Thursday, 30 June 2011

Seven of the best: Grounds

1. John Paul Getty Ground, Wormsley

As the website says: "A red telephone box sits next to the thatched pavilion, overlooking the immaculate field of play and the sloping Chiltern Hills beyond. Red Kites wheel overhead, floating on the air currents while the game unfolds below." I might - might - just get to play there this season. Fingers crossed.

2. Valley of the Rocks, Devon

North Devon has it all. I really think our club has to look into touring here. Nearby there are sandy beaches - this one, in fact, and rolling moors aplenty.

3. Threlkeld CC, Cumbria

Stunning Lake District venue.

4. Patterdale, Cumbria

Annoyingly I can't find a picture of the ground that's usable, but I drove past it earlier this year. It's down there, somewhere. Trust me - it's beautiful.

5. Keevil Manor, Somerset

I'll do a proper post on this at some point. I love the place. Despite the fact that in 6 years I average 9 here, with a top score of 14. The local cider may be a factor.

6. Himachal Prasad, Himalayas

Next year, maybe.

7. Broad Half Penny Down, Hampshire

I used to play here all the time as a kid. There was something inspiring about it even aged 13 - even though we didn't really know the ins and outs of all the history. The pitch was lightning fast, and I always found the ball swung miles too. I used to take quite a lot of wickets. The grass was always verdant so it would hoop around throughout the innings. I think the altitude might also have a part to play.

It was, of course, the home of the best team in the country, back in these days:

And it's still an inexplicably strong area for cricket, with Havant (home of all sorts of ex- and almost-Hants players over the years) and St Cross (home of Chris Tremlett among others) not far away - turns out my school has just made the national T20 finals at Lord's, and quite a few of this year's squad play their club games here.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

26/6/11 - South Park, Fulham

Guess I'm only doing this entry for the sense of completion. It was just a little intra-team game in Fulham among the Old vs Young of my main club. Arrived after a stag do in Cardiff the night before. Managed about 3 hours' sleep (for some reason booze always wakes me up early, and we were in bed by 3.30 and had to leave at 8.30 to make the game), followed by a car journey that took nigh on four hours.

On top of that it looks rather like I'm going to be out of a job soon, which is getting me down. As a sometime-journalist periods of unemployment should be water off a duck's back by now, but I actually quite like this job and the people, not to mention getting my first decent salary in a couple of years. I just can't face going back to freelance writing, getting treated like a piece of shit by commissioning editors and waiting two months to be paid. It's not exactly a booming industry. You may as well be plying your trade as a fucking blacksmith.

The whole event was pissing me off, to be honest. Everyone seemed to be really enjoying themselves but I wasn't, mostly because I wish this had been the team I'd joined six years ago rather than the one I did, with all the bullshit and politicking that went on before we ended up at this stage. It's a bit pathetic to still be bitter about it. Most of the time I'm not, but when you're feeling down you tend to see everything through a set of Morrissey-shaped glasses, I guess. Anyway - this is supposed to be a blog about being a crap cricketer, and it would be remiss not to discuss the politics of crap cricket, so intricate are they in comparison to any other form of the game.

When I moved to London the first team I joined was a semi-famous friendly team which had been born of a horrific, personal and malicious split within another team. Half that team wanted more 'proper' cricket, the other half didn't want to take it quite so seriously. There were two camps, broadly based around two individuals, who had been friends since school. A while after the split, one of the individuals contracted a terminal illness, and while he was dying he told the other he never wanted to speak to him ever again. It was so sad, and so unnecessary.

Meanwhile this team - my second - had been terrible but started to get better players, who it seemed clear had different needs to some of the founders. What I could see coming - and perhaps I was unduly worried - was exactly the same situation as at the first club. To cater for both I felt we needed a variety of standards of opposition and a variety of venues - our little pub league was fine when the team started (as a largely local East London ex-uni gathering) but not once it became a proper club. I felt I'd learned from the experience with that first team - I was convinced that with careful management of fixtures there was no need for people to feel ostracised and that in cricket you can actually afford to play a truly mixed-ability side in a way you can't in other sports.

I thought what had gone wrong in the other team was simply the management. I hope I was right, and what we now offer appeals to everyone. I think - well, I really hope - it's spirit that binds us, not ability. If what we have now does work for us, the reasons are probably more complicated than that - we're blessed with some terrific characters; nearly all of them humble and keen to keep learning, whatever their ability. Perhaps the other team weren't.

Whatever. There were so many arguments that for a long time it hardly seemed worth it. I really wanted to captain the side and didn't get it, as far as I can tell due to all the disagreements, and the next season I went from being easily our best batsman to averaging about 20 while we played on a terrible pitch that was supposedly a compromise between the two camps - pro and anti reformers, if such grandiose labels can be applied. Situation not helped by the council, either. A bit like today, half the time I was going out to bat just wanting to be at home

I can tell when I'm depressed, because it's the only time I really don't enjoy cricket. Felt like it back then in 2008, felt like it today. Bowling, in particular, drives me up the wall. The pitch, thank God, had been rained on overnight, which took all the sting out of it but made anything other than spin pretty innocuous. There was movement and uneven bounce, but it was happening very slowly. Had there not been rain, it would probably have been dangerous. I'm amazed by the inability of pretty much every single council in the country to provide a decent track. I know cricket pitches require work, but if you can't prepare them then don't offer them out at £85 a time. It's another ground we won't ever use again.

Anyway, slow, crap pitch, and because I was very tired, slow, crap bowling that got the pasting it deserved. I also dropped two eminently makeable catches. I'd been bubbling up all afternoon and after one of the guys down the order played and missed I gave him an earful for no reason whatsoever. Then I batted, got bored after three overs and spannered one straight up in the air, which was probably a blessing. Went straight home and tried to apply for jobs, nearly broke down in tears, gave up and was in bed by 9pm. Forgot to take a photo. Probably the worst I've ever played since, well, about 2008.

Fear not, the next update will be much more cheery, I'm sure....

Update - just received this email from my other club, which cheered me greatly....

Hi CC,

Just wanted to say what a brilliant fixture XXXXX is and thank you for being instrumental in setting this up. Firstly the pub is wonderful, the cask ale and beef off the bone platter is phenomenal.  Having grown up in the city I'm annoyed I never discovered this gem.  The ground is bucolic.  Admittedly the weather was sublime and this always helps, sitting under a huge tree in the shade I enjoyed the sight of the late afternoon sun beaming through the leaves. The wicket wasn't great, but you can't have everything. The two sides I thought were roughly well balanced and we secured a plucky draw. I really want to play them again.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Cricket in Croatia

I always find it fascinating how countries react to the fall of Communism. Once Prada rather than Pravda is in the ascendant, they seem to go a little crazy. Croatia is a case in point – the city of Split has allowed seemingly every designer brand under the sun to set up boutiques within the walls of a Roman palace.

Anyone who’s seen the Golden Arches in Moscow might wonder at the irony, but the incongruity there seems, if anything, less pronounced. Funnily enough, cricket’s now a part of this capitalist revival.

On Mr & Mrs CC’s tour of the Dalmatian coast we stopped by the island of Vis. Where they play cricket. CC wanted to rent a scooter and visit the pitch, but Mrs CC said the beach was a better option, and to be fair she probably had a point:

Not to mention the Blue Cave - worth a visit:

Vis, a little like another of the islands, Mljet, remains largely untouched by mass tourism. For years under communism there was none, and it's fair to say the island hasn't grasped its possibilities in the way others - Hvar for example - have. This is largely a good thing. Anyway, the Croatians as a people aren't natural hosts. Break through the blunt veneer and they're as warm and fun as anyone else, but they have little time for the predominance that other races (us, for a start) place on superficial deportment and manners.

CC: Can we sit at this table?
Waiter: No. It's reserved. You can sit on this wall.
CC: I don't think that would be very comfortable.
Waiter: Ok.

Over and over again. It's just funny in the end.

But the story of cricket on the island is pretty fascinating. It goes back to 1810, when Sir William Hoste included this line in his diary: ‘…we have established a cricket pitch at this wretched place and when we do get anchored for a few hours, it passes away an hour very well.’ Hoste was a navyman who served under Nelson – part of his fleet at the Battle of the Nile. By 1805 the defeat of the Russian and Austrian armies left Britain and Ireland alone at war with Napoleon – Bonaparte’s embargo on trading with Britain lead to the Royal Navy blockading Mediterranean ports and seizing merchant vessels. Vis (then Lissa), was Hoste’s base for these endeavours.

And the Vis team today is, in honour of him, Kriket Klub Sir William Hoste.

Vis was later used as a hiding place by General Tito during his struggle against the Ustase – the Nationalist Party the ruled the country and was essentially an off-shoot of the Nazis. It was inevitable that Croatia would go down this road during the Second World War. The dominant influence on the Dalmatian coast has always been Italian (Roman, then Venetian in the 14th and 15th Centuries), and it was an Italian mob that summarily executed some islanders in 1942 for the theft of small arms. Later, the British used the island as a strategic base, and their war dead are memorialized on a marble plaque in the churchyard:


Tito was successful in his struggle, and when in the 90s the country sought a break from Communist Yugoslavia after his death, it’s no wonder that those they were fighting – largely Serbs – saw echoes of the Ustase (who had victimized them terribly) in the resistance. It wasn’t helped by a hard-line nationalist leader who was happy to use such rhetoric: the national flag, given such a history, carried ominous intimations. And many couldn’t help but comment on the fact that the first country to recognize Croatian independence in the EU was….well, Germany.

Of course, such fears were misplaced. Croatia simply wished to be a modern nation. And some of those involved in Kriket Klub Sir William Hoste had actually come back to fight ‘for our country’. Once the war ended, the club was just another way of bringing money into the island. And the idea was actually sown in their minds – I had no idea this was the case – by the leader of the St Radegund cricket team in Cambridge, who I play once a year. The Rad were actually the second team to play Sir William Hoste’s XI, a game they won (though the scorebook was incorrectly added up, and they were actually short of William Hoste’s total when the players shook hands).

The local press reported the match:

'At the field of the Samogor complex on Vis, in front of about a hundred spectators, the second international cricket match…took place. The English won by a single point, 99 to 98' (The Rad actually won by several wickets).

There’s certainly some talent among the Vis lot though – not 12 months after setting up the team, two of their players represented Croatia in an international tournament.

History has a funny way of feeding into itself. A few months ago I happened to walk past a square where a game had been going on hours earlier, and remarked how odd it was that while the place remained the same, all the emotion and drama had melted away. For Croatia, see that writ large. A few miles away and barely twenty years ago, Dubrovnik was being bombed to fuck by Yugoslavian forces. There was no water. Former hoteliers armed with AK47s desperately held out in the fort above the town against troops with all manner of bombs and mortars.

The ITN footage on view at a local museum is stunning. It's not quite the era of iPods and WiFi in cocktail bars, when this sort of thing just doesn't happen in civilised countries, damn it, but it isn't far off. September 11th rather pushed the Balkans (and Grozny) into history in terms of modern conflict. Now Dubrovnik's a bustling tourist attraction:

Or if you prefer:

As if death and destruction never paid a visit at all. But in these heaving streets full of people meandering around, shopping and eating ice creams were sown some of the seeds of Britain's involvement in the Libya conflict. Monsters like Arkan and Mladic were born of unfettered nationalism and a confused, self-interested international response. As P.J. O'Rourke put it: 'Where were we when Clinton was dithering over the massacres in Kosovo and decided, at last, to send Kosovan Serbs a message: Mess with the United States and we'll wait six months then bomb the country next to you'. It's hard to say how much David Cameron's experience during those years influenced his policy to take the lead on such world events - though commentators claim it's considerable. Even Britain's endeavours in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't put him off.

Vis didn't see such action - on nearby Mljet our hotelier told us his brother lead a garrison of 20 troops, who could have been called into action against the 70 Yugoslav troops. A terrifying little game of cat and mouse could have ensued - fortunately for them, it never happened. But the cricket on the island, an improbable echo of the games that took place 200 years earlier, was born of the fall-out from that war. Andy Bull has been writing recently on how sport and politics can't be separated. He's not wrong.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

In praise of Twirlymen

‘I cannot approve of his recommending a young player to give a twist to his balls, for in the first place, there are a hundred chances against his accomplishing the art and ten hundred in favour of the practice spoiling his bowling altogether. John Nyren, Captain of Hambledon, some time in the 1770s.

Chortle. I do love old bits of cricket writing. Amol Rajan’s new book is full of little gems like this. It’s such a lovingly-compiled work. I savoured every page. That said, he’s preaching to the converted. To my mind there’s no better sight in cricket than a really good spinner, and no more enjoyable challenge for a batsman than facing one. 

It’s very rare, in England, that you get the opportunity. As Rajan makes clear, a combination of conditions (green tracks at most levels) and culture (even in the era of Swann and Panesar, spin is primarily seen as a defensive weapon by captains – Sean Udal said in an interview his first job was to make sure he didn’t go for runs and thereby just got to stay on) means that we are prone to producing flat, nagging John Embureys and Ashley Gileses, and at club level even less-adventurous clones. Much the same could be said of South Africa, of course, but why is it that Australia should have produced Benaud, Taylor, Warne and MacGill, while in a similar climate the best to come out was Pat Symcox and, for a brief while, Paul Adams? Conditions (slightly different soils, Benaud suggests) and more importantly culture.

It’s on this subject of culture that Rajan is at his best. He’s an assiduous historian of the game, but he’s a terrific cricket writer too: ‘What sort of a person spins things obsessively? What sort of a person wants nothing more, on seeing a sphere small enough to fit into one’s palm, than to send it twenty-two yards while making it fizz and twirl and spit and zip? Who chooses to immerse himself in a culture and a competition wherein the route to the prize is circuitous rather than direct? Only someone with a playful and excitable imagination. It’s impossible to devote time to spinning if you think of creativity as a chore…Deception requires imagination, but it also necessitates empathy, the ability to inhabit the mind of the batsman, and so calculate what he would least expect at any given moment.’

But spinning also requires stamina. It's no easy job. Never mind the doosra – newspapers of the 1930s declared the invention of the googly an abomination, just as the very idea you give the ball a ‘twist’ had been so abhorred by Nyren (though he was also fascinated by it). Many legal and cultural changes, it seems, have made their lives harder. They changed the rules so you couldn’t be out if it pitched outside leg (and fair enough, but how that must have changed the rules of engagement). They changed the rules so you couldn’t set a leg side trap with three behind square (I think it should be allowed for spinners). The bats got bigger, the boundaries smaller. Almost all spinners, it seems, go through their barren stage before they can step out into the light – Swann for years, Panesar now – even Warne wasn’t an unmitigated success at first. 

It’s why spinners often support each other. There’s a club. I particularly love this description of Warne: "'One of the most interesting nights of my life was at Abdul Qadir’s house when we sat on the floor and flipped an orange to each other with different grips and different forms of spin and discussed tactics and how to sum up batsmen". It’s a wonderful image: two spin-bowling greats, sitting on the floor in the sweltering heat of a Pakistan evening, needing nothing more than an orange to stimulate the sort of conversation that others would pay vast sums to hear, and each approaching the other with humility, knowing the thing about cricket, and especially about spin, is that you never stop learning.’

And this too: ‘Perhaps the most moving image is that of Sydney Barnes, the most complete of bowlers, and by then a dyspeptic old man, leading a blind Wilfred Rhodes – the greatest master of flight – around Lord’s in his ninety fifth year, Barnes acting as Rhodes’s eyes and ears.’

Spinners also require propaganda, however good they are. Warne boasted of having sixteen different deliveries ahead of an Ashes series. He claimed to dismiss Ian Bell with a perfect slider, when in fact it was just a leg break that didn’t grip. Saqlain Mushtaq, despite being the first to have really mastered the ‘doosra’, put it around that he had the ‘teesra’, which looked like a doosra but was in fact an off break. It was rubbish. And I love Rajan’s analysis of Ajantha Mendis’ claim to have developed a ‘new ball’ – ‘It contained a threat, not despite but because it was so utterly devoid of specifics.’ 

Beyond all this, the book is extremely good on the technical side - Rajan just missed out on a county spot as a kid. He may write, as he puts it, as an amateur, but I suspect he’s no mean practitioner himself. To analyse technique as he does you really have to be able to play a bit. One attribute of spin of which many commentators neglect is the fact that it’s a contest in three dimensions. You don’t just beat the batsman laterally – you have to beat him in the flight. You often hear crap club cricketers say things like ‘if you faced a Test spinner he’d be quicker than most of the seamers we face.’

It’s absolute nonsense and it does their skill a disservice. Most professional spinners might pack a devastating quicker ball, but without the capacity to deceive the batsman while bowling slowly they’d be no good. And that’s often reliant on degrees of over spin (if you want to make it dip quickly) or on a variation that gives the impression of overspin (Rajan’s particularly good on the development of the flipper - on how the thumb is surprisingly under-deployed in bowling, how the likes of W.G Grace made use of a similar delivery, and on how it might be the delivery which undergoes the next great revival). 

Rajan’s at his most magisterial on Warne – I suppose he had to be – in particular the comparison of him and MacGill is stunning. MacGill, he argues, had a huge-spinning leg-break, bigger than Warne’s, had a better-disguised googly (in fact Warne hardly had one at all), and could extract his turn more quickly through the air. On paper, MacGill held the aces. But what made Warne a better bowler was his relentless accuracy and ability to vary the overspin and sidespin so that the contest between bat and ball wasn’t just taking place on a lateral plane. Warne’s was a triumph of orthodoxy, not innovation. That’s probably why most cricketers, in their hearts, prefer him to Murali.

In a similar regard, he's brilliant on Jim Laker's haul at Old Trafford. He analyses Laker in large part by looking at the spinner at the other end, Tony Lock. Lock, a difficult character, left the field humiliated - on a turning pitch he'd managed one wicket to Laker's 19. It embodies their careers - the pair never got on, and it mostly appears to have been because Lock was always in Laker's shadow. The harder he tried to take a wicket, the less likely it was he'd take one. But the easier he made Laker's job.

What really makes the book is the research. As a cricket gimp I’d heard quite a few of the more well-known tales in here, but even so they were well worth revisiting, That said, every now and again I’d come across a little nugget that had me shaking my head. There is something in the spinner’s character, I think, which means that so many of these stories seem to end in tragedy, or in a calamitous falling out with the authorities, or with any number of other misdemeanours. I loved the little details - tiny things like:

- Don Bradman claimed to be more fearful of Headley Verity during Bodyline, and in fact it was Verity that topped the averages.

- Sonny Ramadhin moved to America in retirement, fostering scores of children and giving them a better life. 

- Clarrie Grimmett was well into his thirties when he moved to Prahran, put down a turf mat and practiced spinning the ball in his back yard, having trained his fox terrier to retrieve the balls six at a time.

- Richie Benaud would have had to stop bowling had he not paid for something in a chemist’s with his right hand (I shan’t go into details). 

It’s just a fantastic piece of work. Thank you, Mr Rajan.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

A bit more Afghanistan cricket

Still on holiday, but just to tide you over (and how I know you're all gagging for more), I got given the book of Out of the Ashes to review a while back. Some interesting stuff in there, even if you've seen the film.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

11/06/11 - St Aloysius Ground, London

Just a quickie. Played my second game of league this season having been roped in again. Rather wonderful ground hidden away up in Crouch End, which I had no idea existed, despite having played at least a few games a season up there for the best part of a decade . Great news for my main side as apparently it's available for bookings and we're after a decent pitch. I don't think many people know about it - it's a flat track and relatively attractive.

This one went rather better than the first league game - from a personal point of view anyway - last man out for 43 in a total of 134. I came in at number four but we had some kids down the order who didn't manage to stick around, though I did my best to farm the strike.

Great track but no covers, so overnight rain turned it into a classic Victorian 'sticky', which meant the opposition got their spinners on as soon as possible. It turned a long way, if slowly. In response I donned a long-sleeved shirt and preposterous Village cap, which inspired me to play Ranjitsinhjiesque leg glances and Comptonesque sweeps against them. Well, I thought they were anyway.

When bowling I did my best Sydney Barnes impression and trotted in to bowl cutters mixed with some gentle swing. It didn't get me a wicket, partly because I didn't get enough on the sticks and partly because our keeper was terrible - you really need a good one if you're bowling that style. They got them for three down - though we had to bowl all of our kids and some of them were very young.

In keeping with the retro theme of the match I tried out a new app for my phone camera which makes old-style photos - I think this one looks pretty cool:

Also found some old photos lying around the club house - here's one of the local teams from 1932, which for some bizarre reason this programme won't let me post horizontally.

So we're half way through the season and as predicted the Bradman-style start hasn't been maintained. It's a bit of a guesstimate but I make it 299 runs so far at 38, which is alright given I've been last man out twice so could have had a couple of not outs had I not been slogging. The bowling I've no idea, but I've only really been collared in one game.

Anyway, this blog's probably going on hiatus for a couple of weeks as off to Croatia on holiday, but there are cricketing things to be seen and done out there so if Mrs CC gives me some time off I might be able to update. Hope everyone's enjoying the diary so far.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Nearly Men #s 6 and 7

In 1995 Alan Wells was a man on top of his game. He had played for Sussex for 14 years and was adored by the fans, seemingly every season being mentioned as a possible England call-up, and seemingly every season just not quite doing enough. I reckon he'd have been a hero, had he played long enough. He was a dashing thumper of medium pacers, with something of Graham Gooch about his uncomplicated technique. The straight, full ball wasn't a potential wicket-taking delivery: it was in the slot and prone to going back over the bowler's head. Had he got in the team, his Herculean folds of hair would probably have meant he had the housewives' favourite role sewn up. He was the old head captain of the successful England A Tour to India, where the team remained unbeaten. 

Finally, with England wishing to strengthen their batting, he got his call up at number 6 for the final Test of the series against the West Indies. This was something of a tradition of the time - a one-off chance for someone to prove themselves, and then get on the plane for the Winter tour.

Do you think people might struggle to perform under that pressure? 14 years of graft, of consistency, of making the right noises when asked about his England prospects, and it all came down to one chance (it was a flat pitch - England barely had a second innings) I remember sitting around and watching this, rooting for him, thinking about how nervous he must have felt, and Curtley Ambrose raced in.....and this happened.

Thing is, a good score might not have done him any good at that time. In 1994 Joey Benjamin played the last Test of the Summer, taking 4-45 against South Africa (a performance much overshadowed by Malcolm's 9-57 in the second innings, such that it's not to be found on YouTube). It got him a place on the plane to Australia, where despite numerous injuries, he carried drinks for the whole tour.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Home of Cricket

An early finish to my working day afforded me a trip to Lord's for the last day of the Test. As I sat there, taking in the surroundings, watching the game peter out to an amiable conclusion, a thought occurred to me - how many people here really know about the ground within which they're sitting? 'Lord's' and 'history', 'heritage' and other such terms seem inextricable, yet most of us fans pay the terms lip service only. Even the Wikipedia entry on the ground is remarkably sparse. To quote C.L.R - what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

First, you'll have noticed it's 'Lord's' - not 'Lords'' - a more common mistake than you might think. And you'll probably know that this refers to Thomas Lord. But who was he? Well, we should actually start our story with someone else - George Finch, the Earl of Winchilsea. This chap:

Winchelsea was a very keen cricketer. Having taken up the game aged 32, he played wherever he could and was no mean player. Apparently, he used a 4lb bat. He was a member of the Hambledon club - a sort of cricketing Harlem Globetrotters of its day (a mix of aristocrats and some hired professionals) and more crucially the White Conduit Club. This was located in Islington (which at the time was a village) and was born of earlier gentlemen's clubs. 

It was a revolutionary time. The French were chopping aristocratic heads off left, right and centre, and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was selling like hot cakes. White Conduit Fields was a lovely venue, but it was no good for the staging of 'great matches', which had evolved out of the scratch games played between rustics. In Winchelsea's time such games, largely played by aristocrats and hired professionals, attracted huge attention and were often played for the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds. 

White Conduit Fields wasn't the perfect setting, lacking any kind of fencing or entrances. It meant any prole could wander across the outfield and tell the players exactly what they thought of their game. Anyone who's played at London Fields and been told they're crap by a drunk tramp (I don't care if he had a point) would understand their desire for a bit of privacy.

Now into this mix comes Thomas Lord. 

He was an ambitious young provincial, who was looking for a way into the wine trade to help his family out of the poverty trap into which they'd fallen. He got a job at the White Conduit Club as a net bowler (he'd learned the game in Norfolk) and general jobsworth. Astutely matching the toffs' desire to control their spectators with his own desire for money, he leased a stretch of land in Marylebone from the Portman family estate with Winchelsea's financial backing. He got more money from Winchelsea's friend Charles Lennox, a wicketkeeper/bat who once shot the Duke of York, had fourteen children and died after a fox bit him. 

There was no problem with people watching - so long as they were the right sort of people, and prepared to pay an admission fee, which they were. In the pre-professional era - in the absence of names like Tendulkar or Bradman - the 'Earl of' or 'Duke of' generated an equivalent celebrity buzz. 

The ground could be - and was - hired out for all sorts of other purposes, like pigeon shooting, balloon hopping and even for a French hot air balloonist. In fact the cricket schedule was rather meagre. That said Eton and Harrow played each other for the first time in 1805, a game which was, it seems, organised by Lord Byron in his school holidays. He wrote: 'We were rather drunk and afterwards went to the Haymarket theatre and kicked up a row, as you may suppose.'

That's a painting of the place in 1851.

The first 'great match', the sort of which had previously taken place at the Artillery Ground (which we've already visited this season) took place in 1787. Lord was one of half a dozen esquires to leaven the mixture, according to Derek Birley. A year later, those involved in the White Conduit Club formed a mysterious 'Marylebone Club.' I think you can see where this is going. 

Actually, the early MCC was no kind of governing body at all. It got a lot of public interest, but only because there were so many aristocrats playing. In 1791 the MCC took on a challenge from Charles Churchill, a Marlborough family member garrisoned at Nottingham. The MCC vs Nottingham match garnered 10,000 spectators, it's said.

There were two major events in 1793: a single wicket match between Winchelsea and the Earl of Darnley, and war with France. It's a shame we don't play single wicket any more - the rules are simple. It's mano-a-mano cricket. You bowl to the batsman, who hits it. You do the fielding. He runs until you get back to the stumps. Flashman has a brilliant game in one of his books against a pirate. Lord's had a sixpenny charge, but it still suffered crowd troubles - cricket had gone from being a rustic pastime to a national sport. A crowd of 4-5,000 at the ground meant heavy gate receipts. Soon the make up of the MCC began to take on a slightly less aristocratic appearance.

By the 1810s things were pretty miserable across the country - a bad harvest, Luddite riots with magistrates bearing down on supposed Jacobins, and a war with France that didn't seem to have an end in sight. To cap it all, the lease had ended on Lord's ground. Lord now obtained a lease on two fields in Lissom Grove, but in 1813 Parliament requisitioned the land for the Regent's Canal, which was cut through the site. Lord uprooted the turf - literally - and took it to the current site in St John's Wood (the gesture apparently a bid to persuade the MCC to continue playing there). But he wasn't making enough money and requisitioned the ground to develop for housing.

I wonder how much this decision pained him. He had evidently fought tooth and nail to keep the ground alive. Hell, he was a player himself. I think he must have been in agony. Thank God, then, for this guy:

William Ward M.P., batsman (holder of the highest ever first class score till Grace overtook him), M.P, director of the Bank of England, and all round unsung hero and bloody good egg, who bought the ground off him. Commemorated in an anonymous poem:

        And of all who frequent the ground named after Lord,
        On the list first and foremost should stand Mr Ward.
        No man will deny, I am sure, when I say
        That he's without rival first bat of the day,
        And although he has grown a little too stout,
        Even Matthews is bothered at bowling him out.
        He's our life blood and soul in this noblest of games,
        And yet on our praises he's many more claims;
        No pride, although rich, condescending and free,
        And a well informed man and a city M.P.
And just as London got its cricket back, Napoleon found himself overstretched in Russia. Brick by brick, the ground grew, and continued to bear Lord's name.

And that's where we were sitting on Tuesday. So what do we take from the story? Well, you think Allen Stanford and Lalit Modi are anything new? What was William Lord if not a bright, entrepreneurial upstart, riding on the desires of an elite to profit from and control the public's experience of the game? Lord's may be redolent of aristocracy, history and privilege, but it was always a ground put in place by the people and for the people. And what about the seat-of-the pants survival of the game in the face of overwhelming financial pressures?  Seems all-too-familiar in an era when we may soon see our first county go bust.

Nothing new under the sun. As to the game, rather less to say. Sadly I missed windowgate though a little personal experience of the individual involved means I'm not too surprised. Strauss' reaction was a knowing shake of the head. Was very disappointed to see Jonathan Trott bowls 1.2mph faster than me. But then he did produce the ball of the day, so it wasn't all bad. Which I missed, because I was in the toilet. So maybe it was. His victim, Parav.... Piranha....the left handed opener, played some lovely drives. Finn looked easily the most threatening bowler live (if not when I watched the game on TV), so it's a bit disappointing he's surely for the chop. I don't have much else to say that hasn't been said by every other punter. Of course we should have scored quicker and declared earlier.

I only managed to get told off by the stewards twice - for talking on my mobile and trying to walk along the back of the stand during an over (even though the bowling was coming from the other end). Good. You can't go to Lord's and not get a bollocking from the stewards. I imagine the public in Thomas Lord's day were treated with even more disdain.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Greatest televised matches fest

So yesterday's OBO focussed on this. As I was the one who kicked things off in the first place I figured I could justify a spot of plagiarism and put the ones I hadn't seen before up here. So, in order and just because I want to have an afternoon watching them:

This gives new meaning to a 'sweep shot'. Lol!

Marvellous Richard Briers action.

Darling Buds of May.

One of the great cameos.

Mitchell and Webb.

Jeeves and Wooster.

Family Guy.

The Prisoner, would you believe.

And most unexpected: Vincent Price teaches cricket and The Cosby Show.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Those little friends of mine

Here's some very rare footage of them practising in the nets in 1950 - note the obligatory white captain. As the commentator says, they look good enough to give England a run for their money.

It was these two, Ramadhin and Valentine, that did the damage, giving rise to the calypso 'With those two little friends of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine.' In 1990 Arlott looked back at the tour and remembered:

Gradually during the tour two raw West Indian youngsters, both bowlers, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, had become acclimatised to English conditions. To call them surprise selections almost flattered them at the start of the tour. They had played two first-class matches apiece before they arrived in England, and their elder team-mates conceived it a duty to teach them to sign their autograph on board ship coming over. They were both slow bowlers and they celebrated their birthdays within three days of each other at the start of the tour. Ramadhin, 21, slight, a bare 5ft 4ins tall and of Indian extraction, was a right-arm spinner who, so observation confirmed, spun the ball rather as SF Barnes had done: turning his offspinner from the inside of the right forefinger; the legbreak, from the middle. Few - if any - though could read him and, from the outset, he proved something of a problem to English batsmen. 
Alf Valentine, 20, strongly built, with immense stamina, heavy-footed and rather ponderous, bowled rather mechanical slow left-arm. Jack Mercer of Glamorgan had coached him in West Indies and exhorted him to spin the ball as much as he could: he did so, yet retained a somewhat automatic length. Immediately before the first Test, which was to be played at Old Trafford, Valentine took 13 Lancashire wickets for 67 runs and assured himself of a Test place which, until then, was by no means certain. England, thanks mainly to an innings of 104 by wicketkeeper Godfrey Evans, well supported by a dogged Trevor Bailey (82 not out) won the match by 202 runs. Valentine, however, took 11 wickets and Ramadhin four. Thus their places were ensured for a quite unique Lord's Test. 

Which shots have we been playing this season?

The Reverse Moo
Where you're aiming: To farm a good length ball for six over mid wicket.
Where it goes: Usually for two, sometimes for four if you've really given it some, over backward point.

The Dil-pull
Where you're aiming: To caress the short ball through the leg side.
Where it goes: Millimetres past your face off the top edge, over the keeper and away for four.

The Inverted Cover Drive
Where you're aiming: Through the covers.
Where it goes: Screaming for four through mid on, which implies it came off the middle. I have no idea how this shot works, but having played it a couple of weeks ago, I can confirm it exists. Practise your on drive afterwards and no-one'll notice.

The Lofted Late Cut
Where you're aiming: Through gully on the off side.
Where it goes: About 10 ft over second slip's head. Apparently late cuts require timing, rather than a potentially shoulder-dislocating slash.

The Impossible Harrow Drive
Where you're aiming: Possibly somewhere through the off side, but you might be trying to dig a yorker out.
Where it goes: You're playing on a rubbish, crumbling council pitch. You're late on the shot, and the ball goes straight into the trench that's been dug on the popping crease and flies away at an improbable angle. My effort this season almost carried for a bump ball six, over the keeper's head.

The Utter Spanner
Where you're aiming: Possibly over the keeper, because you're playing a Dil-scoop, or through the off side with a reverse sweep.
Where it goes: Straight into your face. No one shows any sympathy, and nor should they. You twat.

Any more?

In praise of Stephen Davies

So I went to the Oval again on Thursday, this time to watch a T20 between Surrey and Gloucestershire. It was a pretty unremarkable game. Gloucestershire struggled to make 150, largely thanks to a lively spell from Dirk Nannes and a spell of such unremittingly tedious darts from Batty that I don't remember a ball of it, and Surrey were over the line with the best part of three overs to go. There was only one player who provided any real enjoyment for the watching fans, and that was Stephen Davies. He kept beautifully to some 80mph bowling, standing up to the stumps and even holding a nick, and then he hit the small matter of 92* from 55 balls.

Now left handed batsmen can broadly be grouped into one of two categories, due to the angle of delivery they usually face. You have your stodgers, who know where the off stump is, and let the ball go across them, and who also know where the line of leg stump is, and are wont to pick off anything that pitches outside it through the leg side. You know the sort - Katich, Chanderpaul, and Cook and Strauss to a lesser degree. Then you have your flowing stroke makers, who are prone to timing the length ball angled across them through the off side with a grace their right handed counterparts rarely seem able to match - your Laras, your Gowers, your Gangulys.

Davies, it's fair to say, fits firmly in the latter camp. He is some player to watch.

On Thursday night he had the crowd cooing with awe at some of his strokes through the off side. If the ball was full, it usually went through point with an open face at the point of delivery. A fraction shorter and it was punched through cover. Murali came on and went for 14 in his first over - a stunning clump over long on for six, and then, having had the stuffing knocked out of him and feeling the need to push it through, some terrific late cuts behind square. It was such an attractive innings.

I suppose we should mention the gay thing.

Cricket has been around a long time in England. The first payments by aristocrats to 'local experts' in the game from nearby villages in the game took place after the Restoration. In 1744, the first laws of cricket were written. Hambledon Cricket Club (a magical place I was fortunate to play a lot of games at as a child), was founded in the 1760s, and Lord's was opened in 1787.

About 250 years, then. Probably more. And in that time, there's only been one other gay professional cricketer, and he came out after retirement. Of course that's wrong. There have been plenty more than him.

In some ways I think we've underestimated how brave Davies was. Perhaps the fact it created less of a stir than one might expect was more of a reflection of society than cricket. But we should be proud, as cricket followers, that the other players and journalists respected his private life when he chose to keep his proclivities secret, and also provided an environment within which he felt was able to announce them to to the public.

In this and many other matters, sport, being an outlet for masculinity, lags somewhat behind the rest of society. The court of Blatter seems to resemble a 16th Century palace, and a gathering of England football fans seems to embody a mentality of about 300 years prior to that. A few years ago, Marcus Trescothick was so scared to announce that he was suffering from mental illness that he fluffed his (pre-prepared) lines during a Sky interview and said it was a virus, which made his situation a whole lot worse, creating endless speculation about what was really up with him. So three cheers for us, as cricket fans. He said he wanted to be remembered as a good cricketer, not a gay one, and I honestly think he will.

It's just a shame for him that we live in an era of infeasibly talented keeper-batsmen. There are few players in County Cricket I'd rather watch batting at present.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

I believe the term is 'Sledging Fail'

John Wright's Indian Summers

Again, it's another book I've wanted to read for years and (cheers Ek for the loan) now I finally have. It's fantastic.

What does a cricket coach actually do? Given that it's a game which is largely made up of individual performances, I guess you could be forgiven for expecting the coach's influence to be less influential than in rugby or football. But that barely, if at all, seems to be the case. For most English cricket followers the elaborate schemes of Fletcher and Vaughan are ingrained in our minds as much as any of Flintoff's performances in '05 - likewise, the former's pig-headedness is seen as having a significant role to play in our disastrous showing in '06. Wright points out that it might be the hardest coaching job in sport, because 'players need to be self-focused and motivated by individual goals in order to excel but also have to be able to put individual aspirations aside, pull their heads in and become good team herding cats.'

Even so, how hard can it be to coach a side containing Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly? 'Go out and bat,' is as far as you need to go, one might think. Wright's book puts that myth to bed. One of his first series in charge was the incredible 2001 home clash with Australia - you know, the one containing this ridiculously good innings:

281 following on - it turned the match, and the entire series, around. But Laxman was down to come in number six. It was Wright, having watched him bat with the tail in the first innings, who shifted him up to number three. It was also the series in which Harbhajhan Singh announced himself to the world. Wright it was who spotted him and, ignoring some (hardly unfair) comments on his temperament, put him in the team. He has some interesting methods when it comes to getting the most out of the team (disregarding grabbing Sehwag by the collar and screaming at him after he'd holed out) - it's a Socratic method, I guess. He prefers to ask questions rather than offer advice. If a player is falling over towards the leg side he asks them how they feel in terms of their balance. It's better, he feels, for them to work out their own technical problems and how to deal with them.

But it seems his job on the field was only the half of it. As he writes, he took over a dressing room containing Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. Some of them were very religious, some less so. India has 22 official languages, and on any other day there could be eight languages spoken in the dressing room. The match managers are appointed on an annual basis so that the people in power can reward an association that has voted for them. Wright had a Member of Parliament, a banker, a doctor, the owner of a trucking firm, a civil servant, a professor of chemistry and a fighter pilot - all with varying levels of competence. Some were dissolute drinkers and smokers happy to be on a jolly, others were devout religious men who were determined to do their best.

The administrative system is quite unlike any other. Take the selection panel: there are 27 first-class teams in India, divided into five zones - north, south, east and central - and every year, each of the zones elects a selector to the panel. So a selector's tenure depends on keeping the powers-that-be, in and around the five or six states in his zone, happy. That means they're pressured to get representation of the players from their zones. Coach and captain have no say. The selectors end up strenuously arguing the case for players with no chance of getting selected (and making sure that the debates are leaked to the press). Discussions over the last four spots in the squad can take hours.

If that sounds like a recipe for arguments and corruption, it's nothing on what goes on within each zone. Around a third of the players are token selections from weaker teams who otherwise wouldn't be represented. In Delhi, the key word is 'approach', i.e. connections to officials or selectors. The best comment Wright heard was when he asked a group of players whether a batsman was making runs in the Ranji trophy: 'One of the boys just looked at me and said: "John, does he need any?"'

It's a wonder that the cream rises to the top at all. But one of the most fascinating bits of the book is when he talks about the sacrifices that the players have made in order to represent their country. Sachin played cricket for 55 days in a row during his summer holidays. He'd have an innings at Shivaji Park, then jump on the back of a scooter for another game in south Mumbai, then back to Shivaji Park for a two and a half hour net, finishing at 7pm. When he started to flag, his coach would put a one rupee coin on the middle stump - if he was dismissed, the bowler got it. If not, he kept it. Mohammad Kaif left his home town at the age of 12 to live in a sports hostel in Kanpur, where he did his own washing. Yuvraj Singh was woken at 5am by a glass of water to the face, so that he could practise on the concrete wicket his father had erected in the backyard.

These players have worked so hard to get to where they have, but as Wright explains, they are under incredibly strong and conflicting pressures. The ridiculously lucrative advertising deals and air of celebrity build them up, the relentless and often savage media coverage knocks them down. There are ten 24-hour news channels, three in English and seven in Hindi. Cricket shows are aired in prime time. One that ran in Wright's last season was called Match Ka Mujrim - 'Villain of the match'. Regardless of how well or badly they'd played, four members of the Indian team were in the dock. Bishen Bedi was chief prosecutor.

This might all sound a little negative. It's not supposed to. What really comes out of Wright's book is a deep and abiding love for the country and its people. I'd better quote this passage in full:

India...engages all your senses, but behind the clamour and bustle and colour and crush of humanity, there's a peace and serenity I haven't encountered elsewhere...As a child I was often taught that patience is a virtue, but I didn't really understand the meaning of that saying until I went to India. I saw grace under pressure from people for whom everyday life is a struggle, if not an exercise in see much that is admirable and uplifting: the emphasis on family, the humility, the spirituality, the grace and dignity in face of hardship. These were people you wanted to shed blood to do well for and who deserved a team which shed blood, sweat and tears. Going to India is like coming home. It touches something in you, leaves a mark and you forget what it is until you come back...Wherever I am and whatever I do, it will be reaching out to me, drawing me back.