Sunday, 30 December 2012

On Warne, and another great spinner

Reviews of On Warne by Gideon Haigh and Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilika


So it came to pass that the greatest cricket writer of his generation tackled the greatest spin bowler of his generation. I expected a weighty tome - that it's a slim volume of 'essays' rather surprised me. How would Haigh tackle a life imbued with so many moments of shame, triumph, embarrassment, glory - not to mention the small matter of over 700 Test wickets - in so few pages?

He does so successfully. One section of the book which received heavy trailing, having been featured in the Times, is a masterful description of Warne's bowling action. Here is Warne at the start of the run up, flipping the ball from hand to hand – “languidly, voluptuously, like somebody feeling warm sand run through his fingers”. And sometimes it's the simple lines that work best: "There was a leg break, and then there was a leg break from Shane Warne."

This incredible section is really all we get to see of Warne in action on the field of play. There's hardly any mention of his batting and fielding. Haigh makes the oft-repeated point that Warne only had two balls - the leg break (with different degrees of overspin), and variations of a straight one (though fuck me if it felt like he had another 17 when bowling to Alec Stewart). He mentions the fact that Warne changed his style a little after the shoulder injury. But really, that's it. If you want a description of exactly how Warne operated on the field of play, you'd be better off turning to Amol Rajan's Twirlymen. A little later he discusses the moment when Warne talked his viewing audience through a wicket, but pauses only to make the point that as a piece of bowling, it's a fairly unremarkable trick.

He's right - if it was another bowler, it's unlikely that clip would have received half the coverage it has. That's why Haigh is probably right to dedicate most of his attention not to Warne the cricketer, but to Warne the man. And on this, he's predictably insightful. He posits Warne as a certain kind of Australian - the boy from the suburbs, perhaps never more at home than when guest-starring in Neighbours - and from this he begins to look at how Warne created himself - and sought confidence - by aligning with the likes of Ian Chappell and, of course, Terry Jenner.  He shows how he therefore could never have really got on with the likes of John Buchanan and Steve Waugh - because cricket came to him (through what was a very good development system) and not the other way around. Boot camps and uptight professionalism don't square easily with such a mindset.

Haigh's particularly good at spotting instances of the "Rashomon" effect -  whereby different players' autobiographies give somewhat varied impressions of different incidents. Ponting's decision to bowl at Edgbaston in 2005 either elicited some murmurs of disapproval or outright dressing room warfare, depending on whose autobiography you read. And he's even better on Warne in the context of his bowling partnerships - one with MacGill (Warne was always outbowled by him) and one with McGrath.

The only problem is that for all the intricate research and beautiful prose, there's a sense that when you scratch beneath it the book has nothing new to offer. Haigh is strong in defence of Warne's various scandals - particularly on how the ACB mishandled the approaches made by a bookmaker to him and Mark Waugh in 1994. But we kind of knew all that: the Barmy Army had a (by their standards) rather amusing song on the subject only a few years later. He's likewise strong on the hypocrisy of the media when it comes to Warne's adultery, but there's nothing new under the sun here either: public figures who are serial adulterers usually understand the price of the game they're playing. And while Haigh's good on Warne's cricket brain, pointing out (though again, he's not the first) that Warne predicted Gibbs' infamous 1999 World Cup dropped catch, he doesn't do enough on this. I rather wish he'd written about Warne's leadership of a young Rajasthan Royals side in the early days of the IPL. As cricket achievements go, it was something else, but barely gets a mention.

The weird thing is that for all these flaws, you come away from the book feeling you understand the man a great deal more than from any ghost-written autobiography. No interviews, no research beyond flicking through a few tomes that were sitting on his shelves - and yet the whole thing just works. I guess it's the power of good writing.

*



Speaking of spin bowlers, how well do you know Pradeep Mathew? What do you mean you don't? He's the greatest spinner who ever lived! Have a look at this website about him, for a start. Mathew could bowl equally well with either hand, and was possibly his country's best bowler whether bowling quick or slow. He did have 17 different deliveries, including a ball that pitched twice, and which spun both ways on each bounce. He once took 10-51 against New Zealand, but the record was disallowed due to the security situation at the ground. Among the batsmen to have been clean bowled by him were Border, Chappell, Crowe, Gatting, Gavaskar, Gower, Hadlee, Imran, Kapil, Lloyd and Miandad.

Of course, he didn't exist at all. He's the subject of Shehan Karunatilika's Chinaman, a novel about W.G Karunasena, an alcoholic, middle-aged hack who sees Mathew bowl a couple of times in the 1980s, is staggered by his talent, and then wonders why he's disappeared, never to be seen again.

The man may have been involved in match-fixing. He may have been forced out because he was the product of Tamil and Sinhalese parents. Who knows? W.G. is drawn deeper and deeper into his country's underworld as he attempts to get to the bottom of the mystery and, of course, Mathew's story becomes something of an objective correlative for his country's history. Just as the web link above might suggest, fact and fiction blur - we see Sri Lanka win the world cup in 1996, and we see all that hope soon betrayed. Meanwhile, the war to the north rumbles on in the background. 

It's a quite brilliant novel. The ending is, it must be said, rather trite. But the writing just prior to this conclusion, when W.G. defends his life and his obsession with fripperies like the game of cricket, is among the very best few pages of prose I've read in years.

And that goes of the whole book. Line-by-line it's moving, hilarious, and foreboding. By any measure it's a great piece of literature. For a first novel, it's simply incredible.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Sir Viv vs the forgotten demon

Othelloesque. What I love is that Viv is clearly struggling, clearly past his best - but his swagger's even more exaggerated - for once it really looks like he's desperate to show he's not scared. And you get this sense - just for a flash - that behind all the great innings there was a whole load of bullshit and bluster, that actually he was just as scared as everyone else. I love the little narratives the game produces.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

In praise of Hashim Amla


It's easier for batsman than fast bowlers to achieve a certain kind of legendary status. This status is hard to define, but you know the one I mean. It's the kind of reputation that seeps beyond our mere appraisal of the cricketer, and into our appraisal of the man.

Above all, of course, it's about ability. But there's so much beyond that; a wealth of attributes that make a player a "great". Did our athlete play in the right spirit? Did he show respect for his opponents, and for the spirit of the game? And: the indefinable. Was there something over and above the very good - a degree of artistry, a hint of magic? Often, it seems, this goes hand-in-hand with something else, something our cricketing tribe is blessed with - thoughtfulness. Political engagement. We're fortunate to have players intelligent enough to write and speak in such a way that they can calmly place their achievements in a broader, socio-political context. Men like Rahul Dravid and Mahela Jayawardene.

It's not that bowlers can't meet these criteria. Has there ever been a cricketer more attuned to the spirit of the game than Courtney Walsh, the man for whom sledging consisted of a tongue-in-cheek glare, who worked tirelessly for charities after retirement? For artistry, how many batsmen can hold a candle to the intricate coordination that afforded Richard Hadlee or Malcolm Marshall such supreme control of accuracy and movement, along with their searing pace - the product of 'mere' athleticism?

But it's easier for batsmen to take this kind of place in our affections; for them to quickly be seen as great men, as well as great cricketers. Perhaps it's because theirs is a reactive art. Fast bowlers start it. They must. They try to hurt people, sledge people, tamper with balls. For a great bowler, supreme fitness is the starting point; for a great batsman, it's almost an optional extra. Skill is the very first attribute we consider when thinking of a batsman - for a fast bowler it's likely to be speed.

And from skill, there's an unconscious connection we tend to make to the intellect. I've named Dravid and Jayawardene. I can quickly add Constantine and Sangakkara to the mix. Perhaps Gower too.

There are many greats we view differently - Kallis, Ponting, S.Waugh - great batsmen for whom we readily use the word "skill", but more rarely the word "artistry". One could crudely claim these are less sophisticated men than the first group, and perhaps draw some sort of correlation between the art of batting and living. But I won't, because for every example there's a counter example, and nor would I pretend to have a window into any of these men's souls. To further muddle things you have the second tier - the roundhead cricketers and talented writers - the Ed Cowans, the Athertons - players about whom there's a suspicion that intellect augmented a lesser talent (deeply relative use of the word 'lesser', I stress).

So it's better to say this: there has long been a breed of batsman, venerated by the fans, whose class (how often we deploy that noun in these cases) seems to extend off the field.

All of which brings me to Hashim Amla's Twitter feed. I saw he was on Twitter, and decided to have a look. I rarely bother following cricketers, or indeed any sportsmen, if I can help it. But I had a feeling Mr Amla might be different. What's the first thing I see staring back at me? Why, a charming Mark Twain quote. And what do I see next? Well, this. Yup. He's one of those. 

So let's talk, then, about the batting. And let's start with two minutes of wonderful analysis by Nasser Hussain.



Good job Nasser: less to type. But I'd just like to add a little bit to his analysis. He's spot on about the timing of the bat 'twirl' before Amla hits the ball. What we can see is that it comes from a pick-up which originally had the bat pointing to second slip. You can see how that might have caused problems with LBWs.

But what I find interesting about the twirl - also, for that matter, about the fact that his is a technique built not for hitting sixes - in fact it's not for hitting the ball at all, but rather timing it - is that I only know of one other batsman renowned for such a tic. Allow me:


And from this excellent Wikipedia article:

"In his 2003 book Bradman Revisted, Tony Shillinglaw utilised a biomechanical analysis of Bradman conducted by Liverpool John Moores University in England. Shillinglaw concluded that Bradman’s initially perceived weakness was actually the key reason for his success – it created a "rotary" action in his swing of the bat that delivered extra power and ensured that he kept the ball along the ground..This was summarised as follows:
...he levered the bat up by pushing down with the top hand, whilst using the bottom hand as a fulcrum. As it neared the top of the back-lift, Bradman manoeuvred the bat through a continuous arc and back towards the plane of the ball during the downswing in preparation for impact.
Additionally, his backswing (according to former Australian captain Greg Chappell) kept his hands in close to his body, leaving him perfectly balanced and able to change his stroke mid-swing, if he was initially deceived by the flight of the ball."

So if you're wondering why Amla's so good - well, it's because he bats like the best. Like the Don, he's an accumulator. Like the Don, not necessarily a beautiful batsman to watch until you really start to pay attention to the good stuff - the minute adjustments to flight or movement, the tiny, last micro-second alterations to a stroke that allow him to pick a gap. He's a batsman to watch on a cold Thursday morning at Lord's with a coffee in your hand and a quiet, contemplative crowd. Not one to watch, as I did, in front of a boozy Oval mob on a Friday evening. This is my favourite Amla video on YouTube, if you've six minutes spare. That shot at 1.08 - it's not a thick edge, it's a last-minute opening of the face. Note, also, how late he plays the swinging ball at 3.46.

But let's get back to the man. The Twitter feed, of course, tells us much about him, doesn't it. Those of us with Muslim friends or a knowledge of Islam have, for the last decade or so, despaired at the overwhelming media emphasis given to various empty vessels here and around the world, many of whom could barely be described as Muslims at all. It's not a version of Islam we recognise. Not the shouting and screaming. What we recognise is a religion that stresses humility, modesty - above all the importance of a batting necessity: patience. In Islam, it's called Sabr.

Amla's batting is, of course, a model of this. He started his career, and word got round he couldn't play the bouncer. So the first class bowlers bumped the shit out of him. He just parried them, and waited. Sabr. He's a man who many muttered was only in the SA team due to quotas,. They'd soon see. Sabr. He's a man who couldn't even bring himself to score at over four an over against Holland. But what are you going to do? They bowled well that day. Sabr. 

And of course, he's a man who was described as a "terrorist" by Dean Jones, on air. 

Amla: "The teaching of Islam has always been that if somebody apologises, you forgive them. And this is the basis of Islam."

McRae: "I think the way you handled it with diplomacy and dignity was perfect, but inwardly it must have hurt a little bit."

Amla: "When somebody calls you something it's never nice... but if a person's remorseful for something they did, then who's to judge except the Almighty?"

Sabr.

Then you read of the Indian community in Natal, of how it's rarely produced cricketers (Peter Roebuck says: "During the apartheid years the Indians tended to lie low. Shy by nature, resourceful by disposition, aware of their origins as indentured labour, they were caught in a racial no-man's land, and so concentrated on making money and gaining a good education"), and you wonder what the upshot of all this patience will be. Me, I seem to end up thinking about W.H. Auden’s sonnet on Edward Lear, which ends with the line, “And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.”

Monday, 1 October 2012

End of season tour: Corfu


Well now, I've been wanting to come here for donkey's years. It's a long, illustrious history cricket has on this island - stretching back about 200 years - and unlike the other ex-pat cricket hot spots around Europe, you're guaranteed to play locals, who have their own tradition and attitude to the game. Brief history here.

Trepidation as we arrived at the marina ground, to find a big Asian dude waiting for us ahead of his team mates. He didn't look very Greek. He wasn't. He was Pakistani. And it was 32 degrees, with not a cloud in the sky. And we were hungover to hell.

I opened, and his second ball rocketed into my glove. Wondered if my finger was broken, but didn't dare look. We were on astroturf so I wasn't worrying too much about seam movement, but he was getting some nasty bounce. Boy could certainly play, but I'd felt in good nick throughout the second half of the season since the outside-of-cricket-but-actually-totally-about-cricket issues had been resolved.

I shifted my guard out of the crease and to leg stump so I could trigger move back and across, and within a few balls he'd clocked what I was up to and started pitching the ball up a couple of yards fuller and swinging it back into me, forcing me to rock from there onto my front foot. Fortunately I'd actually worked on this bit of my game in nets this year, in anticipation of playing some higher level games that never happened. One KP/Viv ping through midwicket from outside off got a nod of approval from him. It's the little things, innit.

Lots of ok seamers at the other end, all Greek, all of whom I reckon would have been dead handy in England as they presented a good seam and hit a decent length; on astro there were no real terrors. However, but for a stern rule on wides down the leg side, we'd have been going pretty slow: wickets were going at the other end and I wasn't timing too much. After 12 or so overs, I figured it was time to get a move on, which turned out to be pretty easy on the astro. In about three or four overs I'd gone from 20-odd to my 50; but for a perfect yorker I was already fancying my chances of hitting a rather unexpected ton before the 30-over innings was over.

Moral of the story is I didn't know how to bat on astro before and I don't know now. The problem is this: you can basically smoke any ball on a good length out of the park. You'll probably get out sooner or later, but it's rather hard to say when, and in the mean time you're liable to hit so many I wonder if the correct approach isn't for nos 1-6 to smash everything they see and for 7-11 to eke out whatever they can if there are too many wickets down, since you're hardly likely to get beaten playing defensively.

My plan was pretty much the standard one of trot along off the bad balls then get a move on in the last 10 overs, but conscious of the fact it was tour, like a twat I'd already managed to run someone out, and people either needed a go or wanted to see some fireworks, I probably hit the accelerator a bit early.

It didn't work - new, unset, batsmen came and went, we didn't set enough, and Mr Pakistan smashed our bowling to absolute fuckery (minus him it would have been a different game, but I'm not sure who'd have won). Not quite sure what level he'd played but I've rarely seen a club level guy hit it that hard. Still, it was a pretty decent game given that on a weekend like this the cricket's only half of it.

Then I got repeatedly bitten by a mosquito, went into anaphylaxis, and ended up in hospital.


Not too much to say about this, other than that it was rather horrible to start with, got very scary at about 2am, Greek nurses are angry, shouty people, and you should always remember to take out travel insurance unless, like me, you're a total fucking idiot.

The next day I was released, whereupon I made the final three balls of the second game, which apparently wasn't very good as they were very bad, but I did get to sit in the central square, surrounded by the stunning twin Venetian and British architectural testaments to the island's history.


Nice. Some Afghan kids came over and challenged us to a game of tapeball, which I would absolutely have LOVED to have played, but sadly I was still feeling pretty fucking dreadful. Another little insight into a recurring theme on this blog - the way cricketers do live up to their national cricketing stereotypes. These kids bowled nicely, one definitely from the flowing-Akhtar-locks-and-try-to-hit-100mph school, and all of them wanted to send that ball HOME and clearly considered any other result a massive failure on their part. One of them did so, repeatedly - he made 73 from eight (8!) overs, looked absolutely class, and surprisingly we failed to chase the 100 total.

Doubt I'd have made much difference but I'd have loved to have given it a go. The fact you can bump into some people from a country your own has been systematically fucking over since, well, 1842ish and bond over a ludicrously esoteric sport in the middle of a Mediterranean town is just extraordinary, isn't it. And if you want to know the story of where they're coming from, here's a cracking long form piece for you.

Yeah, it was shit, the whole slightly life-threatening, bank-balance-ruining side of things. But disregard that 15 hour period? Loads of fun with some good mates, a beautiful place, wonderful weather, great food, excellent night spots and some decent cricket. If your team hasn't been on a foreign tour yet then a) I have literally no idea what you're playing at and b) Go to Corfu.

Monday, 10 September 2012

This film is going to be fucking amazing

10/09/2012

Since the last post, I've played twice, and scored 4 and 0. Why? In clear order of importance:

1. I bought some new kit. Partly this was due to excitement over scoring a ton, partly it was because I could smell my kit when I was in the flat. And the kit was in the shed outside. Since buying this new stuff I've received a loopy inswinging yorker that rebounded off my brand new pads onto the leg stump and a short ball that ramped up as I tried to pull it, flicked my brand new glove and flew through to the keeper. All I need is to kick the stumps over with my brand new boots and I'll have made use of the full set.

2. My bat is too heavy for me at the best of times, and I'm suffering from rather nasty elbow tendinitis at the moment. Having a really heavy bat (3lb) is lots of fun when you're facing crap spin down the order, less sensible when facing swing bowling up the order and needing to make last-minute adjustments to bounce and movement. The one thing I didn't buy was a new bat.

3. Not very good at cricket. 

4. Life. Life isn't neat and tidy. This season and its blog would have been nicely wrapped up with the last diary post, wouldn't it - start the year with high hopes, a big loss of confidence and some dark times, then triumphant redemption. Standard film script stuff. Instead, the season overstayed its welcome, the CC carried on playing while feeling increasingly fat and old, and the sense of resolution with regard to all the stuff that had gone on over the years reverted back to a lingering sense of regret. Even this weekend I was emailing the captain to say 'Oh bat me down the order, so and so's playing and he's better than me, I opened last time etc,' before asking myself what the hell I thought I was doing (n.b. if you want to do well whatever your form you should always try to open the batting, unless playing Test cricket - new CC rule).

And this leads us to the subject of this post, which has been coming for some time - the great KP situation. Everyone's got an opinion, of course. And this is part of the problem. Because there is no ultimate truth: this is clearly about personalities and emotions as much as it is about professionalism and contract negotiation. Which means we're all qualified to talk about this stuff - as I pointed out in my review of Eddie Cowan's autobiography, the most surprising thing about it is how eerily similar it turns out the professional game is to the amateur one - behind the scenes at least.

Now cricket, more than any other sport, is a test of personality; of this I am quite sure. It's not a team game. Except it's the teamiest game there is. You rely on your team mates all the time - to not run you out, to not drop catches off your bowling, in friendly cricket not to trigger you - and unlike most team sports, you're spending the best part of a day in their company.

I refer you to to point four, above. Life isn't neat and tidy. People rarely, if ever, draw a line under things. They certainly try to. And they certainly say they have. But emotional wounds take longer to heal than physical ones - a nasty little truism. That's why I don't think this is about fake Twitter accounts, or the IPL, or leaked conversations, or any of these things. Well, it is - now - but really, I think this is about what happened in 2009.

I don't believe Pietersen should ever have been made captain, but actually, it's worth reconsidering his short tenure (three tests and 10 ODIs). Let's remember that, following the 2009 Mumbai attacks, Pietersen was somewhat inspirational. He was vocal in saying the tour should continue, that there was a need to stand up to terrorism - and it gained his team many deserved plaudits on the subcontinent.

And let's remember the circumstances of his removal. A quick C&P from Wikipedia will do the job:

On 7 January 2009, Moores was removed as England's coach by the ECB, and Pietersen unexpectedly resigned as captain. In the immediate aftermath of Pietersen's resignation, several commentators connected with English cricket indicated that they believed that Pietersen had miscalculated by openly advocating for the removal of Moores, particularly in making their dispute public. In an interview several days after his resignation, Pietersen revealed that he had not intended to resign as captain, but was told by ECB officials that he was resigning. Dennis Amiss, the vice-chairman of the ECB, went on record backing up Pietersen in his statement that the story of the rift with Moores had not been leaked to the media by him, saying, "We don't believe Kevin Pietersen leaked the information, we understand his frustration at it being leaked by other parties."

No doubt we'll read more on this over the years, once all the biographies come out. But it's always seemed to me that he was treated particularly shabbily by his employers. Having realised they should never have given him the job in the first place, it strikes me they saw a golden opportunity for a clean-out. And the replacements were, of course, hugely successful. But now the chickens have come home to roost. 

And to return to my earlier point, everyone has an opinion. I've just given mine, and it's easy to hold an opinion when verifiable facts are at a premium. So Brearley can talk about the insight he gained when sharing a plane with KP, Atherton can analyse what he sees as a sort of borderline personality disorder, and so on. Of course there's some truth to all these readings, but it's impossible to reduce a person to a piece of prose. What does so and so think? Half the time, he doesn't know himself. That's why Virginia Woolf's writing is a) Bloody hard work and b) The most realistic depiction of character in the English language. On top of that, we have the constant dribble of stories of various degrees of importance - the latest being that KP thinks Swann and Anderson had a part to play in the fake Twitter account.

George Dobell - an excellent journalist - has admitted he doesn't think these stories help the situation, but you can hardly blame him or anyone else for breaking such developments; it's his job to relate the latest twists in what's a fascinating soap opera. But let's not kid ourselves that this constant cataloguing of developments and analysis amounts to any kind of objective truth.  You point to any number of things that show Mr Pietersen's somewhat hubristic. I point to the fact the ECB is the management team that felt Allen Stanford could resolve the issue of T20s. You point to the fact KP is the kind of guy willing to dedicate 20 pages of his autobiography to a PE teacher he didn't like. I point to the fact Swann's Twitter feed isn't half as funny as he thinks it is. And so on.

So what are we supposed to take from all this? Well, again we return to the top. Personalities are complicated things. Profound, I know. My second team has resentments, slights and envies that have festered, unchecked, since 1989. Fortunately its players don't spend enough time in the closeted bubble of top sportsmen for these things to realy blow up. We once went on tour and one drunk player started shouting - genuinely, shouting - at another about the way he was eating his soup. Except it wasn't really about how he was eating his soup, was it. Do these things ever get "fixed"? No. We just sort of muddle through. If I say it's the best we can wish for, I consider it realism, not pessimism.

There's nowt for us to do but enjoy the soap opera. And for my part? I need to buy a 2lb 8oz GM 1885 or M&H Harlequin, obviously.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Andrew Strauss: goodbye


 It's funny to write about this a day after yesterday's post, which, for those who didn't have a spare eight hours to read it, was a long exposition on the politics and personalities of shit level cricket, and how it can turn an average cricketer into a crap one.

Similar issues have surrounded Strauss's departure. Ok, even if we buy the argument he left because he was concerned about his form (and let's be honest, so were most England fans for the last two years), how far was this decline in performance due to the increasingly bitter goings on behind the scenes?

The answer, I suspect, is that we'll never know, and nor will he. But consider this. In 2006 Strauss was chosen to captain England. I felt, at the time, that he looked delighted to be in situ, and he eventually lead them to a win over Pakistan at home, averaging 66 in the process. He should have been chosen as captain for the 2006/7 Ashes down under. Instead - and Duncan Fletcher's motivations for this remain dubious to this day - Freddie got the job.

The feeling seemed to be that Flintoff would, if not made captain, actually present a problem to whomever got the job. Strauss went to Australia as a player only, and averaged 25. There followed a dip in form which lead to his eventual dismissal from the side - when he came back on the New Zealand tour, he was at number three, and fighting for his place. It was only in the final test of the series that he managed to make a significant score.

It's my suspicion that, just as the sense of betrayal that went with Fletcher's decision seemed to affect him adversely, so too the pressure of combining opening the innings with the job - and yes, the KP saga must have been a factor - seemed to get to him in the end, resulting in a string of 20s and 30s.

Two things about Strauss then - one, he was a team man, the very definition of such. He suffered in silence, just as he did a lot of his best work behind the scenes. Two, just as with Vaughan, his batting and captaincy can barely be considered in isolation, since his fortunes with the bat and his standing in the team seemed forever entwined.

But let's try and consider the batting on its own for a while. This means ignoring the stats, and concentrating entirely on the figure as presented at the wicket. I feel the technique rather embodied the man.

I wonder if others will feel this or think I'm forcing an analogy, but I'm going to throw it out there regardless: I always felt like Strauss played like someone less posh than he actually was. One watches top public school-educated batsmen - in recent years Nick Compton and Sam Northeast come to mind - and you can sort of pick them out. There's a certain mechanical classicism to their play. Compare their techniques with, say, Ravi Bopara or Eoin Morgan. (n.b. there are millions of exceptions to this rule, but anyway).  

So Strauss - well, dude is posh. Caldicott and Radley I believe. But rarely for him the high left elbow and classical straight or extra-cover drive one often associates with his contemporaries. He was far more pragmatic - more workmanlike. He really stuck to the three shots - hit it off the legs, square cut, pull it. He did of course drive from time to time, but you could tell his heart wasn't really in it; not like it was in those shots.

Now, we know from Strauss's autobiography that he only turned into a potential pro because, following university, he decided to give cricket a go - and headed out to Australia. Prior to that he was still looking set for a career in the City, rather than the cricket field.

One of his first memories out there is of watching Brett Lee tearing in at some guy without a helmet in a club game, in the middle of the bush. A long way from the playing fields of Radley. Strauss's game was a bouncy wicket one, and it surely must have been developed down under. When the Australians finally got to grips with him in '06, they did so by bowling a fuller, straighter length and line. More classical English players will generally be used to this, due to all those games they'll have played where even the quickest bowlers have pitched up because there's so much swing, while short balls just sit up to be hit.

So that expensive education? No doubt it helped his batting, but as he implies, he only really became a proper batsman down under, and I think his coach for much of that time was one A. Strauss. And I believe there's a clear line here between the man and his batting. As fans, we really rather warmed to Strauss from day one. That he was, if we're honest, probably posher than David Gower - that was barely-remarked upon. He just came across as a sensible, again pragmatic, and also thoroughly decent, man.

Something else about his batting. Again, we have to ignore the figures, because they don't bear us out. But I reckon that for a period there was no batsman more efficient at putting away the ball on his legs, not in the whole world. It didn't look much - not for him the wristy whip of a Kohli or Amla - but at his peak he would never miss a ball that was heading down leg. And he was also very good at cutting spinners. Neither of these are particularly pretty shots, not least the way Strauss played them, but my God are they ever difficult against really good bowlers. Especially the cut off the spinner - possibly one of the riskiest shots going if you're facing a really good one. It doesn't look it, but it is. And that's rather indicative of Strauss too I feel - much better than he looked.

And you can certainly apply this line to his captaincy too. Yes, he could be tactically naive. Boy, did he set some unimaginative fields at times. But just as they say you don't even notice a decent keeper, so it was very rare - never, so far as I can tell - that you'd see him make a calamitous error. As I've said before, we as spectators are wont to recognise batsman error more than excellence in the field, and it's very rare we'll say a player has been out-thought by the captain. But it happens more than we think.

And regardless of all that, one senses his impact behind the scenes - whether as captain or not - in a dressing  room which, as time has gone by, appears to have had increasingly less pleasant characters in it than many thought, would have been considerable.

The other thing I always liked about Strauss was that he wore his wedding ring around his neck when he batted. We all know how harsh a toll international cricket can take on a top player's family life - it's the subject of a thousand autobiographies - and it's nice to know that ring can now stay on his finger.

So long Mr Strauss, and thanks for everything.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

28/08/12

I've not blogged for a while. This entry will be very long, and it'll explain why. Various readers will be familiar with bits of the story. It's probably quite boring, and what's more pointless - but then enough people say that about the game of cricket, and still it seems to work. It's also my version of events. No doubt biased, subjective, and perhaps chronologically flawed. It's the best I can offer. So.

*
My story starts in 2005. I'm in my early 20s, and I've just moved to London. The year before I was a decent enough league cricketer on the South Coast, who was thinking I could find a similar club and do all the accepted things - work hard at my game, keep fit, try to break into the firsts, etc etc. 

It didn't happen. Instead I was roped into the world of friendly cricket by friends I met through work. I joined two friendly teams, and was pretty much their best player. This isn't saying much. Both were very bad, and the standard was much lower than I'd been playing the year before. But both were full of the nicest people I could have hoped to meet.

The first team I call the Decrepits. They had previously been half of another team, which was split between those who wanted to take the games more seriously, and those who didn't. Every friendly cricket team suffers from these stress lines. What it boils down to is pretty simple: do we give people a go, or try to win? Is it possible to do both, without the lesser cricketers feeling it's their fault if they lose? 

The tensions - which have been written about, at great length, in a couple of well-known cricket books - were far worse than most. Everyone knows what eventually happened: half the team - who'd become The Decrepits - upped and left, forming their own side. 

There are, however, some details that most people don't know about, but I do. And I guess, given the fact I'm not naming names here, I can fill in the blanks. The ringleaders on either side of this split were childhood friends. One of them, the man who wanted the club to take things more seriously, contracted a terminal illness. He wrote vitriolic, furious letters to the other man, blaming him for the breakdown of their friendship, telling him he never wanted to see him again. His fiancee - whom he married on his death bed - told the other man that he wouldn't be coming to the funeral. There was more, and nastier - but I think you have the picture.

The other man was devastated. I saw all this at first hand. And I quickly realised that this game, even though it was happening at a very low level, was far more than a game. It takes up so much time that it can end up becoming a central plank of your existence - the bit that isn't work, or relationships. And I realised something else: that I couldn't ever let something like this happen to my other club.

*

By 2007, my other club had been playing in a pub league in East London for three years. Our ethos hadn't changed since the day I'd joined - every player who wanted to play, be they good, bad or indifferent, was eligible to play. And every year, we came bottom of the league. I found it a bit frustrating; I didn't like constantly losing to teams of not-very-good players, but we had a lot of fun, and a thriving social scene - most games we'd even have a little fan club of 10-15 wives, girlfriends and others getting pissed by the side of the pitch. One of them would even become my fiancee.

I started to think about the future of this team. We now had a few better players, but we still weren't really good enough to compete. If we really wanted to challenge, we needed to recruit guys who were good and bat them all up the order, but was that what we were about? Absolutely not.

It meant that we were doomed to be out of the running for the league by week three or four, thus rendering every subsequent performance one "for pride". And you can only play for pride for so long before people get depressed. Players who'd enthusiastically turned up to make up the numbers were beginning to drift away - they would have if we'd been better, but we still needed to replace them.

And this meant there was an issue about sustainability. We were recruiting players from all over the city - but how long would they stick around if they had to trek to East London for every game? I knew we could survive solely by recruiting from the local area, but did we want that, or did we want to be as accessible as possible to everyone we met? I knew there were better games out there - we had access, for example, to Oxford and Cambridge wickets pretty much whenever we wanted - but we couldn't fit them all in around the league fixtures, which were always announced late in the day. 

Then there was the day-to-day experience of the league. Most of the teams weren't very friendly, or were polite at best. A couple verged on being outright thugs. The pitches were all terrible, with the exception of one, which was a pudding.  On top of that there were lots of little things I disliked: the format was 35 overs; five overs per bowler. In theory, it meant everyone got a good go at something. In actuality, batsmen would stodge out the first 15-20 overs, wait for three chaps who didn't know how to bowl or want to, to come on, and murder them. 

At the end of 2007 I'd had a successful season and made my first ton for the club. I'd averaged around 50 for three years running, and I thought I'd earned people's respect as a player. So I put a motion to the team: we should leave the league, and play competitive friendlies. I thought, above all, friendlies would make it easier to manage the expectations of every player. There were fewer strictures. If a good batsman's in, you can put on a good bowler, and vice versa. And if you lose because you're giving people a go, then fine: there's nothing really riding on it. 

It felt like a no-brainer. But half the team, it seemed, disagreed with me. They said friendlies wouldn't be competitive enough. I told them there were friendly teams out there playing at a standard a hundred times that of the league opponents. They said that our standing in the league was the best way to measure how much they were improving. I told them coming bottom for three years running wasn't much of an indicator either, and that the best way to improve was to play good cricketers on good wickets, rather than bad ones on bad wickets.  There were murmurs, too, that this was about an attempt for us to play "posher" games, as if the pub league wasn't to my taste because I'd been to private school.

It was galling - I'd been playing friendly cricket for my other team for two years, and could see how it could work for us. I thought there was a great unspoken motivation behind most of these arguments: the fact the league was on the doorstep for most of them. They liked being able to roll out of bed, hungover, and stumble down to the ground. Maybe I'm being unfair. What I knew for sure was that a lot of people were making negative comments about friendlies despite never having played them - they'd set up this team straight out of uni, and always been in the pub league.

The argument turned nasty. I was accused of wanting to take over the club. I wanted no such thing - I just thought it would be better for us and would help secure our future if we changed the games we played. But that said, I did also run for captain that year.

At the hustings I said whatever happened in terms of the league/friendly situation, it was a separate issue: I'd lead the team whichever format we chose.  The club didn't pick me: they chose a guy who'd only been playing for half a season. Earlier in the week, the club had taken a poll and the split, between league and non-league, was almost exactly 50/50. I'm told the ratios for the captaincy vote were similar. I also know that some of the people who'd been against the idea of playing friendlies had approached the guy who beat me in the poll, and asked him to run. I left the AGM early, in tears.

*

In 2005, 2006 and 2007, I'd averaged around 50. In 2008, I averaged around 20. As a concession to my ambitions for the team, we'd elected to try a new ground, yet continue playing in the league. You can see how well that worked out here. To be honest, the pitch was only half the problem. It was the fact I simply didn't want to be there. I loved the team and the social life, but it had turned sour for me. I felt betrayed, and turned up to every game wishing I was somewhere else. 

The arguing continued. On a couple of occasions I was told that I was deliberately trying to get the team down to make them think again about the league. I wasn't - I was just depressed. On two occasions we were bowled out for under 40. The fact I couldn't think straight when batting wasn't exactly helping in this regard. After a particularly vicious humping, one player - who averaged in single figures at the time -  told me I'd lost it, perhaps due to a lack of fitness. That lead to perhaps the worst argument so far, and my saying things I still regret today.

At the end of the year, the guy who'd been voted in as captain told me I'd been right. We'd have another vote regarding the league, and if it didn't go our way, he'd leave the club, and I'd come with him. I should have felt vindicated, but instead it felt like everything I'd wanted to avoid - a painful schism in the team - had come to pass.

But we won the vote, convincingly, and left the league. There had been so much shit flying around over the past two years, I felt I couldn't run for the captaincy. By now there were some excellent candidates: it wouldn't have been right for the team. Instead I took the job of fixtures secretary, and spent four or five months every year putting together our seasons in my spare time. 

I wasn't sure how well it would work. Sometimes I've wished I walked back in '07. But I think the last three years have worked pretty well, on the whole. There are plenty of things that haven't - on occasion, we've either been stuffed, or stuffed other teams.  More recently we've had players join who are very good, and it's often a struggle to find fixtures that can accommodate them and the weaker players. It's an issue which bothers them as much as anyone - they love the team and the culture, but they like scoring runs - who doesn't? - and the question is how they balance their interests and those of the team.

I'm not as good as them, but I know how they feel. Ever since 2007, when the argument kicked off, I've failed to make a ton. I've played for a couple of better teams, and come close - a few 70s or 80s here and there - but for our team I've felt, if not depressed any more, too distracted. Is the game going ok? Are people enjoying themselves? Do the opposition like us, and will they have us back? Have half our team got the wrong train? To whom do we need to give a go? There was so much anger and bitterness at the time we chose to play friendlies that it absolutely had to work and make everyone happy, otherwise all those rows were for nothing.

So the worries pile up and up, and you find yourself either batting down the order so people can have a hit, or walking out to bat wondering if someone's forgotten the club kit, before missing a straight one. I've averaged about 30 odd over the last couple of years, which at this level is frankly shit. I'm not the player I was, and I probably won't ever be again. But that player at his peak was a decent club 2s all rounder who'd probably have been found out in horrific manner had he played enough games for the firsts. It's no huge loss.


*

Except in the last two seasons, there's been another dark cloud on the horizon. For a start, I took a job which meant I could only play one weekend in two. It was shift work, and it meant when I did play I was turning up sleep-deprived.

I was saving money, because my fiancee and I have to move out of London. I told myself that I could still play most games for the team next year because I was only an hour and a bit away, but really, I was lying to myself, and the team. I can still have an involvement, no doubt, but the chances of me being a regular - not that I could really call myself that now - are modest to say the least.

It's been a hard season: we've been struggling for players, due to weddings, marriages and all the other detritus that hits teams at this time. I've begun to fear for the club. That, on top of the realisation that as a player I've given up on chances to make runs so others can have a go and have usually been distracted when I haven't - has started to upset me.  All the above - all that stress, and worry, and upset - was it all for nothing? What have I got in return, other than fewer runs than I should and a team that may very well soon die?

This year I was going out to bat feeling, if not depressed, then certainly frazzled. And the results have been absolutely fucking awful. From the middle of this season, I've failed to make double figures and have barely had a bowl. I didn't want to blog about each failure because I felt the bigger picture - all of the above - was missing. 

Then, this weekend, something strange happened. We went on our usual tour to the West Country, and I was honest with the team about how I was feeling. And I realised that our team not only had some very lovely guys in it - I knew that anyway - but it had people who really, really cared about it. They promised me they wouldn't let it die, and I believed them. So yes, actually - all the above had been worth it. 

And on the Sunday our skipper let me open the batting, and I felt like a totally different player because of the things that had been said the night before, and I hit a ton*, as I did five years ago, and, just as had been the case on a different night five years ago, I sat away from my team mates in floods of tears, except this time they were tears of happiness. And that's why I haven't blogged. But I will now.

*Dropped three times against an attack containing two children. Probably worth about 37, on adjustment.


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

This blog is not dead

...it's only sleeping. There's all sorts of things I want to talk about, but I can't. There's nothing particularly bad going on; it's just a bit complex. Once the season's over, I'll spill the beans.

You may see more posts; but only on general cricket stuff, but I try to get those things published if I can. Until a suitable topic presents itself, over and out.

CC

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Rubbish

Well, I have played a couple of games. On one I got to open the batting on a flat pitch, and got out LBW for 30-odd, because I keep drifting across towards middle stump as I get more confident to flick straight balls away to leg, and sort of gradually lose track of where the stumps are, so I was out to one hitting middle I initially thought was going down by a mile.

This I did earlier in the season in a game and I was so annoyed about it I didn't even blog the match, because it was one of those golden chances to make a ton that come along very infrequently. It's the sort of little technical problem you can easily sort out when you're playing a lot, but not when you're hardly playing at all, and I haven't been this year. Have also played one other game, scored 17* and bowled really badly.

Nothing more to say, because really there isn't - it would be blogging for blogging's sake. And I don't have much to say on the professional game at the moment, either. Due to this being the worst summer ever in terms of weather and due to the fact I'm SO busy with work, I've kind of given up on cricket for a bit. Let's see what August brings.

However, we do have something to write about, and what's more, we got paid to do it. So, my review of a book on cricket and international development. Here it is. Interesting subject, badly written book, sadly.

Oh, and I met Gordon Greenidge (along with Mohammad Yousuf, Saqlain Mushtaq, Henry Olonga, Wasim Jaffer, Lou Vincent, and a load of others). And made a tit of myself.

2012's not going well in cricket terms, is it?

Monday, 18 June 2012

18/06/12 - Newton, Cambridgeshire

Marvellous. This game affords me the opportunity to produce a CC blog with two things we've been short of this year, to whit: 1) Godawful arty 'polaroid' photos taken through my iPhone and 2) A substantial innings needlessly dissected in forensic detail.

As to number 1: thus:







Let's deal with our effort in the field first. We (the Decrepits) have inserted the opposition on a damp pudding, and are pleased to bowl them out for 108. This, in retrospect, is more like 150 on a good pitch - the lush outfield converts 4s into 2s and 2s into singles, the wicket is so slow that it's barely possible to time anything other than a full toss, and despite the customary half-dozen dropped chances and missed run outs, a scoring rate of two an over will always produce wickets.

Our one good (off) spinner clears up, and while CC's economical but wicketless spell is best not dwelt upon (of course I should have turned to spin like everyone else on such a slow wicket, but some bugger had to try to bowl fast, just to give the game a bit of variety), I feel we can be pleased with our afternoon's work.

A word more on our spinner. He is an ageing chap who was once a very, very good league player. And one can see why. He bowls flat, fizzing them in at a decent pace (such that our keeper, who admittedly 'has the reactions of a breeze block' ((c) a famous author), has to stand back). It's the sort of bowling that we English like to see from our spinners (Swann and Panesar are the exception, rather than the rule). It will rarely go at more than five an over, against anyone, and in a Test match or similar it's almost entirely useless, but it's nevertheless a very useful skill set in any other form of the game, for scoring off it is nigh-on impossible.

Now, to our innings. Our captain asks CC where he'd like to bat. CC replies: 'Oh, it's only a hundred odd: give everyone who wants to bat a go, as I play all the time anyway.' CC is told he's at number three. I feel this speaks volumes about our team.

Within a couple of overs, CC is in. Let us speak candidly - for in recent times I feel I haven't been honest enough. Not in terms of overstating my achievements - (heaven forfend), but in terms of what's really running through CC's mind as he takes guard. And what it is, is this.

I really wish I was wearing the right shirt and cap.


This is nothing to do with the weather. This is to do with the fact that CC bats according to his attire. I know, it's ridiculous. But he really does. A long sleeved shirt and jaunty jazz hat are essential for these conditions. That's because, in CC's utterly warped mind, it summons an image of Ranjitsinhji which he once saw in the school library, and Ranjitsinhji played against bowlers delivering medium paced swingers and cutters on uncovered pitches, and his brand of wristy leg play was uniquely suited to this and is something that CC attempts to emulate even though he's only read about it via Neville Cardus rather than seen it, and it seems to work in these conditions better than the short sleeved shirt and maroon helmet worn by Marcus Trescothick whom CC tries to emulate at all other times, which results in a succession of booming drives without much foot movement which again in CC's warped mind are entirely acceptable because it worked for dear, dear Marcus Trescothick.

The next thought is this.

The bowler will swing the ball in and cut the occasional one away. Therefore I require a middle and leg guard and I need to open my stance slightly. I must be careful not to close the face on the ball: playing a leg side delivery with a straight bat will actually send the ball through the leg side even though it feels like it won't as I play the shot. As well you know, trying to clip it too fine is fraught with danger. But that's what you'll do.


And he bowls, and it swings in, and I attempt to glance it rather too fine, and it brushes my pad and there's an appeal for a catch, which is mercifully muted.

The next thought is this.

Told you.


Now, we have a fascinating battle here. We have a bowler delivering inswingers which cut away occasionally, and at the other end, we have a bowler delivering outswingers that cut back in. This is due to the action their fingers put on the ball. The inswing bowler (I am left handed, remember), is exerting more pressure on the ball with his index finger, so it's rather easy for him to deliver an off cutter (leg cutter to me) with just a little more emphasis on that digit. The away-swing bowler has more pressure exerted by the middle finger, and so the opposite is true.

Neither of them are doing this at any terrifying pace, but if anything, with the slow outfield and pitch, this actually makes one's life harder. Because while it slows down one's scoring off bad balls, when the ball misbehaves off the wicket, one still doesn't have a lot of time to react if it's on a good length.

Anyway, now we're up the other end and facing our away swinging chum. And the thought process is this.

Take middle stump as a guard so that your head is over off. Anything outside your eyeline must be attacked because it's missing the stumps and edges are unlikely to carry. Once again, the straight bat must be presented to everything else.


Within two balls I've been tempted into playing too fine against a ball that pitched on leg and came back towards off, and this time a tiny nick saves me from the plumbest of plumb LBWs. I rather feel that if one could transplant my internal monologue into the mind of a more talented batsman, you'd actually have a bloody good player.


Now then, much as I'd like to talk you through our innings ball-by-ball (and pleasurable though it would be) even I fear the tedium. So let's hear about notable moments - the Channel 5 package if you will.

1. Our in-swinging friend delivers a beautiful leg cutter on my pads which, damn fool that I am, I attempt to whip away to leg. The inevitable leading edge trickles to The Third Man, who no doubt feels I'm an ant. I assume, that having been so diddled, the bowler will now 'mindfuck' me ((c) an antipodean with whom I play and who is easily confused) by bringing the ball back in. But no, instead he dangles the carrot with a quicker ball outside off stump. I manage to restrain myself from fishing at him. Crafty bastard.

2. Our away-swinging friend bowls the perfect delivery, an away swinger towards which I am inexorably drawn into a cover drive, but which rasps back into me off the wicket just as I realise I'm nowhere near the pitch. I somehow allow my bottom hand some extra precedence and manufacture an inside edge. I realise that two years prior to this game, he did me with this very ball, and that it's my subconscious - which still remembers the hurt - that has saved me.

3. I am dropped twice. Both of them are catchable, but both of them are full-blooded, middled shots - a pull to a deepish midwicket, and an off drive to mid off. I feel rather less ashamed of these moments than normal. I suppose my feeling is that in these conditions luck is almost de rigeur.

4. I make 49 (or 50 - this rather depends on whether an incorrect leg bye has been returned to its rightful owner - the bowler was happy for this to be the case, so long as a couple of runs that were actually leg byes were sent his way, such are the vicissitudes of friendly cricket). I am out at approximately 80-5, whereupon I make a phone call I've been meaning to make all day. The phone call lasts 8 minutes at 34 seconds, at which point I discover we are all out, about twenty short. This is worrying, for we won't be in this situation very often this season. I fear we're going to lose all our games again.

5. The dismissal was a short ball that I attempted to smash back over the bowler for six. Long on - Mr Inswing or, peeling away the shroud a little, @miltonbrewery - scurried round and took a marvelous catch. I couldn't complain, having been dropped twice. An Australian would have tapped it into a gap for a relaxed double, but I am English and as such my instinct is to grasp us a heroic defeat. It was as inevitable as the fact I'd quaff far too much beer before heading home, and would then need a wee with the nearest public toilet 45 minutes away.

Sigh. What else to say? It was a wonderful day. But once one factors in the opposition team, the ground, the tea, the pub....it would have been wonderful if I'd made 0, and it would have been wonderful if I'd won us the match. This game will never, ever cease to lose its appeal. I have never felt so secure in my conviction that I will never hang up my pads. I rather worry that they'll have to be removed from my stone-cold corpse. Friend of a friend had a heart attack at the very moment he struck a boundary. I'm not sure there's a better way to go.

Needless to say, I am very, very drunk as I type this.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Some more bats which I have loved

1. Slazenger V Caribbean

Important point: this may be the only photo on the whole Internet. And it might not be the right bat.

Like Excalibur, the V Caribbean exists only in a half-remembered dream. It was Viv Richards' bat. Except, when you look at every picture on Google images, he's using an SS, a Duncan Fearnley, A V500, or a V100. Further research shows that someone tried to sell one on eBay Australia a little while back. Other than that, it has vanished without a trace.

All I know is this. Aged 11 I'd managed to nab the V Caribbean from the school kit bag. A leg spinner bowled me a long hop first ball. I took a big swing, which was what I did every ball those days, and unusually I connected, and it went up, and up, and over a fence, and into a moat a very long way away, and I was therefore an automatic selection for the first team all year, where I don't think I ever made more than 10, and that was clearly because I kept having to use the shitty Dynadrive. This bat existed. I know it did.

If this bat was a singer it would be: Bobbie Gentry.

2. Grey Nicolls Elite 500

One word: badass. As I recall this bat came in two different weights - oak tree trunk or, for the ladies, railway sleeper. Robin Smith only used it because the very fact he could lift it sent a message. Fuck having a scoop - this bat would have had extra wood on the back, if it could. Once you'd decided on a shot, there was no going back. If you'd picked the right one, you probably had six runs to your name. If you hadn't, you generally had to lump the thing back to the pavilion.

If this bat was an actor it would be: Tom Hardy.

3. Grey Nicolls Powerspot


It's got a spot, right? That's where you hit the ball, right? But what if you grew up in the 90s and all you saw was Mike Atherton facing Glenn McGrath or Curtly Ambrose and the ball steadfastly refusing to hit that bit of the bat and instead hitting the bits around the spot, and then usually heading to one of the people standing behind him? Well then it wouldn't fill you with confidence when you used it, would it? If they'd named it something like the Grey Nicolls "Thick outside edge to Mark Waugh at slip" - then at least poor Athers wouldn't have felt he was being sold down the river every time he picked it up.

Look at bats these days. The stickers imply you're going to smash it out of the park, possibly off the splice. Whereas this bat says 'you might get a four, if you time it perfectly'. Low expectation having motherfucker, to quote Chris Rock. No one I know ever made runs with a Powerspot.

If this bat was a TV family it would be: The Royle Family. Unmistakably English in how low it sets its sights.

4. Kookaburra Bubble



Bit of a rip off of the Powerspot, of course, but this was in a different class. Because this was Alec Stewart's bat. And Alec Stewart did the bat twiddle. So if you owned a Bubble, you had to learn the twiddle. And that automatically made you look, ooh, about 110x cooler at the crease. Alec Stewart also did the thing where you tucked the bat under your arm as your middle stump got knocked back. Which even made getting out cool. To the point where some of us might even have deliberately got bowled in a practise game just so we could do it. Because we were lovable losers. That's at least half right.

If this bat was a film character it would be: Vince Vaughan in Dodgeball.

5. Duncan Fearnley 405

Really? Because flaying a rubbish attack to all parts of a tiny ground on the flattest wicket on earth warrants the creation of a bat in your honour? Really? Seriously, given the comparative standards of Australian and English domestic cricket at that time I'd rather have bought the Kookaburra "David Boon gritty 37* at the Hobart Oval" or something.

If this bat was an annoying MP that really rated itself it would be: Louise Mensch.

6. Gunn and Moore Purist


I don't really have anything amusing to say about this bat. It was Michael Vaughan's bat. He was stylish. It made you want to be stylish too. I owned one for three years. It was, without question, the best bat I've ever owned, ever. For those three years, I averaged 50. Then one day, at the end of a season, it went kaput. It was still good, but it was tired. I loved it so much I'd have done ANYTHING to keep using it, but every time I went out I found myself scared of playing shots in the air in case they didn't go far enough, so I really had to donate it to the club bag. The next year, I averaged about 20. Might have been the new bat; more likely to have been grief.

If this bat was a cricketer it would be: Michael Vaughan. Well, during that Ashes tour, anyway.

09/06/2012 - Hampstead Heath Extension


Absolutely bugger all to report. Came in towards the end, didn't get much strike and didn't time it very well when I did, suddenly discovered there were only five overs left and four wickets still to come, had a bit of a slog, then ran myself out for not many. Bowled some alright seam up that didn't go for any runs but to be honest the wicket was so very slow and the outfield so long that I'd have had to bowl very badly for that to happen.

I've kind of resigned myself to the view that this season isn't really going to happen as there have been so many games rained off: I don't get to play as much as I used to due to work and next year I'll be leaving London and starting a new life. It's kind of depressing, and kind of liberating. But that's another story, for another day.

Anyway, the fact I don't have anything to write about ties in with the subject of today's blog, which is actually a little book review of this: Ed Cowan's diary of the 2010/11 season. Sadly many of the incredibly intelligent points I wanted to make about it have passed me by, because I read it bloody ages ago and haven't had a chance to blog about it till now, but let's give it a go anyway.

So then. We all like Eddie Cowan, don't we? Many a cricket fan has literary tendencies and the fact that one of us bookish sorts is currently practising at the top level is rather exciting. Professional sportsmen, by and large, are a frustrating lot - they can just do the stuff they describe: they don't need to think about or analyse it a huge amount, and if they do they're not given to articulating their analyses in any great depth. The classic example of this is something like the Darren Lehmann book I reviewed ages ago on here.

It really pisses crap cricketers off, this tendency, because cricket is a game of skill, and technique, and many an intelligent but bad cricketer has been lulled into thinking that their game's deficiencies can be resolved if only they think about it enough, which neglects that sad fact that actually there's a point where it's all about co-ordination, and you can't will that into existence.

In 2005 I joined a club that was full of Cambridge graduates who'd spend hour after hour after hour getting drunk and talking about their games (usually after they'd scored 0 and we'd been bowled out for under 100). It was interesting because you'd hear them correctly analyse why they'd been bowled middle stump, and agree with them on what they needed to do next time round, but the fact remained that they would continue to make technical mistakes because they just weren't very coordinated. It meant they'd instinctively do the wrong thing every now and again, and those mistakes would be more costly than they would be for their opponents because, well, they weren't very coordinated. The sad truth is that MS Dhoni actually has a worse technique than many club players. He also has an eye approximately 10,000 times better.

But now we have Eddie Cowan. He has a LOT more talent than us, and he thinks about it all as much as we do. And the end result is - well, a stodgy late-blooming Test opener who has yet to make everyone sit up and take notice. But of course, we're absolutely rooting for him, because he's one of us.

And I suppose the depressing thing about this book for the average crap cricketer is how familiar it all seems. In terms of his technical analyses, there's some great insight here - and it's particularly interesting for left handers like me - but actually, there's nothing that made me think 'gosh, how cunning, I've never thought about incorporating that into my game'. At one point he talks about how to play right arm over inswing. He describes exactly what I do. The only difference is that the bowlers he faces are 20mph quicker and a lot more accurate. The difference between the scenes that were played out on the field in the picture above and the ones he describes at the Hobart Oval come down, I'm afraid, to talent.

Fuck. This is bad news. And it gets worse.

He gets incredibly excited about playing alongside famous players like Ricky Ponting. He's overawed by famous opponents, and scared of quick bowlers. Exactly as we would be.

He worries about keeping a diary. Why's he doing it? Is it healthy? When things are going well it's fine, but when things are going badly isn't it just adding extra layers of self-doubt and wrecking his own confidence? Is he - like me - just writing for writing's sake, and making things worse? Turns out it probably is.

He worries about his form. The overriding impression that comes out of the book is that he's struggling to buy a run, that the game is making him miserable, and that he's really not good enough to play it. Except, when you look at the stats, he actually had a very good season. Turns out that's just how the game makes you feel, unless you're averaging about 200.

He loves and respects his team mates, to a rather touching degree. If anything they're the only things that keep him sane. But he also frets and becomes increasingly bitter and slightly jealous when he's dropped from the team for shorter forms of the game. As we all have at one point or another. Turns out that's just what we do.

To reiterate - this is a man who was just about to be selected to play for his country, having a strong season in one of the toughest domestic leagues in the world, and the entire experience, word-for-word is....well, it's pretty much this blog.

Worth reading? Absolutely, if you can take the dispiriting news that the game is no different at all at the top levels, with the small difference that the people competing are much better. Here's an extract.

And as an added bonus, here's a piece by him on facing Mitchell Johnson, which is really one of the better bits of cricket writing by a professional in the last few years.

Monday, 4 June 2012

21/05/2012 - Lord's



Wrote this one up for the New Statesman here.

(May borrow a few lines from other blog posts).

Monday, 21 May 2012

20/5/2010 - Middleton Stoney



Perhaps I should just fess up. You see 'The Decrepits' down there? Well, that's my other team, that is. Our captain has actually made some of his money by writing about how old and crap we are - over the space of two books, in fact (I've all but outed us now, but shall preserve the veneer of anonymity).

But on days like this, you have to wonder - is that joke funny any more? I am the club's youth policy. I'm 30, and as such I'm our athletic fast bowler. But I'm ludicrously unfit, I've played far too much joke cricket, and I doubt my bowling's topped 70mph since I was 24. Christ, it's just occurred to me that my bowling is legal on British roads. Anyway.

Some days we're not too old. Today we were the oldest we have ever been. Even with me in the team, we averaged 51. We lost the toss, and were inserted on a day so cold, and so damp, it felt rather like being - I can't even think of a simile. Like being in the North Sea, but on land. "I'm just going outside," announced our Captain, as we huddled in the dressing room, "I may be some time".

And the oppo. Oh, the oppo. A village. But a proper village. With a league team. That play in a league. And bowl properly. And bat properly. And are either middle aged, ludicrously coordinated batsmen who despite being past their prime simply deal in boundaries to save running, or thrusting young Charlies who just want to knock you or your stumps over.

Up against them: me. And ten people either closing in on or having already flown past 60 years of age. Why do we play them? Because they're nice, and it's a nice ground. When it's not -5C and the clouds don't look like the opening to an Ingmar Bergman film.

We lost the toss. I opened the batting. The short story is this. I got about 25 or 30, and when I was out I remember noticing we were 36-6. I had pretty much scored all of our runs. Had I not been there, I think we probably could have been entirely done for in the first half hour.

The long story of this innings is very long. That 25 took an hour and 20 minutes. The pitch was green and unbelievably slow and low, the ball was swinging miles, and the seamers were very good. It took me 15 minutes before I got off the mark, and it was (genuinely) the first bad ball I received. After 10 more minutes the bowler finally got another one wrong - a low full toss, and I climbed into it, punching it over his head and holding the pose. Have some of THAT, Sonny Jim.

Except. It wasn't four. It stopped absolutely dead, three yards from the boundary, and I scampered two. It was almost impossible to hit fours, because the outfield was slower than, well, us. So my score was entirely comprised of twos, many of which would have been boundaries on another day.

But EVEN given all this: tight and quick bowling, lots of seam movement and a pitch that won't let you time it even when it doesn't move laterally, a slow outfield - you still have an option to get the scoreboard moving, don't you? The quick single. Yeah, good luck with that when your batting partner is, in cricketing terms, older than Methuselah.

But EVEN given all this, you have another option, don't you? Take a few risks and go in the air. Cut the outfield out and send it home. Well yeah, you could. I mean, surely someone else will make a few if it goes wrong? Oh, there goes another one. 20-4. Hmm, might put that lofted on drive back in the locker.

But EVEN given all this, you have one final option, don't you? Just stay there, and hope for the best. So that's what I did. Their opener, once he'd found his rhythm, was getting it to move both ways, huge amounts, in the air and off the pitch. Every ball either cut back in or away sharply - far too much for me. Fuck it, I'm happy to declare - too much for most people.

You have a wonderful Hobson's choice in these scenarios - do you just cover off stump for the one that comes in, let the balls that move away beat the outside edge and hope one doesn't catch it, or do you try to play everything in the hope of picking up some extra runs, and pray you don't nick off or get bowled? Either way, you're very unlikely to score any runs. I opted for the lesser of two evils, and covered off stump. Five balls in a row fizzed past the outside edge.

And you want to know the real fucker? It was how I got out. For an hour, I'd restrained myself from playing the horizontal bat shots, knowing the ball was barely getting stump high. And the first change bowler, who's a teenage kid and isn't a patch on the openers, drops one half way down, and for one ball I forget, start to pull, and there's that sickening realisation that I'm not going to get a bat on it because once you're into the shot there's no going back - and - clunk.

Ultimately, you can't coach yourself out of a couple of decades worth of cricket forever. I'm an English club cricketer, and I play on soft, slow pitches. This isn't bloody Australia, chaps. If that ball lands half way down, it's got to go to the square leg boundary. I deliberately dropped short when I was bowling to their batsmen, who made exactly the same mistake, instinctively going on the pull. But the ball missed the stumps by a whisker, three times. I made the same mistake at that Wimbledon game last year. No answer, really, other than to play more games on wickets like this. Anyway: FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.

You may think I'm talking this innings up. But as I was walking off, the skipper, who clearly knows the game and clocked most of the contributory factors that made this innings even trickier than it would ordinarily have been, ran up and patted me on the back. I probably still am talking it up, of course, but never mind. All relative, isn't it.

We somehow set them 70. We're worse at bowling than we are at batting. I don't need to go into the details.

And yet the whole thing was so much fun. I bloody loved the challenge, though I'm pissed off I ultimately flunked it. I love the company of my team mates, for whom middle age has brought an extremely mild, but sharp - in fact absolutely wicked - sense of humour and self-deprecation. But we do need a couple of new recruits. Even Dad's Army wasn't quite so funny at the end.

19/05/2012 - Hawridge and/or Cholebury (not sure which village the ground is in)



Right, I've done hundreds of words on this one for the club site and I'm buggered if I'm replicating them in house style here. With that in mind these are the salient points (for those who can't be arsed to wade through the mountain of in-jokes).

1. People are scum. I may have mentioned this before.
2. I scored 2* and played out a maiden against a child. And didn't bowl. That said most people got to do something, which is what matters, isn't it? Oh.
3. This place is a bloody gem. Friendly chaps, nice ground, smashing tea.