Wednesday 29 November 2017

Ben Stokes' 'crime' as art... Straussy's Dad's Army moment: More Ashes notes

As the weeks stretch on, it's becoming easier to think of the Ben Stokes nightclub incident as something mediated and unreal, an art installation, an arch comment on the role that the ginger avenger has in the England cricket team. In it, Stokes plays himself, of course, while Alex Hales becomes an avatar for the rest of the side. His lairy opponents, unpleasantly tooled up with beer bottles and plenty of mouth, represent... well you can guess who they're supposed to be. Hales prances around on the fringe of the action while Stokes gets stuck in and sorts out the troublemakers.

As in life, so in cricket. Stokes is a take-no-prisoners player, a man of the people standing up for himself and his mates, often outnumbered, rarely outgunned. An England team with him in it has a fine balance, and more than that, his presence reflects well on others. His success makes their job easier, makes them look better.

Sometimes in sport, greatness is defined by absence. Stokes is not yet a great, but minus his power, England are almost visibly weaker. A single Test is a small sample size but the defeat in Brisbane was one of early resistance then mild acquiesence. Moeen, Woakes and Bairstow all had their reasons for it. Whatever they are, they looked less good without Stokes beside them.

The fear of more defeat, and the slightly abstract nature of the charges Stokes may face for taking action against some at-best ambiguous characters, lends heft to the desire for him to play. I feel it too.

"They discourse like angels, but they live like men," Samuel Johnson wrote. Divorcing the lifestyle of the artist from the nature of the art has sometimes been important, as well. We yearn for Stokes' character on the field, but not in the street.

A month or so ago, I was at a Chance To Shine dinner at Lord's [message me and I'll drop the names of the other speakers]. The most affecting and memorable part of the night came from a teacher at an inner London school, precisely the sort of place that Chance To Shine wants cricket to penetrate. He spoke passionately about the need for Stokes to be held accountable for what happened that night. Some of his pupils looked up to Ben Stokes. Lots more of them knew who he was and had seen the phonecam footage of the streetfight. It was the sort of thing they'd watch and share regardless of any interest in sport.

How, he asked, were they supposed to know that punching someone in the street was wrong if it happened without consequences? Some of them lived chaotic lives, they existed in different worlds with moveable boundaries and mixed messages; and some of them were growing up in places where this sort of stuff, and much worse, happens all the time.

It's not up to Ben Stokes or the ECB to solve those sort of deeply-embedded, deeply complex issues, except maybe indirectly, by getting people into cricket. It's not Ben Stokes' fault that those issues exist. He hasn't committed the crime of the century (or, so far, any crime at all), and he doesn't deserve to be made an example of, because then he could fairly argue that all of his good examples be taken into account too, and there are plenty of those.

All of that other stuff is the job of the police and the justice system. But he does need to be held accountable, as all of us do. And while that is being sorted out, it's probably right that he doesn't play, even though that in itself is a form of punishment for him, and, as it turns out, for the rest of the team, and the England fans.

It's only the Ashes, after all...

Don't tell him, Pike

Meanwhile in Brisbane/Adelaide or wherever they were, Australia won by an innings-and-plenty with the Bairstow "coming together" of heads non-story. Here were more Stokes repercussions, felt even as he packed his New Balance* bags for New Zealand. Andrew Strauss, understandably sensitive about the whole drinking culture/curfew/naughty boy nets-type stuff, could do nothing but take this nonsense seriously.

There followed a comedy classic, 'Straussy' trying to coin euphemisms for headbutting on the hoof and in front of the mics, Bairstow painted as "socially awkward" with a load of rugby players for mates (someone save him...), all followed by the inevitable appearance of Chris Woakes before the press, a man who rivals a playing days Alan Shearer for implacable public blandness.

Next time, cut Strauss out and put Woakes up right away - the story will immediately begin gasping for oxygen...

*Good dummy from Stokes at the airport. New Balance have dropped him, but they sponsor the England team. The world's first pass-agg airport baggage?

Monday 27 November 2017

Steve Smith: more evidence that we've been playing cricket all wrong, and other Ashes notes...

It was said of Brian Lara that he had three shots that he could play to any one delivery. The genius of the great man was that he almost always chose the right one. Steve Smith often looks like he is playing three shots to each ball he faces, while taking his dog for a walk as well, but the results in the scorebook place him at batting's highest table.

His 141 at Brisbane took his Test average back over 60. In Australia it's 72. Since 2014, his year-end returns have been 1,146 runs at 81.85, 1,474 at 73.70, 1,079 at 71.93 and, in 2017, with three games to go, 842 at 64.76. He has made 19 Test hundreds in those four years. It goes beyond 'form'. It is sustained excellence at a level few have reached.

Cricket's rhythms are different now even to December 2006, when Ricky Ponting was averaging 59.99 after 107 Test matches. They are a lifetime apart from the Summer of 1948, when Bradman walked away with 99.94, swing compared to garage. Bradman's 19 hundreds took him 20 years. Yet Smith, in his oddness, is more Bradman-esque than almost anyone since.

The Don remains cricket's great outlier, its deepest mystery, thirty per cent better than anybody else. In The Nightwatchman and The Meaning of Cricket, I've written about Tony Shillinglaw, who has spent years unravelling and then mimicking Bradman's quirky, self-taught principles. He sees Bradman as cricket's road not taken. The game has chosen to write him off as some kind of cosmic fluke rather than trying to understand and teach what he did.

In Steve Smith, Shillinglaw observes some of the keys to the Don's game, especially the backlift and downswing that is key to Bradman's 'Rotary Method'. Smith may not move like Bradman, but his bat arrives at the ball along a similar pathway. He has Bradman's disdain for orthodoxy too. The only video analysis he watches is of himself scoring runs, to keep up his confidence, and after a couple of low Shield scores recently, he decided he'd change his grip. He plays on feel, the nature of which which is mysterious to everyone but him.

England's plans for him hover around bowling a fifth stump line. "He doesn’t seem to get lbw or bowled too much." Stuart Broad said. "If you look at the past four years in Australia, he’s had one bowled on 170 when trying to hit it out the ground and a couple of lbws when it was reversing. The best batsmen don’t miss straight balls and the outside edge is his biggest threat. If we get a pitch with any sideways movement and more pace it brings the edge into play."

Broad seemed delighted when Smith called the tactic "defensive", and its outcome was a slower than usual matchwinning hundred. It seems something of a fool's paradise: Smith isn't dismissed bowled or LBW because everyone bowls a fifth stump line to him, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

On commentary, Geoffrey Boycott proposed something else. Bowl stump to stump and pack the leg side. Not exactly Bodyline, but a new type of leg theory. It may at least offer the pleasure of watching a modern great solve a new problem.

Leaving Nathan

One of the more astonishing stats to emerge from Brisbane was that of the 360 deliveries Nathan Lyon sent down, 11 - 3.05% - would have hit the stumps. It's the kind of percentage that seems more applicable to the raging turn of early-years Murali than a more modest, over-spinning offie like Lyon. It also suggests that there is a way of playing against him, even for England's left handers, that doesn't involve propping hopefully and defensively forwards to every ball. Disrupting Lyon is the key to Australia's seamers bowling longer and more often, and to them retaining the energy to bounce out England's tail quickly when it's exposed. Once you realise he's not even bowling at the stumps, you can start to put a strategy in place.

Rootmaths enters new Andy Murray phase

Since scoring 766 runs in 2010-11, Alastair Cook's returns in Australia have been 13, 65, 3, 1, 72, 0, 27, 51, 7, 7, 2, 7 - in all 255 at 21.25. His career Down Under has been an odd one. His first tour, in 2006-7, realised 276 runs at 26.70, in 2010-11, 766 at 127.66, and 2013-14, 246 at 24.60. In all, he has played 16 Tests, of which Australia have won 12 and drawn one. On three of his tours - including this one - England have lost every Test (so far). The early hook shot that dismissed him in the second innings at Brisbane was one of his less phlegmatic moments. Maybe the mad old place is finally getting to him...

Joe Root, meanwhile, has a difficult stat of his own to reckon with. As one of batting's new 'Big Four', he has 13 Test hundreds from 112 innings, to Kane Williamson's 17 from 110, Kohli's 19 from 104, and Smith's 21 from 105. Root passes fifty once every 2.4 innings, more often than any of the other three, but gets to a hundred once every 8.6, a stat skewed even further by the fact that all but one of his hundreds have been scored in the first innings. By contrast, Smith gets a hundred once every five innings, Kohli every 5.5 and Williamson every 6.4.
Kohli has made five double centuries since 2016 and three other hundreds, two of which were unbeaten. Only twice during that run did he pass fifty without getting to three figures. Smith has made eight centuries since 2016, and six other fifties. Root, who has played 25 games in that period to Kohli's 21 and Smith's 19, has five hundreds, including one double, and 14 fifties, plus innings of 48 and 49.
He is remarkably consistent, but in this Big Four, he is shaping up as the Andy Murray figure, better than the rest, yet watching others blaze on ahead.