen of their age were coming to a realisation. Tom Sueter, the great left-hander of Hambledon, broke free of the "heresy" that a player should stay back in his crease to ward off the many dangers of fast underarm bowling on pitches pitted with mud and stones, and began stepping forwards towards the ball. As John Nyren would write in Cricketers Of My Time, 'Egad, it went as if it had been fired'.

And in the fields around Farnham, 'Silver' Billy Beldham was taught by Harry Hall to present the bat to the ball with the left elbow high and play through the line rather than across it, and Billy became, in Nyren's words, 'safer than the bank'. At Churt, a few miles up the road, Harry Walker hit upon the cut shot (and Harry came from an inventive family; his younger brother Tom is credited with being the first to bowl roundarm).

Batting was making its response to the ball's early dominance. The shape of the bat standardised and handles were spliced in, rather than carved from the same piece of wood as the blade. The next great challenge would come when round-arm bowling became overarm, and Grace came to meet it as modern batting's overwhelming conceptual force.

The history of the game can be seen as the history of bat versus ball, one ascendent and then the other fighting back. Now, after a couple of decades in which almost every bowling record was broken, in which both spin and swing were reinvented, we have entered an era of the bat. Driven by the dawn of T20, it has been nothing short of a revolution in both mentality and technique, the greatest shift since Grace's famous declaration that he "determined to test" the conventional wisdom of defensive batting.

There is a tendency to view the era that you're living in as the apex moment, the point of the arrow, when in fact a better analogy is that the game's past, present and future is a river into which you dive at a random point, swim along for a while and then leave. The balance between bat and ball has always been contentious, from the Massive Bat Incident of 1771, through Bodyline, uncovered pitches, reverse swing and lots of other responses to one getting on top of the other. And yet the balance has always self-corrected as the generations come and then go.

The MCC Cricket Committee's report, Balance of the Game, (available here) is a more rounded document than the issue that it has been reduced to, and yet it doesn't really mention this ever-moving history. It's an apex moment document in that regard. It lays out the statistics of the new era of the bat (in Test cricket in the 1950s one ball in every 4,127 was hit for six, now it is one in every 189*), it considers anecdotal and scientific evidence (a study by Imperial College using recreations of bats from different eras) that the balance may have shifted, and examines the reasons why.

Those reasons cannot be unknotted from one another: techniques have changed; players are fitter and stronger; their intent is different; the bats are better... It is impossible to come up with some sort of ratio that allocates weight to each of these factors. Players cannot be limited in how they train or play or think, and so the only variables that can be adjusted are the bat, the ball, the pitches or the playing conditions. Of those, by far the easiest to change are the bat or the ball - and there's an interesting, somewhat overlooked section in the report on what manufacturers think they could do with the ball in terms of making it seam or spin more.

The bat, though, is the focus of the game, a totemic and potent object invested in part with the hopes and dreams of the player holding it: the batsman is alone with it when all's said and done. When, at the tail-end of the 1970s, the Scoop and the Jumbo saw the first real changes in its shape for a hundred years or so, it became obvious by the reaction to those bats that there is an emotional connection as well as a physical one. It's this connection which has perhaps made the debate more heated.

However much it may want to be, cricket is not isolated from time. The primary equipment in almost every sport has improved exponentially. Tennis no longer has wooden rackets, golf clubs aren't made of persimmon any more, footballs aren't of the cannonball leather sort hoofed by Bobby Charlton, and so on. It's unrealistic to think that cricket bats would not follow the trend, and their dynamic reinvention has improved the game. And bats and their materials are more closely governed by the Laws than most other bits of sporting gear, to the point that any sort of virus that affected the English willow Salix Alba in the way that Ash Dieback or Dutch Elm Disease affected other types, would decimate the industry.

The science in the MCC report is debatable: as someone who knows told me, "[it doesn't] want to say anything definite because of too much noisy data". The laws of physics cannot be cheated, and bats are not heavier now - if anything they're lighter. According to Imperial College, the biggest sweet spot on any of the bats they tested came from the 'scooped back' - ie a bat conceived in the 1970s. Instead, performance of the willow has been pushed to the max by good design and different pressing techniques. For every leading edge that flies over third man for six, there's another that carries to slip or is caught in the deep.

Yet there is merit to MCC's points about safety in the amateur game, especially for umpires (I've seen two hit by straight drives this year), and common sense says that there should be some kind of limit to the depth of a bat if there are limits on its width and length. Batmakers may have sighed wearily at the science, but many are relieved that the pressure to keep pushing a natural material to its absolute limits will abate. As Chris King of Gray Nicolls told me when I wrote about bats for EspnCricinfo: "If I have two bats of the same weight, same grain, that pick up pretty much the same and that sound the same when I knock them up with the mallet, the pro will always choose the one with the bigger edges. Always will. It's psychological."

Now that psychology can be contained by a maximum size. No-one with any insight believes that the way batting is going will change because of it. The ball will continue to be hit higher, harder and more often than ever before, because that's the intention of the players doing it. It will go just as far from a 35mm edge as a 40mm one because the performance of the bat will barely alter. What will change batting is a response from the bowlers of the next generation.

But the argument is settled. It's the right decision taken for the wrong reasons in our post-factual times.

* One six in every 189 deliveries = one per 31.5 overs, or not that often...

NB: Forgive the plug, but I've written about the bat and modern batting, along with other stuff, in The Meaning of Cricket, out now...

Saturday 30 April 2016

From the lake of dreams (Sussex) rises Merlin...

Bryson DeChambeau is the latest golden hope of American golf, low amateur at the Masters followed by a T-4 finish in his first tournament as a pro at Hilton Head, and just the fifth player to win the NCAA and US Amateur titles in the same year - the other four were Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore.

It's not just the golf, either. The Americans are well stocked on Boy Wonders, what with Spieth and Fowler and so on. DeChambeau, once a physics major at Southern Methodist University, is trying to rip up some of the game's conventional wisdom, playing with a set of clubs that he conceived and helped to design. Instead of gradually decreasing in length towards the wedges in the regular way, all of DeChambeau's irons have the same 37.5 inch shaft, his theory being that he can make exactly the same swing on every shot - a swing he has tailored very specifically to his body type. Because the clubs are all the length of his six iron, his swing is anachronistically upright, and when coupled with the flat cap he favours, gives him an old-school, deeply marketable look.

It started in 2011, when DeChambeau's coach told him to read The Golfing Machine by Homer Kelley, published in 1969, a book described by Golf Digest as 'an arcane, science-based tome' and blamed by some for what the magazine called the "high-profile flame-outs" of Mac O'Grady and Bobby Clampett (O'Grady in turn is now an equally controversial swing instructor who plays scratch golf both right and left handed). Dechambeau's revelatory flash came upon him when he read 'Chapter Ten, Component 7, Variation A', which dealt with the notion of what Kelley termed the 'Zero Shift Swing'.

The ins and outs of the Zero Shift Swing are for the pointy heads of golf mechanics, but it's worth noting that what DeChambeau has done is not prescriptive: he believes that the golf swing is entirely individual, and that everyone can play: "It's not talent, it's just practice... If I wanted to learn Arabic or Russian, I could. Or tie my shoes in a new way, I could. Why? Dedication. I'm not really smart, but I'm dedicated. I can be good at anything if I love it and dedicate myself."

DeChambeau is already picking up significant amounts of TV airtime when he plays, and he's a telegenic guy. He's far better known than 150 or so veteran tour pros, and the differences in his swing ensure that every time he's on, one of the commentators will talk about his clubs.

Golf clubs have, like the cricket bat, been through their transformative moment: the difference is that they can to a degree keep pushing forwards with new materials and gimmicks. Willow will always be willow, with all of its beauty and constraints. But If DeChambeau is right, and he has found an alternative way of playing the game, then he's offering manufacturers an entirely new market.

Cricket will not have that luxury, at least while the rules on what materials can be used in the bat remain (and maybe there's a case that they shouldn't). When I wrote about bats for cricinfo a couple of years ago, Chris King, who makes them for Gray Nicolls, was working on designs that would make the player feel better, the willow itself having been pushed to the edge of its useability.

I've been thinking of DeChambeau, and of Chris' ideas since I've had hold of Newbery's new bat, the Merlin. Two seasons ago, entirely out of the blue, I got one of the greatest emails of my life asking if I'd like to try out the then-new Kudos, a blade that has since joined my personal pantheon. When it became Newbery's fastest selling bat, the link was obvious*, and I couldn't get down to Hove fast enough when the offer of the Merlin came along.

In appearance the Merlin is classically understated, a beautiful bat with slender shoulders and sweeping lines. The toe is squared off, which seems in vogue at the moment, and the bat is pressed slightly differently (the result of a mistake on a prototype, apparently) giving it a flatter, apparently broader face. Looking down on it, it has a sort of sultry power that, a few years ago, you'd associate with much bigger, less sophisticated cudgel (I may be overthinking all of this, but Chris King is onto something - a bat must make you feel good when you look at it in your stance... whatever 'good' means to you).

The twist to the bat is in the top of the handle, which is hollowed out in order to drop in a plug of lignum vitae, a dense, heavy, green wood designed to act as a counter balance. It weighs a few ounces, and is there to make the bat come down faster once it's at the top of the backlift, a very DeChambeau type of idea that probably has something to do with the moment of maximum inertia.

I was somewhat skeptical about this, but in pick-up the bat does feel slightly unorthodox. I've only used it three times, twice in the nets when I hacked away (I hadn't batted for so long I could barely see the ball, let alone hit it) and once in a game (on an artifical pitch last weekend, where it was so cold it was also quite hard to actually see) when I managed to middle a couple (the bat has that deep, satisfying sense of prolonged contact when it happens). I felt as though I was at the ball early a couple of times (any excuse...) so perhaps I was swinging it a little faster.

It's a fascinating idea that has a psychological impact as well as a physical one (maybe more so, in fact, certainly for me). With a material like willow, which in the modern bat is worked to within an inch of its life, expanding its development takes imagination and flair and the Merlin has both.

There is a trend trend for global sports 'brands' (uurgh) mostly concerned with selling trainers to sticker up bats and pay big-name pros lots of money to use them (and good for the pros, make it while you can) but these are not the bats that you see out on the club pitches of England. Bat making at heart is artisan and individual. You know a Newbery bat by its look and feel, in the same way that you know a Gray Nicolls, or a Salix or a Woodstock, a Millichamp & Hall and so on. These are the bats that people want, because they are bats that the owner can make a connection with.

*I'm joking. It is obvious though.

NB: also obviously, and in full disclosure, Newbery gave me both the Kudos and the Merlin. The last bat I bought before that was a Newbery. They make great bats that suit me. Like all good makers, you can go along to see them and talk about the bats they've got, probably until you're blue in the face and they're edging you towards the door. You don't buy often, so when you do, make it a good one...

NNB: If you needed any more confirmation that cricket bats are sexy, Gordon Lee, Newbery's CEO and a man as happily obsessed with the product as everyone else there, used to work for Ann Summers and Wonderbra. Now that's what you call a CV...

Tuesday 22 March 2016

What was it like to see overarm bowling for the first time?

What was it like to be there for the big one, the shift in the axis of the game that was the change from round arm to overarm bowling? How would that have looked and felt the first time it happened?

Jonathon Green, estimable maestro of slang and the man who uncovered the gruesome details of the match between the men with one arm and the men with one leg, has sent a report from the Satirist & Sporting Chronicle of Sydney, 11 March 1843, a single paragraph headed simply 'Cricket'.

It tells the story of 'monday last' when a match between the Australia and Victoria clubs was settled in favour of the 'natives' - Australia - 'by a majority of 142 runs.'

'This is attributed entirely to the bowling of Still, on the Australian side, which was considered by many old Cricketers to be decidedly unfair; most of his Balls being thrown over his shoulder. This is NEVER ALLOWED in the Clubs at Home, nor is it right it should be, as the severe contusions most of the Victoria Club received while batting to it, shows that it is not only unfair but dangerous'. 

'The Australians must not boast of their achievement,' the Satirist's man goes on, as 'without Still they were basely beaten'.

There is a rather sad coda, in which four Victorian batsmen go in against Still in 'a second match' to 'make up the deficiency', which 'showed much spirit but great want of judgment'. They lost again.

Roundarm bowling had been legal for eight years when Still left Victoria beaten and bruised, and the famous confrontation between Edgar Willsher of All England and umpire John Lillywhite at the Oval was still nineteen years away. Those who watched Still bowl overarm in 1843 saw the future rushing towards them, shocking but maybe alluring too.

Monday 29 February 2016

Him Indoors

As a kid I owned the audiobook version - on cassette - of Fred Trueman's salty autobiography Balls Of Fire (double entendre most definitely intended), read by the great man himself. Fred had been retired for many years even back then, and the audiobook was an extension of the persona he was building up on Test Match Special, that of the world's Greatest Living Yorkshireman: hard-bitten and hard done by, triumphant despite the best efforts of 'all t'other boogers' who were out to get him.

The bit that stuck in my pre-adolescent mind was a description of the breakdown of his marriage to Enid, caused, he reckoned, by his long absences on tour: 'She must have known I had had the odd bird...' Fred intoned regretfully (well if she didn't, she did once she'd listened to Balls Of Fire).

Around that time, Fred had another string to his bow, presenting the Yorkshire TV series The Indoor League. The genesis of this is covered quite brilliantly in Dan Waddell's new book We Had Some Laughs, a memoir of his father Sid, who conceived and produced The Indoor League. Dan makes no secret of the fact that, in Sid's eyes, one of the great advantages of The Indoor League was that it was staged entirely in a pub, a sort of working man's Olympics based around darts, arm-wrestling, skittles, bar billiards, table football, pool and Sid's personal favourite, shove ha'penny.

Dan provides some magnificent detail; from the man known as Buffalo Bill, the shove ha'penny exponent who dresses in cowboy regalia for all of his matches 'complete with holster and a cap gun' to the fact that the darts was contested on a 'Yorkshire board' that had no treble segment, meaning that the matches went on for three times as long as normal. Even this paled when compared to the nine-minute table football match in which the ball remained invisible.

Supervising it all, and delivering 'menacing links' while clad in a cardigan matched with a wide collared shirt, smoking a pipe and holding a pint, was Fred. His early efforts had 'all the fluidity of a treacle sponge', and it fell to Sid to supply the linguistic fireworks via a script.

'I don't talk like this,' Fred moaned when he read it.

'You do now,' the exective producer told him.

So the character was born, not without some hilarity. Fred was called upon to describe one shove ha'penny player as 'the Spassky of the sliding small change', and when Sid recruited a former male model to the arm-wrestling contest, he drafted the line: 'the narcissus of the knotted knuckles', which emerged from Trueman's lips as, 'the nancy boy with the knotted knuckles'.

Series three of The Indoor League climaxed with a mass brawl that began when a table football player accidentally chinned his opponent while celebrating a goal. Sid was soon making his name on-screen while commentating on darts, while Fred went on to one other moment of television greatness when he appeared in an episode of Dad's Army.

Trueman's Indoor League sign-off, 'Ah'll sithee' has passed into folklore, and, as Dan's terrific book demonstrates, the show went a way to constructing the image that we remember as a legend of his time.

NB: I'm reading a proof of We Had Some Laughs. Amazon has it listed for publication in May - well worth picking up for your hols...

Friday 26 February 2016

Death Of A Gentleman: My Part In His Downfall

Earlier this week, Death Of A Gentleman, Sam Collins' and Jarrod Kimber's film about the eternally sexy subject of cricket administration, won Best Documentary at the Sports Journalists Association Awards. Sam was there to collect the trophy, which was a nice moment. A small glint of reflected glory shone down when I saw the Tweet.

Almost three years ago, I had a call from Sam about a film he was directing. I'd never met him, but I'd seen the Two Chucks vlogs he and Jarrod made for Cricinfo, and I sort of vaguely knew Jarrod from blogging and writing for The Cordon. Sam asked me to come and look at some of the footage he had with a view to maybe helping to script it into something. At the time he had a small, pay-as-you-go office in a building at the back of Waterloo Station where he and his editor, Graham Taylor, had been hold up for months. The office had Graham's bike in one corner and colour-coded post it notes stuck all over the wall. There was an amazing view of The Shard out of the window - when the sun hit it from a certain angle it looked like something out of a Ballard novel, futuristic and alluring.

It transpired that Sam had hundreds of hours of footage that Graham had somehow got into a three-hour assembly. The idea was to make a film about Test cricket and whether it had a future. I hadn't written a film of any kind, so I immediately began bullshitting about writing books, which was something I had done (admittedly with limited success). Sam regarded me with a raised eyebrow.

But the footage was, I thought, sensational. They had interviews with Chris Gayle, Kevin Pietersen, Michael Holding, Ian Chappell, Tony Greig, Rahul Dravid, John Sutherland, Haroon Lorgat, Lord Woolfe, Harsha Bhogle, Eshan Mani, Jonathan Agnew and lots of others. They had Gideon Haigh as their wise and gentle guide. They'd been pitchside at the IPL and followed a four-Test series between Australia and India. Sam and Jarrod were an engaging on-screen double-act and Sam sometimes dressed up as Hansie the anti-corruption lion, which leant those scenes a lovely, unreal air.

Best of all, they had a nascent star in Ed Cowan, the Australian opener who made his debut in the India series and had then gone to West Indies and on to England as part of the 2013 Ashes squad. I told Sam about three thousand times that the moment I realised he had a film was when I saw the footage of Ed Cowan at home, picking herbs in his garden and describing the dinner he was going to cook with them (baked salmon, from memory). Here was a thoughtful, clever, gentle guy who just happened to be good enough at cricket to open the batting for Australia. Sam and Jarrod had sat in the stands of the MCG with Ed's wife Virginia as he made a half century in his first Test innings. Virginia had put her own successful media career on hold to help Ed fulfill his dream and the camera held her face as he did so. Ed's dad was a star as well, telling stories about the young Edward, pride shimmering in his eyes. Ed was a symbol of everyone who'd ever dreamed about playing the game.

They had antagonists, too - although at the time we didn't know how antagonistic they were to become - in Giles Clarke, the ECB Chairman, who'd given Sam a couple of interviews in which he'd been haughty and dismissive, and N. Srinivasan, head of the BCCI, who everyone said was impossible to reach but who Sam had found via the neglected tactic of phoning him up. Then there was Srinivasan's sworn enemy Lalit Modi, exiled in luxury in central London and plotting his revenge, conscious of what a film like Sam's could do for someone like him - someone with a very definite agenda to get across.

It seemed obvious that the film should be a journey of discovery for Sam and Jarrod, with the story unfolding in front of them. And also that Ed Cowan could be its heart - his induction into Test cricket, the fulfilment of a lifetime's quest, out there on the same field as Tendulkar and Dravid and his personal hero Ricky Ponting, having the ultimate high of a Test hundred and then the crushing low of being dropped during the Ashes. I wrote a rough, 30-page outline and we argued and fiddled and re-wrote and by the end of all of that, it was still three hours long and Sam hadn't yet finished filming.

After a few months, the lease on the office ran out, Graham was under pressure to go back to the other editing jobs that he'd been winning awards for, and the production shifted to Sam's flat, outside which I got many parking tickets. The film was good because the material was good, but it had no natural end and it was still three hours long. There was, for example, a brilliant, heart of darkness trip that Sam and Jarrod made with a sinister Sri Lankan adminstrator that frustratingly didn't really fit the narrative however we played around with a shape that might allow it in. One day, after another endless discussion about the importance of Lord Woolfe or a bloke called Christos or maybe it was the trees outside the Adelaide Oval - something that Sam desperately wanted to feature anyhow - I charged home, savagely cut as much of the script as I could and sent it back. I rang him a few days later.

'How much did that get out, then?'

'A minute.'

The problem was that the story, such as it was, wouldn't stay still. For every one thing we took out, the change seem to necessitate putting something else in. Films (and books and probably paintings and everything else) are slightly Chimeric in that you're expressing a vision that exists only in your head - and it is always better and more complete there than it is in reality.

And there was a story in Sam's head, a story in Jarrod's, in Graham's, in mine... With the footage that existed and the ideas that we had, we could have cut another three, entirely different three-hour films, screened them all side by side and still argued about them.

We needed the real world to coalesce and take hold, and finally it did. The story narrowed to a point. Jarrod, who still had to work full time as a cricket writer, heard about an imminent ICC meeting in Dubai at which world cricket was going to be carved up between the Big Three. This was the end-game, and surely the ending for the film we'd been waiting for. Sam somehow found the money to get out there the next day, and he and Jarrod ended up as two of the (I think) eight members of the media who were present when the dirty deed was announced.

Between them, they also coaxed on camera two brave whistle-blowers, Tim May, who had been elbowed out of his position as head of the Federation of International Players' Associations, and David Becker, formerly head of legal at the ICC.

I'd sort of done my bit by then. Sam kept going. Every now and again I wondered how he was getting on and whether he'd ever finish it - or even stop filming more and more stuff. About a year later he rang.

'We've got a cut'.

'How long is it?'

'One hour forty minutes...'

He'd pulled it off somehow, distilling the story and learning the visual language he needed to tell it. Film-making at that level is entirely self-sufficient. If you want, say, a pick-up shot of Subbuteo cricketers to fill a voiceover hole and save money, then you have to buy the set from e-Bay, set it up in your living room, and then light and shoot it. If you want a scene that explains the complex connections between Srinivasan, India Cements and the IPL via an easy to follow diagram that you'll draw yourself, then you have to find a location and a chalk board, get permission to film, and then light and shoot it. And hey, if you want a cup of tea, go and make that yourself too and so on, ad infinitum. It's not easy.

At the IPL and Test matches, non-rights holding broadcasters like Sam and Jarrod can shoot the crowd but can't turn the cameras towards the pitch. You want cricket footage for your film, guess what... find the rights holder and pay them for it. And it's not cheap, so you string it out and cut it in such a way that you get every penny's worth. You need to do that, because like most independent films, the financing is tenuous and dependent on the goodwill of your investors.

With the help of Dartmouth Films and some very skilful producers, with great editing and wonderful music (composed by Chris Roe), the film existed, and more that that, it said something important about cricket and what it meant to people.

There was a premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, where the audience actually booed at Giles Clarke's final screen appearance, and clapped at the end. In the pub afterwards, I realised how many people that I'd never met had made amazing contributions to the film, and how big a project even an indie film like this one is. There was a screening at the BFI where Lalit Modi sat a few seats away, paying rapt attention to his on-screen appearances and then doing a hilarious Q&A where it became apparent that - to Lalit anyway - he was the hero of Death Of A Gentleman. The ECB's PR man watched it open-mouthed. There was an official first showing at the beautifully restored Picture House near Piccadilly Circus, where the cinema was full and Michael Holding and Gideon Haigh did a Q&A too. 

Some people felt (and feel) that the film has no 'smoking gun', and to the extent that it's not a Scooby Doo 'if it wasn't for you meddling kids' expose, that's true. And yet DOAG weighs against it a kind of cumulative force that comes from its moral outrage at seeing the sport carved up by its richest participants. It points out a direct link between the (then) most powerful administrator in cricket, N. Srinivasan, and corruption in the IPL. It refocusses on Lord Woolfe's damning critique of ICC governance dismissed on screen by Giles Clarke - who was about to move to the ICC. And it has heart, from Sam and Jarrod and their friendship with Ed Cowan, who lives the dream and then the nightmare, and reacts to both with unflinching honesty.

'What do you think the public think of you?' Sam asks him at the end of the film.

'A battler... An Aussie battler, but ultimately, not good enough'.

And then he says: 'But would I do it all again? In a heartbeat...'

Amen to that.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

The Yellow Card

Reading Andy Bull's piece for The Spin about the ECB's trial of red and yellow cards in the amateur game brought to mind the only incident of recent times that may have produced a flash from the umpire's pocket.

It involved a florid opening bat, left-handed and afire with the combat between our two great dynasties. He had an odd habit of shouting 'runs' every time a shot of his beat the field, and he conveyed his opinions of our bowling to his partner in a stage whisper. He batted well though, and quickly had a decent score on the board.

I was lurking at square leg, a reasonably reliable hiding place down the years - the odd, full-blooded pull to stop, but usually just nudges and deflections from the seamers - when he somehow skewed a drive high into the air.

It was unavoidably mine, and in these situations, I like to keep my team-mates guessing... I drop a few, and every now and again hang onto one too. This one was spinning hard because of the mis-hit and demanded a bit of concentration, so when it settled in my hands I looked up expectantly, anticipating the usual shouts of astonished congratulation.

Instead, led by our keeper, they were ignoring me and surrounding the batsman and umpire. I hadn't heard, but apparently when the ball went up, he'd begun a loud commentary speculating on whether I'd catch it or not, something like: 'Is he going to drop it? He's going to drop it... Drop it!'

There was no doubt that it was a deliberate attempt to distract me, and it incensed some of our players. I suspect that, given the chance, the umpire would have shown a card for it, and joking aside, it probably deserved one.

Yet it wouldn't really resolve the problem or offer a sanction. From memory, they were chasing, and so a ten-over exclusion from the game would have meant nothing - his game was over anyway. I've never been a fan of runs being docked - five is the suggested penalty for minor infringements - it is somehow too artificial.

The cure is simple really: when you feel the red mist descending, just remember how ridiculous you look, a group of adults playing a game not very well and then arguing over it in a way that you'd pull up a five-year-old over.

Imagine what a dick you'll feel on the drive home...

Monday 15 February 2016

If Voges beat The Don

Imagine this: New Zealand v Australia, Hagley Oval, beginning in a few days' time... New Zealand bat first and make 250 on a drying pitch. Australia get the best of the conditions, Warner, Burns, Smith and Kawaja fire, and they pile up 550 before Smith declares as the third wicket falls. New Zealand bat again, Guptill, Kane and B-Mac fire back, and New Zealand get ahead by 150. Australia lose early wickets, but Adam Voges steadies the ship and finishes on 33 not out as Australia flop gratefully over the line. With no Test cricket scheduled for six months and his 37th birthday looming, Voges decides that life can't get any better and announces his international retirement. His batting average, after twenty innings, is, now and forever, 100.00.

Twenty innings is a significant figure in Test stats - there's always that little bracket just under the all-time averages (min. 20 innings). After twenty innings, Adam Voges would have surpassed the Don's legendary mark, and although he and everyone else knows that Bradman exceeds him by almost every measure except this one, this is the one the counts, the one that cricket has clung to ever since Bradman was bowled for a duck by Eric Hollies at the Oval in 1948.

99.94 is the best-known stat in cricket, the only stat that the non-cricket fan may hazily recall. To cricketers, it does not need to be explained or contextualised. You don't need to be told what it means or who it belongs to. It stands as the landmark number in the sport.

It's widely known, too, that 99.94 makes Bradman not just the best cricketer of all time, but the best sportsman. Statistically, no-one else in any sport has dominated as Bradman did. 99.94 made him almost 40 per cent better than anyone else who has ever played cricket, a margin that Messi, Nicklaus, Jordan etc. cannot approach in their disciplines.

Minus the famous four runs that he couldn't quite score at the Oval, its slight imperfection, I think, makes 99.94 even more meaningful too: the Don was, like the rest of us, human. "I wonder if you see the ball very clearly..." as Arlott's description of Bradman's final moments at the crease runs. "...Under those circumstances, I wonder if you see the ball at all..."

Adam Voges, an excellent professional and, by all accounts, a very nice man, is, as he'd admit, no-one's idea of the second best batsman of all-time, let alone the best. There are other measures of a player that stretch beyond average, and the Don fulfils them in a way that he and no-one else can.

But there's not time to explain all of that to cricket's casual fans, or to other researchers into greatness in athletes. For them, for everyone, given the scenario above, Bradman would be second on the list that counts.

The thought is an odd one, precisely because the chances of it happening have always been so slim. The nearest equivalent is probably Matthew Hayden's brief seizure of Lara's top-score record with his 380 against Zimbabwe. With all due respect to a marathon knock, it wasn't an innings worthy of the top of the shop.

Voges felt the tremor too: "[It] doesn't sit all that comfortably with me to be honest," he said after the Wellington Test, during which he'd spent 18 hours with an average above the Don's. "I'm probably happy that I'm out now and it's gone back under.... It was never going to stay there. It won't stay there."

For cricket, 99.94 somehow needs to stand. If it went, like the ravens leaving the Tower, something would fall. Enjoy your form, Adam, and play on old son...

Wednesday 10 February 2016

The man who roughed up Richards

Our skipper sent me an email the other day... 'Have you heard of this guy?' it said, alongside a link to a video. 'He makes Simon Jones and Shane Bond seem blessed...'

I clicked the link. The clip was captioned: 'Kent v Glamorgan 1993: Duncan Spencer roughs up Viv Richards'.

'Yes, I've heard of Viv Richards,' I thought snarkily. And then unthought it, because I didn't want to spend all of next season fielding at gully.*

But... Duncan Spencer... that did seem familiar. But maybe because it sounded a bit like Duncan Fletcher. And Frank Spencer. In fact, if Duncan Spencer wasn't nicknamed 'Frank' for at least part of his career then the space-time continuum may have fallen apart.

In the video, Spencer appears with Glamorgan at 81-1 after 24 overs in pursuit of Kent's 201. Although it's a sunny day, it's mid-September and shadows are stretching across the St Lawrence ground. Spencer is bowling fourth change and he's wearing an undershirt, shirt and sleeveless sweater. His name is stencilled on the back, but, like a local shop about to go out of business, the 'N' in 'SPENCER' is peeling off. The TV caption is unequivocal though: 'Duncan Spencer, right arm fast, Nackington Road End' - none of your fast-medium here.

His first ball, to Adrian Dale, is pitched halfway down and still on the rise as it passes the batsman. 'He ducked, but he ducked almost posthumously,' says a wry Victor Marks. Its speed immediately commands a slip. The next delivery is a wide Yorker that Dale is again half a day late on. The replay shows Kent keeper Steve Marsh crocodile his gloves together just in time to avoid serious damage to his future prospects.

As the spell goes on, it's clear that Duncan Spencer is bowling very rapidly indeed. Marsh ends up thirty yards behind the stumps and the ball is still rising as he takes it. While the laws of physics dictate that the ball cannot gain speed after it pitches, Spencer's pace is such that it is certainly decelerating less than most.

Soon Matt Maynard is hammered on the knee roll in front of the stumps, and King Viv comes out in unfamiliar navy blue, his bearing as regal as it's ever been, for what would be his final List A appearance. He's 41 years old, a living legend. He gets a standing ovation on his way to the crease, which must move him in ways we can't know. He raises a hand of acknowledgement and shouts 'centre please' at the umpire.

Spencer has a slow-ish, short-ish run, but he's bull-chested like Goughie and powerful like Martin McCague and maybe after the ovation Viv's mind is somewhere else because he almost gets run out second ball when he wanders out of his crease after knocking a sharp lifter half onto his chest and towards Steve Marsh, who rushes in and fires it at the stumps.

He walks into a throat ball and gets his hands up quickly enough to keep it out - the same sort of ball that Dale ducked 'posthumously' and Maynard couldn't a bat down on. Even at 41, he's still that good. He trots a single. Hugh Morris takes strike and laughs after he swings way too late to cut a wide, short one.

Spencer bowls another short one to Viv, who hooks, and knows in the fraction of a second of impact that the ball is on him too soon. It takes the top edge of the bat and instead of screaming low and flat into the crowd at square leg, it loops gently in the air and Spencer runs over and catches it. Richards is halfway off before someone tells him it's a no-ball.

The next is a searing, inswinging yorker to which Viv proffers his trusty, dismissive flick off the pads, but again it's too quick. It's also missing the stumps. They run a leg bye, and Richards has to scamper around Spencer to make his ground. In a classic alpha male move, Viv goes to give Spencer a high five but instead pats him on the head.


Richards made 46 not out and Glamorgan won by six wickets. Spencer's figures were 8.4-1-43-1. Had he really 'roughed up' King Viv? Perhaps... he certainly hurried him. Did I remember him? I thought so. Something to do with Australia and something bad happening...

Cricket loves the myth of the great, lost fast bowler. Duncan Spencer's Cricinfo profile runs in part, 'few players in contemporary memory had been able to produce deliveries of such blistering pace'. Recalling the match against Glamorgan, it continues, 'no less an authority than Sir Vivian Richards... rank[ed] him as possibly the quickest bowler he had ever faced'.

So what happened to Duncan Spencer? Why was he simply a barely-remembered name from a match one September's afternoon in Kent, when the era's greatest player thought he bowled faster than anyone else he'd faced?

By the end of 1994, Spencer had completed 14 of the 16 first-class matches he was destined for. Although he'd been born in England he grew up in Australia, and had a winter with WA and then one more summer with Kent. Then came the injuries, stress fractures mostly, no surprise given his slow-ish run and forceful action, and the descent from first XI to second XI and then grade cricket, sometimes playing only as a batsman.

After six years of chronic pain he was prescribed injections of nandrolone, an anabolic steroid commonly used by doctors to stabilise such chronic conditions as it promotes bone density, and also on the banned list in almost every sport because under its better-known trade name of Deca-Durabolin it had been one of the most popular steroids amongst strength athletes since it was first synthesised in the 1950s, mainly because it worked, and also because it could be used in conjunction with other, more powerful muscle-building steroids - usually dianabol - without further damaging the liver.

Duncan Spencer wasn't doing that, but was still charged with violating the ACB's anti-doping policy and after a seven-hour hearing he was banned for 18 months. He later told ESPN Cricinfo: 'These injections were prescribed to me to improve my everyday life as I had been suffering from chronic pain for the last six years. The medication was not prescribed for sport. At the time I did not believe I would be able to bowl again, let alone to do so at the First-Class level,' which sounds entirely credible.

It seems like one of sport's grey areas, where steroids can legitimately be prescribed for a chronic medical condition but then are taken to have been 'performance enhancing' once they have done what they are supposed to do. Duncan Spencer did play again, and even got an out-of-the-blue call up for Sussex in 2006, where he got Kumar Sangakkara out, but his moment was gone. 

He was rare enough to be among the very few human beings that could propel a cricket ball at maximum velocity, but the body and the action that enabled him to do it militated against him from doing it for very long. Then came his Catch-22 with nandrolone. What he was left with was one September afternoon when he bowled like the wind at the greatest batsman in the game. 

I'm glad the skipper sent me that clip.

* Fielding at gully at our level is, I think, essentially impossible. You must stand close enough to dive forward at the dribbled edge, but are then in the firing line for every wide long-hop that's carved merrily towards you. No thanks.

NB: There's a nice piece on Duncan Spencer by Abhishek Mukherjee at CricketCountry here. The Kent v Glamorgan video is here.


Glad to say that my blogging interregnum is over. I've been writing a book about cricket that's sort of based on this blog, a book which, like an endless Ashes tour that ends 0-5 followed by a couple of meaningless ODIs in Sharjah on the way home, is finally finished.

A couple of odd coincidences occurred when I was doing it, one being Chris Gayle making a dick of himself as I was writing something about his transformative effect on modern batting - a queasy moment, and another when Pranav Dhanawade made 1009 not out and went past the score of AEG Collins in the process. Collins is in the book, too, so as the controversy over the validity of the 1009 began I tweeted Lawrence Booth to ask him if it would be in Wisden, kind of hoping he'd say no.

'Well it happened,' he replied, which is probably the only sane answer. So I put it in there too.

Well done Pranav, you've really made it now.