Thursday 27 November 2014

What Phillip Hughes Meant To England Fans

It was 2009, and my girlfriend was getting annoyed. We were in a hotel room in the Gambia, and getting ready to go out to dinner. Or rather, she was. I was watching the television. A young batsman I'd never heard of was about to hit a ton against the best attack in world cricket. And he hadn't fought his way there: he'd blitzed them.

New Bradman, so they said. And it wasn't just the preposterous scores. It was the technique. Like Bradman, he did plenty of things he shouldn't have. Barely got into line, but it didn't matter. That just gave him room to laser the ball through the off side. He batted like a number 9 who was having fun: it looked like it could end any second, but that thin snick behind never came. The ball just kept disappearing to the fence.

So why didn't they bowl straight? Because it's easier said than done. Because he was just a kid having fun, and it couldn't last. We all know what Geoffrey says: "If the batsman cover drives you for a few fours then nicks off, you've won the battle." But the batsman didn't. He just kept dispatching ball after ball. And we sent the YouTube highlights video to each other, and said "Look at this kid!", because we're a family.

But then we had to play him, and we began to worry. If it hadn't been for the weight of those early runs, we would have realised what we were watching: not an ungodly talent sent to terrify us: just a very good young player who hadn't ever known the setbacks that inhibit the strokeplay of every batsman as they age.

Of course, our initial suspicions were right. It couldn't last. Nothing ever does, in cricket. So we gleefully watched as that uncultured technique was found out. Nothing huge changed: a slight shift in line, in length, so he couldn't play his favourite cut. Cricket is a game of inches, and our bowlers found the right ones. Hughes was dropped almost instantly: a couple of failures shouldn't have been enough to justify it, but everyone could see the jig was up.

For two years, little changed. He was in and out of the side, and we couldn't understand why they kept giving him another go. This was a player who had been found out. Damaged goods. Back to domestic cricket for you young man - go and learn your trade.

But then came 2013. You'll recall that Ashton Agar nearly made 100 batting at number 11. Agar was 19 years old, on debut, and like Hughes, about to accomplish something incredible. His youth, his charming smile, his nerves in front of the cameras - they all immediately endeared him to us. So we cheered him on, against our own team. It helped that we were winning, of course. But in no other game would the fans cheer on a member of the opposition like they did that day.

And at the other end? Phillip Hughes, now a number 6, calmly accumulated. The technique was still scratchy, but more refined. The flaky young genius was on his own journey - he was becoming a reliable professional. What did he say to Agar? A few years ago he'd been there himself. I'd like to think he just told him to enjoy himself.

We'd been wrong about him. He had class, and class isn't just about eye, or technique. No, turned out that flamboyant, borderline-genius tyro actually had that most unexpected and least valued of sporting attributes: character.

We cheered them on as they took 163 runs off our bowlers. Because we're a family.

Agar fell on 98, and we were distraught. Hughes finished unbeaten on 81, from 131 balls. A mature, responsible innings. He was on a journey, and now it won't ever be completed.

Something else happened in that series. Shane Watson had become a running joke because he kept getting out LBW for low scores. We do cruel running jokes better than any other sport, of course, because we're a family - sent each other pictures of photoshopped massive pads and the like.

Anyway, in the last test Watson finally came good. And during the highlights package someone asked Mark Nicholas what he thought this innings "meant". And Nicholas said the strangest thing. I don't know if these words are quite verbatim, but I do know they've stuck with me, for some reason:

"The truth about Shane Watson is...the truth is...he's a very nice young man, and all we wanted was to see him do well."

It was kind of a weird response. Because the question was clearly about what it meant for Australia's batting order. I found it such an interesting little moment: I don't really know where it came from, but it did feel more true than any other answer he could've given. We'd had our fun, we fans, for several months, and now Watson had somehow prevailed, and actually, we were fine with that, because we're a family. And today we're grieving as one.

Friday 25 July 2014

On hiatus.

Have a job, trying to write a book. Literally no time to write.

Things that have happened this year.

1. Only played about 5 games.

2. Scored a ton (!) in one, but the best innings was probably a 30 against a really good team when I was really in the mood and attacked their opening bowlers. Outscored a properly good player who was batting at the other end. Bowling well, taking catches (!), it's amazing what a difference getting away from the emotional investment in a team and just being Some Bloke Who Turns Up And Plays makes.

3. Would love to talk about the collapse of England cricket, but just too GODDAMN busy. I finish the book in October and we all know what happens in October, don't we? This is going to be fun... 

Saturday 24 May 2014

Here are three questions Jonathan Agnew could have asked Paul Downton, if he'd been arsed

I've been following the KP situation closely and refrained from writing on it because a) I don't have time to do much this blog this year at all, and b) Every voice I've heard thus far has been, to a greater or lesser degree, speculating on the situation. You don't need me to do that.

However, I did hear Jonathan Agnew's interview with Paul Downton (available for six days at time of writing), and have to say it made me feel far less comfortable about what's gone on than I'd felt previously.

To put it mildly, this was not a very good interview at all. Agnew accepted all of Downton's points with barely a hint of challenge. It wasn't Agnew's job to argue Pietersen's case. It was his job to probe inconsistencies in Downton's story. He simply failed to do so.

Here are some points where Agnew could have raised issue with what Downton said, if he'd been doing his job properly.

1. When Downton said he felt KP was batting badly/disinterestedly in Australia and it was time to make Cook and Bell the core of the team, might it not have been worth pointing out that KP was still our top run scorer?

If you're going to sack KP for being an unlikeable and divisive character, fine. But it seems a dubious argument to put to fans that a man who averages just under 50 was sacked because he had one bad series. My God, we've stuck by underperforming players for entire Test calendar years in the past.

2. When Downton said he couldn't find a single member of the side who supported KP, was it not worth mentioning the fact that the media has found around half a dozen who say they have no problem with him?

Maybe they're just being diplomatic. Maybe KP's got incriminating pictures of them all. It's still a point that needed challenging.

3. When Downton said KP initiated the split, rather than saying "that's interesting", might it not have been worth pointing out he knew at that stage he wasn't to be picked for the World T20?

Which had implications for his career, as per his subsequent statement.

Those are the first three questions that occurred to me. No doubt there are more. Here's the thing. I actually have no problem with the ECB deciding a very good player is, behind the scenes, more trouble than he's worth. I have no problem with them deciding that it came down to Captain Cook or a team with Pietersen in it and picking one.

It might well be the wrong decision, it might be ludicrously unfair on Pietersen, or we may find, come October, that he'd done things that meant he couldn't continue to be a part of the team. It's really impossible to say until we get a fuller account from both stories.

What I do have a problem with is the ECB's managing director putting forth his side of the story without any challenge whatsoever from the BBC's senior cricket correspondent. It either looks like a conspiracy, or that the latter's very bad indeed at his job.

I also take exception to said cricket correspondent's mention of dissenting voices from "people on social media", as if this is some special tribe of cricket fan that doesn't represent the majority. He may wish to note this poll of the Telegraph's notoriously radical readers:

Was the ECB right to sack Pietersen?

Saturday 2 November 2013

The perfect shot

On 21 October, 2006, England and Australia met in a group game for the ICC Champions Trophy. It took place in Jaipur. England batted first and, after a good start from Strauss and Bell, struggled to accelerate and were bowled out for a paltry 169. Facing an early exit from the tournament, the Lancashire pair of Anderson and Mahmood tore into the Australian top order, nipping out the dangerous Gilchrist, Watson and Ponting.

The two Australian middle order batsman, Damien Martyn and Michael Hussey, began to consolidate the innings. At 75-3 the game was somewhat in the balance: the run rate wasn't an issue, but a couple more wickets would make it very interesting. Mahmood raced in to Martyn and delivered a quick ball, a shade under 85mph, on a perfect length, about four or five inches outside off stump. The batsman came half forward in defence and prodded it out into the covers.

And then the strangest thing happened.

The ball bounced a couple of yards away from the batsman. As it headed at around waist height towards the gap between cover and point, it seemed to accelerate. By the time point and cover had turned around to give chase, it was taking its second bounce a couple of metres away from them, and it was only getting quicker as it made its way towards the boundary. They began to give chase but in just over five seconds it had crossed the off side boundary, to be picked up by a ball boy.

Damien Martyn had just played the perfect cricket shot.

The bowler can be seen looking in desperation at the ball's progress. What is he thinking? He's bowled a perfect delivery. The batsman has just hit it for four, without taking any risk whatsoever.

What I love about this moment is what it tells you about the art of batting. The ball's gone for four because of timing. And timing is not just about making sure the ball hits the middle. And it's not just about making the bat connect with the ball at the right time. It's about making the bat connect with the ball at the right time and transferring weight up from the feet, through the hips, over the ball through the spine and head as you do so. And when we talk about the timing for all this, all at once, we're talking milliseconds.

For such an unlikely occurrence, everything must be perfect. The bowler must be the right pace (a delivery at 84mph is probably about perfect for a quality test player on a slow track), must come on to the bat nicely (Mahmood was always an unfortunate bowler - he had pace, but also had an action that I imagine was rather easier to pick up than, say, a Malinga or Tait, and he rarely moved the ball a great deal), and above all the stars have to be in their element.

That's how a shot like this happens: the cricket equivalent of Bruce Lee's one-inch punch. Martyn was one of the greatest timers the game has ever seen. He'd do similar on many occasions - here for example - but I'm not sure he ever played a better shot than he did that night in Jaipur.

Maybe we need to rethink the way we coach batsmen. We compartmentalise our front foot shots - the drive, the glance, the defence - but all this play is really based around various extensions of the same shot, played in different directions. Maybe we need to stress the importance of timing the front foot defence: most coaches will tell you you're playing it to keep out a good ball - not score off it.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Monday 19 August 2013

The CC's season in review

It has, I suppose, been a good season. But also a funny one. I've been able to play a lot more than the last two years, and that's meant I could play for both my teams.

For one team, it's been incredibly frustrating. The thing is, we have a lot of people who can bat a bit and bowl a bit. These days I can't stand the "bowl a few overs and bat around 6" role. I told the captains I'd either be 1 or 11 (and bowl) if possible.

It turns out that's not as much fun as it seems. I managed to end up at 11 on a pitch where someone hit 200, and opened on a succession of council tracks. And bluntly, I've had enough of bad wicket batting. Even if you get runs it's miserable. So, game by game:

1) 23 on a piece of outfield before one pitched on a length, ramped up, clipped the glove, and was taken by the keeper. Did not bowl. The oppo managed 80.

2) 4 not out coming in at number 10 before the rain came. Did not bowl.

3) Opened on a good wicket, caught off a leading edge for 2. The one game where I feel I did something really wrong. Though to be honest I've made far bigger mistakes in my time and not even offered a chance.

4) Bowled 8 tidy overs amid a run glut on a shirt front, came in at 10 with us needing 10 an over, hit my first ball for four, caught off the next one.

5) A very good (if I may say so) 56 on a pretty up and down pitch, and some tight overs that won us the game. But batting on that wicket more about survival than anything else.

6) 47 out of 123 on the same nightmare pitch, did not bowl.

7) 29 on a slow track with evenish bounce but lots of lateral movement, hard to time the ball and a team that kept swinging the ball too much so it kept going down leg. Pleased to see off the openers who were very good. Got trapped on the crease to a good one that swung in and seamed away and lost off stump. Just before some shite change bowling came on. A mistake, but innings worth a bit more than that.

8) One on a piece of outfield before one pitched on a length, ramped up, clipped the glove, and was taken by the keeper. Bowled ok but no wickets. Oppo struggled to chase 85.

9) When batting in 8), had taken guard miles outside the crease to negate the track. It didn't help. So this time took guard miles inside the crease and decided to swing at most balls. Made 9 with two fours before one pitched on a length, ramped up, clipped the glove, and was taken by the keeper. This time we were 90 all out. Oppo set 150 because we bowled really, really badly at them.

So you'll see a recurring theme here: balls flying off a length, brushing the glove, and being caught behind. I have tried two different tactics, and I've come to the conclusion there is honestly nothing you can do but hope you miss them.

Bloody annoying. Two match-winning knocks on difficult tracks, only one dismissal where I really blame myself, and I'm still averaging under 20. I finally broke down and had a big rant after number 8. I'd just had enough of shitty council pitches where the performance of every batsman is, by and large, a complete lottery. We've played loads of games on these tracks and in the past I suppose the roulette ball has landed in my zone more than enough, but it sure as hell hasn't this season.

It all sounds like excuses. But I know I'm in good form. Because in 7 games for my other team, I average about 45, and 15 with the ball. And if anything I've played worse for them. Off the pitch, it's been great fun. Team spirit is good - we could do with a bit of recruitment but the club is looking like it might survive, which last year I wasn't so sure about. I was really hoping to hit a ton this season, but looking at the games I've played, I can't even see when it would have happened (the one good track I played on we were chasing under 200, while my other team always like to bat second which rules most of those games out).

I think I'm getting old. You put up with this kind of thing when you're younger, but the more you play the more you're aware you have plenty of ways to get yourself out, thank you very much.

Grumble, grumble, grumble. I should have written about the Ashes instead.

Friday 2 August 2013

Two more book recommendations

Well, I got sent this too:

The Bodyline Hypocrisy by Michael Arnold (Pitch Publishing).

And it is utterly fascinating. It changed my understanding of the farrago completely.

Excuse me for using some of the blurb to explain:

"Australia was a young, isolated country in the midst of the great depression where - just as today - sport was a religion, winning was essential, and the media prone to distortion in order to sell newspapers. In England, the MCC was pressurised by a British Government fearing trade repercussions, leaving Harold Larwood and Douglas Jardine to be hung out to dry on a clothes-line of political expediency."

That's right - "and Douglas Jardine". As Arnold asks, "Had Australia won that series, would anyone have put Jardine's personality under the microscope? In fact would anyone have cared?" In fact, the picture that emerges is not of a stern and supercilious commander of fable. As he cogently argues, the problem wasn't him but the culture he stirred up, not to mention the lack of support he received from a cynical and opportunistic British Establishment.

Time changes everything. It allows Arnold to look at the series in a clearer light. Consider this: in 2010 Ian Chappell argued that Flintoff should use the same theory of leg bowling to Ricky Ponting. Consider this: 16 years after Bodyline, the MCC invited Larwood to become an honorary life member. Might that have anything to do with the intervention of the Earl of Gowrie, then president and former Governor General of Australia? Why did John Major award him an MBE at the the age of 88? Was he trying to right a very obvious wrong? Were the Australians' failure to cope with Larwood's pace exacerbated more by religious and racial discrimination, along with more mundane selection blunders?

It's an utterly convincing argument. One doesn't wish to provide spoilers, but it's almost impossible not to agree with Arnold's argument that "Today Douglas Jardine might have been knighted and instead of having to emigrate, Harold Larwood would have continued as a national hero...Both these men...were treated in a shabby fashion in England for political reasons by a dishonest political establishment for merely doing their best for their country. The names of those who conspired against them have sunk from sight. Their own names will endure far longer."

I've also been sent this:

Outside Edge by Marc Dawson (Pitch Publishing)

It's just a collection of cricketing facts and figures, so it doesn't warrant a conventional review. Instead it has to satisfy two criteria:

1) Are they well-presented?
2) Are they interesting?

Pleased to report the answer to both is a huge "yes". If you're a tragic like me, buy this book. And now I can get on with quoting some of my favourites, to pick three sections at random:

- Danny Alexander got out a former Sussex Second XI batsman for 0 in the only game between the MCC and Lords and Commons before rain came.
- Matthew Hancock MP tried to play cricket on the North Pole, but was stopped by frostbite.
- David Cameron suggested Darren Gough should run for a Commons seat, and Gough hung up thinking it was a prank call.

- In 2007/8, Peshawar had two fast bowlers who were both later murdered.
- A cricket fan was killed by an umpire in Bangladesh in 2012 after running on the pitch upset over a dismissal.
- Umar Gul's house was raided in 2012 with a family member suspected of harboring a militant.
- So far seven test cricketers have ended up in jail.

- Inzamam ul-Haq and Saeed Anwar run a successful chain of meat shops.
- Jonathan Trott's career was almost ended by booze.
- Harold Larwood (see above) went on to work on for Pepsi-Cola as a driver.

You get the gist. It's a perfect toilet book. And not in a bad way.