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


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'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.