Wednesday, 27 April 2011


And no, I'm not talking about my cover drive.

I'd love to think going to a private school in a largely working class city gave me a rounded view of the game. Certainly it's fair to say that if I can play at all, it's not down to any one kind of learning. Private education gave me a technique, but league cricket taught me how to use it.

In some ways that upbringing embodies a cliched dichotomy that rests at the heart of the game in England: the image of the posh opening batsman with his high left elbow playing alongside the fast bowler hewn from the Yorkshire mines. It was perhaps naive to imagine that once the old distinction of "gentlemen" and "players" was eroded and professionalism became the by-word, then the issue of class would entirely disappear from the game, but I wonder if anyone in 1962 would have guessed that England's captain 50 years later would be an elegant opening batsman who learned his game at Radley?

Of course that's a somewhat flippant point, but the private schools still churn out their fair share of batsmen (hardly ever bowlers). It's not hard to see why. The best pitches I batted on for the first 18 years of my life were found at the school matches. Anyone with a good technique, one based largely on timing, as opposed to hitting the ball, could make plenty of runs. And with free access to nets and coaching near enough on tap, that's what many people had. Lower level league games - us colts rarely ventured beyond the 3rd XI in my club - hardly encouraged stroke play. With uneven bounce a regularity, it was more a case of waiting for the bad bowler, rather than the bad ball.

Schools cricket was a level playing field. Aged 14/15, league cricket was, literally, men against boys. The idea of a tough learning curve was endemic. I bowled a man with a no-ball: the captain didn't ask me to work out my run up - he called me a fucking twat. I came in at 8 and was supposed to hold up an end while our overseas pro tried to win us the game, but an adult bounced me out and nearly broke my wrist. I got back to the pavilion was told I shouldn't be in the team. It was a very different experience. At a somewhat higher standard, Andrew Strauss claims in his autobiography that he wouldn't even have made it as a pro, let alone a Test player, had it not been for his year playing Australian club cricket (marginally tougher than the league games I played, I expect - he describes the sight of 'Brett Lee bowling 90mph thunderbolts at a batsman with no helmet').

Odd too, how those who make it to the very top seem to so encapsulate their social mileu. Simon Wilde's new book posits Ian Botham as the ultimate Thatcherite hero - the slightly crass, self-made ubermensch who ran roughshod over the playing fields of the Establishment. Pietersen and Trott were just two of thousands of immigrants who made their way to England in the noughties, attracted by a surging economy and strong pound (KP has even said as much).

A couple of years back, when my club was arguing over the kinds of games it wanted to play, the issue of class began to seep into the discussions. Some of us, myself included, wanted to play what we thought were 'better' fixtures - and soon they seemed to become synonymous with 'posher' fixtures. I suppose there was some truth in that. But that hadn't been how I'd seen it -  I'd never really given it any consideration at all. Despite the wildly different forms of the game I'd played, to my mind, cricket existed in a social limbo - it had always been the same ball coming down, after all. I find the thought of politics - social or otherwise - impinging on the game an anathema. But I guess the more you think about it, the more you realise it's an inevitability.

Innings of the Day - Graham Thorpe

Easily the best we had in the 90s middle order. Biggest strength was his versatility. If he needed to nurdle it around he did, but he had all the shots and then some. Other things to watch out for: Jo Angel, the man with the ugliest action ever seen in Test cricket. Shane Warne's horrific goatee. That's a very young Glenn McGrath, who as you'll see didn't have quite the control of his later career. The hook shots are fantastic. He played at the Oval back when it was a really fast wicket, and as you'll see he certainly wasn't afraid of the short stuff.

Needless to say we got shat on in this game. Devon Malcolm (see below) bowled extremely fast and we put down 10 catches (no lie). Thorpe actually dropped one of them off him, and booted it for four in frustration.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Nearly Men #4 - Devon Malcolm

From Ranjitsinhji to D'Oliviera to Pietersen, one of our strengths as a nation has been our ability to assimilate and integrate the talents and styles of immigrants (I'm talking purely in cricketing terms, but evidently the 'How Cricket Makes You Left Wing' post isn't a million miles away). That tendency took a while to reach the upper echelons of the game.

For much of my childhood, English cricket was ruled with a stubborn conservatism. It's an attitude that drips from the top to the bottom. How many terrible coaches told a young CC and his schoolmates to stop getting their bowling spanked around with the words 'slow it down, and find your line and length', as if it's some sort of exercise like darts, totally ignoring the fact that rhythm, control in the action (which you don't get by thinking about it as you do it) and muscle memory are the keys to accuracy?

There is no greater embodiment of that tendency than my bete noir - Ray Illingworth. There's a possibly apocryphal story about Glenn Hoddle becoming exasperated at an England training session by his players' inability to carry out a volleying exercise he'd devised for them, and humiliating them by doing it for them. It's the kind of thing Illingworth would have done - a great player in his day and a good captain on the field, but those traits only served to rob him of any sense of the need to innovate. Why bother, when it worked for you?

It's almost too painful to go into his flaws in detail. Read Dermot Reeve's autobiography. Reeve (and Bob Woolmer) was winning almost every one day trophy going with Warwickshire in the mid-1990s and was called up to the England team for the 1996 World Cup. His teams won because they experimented. He's rated highly enough to be a coach in the IPL today - half the things you see there seem to have eminated from the teams he lead. Every player was encouraged to master the reverse sweep so they played it as well as the conventional one. They bowled slower balls every other delivery. They were obscenely good in the field.

Reeve had plenty to offer the England team. But Illingworth blanked him at a team meeting and that was the end of his input. Illingworth's attitude seemed to be that public opinion alone had got him into the team - what use were the thoughts of a mediocre medium pacer who did a bit of slogging down the order? Where Sri Lanka revolutionised the opening overs of the innings, where other teams opened with spinners and batted like the end was nigh, England opened the batting with Mike Atherton and the bowling with Peter Martin.

I'm aware this is quite a long preamble. Let's get to Devon Malcolm. Now, of course we all know how good he was when in the mood:

I remember watching this. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I couldn't take my eyes off the TV. It's still the most electrifying spell of bowling I've ever seen. Forms a nice contrast to the Asif clips: nine batsmen, all utterly terrified, beaten by nothing more than sheer pace.

Why couldn't he do it all the time? Why was such a colossal talent such a colossal failure (and he was - an average touching 40 is pathetic given the ability he had)? Well, he had a tendency to spray it all over the shop, of course. That's not the coach's fault. But a talented coach would have tried to find a way to recreate that spell. Instead, less than a year later, Malcolm was bowling a match-losing spell at the last wicket pair in the final Test against the very same team. Long-eared bunny rabbit Paul Adams and decentish keeper-bat Dave Richardson took him for runs all over the park. Evidently this played a part. That article is somewhat misleading. No, he wasn't racially abused in the BNP sense, it was just chummy Ron Atkinson-style insensitivity. Whatever, it didn't help.

Of course much of the blame lies with Malcolm himself. But my God, even aged 15 you could see how badly he was being mismanaged. He fell away at the point of delivery when he started his career. He fell away when he ended it. Jimmy Anderson's been coached through about 15 different actions in that amount of time.

More to the point, it was clear he should have been deployed in spells of three or four overs at most, with the remit to go and kill someone. If he went for runs in the process then, well, shit happens. Brett Lee was used in much the same way by Ponting. Of course it's a lot easier to let a quick off the leash when Glenn McGrath's going for bupkis at the other end, but if you're going to pick a bowler like Malcolm, you've got to accept the limitations.

Team psychiatrists - much maligned back then, not least by Illingworth, the sort of pig-headed old fart who couldn't have that soppy nonsense, of course - could have tapped into the well of anger and aggression that inspired him that magical night at the Oval. In more enlightened times, this is all the kind of stuff we did with Steve Harmison, to good effect for a while. It's a big, balls-out gamble, because if it doesn't work, you may as well not have picked anyone at all - and maybe it was easier given the other bowlers around Harmison, but that's certainly not why Malcolm never enjoyed such treatment.

It's just rarely, if ever, the English sporting way. We like the goalkeeper who isn't necessarily the best shot stopper, but at least he cuts out the howlers. Ultimately, we always seem to end up playing a big lad up front, and of course John Terry's a natural choice for captain. Mike Tindall has played more games for us than he would for most other countries. Kevin Pietersen (average: 48) has attracted much more opprobium than Atherton (average: 37) did in his whole career (I know there are plenty of mitigating factors behind the discrepancy but the point stands).

I remember one of Devon's last Tests: Edgbaston 1997. He was older and a little slower and he bowled a tight line at a slightly reduced pace and got some outswing, and did rather well. At heart I guess he was the bowler he'd always wanted to be that day. Within the 90s team culture, that extreme pace was nothing but a curse. In a way Dean Headley and Simon Jones - the Jimi Hendrixes or Jeff Buckleys of English fast bowling - are the lucky ones. They burned bright, they burned fast. Poor Devon ended up being Oasis. But it wasn't all his fault.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Art of Mohammad Asif

I suppose in the light of recent events talking favourably about Mohammad Asif puts you in the position of someone who likes Gary Glitter's music. You can eulogise about his killer riffs all you want, but you're rather skirting around the elephant in the room.

So any discussion has to start with the match fixing, I guess. It was inexcusable. And there are all sorts of other allegations about his character which, if even half-true, mark him out as unpleasant. With that out the way, we can talk about his bowling in a vacuum, as it were. And my contention is this: he is the most skilful seam bowler the world has seen since - well, since Alec Bedser, and then only if the reports are true.

Let's start with the pace; or rather, the lack of it. I watched most of his bowling last summer, and his average speed for most of it was 77mph. 77 miles per hour. Let's just put that in context. He's barely a yard quicker than Collingwood or Ravi Bopara. He bowls slower than the majority of county seamers. Professional batsman practise with the bowling machine up around 85mph most of the time. It might only be a few mph more, but within the upper limits of reaction time it's a huge, huge difference. Every Test Match he essentially turned up to a nuclear war with a spud gun, some floppy hair and a cheeky grin. I saw him bowl at the Oval in 2006 when I didn't know much about him, and at first I thought one of the batsmen was just filling in a few overs.

But then I wondered why this occasional bowler was getting everyone out. And the answer is this: pure, unbridled skill. First is the accuracy. Michael Atherton talks about a spell from Curtly Ambrose he faced, and how once it was over there was an area of red marks on the pitch about the size of a tea towel where he had repeatedly pitched the ball. Well, in Asif's case, said area would be about the size of a handkerchief.

But however accurate you are, if you're bowling to good players at just-above-medium-pace, you're going to go the distance. What stops Asif being cannon fodder? The answer is his mastery of movement. Here, he is untouchable. It's a rare seamer who moves the ball both ways at will. Often, like James Anderson, Ed Giddens or Praveen Kumar, they're so reliant on swing that they're usually a real threat only when conditions are in their favour.

Asif differs from them in two regards - first, the aforementioned accuracy, and second - and most importantly - he complements the swing by extracting movement from the pitch with uncanny regularity. That's the real reason he's so deadly. 77mph with the seam up may not scare anyone, but a good spin bowler who can turn it both ways at that pace certainly would, and with Asif that's not far off the reality. You may have plenty of time to ready yourself against a fast ball as it leaves the hand, but once it reaches the final foot of its trajectory you've got next to none.

Watching him bowl to the Australians in England was like watching Chinese water torture. Not being batsmen who play the ball particularly late at the best of times, he tore them to shreds. He cut the ball past the edge, so they left the next one, which invariably seamed back in. They tried to take their guard miles down the wicket to negate the movement, but he's so slow that even Kamran Akmal could stand up to him and only put down half his chances. Later in the season he showed off his bowling brain, committing Alastair Cook to the front foot and so preoccupying him with the implications of the late moving ball that he was able to get him out with one of the most unexpected bouncers I've ever seen.

It's not just the seam movement - it's the degree of seam movement, even on very flat pitches.You really need to watch a full spell, rather than just the wickets.

Look at how Gibbs ends up edging a ball that does nothing because, having faced what are essentially three or four fast off breaks, he doesn't want to commit his front foot and get trapped in front:

My theory as to how he does it is that while the seam is always vertical enough to get in or out swing, it's also scrambled enough that it regularly fails to catch the pitch flush, meaning there's force operating to push it laterally. Angus Fraser, another bowler who didn't exactly strike the fear of God into anyone, had a similar talent. In the 90s and noughties he was England's best bowler, and don't let anyone tell you it was Darren Gough.

People say the real tragedy of the match fixing - besides the betrayal of trust - is that it took a great young talent out of the game in the shape of Mohammad Aamer. That might be the case, but that reading almost misses the point: we also lost one of the most talented bowlers the game's produced in the last 50 years. I'm not sure I'll see another bowler like Asif in my life time. Have a look at 1.10 and see if you disagree. It's almost like there's a magnet in both the stump and the ball, and as far as I know there's no pending News of the World investigation in that regard:

And that's not to mention the loping run up and whirligig action. Can't have been great getting out to him. Not only had a medium pacer owned your ass, he'd done it while looking like one of the Raggy Dolls.

24/04/11 - Crouch End

Sure signs that cricket has taken over your life #3546: arriving at a ground for a game and running into four people who each play for a different club for whom you've played. 'The Cradle' at Crouch End is cricketing nirvana - at any one time there could be six games going on at the various grounds. We didn't have the best pitch, but it's a nice spot:

As mentioned previously I'm captaining a fucking terrible team. The oppo skipper is 6'3, built like a brick shithouse and of West Indian heritage, so I assume there's at least one bowler who can steamroller our batting  line up (actually turns out he bowls little cutters - I can only quote Rain Men: 'Cricketers are not racist, they just jump to conclusions easily'). Tell him he should probably bat so he gets half a game. He goes along with this, but he sees right through my bid to play declaration too and so we're doing 40 overs. Don't blame him - a couple of hours of grim blocking isn't necessarily what you want on an extremely hot day, and we've got 'honourable' draw written all over us.

Toss the new ball to our best bowler, a big bloke who looks a bit like Hagrid and used to play league back in the day. These days he only comes in off nine paces, but he can still send it down at a fair old rate, and within an over or two he's knocked over the skipper, who looked like he was in the mood. At the other end I've opted for a 14 year old boy. Canny stuff because he's not bad at all and the fear of getting out to a child always instils a bit of caution.

Probably not worth going into the innings in too much detail. The ground's small, the outfield's fast, there's a bloke who's taken us for 100 before and I'm getting gyp from one of our players. The batsman is extremely bottom handed, the chap is bowling and getting a bit of inswing, so I figure a leg gully is a good idea.

Twat: 'What the fuck's he doing there? He's just extraneous.'
CC: 'Really? I think he might get a chance.'
Twat: 'No, that's completely fucking pointless. Move him to second slip.'

Don't need to tell you where the ball plops three deliveries later.

CC never gets wickets for this lot. There are a couple of reasons: one, no one can catch, and two, the batsmen often look around the field, realise that if they see off CC and Hagrid there's bugger all to come, and block everything. This time round CC's rather intelligently put himself on second change, which helps. Only slight problem is that the ball looks like an old slipper because it's been belted everywhere, so we go for the angle-it-in-from-round-the-wicket-and-cut-it-away policy, which brings 2-21, their best player caught by the keeper, the other by slip. For a moment it almost looks like proper cricket.

Not for long though. The need to give people a go at the other end yields about 20 an over, not helped by some ludicrously strict umpiring. The opposition apologise after the innings, which is a first - I wonder about going out to umpire at the start of our innings and flapping my arms at everything (before apologising myself, of course) but decide I can't be arsed. Our 'occasional' bowlers are bad in all sorts of hilarious ways - one sprints in like Shoaib Akhtar before sending down absurdly slow long hops, one throws the ball so high in the air there's a very real danger it might land on his head...could go on, but won't.

206 from 40 overs is still a good effort, all things considered. Could have been a lot more but I think I did ok with the field placings, and none of our people who can actually bowl had one of their off days, which is probably another first. 

I have four batsmen to play with today, after a fashion. I send two of them out to open, which is probably a bit stupid. It all looks rather good after the first three balls, which go for four. But as Geoffrey says, add two wickets to the score and it doesn't look so clever. Well, he never played for us. Try adding five wickets to the score - then it doesn't look so clever. 

I forget when the collapse occurred - I think we'd got to 40-odd before they went down like nine pins.  As someone who can at least keep out the odd straight one I'd like to put myself up the order, but instead I have to do the scoring because the only guy apparently capable of doing it is umpiring. I mean, for fuck's sake. Some of these men have played for 40 years. How can you avoid ever having to score for all that time? It's not helped by the fact that one of our players has parked himself in the bar. When he comes out he simply assumes he's above another chap who didn't even bowl, and sticks his pads on. I somehow keep a lid on it. Of course it doesn't really matter because three balls later he's on his way back too.

Once I've finally managed to offload the scorebook onto someone I do get out there - at number eight - and we're something like 70-7. All bowled. Suggests our top order needs to look at their techniques. Or the ball, that would be a start.

Have a long discussion with the only remaining batsman who's any good about how we're going to play this. Decide we need to work it around until the 30th over, and then if we're needing something like ten an over with the second string bowling we can chance our arms and see if it comes off. I'm going to cope with the left arm spinner as I can work twos with the turn, he's going to concentrate on putting away the bad ball from the seamer.

So yup, pretty detailed plan. He takes strike, has a massive mow at his first ball and loses his middle stump. I laugh. Not very sincerely.

Not much else to tell. I make 50 off about 30 balls, almost exclusively mooed through midwicket, in the company of the small child and a batsman who broke his finger in the field and had to go at eleven. We're sort-of-but-not-really in the hunt, but it makes things a bit more exciting for the opposition. I'm the last to go, trying to smack a straight one and getting bowled, which makes 9 of us (the tenth was out hit wicket, which is pretty impressive going. I really don't understand how you can do that - there's a white line there in front of the stumps: you just have to stand on it).

Meet up with my other team, who won by nine wickets and played excellent cricket. Drink till 6am to take the pain away. Feel I did a good deed not playing for them today.

It's been a good weekend. 85 runs, two wickets, no dropped catches (none taken either mind), only one comedy misfield (the outfield was a bit bumpy and I suddenly got the fear the ball was going to hop up into my teeth, so I didn't do the long barrier), and a fine selection of bruises. I've been hit on the forearm, the fingers (twice), the toe, the inner leg, and in the box, which bloody hurt. In all other aspects of life I'm an utter wimp, but for some reason getting hit by the ball seems worth it.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

23/04/11 - Warnford, Hampshire

This blog was supposed to be a diary of my season. I thought it would help put each game in some sort of context - after years of playing, every game sort of merges into one vague memory of pathetic shots and dropped catches, and perhaps that doesn't help how you play over the course of a season. Seem to have got a bit carried away and written about all sorts of other shite. So, to business:

Making a debut for (yet another) team - since moving to London have played for eight different teams now - friendly cricket is kind of like playing for one big club. Alternatively, it's like the S&M scene - everyone knows everyone else, often with unwanted degrees of intimacy.

Not the worst ground:

That's actually CC out there batting. You probably can't see too well from that picture, but the keeper's standing bloody miles back. Perhaps we should rewind. Fella from CC's main club has very kindly got CC invited to the game, and even more kindly talked CC up a bit as a player so he can get a good go. In retrospect, he probably talked CC up a bit too much, as the skipper looks at him, in front of everyone, and issues the dread words: 'Are you alright to open?'

What CC wants to say: 'Are you fucking mental? Are you quite well in the head?'
What CC says: 'Go on then, let's get the first duck of the season out the way (hearty attempt at sincere laughter).'

CC pads up, a nervous, trembling wreck, his knees shaking and his heart doing 180. Gets outside and smokes 3 fags in a row. Someone chucks him a few balls, and he edges most of them. Skipper walks up to him: 'CC, we've put you at number one - figured you wouldn't mind.'

What CC wants to say: 'Oh, that's just wonderful. One diamond duck coming up (actually what is it for first ball of the season? Platinum?). GAAGH.'
What CC says: 'Great.'

So out to the middle with his partner, a jolly giant who doesn't seem at all perturbed. CC's mate (who's comfortably in the category of Good Cricketer) says he's better than him, so perhaps it's not surprising. Pitch is a proper wicket, with just a tinge of 11.30am (yes, proper cricket) April dew and green that a good bowler could exploit. Umpires are neutrals, in umpiring suits. Opposition look worryingly athletic. This is serious cricket, and CC's about to make an utter tit of himself.

He doesn't even look behind him....he's knows the keeper's somewhere in a neighbouring county. The bowler starts to walk back to his mark. Five minutes later, he's still walking back. CC wants his mummy. Bowler sprints in, with all the boundless enthusiasm and loose-limbedness CC was dreading. And there it is, the first ball's a screaming monster that spits up into CC's rib cage. God knows how, but CC hops up, rides the bounce and gloves it down to fine leg. Stinging pain is supplanted by joy. Not only the first ball avoided, but off the mark! Oh frabjous day!

The first hour of the game goes like this: Bowler 1, it later transpires, plays for Middlesex U-19s. Has something of the Stuart Broads about him. Bowler 2 is his equally nippy mate. CC and opening partner, whom I'll call Big Boy (BB) fight tooth and nail. It's a good pitch and we should be cruising it around, but these guys are very good bowlers, who really know how to nip the new ball in the air and off the seam and keep an absolute cunt of a bouncer in the locker too. CC and BB both eschew the pull shot, knowing with the bounce and pace it's a short route to a top edge at best, dental surgery at worst. CC gets twatted again on the gloves by one absolutely savage bumper which seems to appear around neck height from nowhere, and does very well not to start crying.

Next ball he goes on the cut and slaps it hard but straight to gully, who puts it down. CC begins to think it's his day. In fact, over the course of an hour, his mindset changes utterly. It's perhaps the hardest thing about batting. It's like sharing a head with a lunatic. For the first 30 minutes CC's main train of thought is 'I'm going to die/lose all three stumps.' Slowly, but imperceptibly, this changes to 'These guys are crap. I could hit all this shit for four,' until he's spending every ball telling himself not to take a gigantic hoon at it against the same bowlers who, just a few overs ago, were pitiless Angels of Death.

CC and BB begin to start timing it. The first change is a real bastard too. A tiny bit slower than the previous bowlers (this is deeply relative; he bowls quicker than pretty much everyone in CC's other clubs), he makes up for it with a slingy action that's hard to pick up, a surprisingly fast yorker and another very nasty little bouncer, which later in the game will leave CC's mate with a very, very swollen finger. But in looking for the yorker he sends down his share of half volleys too, and CC starts driving him through the covers and straight. CC discusses the lunatic in his head with BB, for whom it's clearly not so much a problem as a natural state of being - we'd both reached 20 at about the same time, but BB now goes mental and starts smashing it everywhere. As we bring up the hundred, he's closing in on 50 while CC's just got to 30.

If CC had any sense, he'd just roll the strike over and let BB keep smacking it. But that screaming lunatic isn't having that - he doesn't want to see BB bringing up his ton while he makes an undefeated 47 and the other batsmen are sitting in the pavilion wishing he'd get out. The next bowler is a nightmare for someone hoping to tee off, which CC is, even if it means he's actually timing fewer balls than he was before. He bowls medium paced wobbly things with no idea of which direction they're going to wobble. So after a couple of big outswingers CC takes guard a foot outside the crease to negate the swing, which makes the keeper come up to the stumps. Of course the next ball is a hooping inswinger, set off a foot outside leg stump, which flies for four byes. In somewhat comic fashion, this pattern continues for a couple of overs, with the keeper getting increasingly pissed off and CC barely having to play a ball.

Of course in the end he gets CC out, for 32 I think - some decent spinners are lying in wait and would have settled him down, but he takes a giant swipe at one just drifting away and sends it straight up in the air. As it transpires, it works rather well for the team. BB makes 150 (he is dropped 6 times and plays and misses a lot, but when you hit the ball as hard as he does you're always going to get lives), and the others pile in with quick 30s as the pitch begins to lose pace. Stuart Broad comes back and starts bombing everyone with non-stop short balls, but even he's lost some of his threat - we set them 280 odd declared, and CC's done his bit. If it was one of the other clubs CC plays for where stats are rigorously recorded and he hates everyone he'd have stodged out quite a big score, but probably not a great idea to lose friends on debut.

(Apologies for those hoping for a proper match report, but this is my blog and it's all about me, biatches).

When we come out after lunch, CC finds he's taking the new ball. Again, CC's mate has evidently talked him up to get him a go, which is very kind of him, but again CC doesn't quite share his positivity. Not getting splattered everywhere would be a result. In that regard it doesn't go too badly. Five largely unthreatening overs - most balls land on the spot at an extremely pedestrian pace with bugger all swing, and the batsmen show him some respect, possibly because they're openers and value their wickets, possibly because they think if this guy's opening there much be something more to it than sluggish dibblies. There isn't, but just as they're about to work that out CC's been taken off, much to his joy.

No, the pace isn't what you'd call express. A couple of effort balls almost carry through at waist height. There's an edge for four and that's about it - but that's fine, because this is clearly a wicket for the spinners and CC's in the Manoj Prabhaker role, taking shine off the new ball and trying to force a crap shot because the batsmen know there's better to come. If Stuart Broad couldn't get a wicket CC's chances weren't exactly sky-high.

The rest of the game is largely spin-dominated - it seems our skipper has given the pitch some thought and we're packing four really decent tweakers who do most of the work. That said CC's other mate comes on with his medium pace and bowls a great spell - probably the most threatening seam up stuff in the whole game, nipping it in at a tidy pace from a fifth stump line. A kinder umpire would probably have given him a couple of LBWs. Oppo are up against it chasing such a big target, but they can all play and they're in the game most of the way. The game ebbs and flows - one guy takes a hat-trick (all three done with the arm-ball), but even then the opp are still up with the rate. With two wickets left and a guy on about 60 middling absolutely everything, CC is brought back. Feel a little doubtful this is going to go ok after 40-odd overs in the field which has left me as stiff as a Bishop's dick.

Skipper tells him to bowl left-arm over and angle it across, taking the short boundary out of the equation. The first over goes ok until the fourth ball, which the guy pulls straight up in the air...two fielders converge, and put him down. Probably don't need to tell you what happens next over - it's a hoary old tune. CC tries to get it in the blockhole, misses every time, lands it on a good length, and gets swung away for God knows how many (I counted 16, though it felt like 57) by the guy who'd just been dropped. Bang go an economical set of figures.

Fortunately our skipper can bowl (proper nagging, fast, fizzing off spin, wouldn't look out of place in the IPL) and grabs us the last two wickets with an over to go and them 30-odd short. It's a great team performance. But this isn't the venue to talk about that. This is all about me.

First up, it was a great day, and thanks to CC's mate for getting him involved. In terms of performance: not too bad a start. A good cricketer would have clinically worked his way to a few more - 50 perhaps - and then hoped to get lucky on the slog, and he would have nailed the yorker in his second spell. But this is a Crap Cricketer's blog, and for a Crap Cricketer it was ok.

Pain Audit

- Massive bruise on thigh where ball struck between pad and thigh pad.
- Mild swelling where smacked on fingers twice by ball.
- And on toe.
- Both calf muscles sore.
- Both thighs sore. (To extent that girlfriend had to pull me out of bed this morning).
- Both buttocks sore.
- Shoulder sore.
- Numerous muscles in back that I'd forgot I had sore.
- Intercostals sore.

Playing again today.

Friday, 22 April 2011

The Bola Machine, 1992

Wonderful stuff. Part 2 here, if you want to see Nasser practising his square cuts and Atherton getting ready for Shane Warne (in no way).

From about the same era, you may wish to see Richie Benaud make a young whippersnapper a million times better. Notice him also bypass Tony Lewis and stare straight down the lens to establish control in time-honoured manner: 'it's a war out there.' I used to own the VHS of this. Sadly I can't find the other tape I had on YouTube in which Boycott savagely berates his young charge until the poor guy can hardly hold a bat any more.

Cricket Video Games

...are crap. Most of the time, anyway. Actually they sort of get worse the better the technology.

Robin Smith's International Cricket (C64). 

Somewhat rudimentary. But it was Robin Smith's game, so awesome. As with all games, some surprisingly good bowlers. Devon Malcolm used to land it on the cut strip. I seem to remember the Judge's leg spin was almost as good as his batting. And quite right too.

Cricket 97 (PC).

Amazing graphics for the time. Intricate bowling system. Timing the ball largely a question of guesswork, thus making it quite realistic for the CC. Surprisingly good bowler: Mark Butcher. Bowled boomerangs.

Brian Lara 2005 (PS2)

This is the absolute daddy. Either by accident or design, most games since have had a simple flaw. A ball down the leg side is bad, right? The batsman should always find it easier to hit, right? Fine, but in most cricket games since this one that's meant if you're playing two player the guy batting just stands just outside off stump, flicking anything vaguely near the stumps for four. You end up playing a bizarre version of French cricket, with the bowler alternating wide outswingers with inswinging yorkers and the batsman only playing a cover drive or a glance. And because the batsman knows where it's going to pitch before the bowler's even bowled it you're left using obscure medium pacers who swing it the width of the pitch to stop every ball going for four.

Brian Lara 2005 stopped that shit from happening by simply not letting the batsman move so far across. That said, the fielders never ever throw it to the bowler, which certainly made running a single to mid off less stressful than it might have been. Surprisingly good bowler: Nathan Astle. And Brian Lara, obviously. And I seem to remember Abdul Razzaq was capable of bowling at 110mph for some reason.

Ashes Cricket 2009 (Wii). 

Should be awesome. Isn't. Good stuff - bowling - you really do spin it or swing it determined by how vigorous a flick you give the remote. Batting - you do have time the ball with a swing of the remote. Bad stuff - worst graphics I've ever seen. You have no control over fielders and it's two every time you hit it to one on the boundary. You're not really in control of the shot as much as you think you are. Aforementioned French cricket tactic still a winner. Tendonitis. Surprisingly good bowler: Tillekeratne Dilshan. Turns it more than Murali.

International Cricket 2010 (PS3)

Massive 'French Cricket' issue. As well as the fact that if you throw it to the keeper's end he takes the bails off and appeals almost every time regardless of where the batsman is. And it's very easy to inadvertently try to run a bye because the run button is right next to the 'hit' button. This wouldn't be such a big deal if the batsman weren't up for stealing a quick one even when the keeper's standing up to the stumps. Slip catching a nice feature, but absolutely impossible. Also, I'm utterly rubbish at it. Any surprisingly good bowlers? Not that I can think of, but there's a surprisingly good tactic - if you bowl incredibly short with a spinner and land the ball exactly where the umpire's hat obscures the pitch then it won't bounce above stump height and the batsman can't see which way it's spinning. It's in no way a childish response to getting hit for six.

Nearly men #3: Alan Mullally

'Nearly man' is perhaps pushing it for a bowler who reached number 2 in the ODI rankings at one time. But like so many bowlers of the 90s, Mullally is best known for promising so much more than he delivered. We'd heard all about this guy before he made his Test debut, and it sounded exciting: a pacy chap with English nationality who'd played most of his cricket in Australia. Well, from the moment we saw him we knew there were some problems:

1. He really wasn't that fast.
2. He was left handed, but he didn't have an inswinger, which is almost essential. Instead he had the most useless of all balls, the outswinger delivered from over the wicket. It meant on the rare occasions he did get the ball in the off stump channel it usually veered away when it could have taken the outside edge (this did make him very economical, hence the ODI success). After a couple of predictably wicketless but cheap spells, he'd usually come round the wicket, by which time the away swing had dried up and everything drifted into the pads.
3. He couldn't bat or field.

And yet I loved Alan Mullally. The main reason was that, like every proud Australian Englishman, he had a bit of mongrel about him. He might not have been that good, but he wasn't going to let that stop him competing as hard as he could. It made a stirring counterpoint to the Caddicks and Tufnells who really should have been good, but rarely summoned the aggression they needed. He was the kind of guy who sarcastically wrung his hand in pain when Rahul Dravid, on 150 and mostly scored off him, didn't time a straight drive back at him. He bowled non-stop bouncers at Sachin Tendulkar no matter how many times he was obliterated out of the ground.

He averaged five with the bat. Look how he got out to Glenn McGrath, almost exclusively:

Where other players edged immaculately delivered leg cutters, Mullally tried to hook him for six. It's called backing yourself.

The Art of Captaincy

So this weekend I'm captaining, it transpires. Now the Crap Cricketer has many flaws: popcorn bowling. Flaky batting. Atrocious fielding. But when it comes to captaincy, I'm kind of a big deal.

Now I know what you're thinking: tactical nous. Firing the team up. Leading by example. Well, you're wrong. To captain a crap cricket team the talents required are far more nuanced. You're part schoolmaster, part therapist and above all, part man-manager.

Now 'man-management' in the Mike Brearley sense meant getting the best out of Ian Botham or making Bob Willis bowl faster. Which, with all due respect, is a piece of piss. In crap cricket it means, very simply, keeping ten people happy. Eleven, at a push.

Here's a run down of our team - in logical batting order:

1. Crap Cricketer (bat/bowl). In the context of this team, a mix of Don Bradman, Michael Holding and Jonty Rhodes
2. David Baddiel (bat). Looks like David Baddiel. Can usually block the ball for about 10 overs or so, but unlikely to make a big score.
3. Hagrid (bat/bowl). My trump card. Wangs down a very heavy ball and can usually slog a lusty 30, which is about 29 more than the rest of the team. He's also my banker in the field.
4. Santa Claus (bat/bowl). Santa is a fat old chap who looks like Santa. Used to be a very good cricketer, but is now pushing 50. Batting and bowling still serviceable.
5. Ancient (bat/wk). Possibly used to be good, but hard to tell. Certainly isn't now.
6. Bellend (bowl, thinks he can bat). Unfeasibly successful purveyor of dibbly dobblies who used to be quick in about 1985. Thinks he's a great batsman, usually gets out second ball for six.
7. Lunatic (not much). Looks like a tramp. Will be put at square leg to scare the umpires.
8. Decrepit (bat/wk/rubbish bowling). Older than Methuselah. Can occasionally block the ball, usually doesn't.
9. Cuthbert (bowls, a bit). Small child. Will be instructed to run from one side of the boundary to other in field to stop the others having a coronary.
10. Dibble (sort of bat/bowl, both very badly). Plays wonderfully orthodox shots down the wrong line, usually for 0..
11. Grub (nothing). New guy. Have been told he 'likes to stand at gully, and smoke.'

Now, it doesn't look all that bad, does it? David Baddiel can hold up an end while CC, Hagrid and Santa make some runs. In the field those three can get the wickets, Bellend and Cuthbert can fill in with some overs and you've got a decent performance on your hands.

Ha. Think again. Things to consider:

- Bellend refuses to go any lower than 6 because he thinks he's very good, even though he isn't. But in our preferred line up that means four of our top six batters are doing the bowling. In the unlikely event anyone makes any runs at all, that's going to cause tantrums.

- For the captain to be opening the batting and bowling is as sure a precursor to a bloody coup as there could be. In the absence of another person who could take the new ball, CC has to open the bowling. That means he's got to be one of the top order dropping down. This is a great result, because unlike the rest of the team he can hardly get pissy what with him being the one who made the decision.

- There are only two people who are happy to open, other than CC - David Baddiel and Santa. Santa's a good option because Bellend thinks Santa is a 'cunt' and they've nearly had fist fights before, so putting one opening and one at six is a sensible distance. But Santa's definitely going to bowl, so really we need to shift Hagrid down too otherwise Lunatic and Decrepit might not do anything. Hagrid's nice and will totally understand...ironically the person most likely to kick up a stink about the fact our two best batsmen are somewhere in the lower middle order is Bellend, who's largely responsible for the problem in the first place.

- The bowling line up, you might think, picks itself. CC, Santa, Hagrid, Bellend and Cuthbert. Ha ha ha. If only it were so easy. No doubt, they should all get a few overs in. But Santa, CC and Hagrid won't bowl that many, because even with our revised batting order it's highly likely Lunatic, Decrepit and Dibble won't do anything (because they'll score 0). And more to the point, every over Lunatic, Decrepit and Dibble bowl means they won't be in the field.

- Something else to keep in the back of the mind: Grub is evidently terrible but might be a useful contact for work, it transpires, so if he tells me he wants to bat at three and open the bowling then it's quite alright by me.

So our revised team is a flexible order, like what England do in T20s. It is predicated largely on what happens in the field. And we WILL field first.

1. Santa
2. David Baddiel
3. Lunatic (if he hasn't bowled). Or Bellend (if his bowling's been carted round the park and I've had to take him off early. Will tell him he's in the 'pinch hitter' role thus playing on ego and hastening his demise).
4. Decrepit or Lunatic depending on who wants it most.
5. Ancient (assuming he's not in hospital). If he is, CC if we're 10-3 (which we will be). Hagrid if we're 100-3 (which we won't be).
6. Hagrid or CC.
7. Bellend (fuck him, he'll just have to live with it).
8. Dibble (always wants to go number 8, for some reason. It's three places too high, but makes life easy).
9. Cuthbert (but whom I'll put ahead of Bellend if he's really annoying me because if there's one thing sure to piss him off it's being put behind a small child).
10. Not sure but saving for Ancient or Decrepit - whichever's the more knackered.
11. Hopefully Grub doesn't want to bat. Cuthbert can't take too much offence, what with being 13 years old, unless he's already started to learn from the rest of the team.

And there we have it.

Every player will be happy with their role, with the exception of Bellend, and that's perfect. We will field first, by hook or by crook - I'll tell the opposition captain he should bat first because we're shit and that way he's guaranteed half a game. I will also push for a declaration game. We will then concede mountains of runs and eat too much tea. Next we'll bat incredibly badly up front because our best players are lower down the order, and then if Hagrid or I play out of our skins we might just scrape a draw. In the very unlikely eventuality that we've bowled them out for a low total I shall adopt exactly the same tactics and not even think about trying to get the runs unless I'm absolutely sure the lower order doesn't have time to fold in a heap, which gives us about five overs (at most).

Last year, we won a game. Yeah, Andrew Strauss has it really tough, trying to work out if he should have four or five bowlers.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Good sledging/bad sledging

Good sledging - Sangakkara: charming.

Bad sledging - Boucher: charmless.

Bonus very bad sledging - Sohail: probably felt like a bit of a tit.

Final technical details

If you play for long enough, you realise most bowlers can be grouped into certain categories. It's all about being prepared for each one. Won't be of any use to non-left handers.

Archetype A: The utter bastard
Bowls right arm, usually over the wicket but sometimes round, brings it back in. If it swings, you're quite likely to get out bowled or LBW. If doesn't, you nick it behind.
Tactics: Take middle and leg as a guard. Open stance so I'm driving slightly towards mid on. Do not play across the line, however tempting it seems.
Where I'm looking to score: With the pull and cut if he drops shot, through mid on, midwicket and square leg if he drifts too far towards the pads. Nowhere else if he doesn't.
Where I will score: Mostly in leg byes or down to fine leg with Chinese cuts. Possibly off the stumps if he bowls me with a no ball.

Archetype B: The complete shit
Bowls right arm over the wicket, takes it away.
Tactics: Have middle stump as a guard so eye line is over off stump. Leave anything outside it. Be very wary of trying to hit anything through the leg side.
Where I'm looking to score: Maybe through the covers if it's absolutely there for it. Otherwise nowhere, unless he drops short.
Where I will score: Exclusively through the slips.

Archetype C: The absolute tosser
Bowls off-spin from over the wicket, packs the off side, leaves a massive gap at midwicket, floats everything on leg stump
Tactics: Take a middle and leg guard. Do not mow across line. Instead concentrate on putting away the half volley, full toss or short ball.
Where I'm looking to score: Through the covers. Only on the leg side if by some accident I've got to the pitch of the ball or he's really got his line wrong.
Where I will score: In mistimed hoiks over midwicket before being bowled for single figures.

Archetype D: The twat
Bowls really fast.
Tactics: Park yourself on the back foot, swish at it as hard as you can if it's short. Hope you get something on it if it isn't.
Where I'm looking to score: Anywhere.
Where I will score: In top edges over the keeper/I won't.

Poll: what music are we listening to this season?

On the way to a game: something uplifting or aggressive. I got techniques dripping out my butt cheeks.

On the way back: usually this or this.

Which batting eccentricities are we adopting?

The combined bat-twiddle and box-fiddle.

As modelled by: Alec Stewart. And resplendent in this video.

Why you should do it: Because it sends a message. The box fiddle asserts your masculinity, the bat twiddle looks like you're a tad insouciant and not taking it all that seriously. Also formerly modelled by the same player: the seamless drive-into-tucking-bat-under-arm follow through as the off stump cartwheels backwards.

Using a bail to mark your guard
As modelled by: Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan.
Why you should do it: Because it sends a message: 'I take my technique very seriously'. The other affectation is not bothering with a guard at all, which sends a quite different message and is possibly the preferred option for those liable to get a first baller.

The gun reveal
As modelled by: Kevin Pietersen and, to lesser effect, Ian Bell. Simply a case of hitching up your shirt sleeves before the bowler runs in.
Why you should do it: It sends a message: 'I have big guns'. Or, 'I think I have big guns.'

As modelled by: Jonathan Trott. Many variants exist but the key aspect is not being ready to receive the ball until at least 20 minutes after you've arrived at the wicket.
Why you should do it: Because you really want to annoy the opposition, and possibly your team mates. Because you're not likely to be out there very long and want to make the most of it.

The trench digger
As modelled by: Nasser Hussain. Whack the bat into the ground as hard as you can while waiting for the bowler to arrive.
Why you should do it: Because you're a very angry man indeed. Or using a bat belonging to someone you hate.

The hold-the-pose
As modelled by: Flaky West Indian dasher Keith Arthurton, most memorably. Play a beautiful extra-cover drive. As the ball skims across the outfield, hold your follow through, nonchalantly chewing your gum. Ignore the batsman at the other end desperately trying to call you through. Realise it's not going for four. Reluctantly jog a single and just about make your ground.
Why you should do it: It sends a message: 'I don't even need the runs.'

The mislaid gob
As modelled by: Rubbish bits-and-pieces England punter Mark Alleyne. Having been dismissed, spit at the ground in disgust at your shot. Forget you've still got your helmet on. Look like even more of a tit, because the nasty men at the BBC have decided to focus on the line of phlegm now dripping from the grille.
Why you should do it: You probably shouldn't.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Bats I have loved

1. Gray Nicolls Scoop 2000

Pros: As used by Brian Lara to score his 375 Test record.

Cons: Didn't have a middle. Which didn't matter, as long as you were Brian Lara.

2. Milichamp and Hall Original.

Pros: Sweeter than any bat you will ever use, ever. Adding a tiny follow-through to your defense will usually see the ball go for four. A fully-middled swipe will mean the opposition has to retrieve it using public transport.

Cons: Parents remortgaged house to buy it for my birthday. Still had the life expectancy of a suicide bomber. Try and drive a yorker, and you can kiss your blade goodbye. A proper bat, not for the likes of thee.

3. GM Cannon

Pros: Light as a feather.

Cons: Highest profile user: Steve Harmison. Small, extremely sweet middle only of any use to people who time the ball. Thus, the Crap Cricketer has never scored 50 with it and has decided it's his 'nets bat'.

4. Classic Bat Co. Original

(Picture unavailable).

Pros: Given to the Crap Cricketer aged 15 for free as sponsorship solely because he'd played a game for Chichester and Arundel district, or something. Really very good.

Cons: They went bust. Can't think why.

Honourable mentions: Woodworm Torch (see M&H in terms of life expectancy, with added downside that you clearly wanted to be Freddie Flintoff. Also decorated with stickers designed to appeal to a small child, or Freddie Flintoff). Kookaburra Savage Beast (never used it, but my word does it send a message - this being 'I'm going to be bowled trying to smoke one out the ground very soon'), Slazenger V12 (lull the opposition into a false sense of security by walking out with the shittest bat ever made, then fail to get the ball off the square).

We really need to talk about Kevin

Batting is about confidence. How often do you see a ball, decide on a shot, lose confidence part-way through and give an easy catch where if you'd just gone through with it you'd have a boundary?

The problem is, your confidence is always getting eroded. This post is only part in jest. Every time you take a risk and get out as a result, you're always going to think twice about playing that shot again. It's perfectly natural for a batsman to become more circumspect as he gets older and more battle-scarred. Steve Waugh is the classic example. By the time he finished his career he averaged millions and had reduced his entire technique to two shots, or possibly even one - I don't know because I could never be fucked to watch him.

Well, we're seeing that process writ large in the case of Kevin Peter Pietersen. Cast your mind back to his test debut - Ashes 2005. The abiding memory, for me, is of him shattering Glenn McGrath's invincible aura in one totally unexpected blow, by sticking him on the Lord's pavilion. Never mind Harmison's spell, that was the moment when I thought we could win the series.

Would Kevin play that shot today? Never in a month of Sundays. The Kevin of today is a much more clinical batsman. He's the kind of player who takes flagging Australian and West Indian attacks for chanceless 200s where before there was every chance he'd be on his way for 80 off as many balls.

It's not surprising. As the years went by, the English public and media decided they didn't like his style of play. Every aggressive shot that lead to his wicket was met with a STUPID KEVIN BLOWS IT AGAIN headline and considerable tut tutting from crusty old TMS listeners. Of course it had an effect. As has been endlessly pointed out, much of Kevin's swagger is born of a lack of confidence. Yes, we've had less needy girlfriends than him. But you try going out to bat knowing that millions of people think you're a bit of a wazzock. It's hard enough knowing the same about one friendly cricket club.

It's partly a cultural thing. We like to think that as the country that invented the game we're also bastions of playing it properly, damn it. At club level most Pakistani and West Indian guys seem to bat like they've got a bus to catch. Far rarer to see a Brit playing like that. And the thing is, you often wonder how stupid some of those shots Kevin used to play were. For instance, two shots characterise this knock - an innings which, lest we forget, defined an era of English cricket:

One is the hook for six off the extremely fast bowler, Brett Lee. The other is the swipe against the spin of Warne. You see, for all the attacking intent, they're both percentage shots, in a way. There are a number of things in favour of the hook - one, the ball's coming at him so fast that a six is quite likely if he gets any bat at all on it, and two, well - look what happens when he tries evasive action. The slog sweep is much more risky, granted, but look what happens once he's played it a few times - there's a man out there at deep midwicket, and he can play with the spin into a new gap. Would he play a knock like that today? I'm going to say no. Is it just possible that in the heat of the moment he'd inadvertently plotted out the best possible innings in terms of keeping his wicket intact (dropped chances aside)?

So here's to the next time Kevin, on course for 100, spanks Yuvraj Singh or some other bowling heavyweight straight up in the air this summer. Even if I do shout at the TV and call him a stupid bastard when he does it.

#2: John Crawley

Ah, so much to love. If anyone bowled on John Crawley's legs, he'd put them away for four every single time, with the absolute minimum of fuss. He was the unequivocal master of the leg glance. Stick two men, three men, four men out on the leg side - whatever, he'd pick the gap.  If they bowled anywhere outside off, he either left it, blocked it or got out. Never has there been a batsman with such a specific skill set.

Having started badly against South Africa, he came into the '94 Ashes side. The Aussies hadn't seen much of him and in the Third Test at Sydney he made a pair of 70s, all exclusively scored with the leg glance. Channel 9 showed his wagon wheel. It looked like a bicycle wheel with one spoke. The Aussies cottoned on, bowled everything outside off stump, and he barely scored a run.

In 1998 he was back in the team to play Sri Lanka. Muralitharan was at his peak. He'd not yet mastered the doosra, but his off break spun like a top. With the exception of Graeme Hick, no one else could get near him. There was only one shot you could play with the ball turning like into you that: the leg glance. So that's all Crawley did. He hit 156, almost entirely off his pads, and all in a losing cause. But then he was forced to play Australia again, who bowled outside off stump all the time, and that was that. Back to county cricket, where he suddenly looked a different player.

So much to love, so much redolent of 90s England cricket. He couldn't field for toffee. He was much fatter than a man his build should be. There was the lingering suspicion he was only in the team because he was the skipper's mate from school. The sight of him smoking a fag on the Lord's balcony. The entirely-predictable nickname ('Creepy').

But above all, the vital lesson: if you can do one thing well enough, it can take you a surprisingly long way.

#1 in what will almost certainly be a continuing series - the nearly men

Oh Mark. I know how good you were. I saw it at the Oval in 2007 for Surrey. It was a racial salad of an innings, a little bit of something from each of your heritages. You had the high left elbow English forward defensive. The subcontinental flick through midwicket from off stump. The Calypso smash over cover when you got a wide one. The Viv Richards 'don't bowl there to me' pull for six. God, it was beautiful.

Not that there's much evidence of that kind of stuff on YouTube. I expect most people, like me, turned the telly off when they saw you walking out for England with that worried look on your face.

 "When I was 18 cricket was a game. I used to go in and try and hit Malcolm Marshall over the top. [He did so successfully, too.] Then it became a job as I became more seasoned and expected to perform. People look to you to produce. From the age of 21 I started every season thinking if I play well, I could play Test cricket. I put pressure on myself. But there were a lot of people with one Test cap. The axe could fall at any time. It was really tough. More recently I've realised I hadn't enjoyed the game as much as I would have liked and so I've been determined to enjoy the game more."

You know what Matthew Maynard, batting coach, told KP at lunch at the Oval in 2005? Just go out there and play your natural game. Ashes on the line, team struggling for a draw against the best team in the world, and he gives him a license.

It could - no, it should - have been you he said that to, old boy. You were just a couple of years too early.

That extra yard of pace

In about 2003 the Crap Cricketer was slightly less crap than he is now. The people at the club he played at all rather liked his bowling, rather than his batting. The thing was - and it feels ridiculous to type this now - he was quite quick.

If you ask most cricketers what they want, it's that extra yard of pace. It's slightly tragic, because however much they train and attempt to refine their action, it's mostly a question of natural physique. The most you can increase your speed by is really a yard or two. If there was a way we could bowl 90mph just through training, there'd be a lot fewer batsmen out there.

Of course, in describing the Crap Cricketer's halcyon days we're not talking fast-fast. We're not even talking fast medium. We're talking medium by professional standards, somewhere in the mid-70mphs, a good pace for a club bowler and the basis for lesser bits-and-pieces professional journeyman. The Crap Cricketer would lope in, flat footed, off a 12-pace-run up;  then everything happened with a slingy shoulder action. Ping! On a hard enough pitch, he could bang it in and make the batsman smell de leather. If everything was in order, even on a slow track the keeper would take the good length ball with his gloves pointing to the sky. The words 'sharp' and 'nippy' were bandied about by club colleagues, perhaps a little recklessly.

Now the important point is that just because the Crap Cricketer reached the dizzy heights of Dimitri Mascarenhas on a bad day, he was still, by any reasonable measure, shit. He sprayed it around like Peter North after a six-month vow of celibacy. Long hop followed full toss followed long hop. He might grab you wickets, but if he went at 6 an over, he'd had a good spell.

Those days are long gone. Right now the Crap Cricketer would struggle to keep up with a quicker ball from Monty Panesar. Last season the keeper stood up to him on a particularly slow wicket. And you know what? The Crap Cricketer's cool with that.

It's hard to say where those crucial 10mph went. A strong commitment to boozing and smoking in adulthood must have accounted for at least five of them. But there's more to it: as the Crap Cricketer played increasingly worse levels of cricket, pace just didn't seem to be the done thing. That was kind of ok because he's always been attracted to the cerebral bit of the game. It takes a certain unreconstructed mentality to be fast. You have to be prepared to bowl like this at a man with no helmet on:

No, give the Crap Cricketer Praveen Kumar with the new ball or Martin Bicknell dismantling Jaques Rudolph at the Oval over Holding or Thomson any day.

Last season he nipped out two of the best batsmen playing London friendly cricket (hell yeah) with some proper bowling - the first with a lifter and slower ball one/two, the other with an inswinger from over the wicket followed by a leg cutter from round it. Getting a wicket these days is a lot more satisfying than slamming it down the other end and seeing what happens.

Of course it's no good when he bowls to someone properly good, because they've got all the time in the world to pick whatever variation he's trying, but that's fine because he hardly ever comes up against them these days. That said, it would have been nice if someone had pointed out that once your whole mindset changes, that's it for bowling fast. The Crap Cricketer couldn't send a quick ball down now even if he wanted to.

There are plenty of other players still striving for that extra yard of pace, and more fool them. Because they'll never win. They don't want much, they just want to get it down at same speed as Iain O'Brien. But what would Iain O'Brien like? As he's said on his blog, he'd absolutely love to bowl as quick as Shaun Tait. And what would Shaun Tait like? To get more than half his ludicrously pacy thunderbolts to land on the cut strip. Like the Crap Cricketer and several thousand other bog standard club players do every weekend. How many individuals in the world find that happy balance between nuance and extreme pace? Very, very few; that's how many. If they do, they're almost uniquely blessed.


With the new season rapidly approaching, it's time to look at last season and see what lessons can be taken from it. How did we get out in 2010?

The three card trick (pt 1).

 Bowler sent down five wides in a row, then bowled me with an inswinging yorker on middle stump.

Lesson: Just because they look rubbish, they might not be.

Plan of action: Block everything.

The selfless hari kari

(x2) Attempt to pick up run rate having scored slowly, tried to slog sweep off spinner for six, bowled middle stump.
(x3) Attempt to pick up run rate having scored slowly, try to slog seamer back over his head. Bowled middle stump.

Lesson: Fuck the team. No really. Because the next guy usually scores even slower. Or gets out first ball.

Plan of action: Stop trying to hit it for six. I hit six sixes last season and got out five times attempting to hit a six. In hindsight, not the greatest odds. Failing that, block everything.

The three card trick (pt2).

Saw tall, stacked bowler come charging in, assumed he'd be quick, played way too early at first ball, looped to cover.

Lesson: Just because they look good, they might not be. 

Plan of action: Block everything.

The cabbage patch retardo slash
Hungover to shit. Pitch behaving like an absolute bastard. Get hit a couple of times. Decide one's got my name on it and I've got to go after everything. End up caught behind cutting a full ball I should be driving and which is too wide to even do that.

Lesson: Ninety nine times out of a hundred on a horrible wicket you don't actually get out to the unplayable ball. Bad pitches are nasty things because they make you play ridiculous shots.

Plan of action: Don't make yourself available/try and hide yourself down the order if the pitch looks dodgy. If you do end up batting, block everything.

The Celebrity Wicket
Facing a famous celebrity in a posh game I've been roped in for. He's elderly, and utterly terrible. I'm 70* and already smacked him for 15 in the over. Not really sure if another boundary is quite the done thing. Accidentally/on purpose hit one up in the air. 'Oh well bowled, did me in the flight.'

Lesson: The British class system is alive and well.

Plan of action: Block most of them.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Another reason I won't play for England

Fairly unlikely I'll be done for libel but just to be on the safe side - unnamed current England cricketer is batting against my school. He edges a spinner to slip, who puts him down. He turns around in horror, then stands in the middle of the wicket, beating himself on the pads with his bat.


We all look at each other, wondering whether we should run him out. Decide against, because it's actually a bit scary.

He was 135* at the time.

Cricket makes me slightly right wing again - the first rule of friendly cricket that your team mates are scum, and there can be no rule other than pitiless autocracy.

I can cope with them telling me they're going to bowl well and then getting splattered everywhere. That's just what the pros call 'not executing your skills.' I certainly can cope with them dropping sitters off my bowling. Fuck knows, I do it often enough off theirs. I can even cope with them running me out when I'm feeling in the form of my life and an 85-year-old has just come on to bowl.

No, the problem is that when it comes to everything surrounding recreational activities, sensible, intelligent, capable adults regress to infanthood. They appreciate the effort that goes into making games happen, oh really, they do, it's just that they're buggered if they're going to do anything to help the process.

They need you to help them sort out a hotel room for tour because they can't find anywhere online. They can't turn up to the ground on time. They forget to write match reports. They 'don't know how to score'.They forget to declare their availability and get miffed when they're left out of the team (classic, that one). They can't look after the kit for a weekend because it smells and their girlfriend won't let them have it in the house. They want to bat because they didn't get to bat last week, but they don't want to open. But they don't want to go at six either, because that's too low. They can't believe you took them off when they were just finding their rhythm (and had gone for 38 from two overs). When I captained my college side half the cunts would hide under the square covers at the exact moment I was looking for someone to umpire.

It's not surprising, I suppose - they work hard all week, their lives are increasingly consumed by domestic chafe, and the cricket is just there to get them away from all that. Those of us who realise that without the drudgery there is no cricket become increasingly bitter. The very notion of a game taking place at all becomes a gigantic pain in the arse. You end the season disillusioned, hating everyone around you and on the very cusp of ramming a stump through someone's eye socket.

Perhaps I'm just pissed off because I've received my first utterly hapless email of the season. But the middle of April, for Christ's sake.

That Guy

You know That Guy. You can't bowl to That Guy. He makes 150 in a 35 over game, and doesn't once play and miss. You bowl line and length with long on and long off out and he just keeps clearing them. You give him any width and it pings through the covers like a tracer bullet. He's usually a massive bugger as well, That Guy, so he never hits it in the air because he's always on top of the bounce. Every so often you get the line and length absolutely spot on, and That Guy pats it back down the pitch to you, which feels quite patronising because you know he could hit you for another massive six if he really wanted, he just wants to show he appreciates your efforts. The massive twat.

Everyone hates bowling at That Guy.

I've come up against That Guy eight times. Three times, That Guy would go on to play for England, which gives me a better ratio than most Crap Cricketers in the claim-to-fame stakes. It's the other five times that interest me. Those five players, I and mutual acquaintances agree, were as good as if not better than the three players who ended up international superstars. What happened? Injury and the decision to try and be pro at other sports accounted for three of them. I don't actually know what happened to one of them. But I know what happened to the other one, who was called Mike.

Mike played for my club. He was absolutely fucking a-maz-ing. I remain utterly convinced he's the best batsman I've ever bowled to, better than a guy who now averages plenty in Tests. Former tormentor of every school attack in the area, he averaged 100+ in the top league he could play where all sorts of county seconds and ex-pros are knocking around. Scored loads of runs for our County's Second XI. Finally the day came when he'd make his debut for the county. With bated breath, our team are sitting around Ceefax in the club house to see how he gets on. The scorecard comes up, and we're all rather puzzled. Mike's been put in the order at number eight.

Now, I'd had a lot of net sessions with Mike. I loved bowling at him, and would beg him for another ten minutes every time the session was over - you got the thrill of bowling at an amazing batsman without the pang of guilt that comes from watching your team mates have to retrieve the ball from a hedgerow several miles away. The challenge was considerable. My stock ball, assuming I landed it on a perfect line and length, would go for four, more often than not.

If I didn't want to get hit for four, I had to vary every delivery - take some pace off, add some pace on, cut it, try and swing it against my usual direction. Then only half of them would go for four. Partly this was due to me being somewhat pedestrian compared to most bowlers he faced, and partly it was due to the fact that it was just how he batted, whoever he was facing. It meant I used to get him out every now and again. A typical Crap Cricketer/Mike net session would probably see Mike dismissed for about 75, made off something like 20 balls. Yes, fuck off. I'd take a first class bowling average of 75, even if it is coming at an economy rate of 20 an over. Back in the 90s it probably would have got me into the England ODI side.

An amazing batsman. But a bowler? Well, he was big and strong and had a nice action, but even this Crap Cricketer didn't find him unplayable. It was very good, good enough that he could play for the club as a bowler had he been unable to bat, but it was quite clearly a hobby. The problem was that our county, at the time, had a lot of good batsmen. Mike was in direct competition for a place with someone who'd just been discarded by England. What it needed was an all-rounder. And that's what Mike had been instructed to become.

But the way you make your name in the professional game is usually through One Day cricket. It's rather hard to do that as a batsman from number eight. Mike tried as hard as he could with his bowling, but it just wasn't good enough. On the rare occasions he did get to play a four day game - as a batsman - there was so much pressure (he was only ever in the side through injury) that he became a totally different player. Suddenly he was playing with caution, and he wasn't getting many runs. It was tortuous for all of us at the club. I should have mentioned he was also a lovely bloke - always full of encouragement for every player, however hopeless they might be.

One glorious day at the end of a season (pressure off) he struck 150 against Middlesex, I think. This was the inevitable breakthrough, we all assumed. But the next year there he was again, drifting around 7 or 8 in the order and being relied on to bowl eight not-very-effective overs on a Sunday. Finally, the county discarded him.

Ultimately, of course, it's Mike's fault he didn't succeed. But professional sport is a business. The county is paying you for a service it requires. An all-rounder made economic sense. Another good batsman didn't. Behind the success stories there are all sorts of nasty little tales like this - people who've given up everything in pursuit of a career, who in a different time and place would easily have made it. So next time That Guy smashes you for six, don't get bitter. Nor when he does it the next time. After all, you've always got a chance.

Council misery pt 1, or how crap cricket makes you right wing

A few years ago, we found a nice plot of land in North London. The council offered games on it via their website, so we booked them. We weren't expecting a great pitch - we're bad at cricket, and don't need one -just something vaguely even would do the job.

Upon arriving at the ground we found that we'd basically been offered a section of the outfield, slightly mown and with crease lines painted on it. A furious letter to the council followed.

At the next game, we arrived to find a 22-yard strip on the outfield had been shorn of all grass, leaving a section of hard soil upon which to play. Needless to say it disintegrated after about an over. More furious communication and threats to leave. This time, lots of energetic noises about putting more effort into the upkeep. Such noises continued every week. Every week we arrived at the ground to find a different style of minefield. Sometimes there was no grass. Sometimes the grass had mysteriously reappeared, replete with daisies and weeds in the middle.

After several months of this kind of thing we finally got the truth out of a local resident: the groundsman wasn't a groundsman at all, he was a gardener, whose primary job was tending to the hedgerows and flowers, before the council decided to offer sports at the ground. He didn't know anything about cricket, nor what constituted a wicket. He just thought the grass had to be short. What was all the fuss about?

We approached the council with an offer. It was pretty simple. We were paying next to nothing for the ground, but we were receiving next to nothing in return. It was clear the "groundsman" had no idea what he was doing, so we'd get in someone who did to do the initial work, which we could pay for. After that we'd tend to it ourselves, sending someone from the club up to use the roller from a nearby bowling green once a week or so. At the lowest level of cricket the tiniest bit of upkeep will do. Springfield Park in Hackney is a pretty bad wicket, but people are still happy to play there. London Fields has had enormous effort put into it by the local club - it's taken them a few years, but it's starting to become a very good pitch.

We were offering:

- 15 to 20 guaranteed games from us, the possibility to rent the ground out for 15 to 20 more and (assuming the pitch was vaguely serviceable) all at a ballpark cost of £85-£90 a time. This, rather than offering it at £65 a time but no one actually using it. We'd already found one local club who promised at least 10 bookings if the pitch was improved.
- Opportunity for DCMS funding - which can run into the tens of thousands - because kids from above local club could use the facilities. Hell, some of us would even be prepared to get coaching qualifications and help out (those who can't, teach).
- £50 a time for the park community group who run the pavilion and would be catering for us.
- It was going to be our ground, so as such the first place we'd look to spend any profits from our club would be on upkeep.
- In return, the council had to do...well, nothing, other than give assent.

I'm not a businessman. But I can't help but think a private landowner would have gone for it.

The only demand was that this had to happen vaguely quickly: the quality of our cricket matches was rapidly deteriorating. Our top batsman for the season averaged 23. Needless to say, it didn't get past first base. I could go into details of the Kafkaesque hell of trying to find out what had happened to our offer, who was considering it, why it was nominally turned down, the real reason why it was turned down, and on and on, but I'm thinking the post is tedious enough.

The council obfuscated, ummed and ahhed and finally filibustered our efforts into oblivion. Using a roller had safety implications (but not attempting to bat on an outfield). The "groundsman" would be offended if we took his new job off him (he'd actually have been over the moon). On and on it went, until midway through the next season we gave up. The venue remains unused by cricketers.

I'm not a slash-and-burn Tory, I'm really not. But a year and a half of this shit, of being completely strung along, can do strange things to you. No one in the council thought it was a bad idea. They just didn't want to be responsible for it. It was made worse at a personal level by the fact that our club's decision to give this place a go was largely lead by me. Dozens of people trying to make the best of a terrible, terrible pitch, and every week you're conscious it's your fault.

The problem isn't with individuals - it's with the system. But that system is the responsibility of individuals. If you make it a bureaucratic nightmare to get things done, and you take away any real financial incentive, then guess what? They don't get done.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Dear Danny Morrison

Dear Danny Morrison,

Richie Benaud is regarded as the greatest commentator of all time. In terms of cricketing vocabulary, "Benaud" and "doyenne" go together as surely as "Collingwood" and "nuggety", "McGrath and "metronomic". What Benaud realised was simple: less is more.

Here are some things Benaud might have said after witnessing a six or, as you insist on calling it, a "DLF Maximum":

- (long pause, to allow the viewer to grasp the majesty of the shot). "No need to chase that."
- (long pause, to ") "I don't think he's moved the fielder far enough out."

Here are some things Benaud wouldn't have said:

- (In the style of a World Wrestling Commentator describing the People's Elbow) "SEHWAG! With the big DLF!!!"

Now I know part of this is the format of what you're describing. It's not supposed to be like Test Cricket. We get that. But really Danny, of all the evils IPL has introduced to the world - the lingering footage of vehicles, the awkward pitch side interviews - you're certainly the worst.

Yours, completely addicted to the IPL and hating myself with every (censored for fear of granting the bastards any more fucking publicity) Moment of Success,

The Crap Cricketer