Thursday, 22 August 2013

Monday, 19 August 2013

The CC's season in review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 August 2013

Two more book recommendations

Well, I got sent this too:

The Bodyline Hypocrisy by Michael Arnold (Pitch Publishing).

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

Excuse me for using some of the blurb to explain:

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

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

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

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

I've also been sent this:

Outside Edge by Marc Dawson (Pitch Publishing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should you be reading and watching during the Ashes then?

God bless you, sainted people of PR. I don't know, you pick up a couple of thousand Twitter followers and suddenly it's worth sending you stuff. Obviously I'm a proper journalist and have previously railed against the calumny of PR-driven writing. I work to no man's agenda. I want to make that very clear.

But. If they will send such good stuff.

First up, then, a package containing a DVD of England's Ashes Miracles (BBC Worldwide) and The Ashes Match of My Life, by Sam Pilger and Rob Wightman (Pitch Publishing).


To the DVD first then. Highlights of three matches: Headingley 1981, Edgbaston '05 and The Oval '09. You may well be familiar with these matches. In fact, it's rather unlikely you'll be reading this blog if you aren't. In short: Botham heroics, Flintoff! Jones! BOWDEN!!, and Stuart Broad putting in one of his occasional brilliant performances.

Is it worth getting it given the huge amount of cricket you can just watch for free online? It is. It's properly edited, you can see what's going on, and you really get a feel for the match in the context of the series. You're reminded that '81 and '09 were essentially fought out between two quite bad teams, and '05 was fought out between two very, very good ones. They're very different matches. In the first, Botham's 149 was little more than a chance to have fun in a lost cause - and indeed for all its brilliance would have remained so without RGD Willis's intervention. It was a curious game and for all the skill on display it wouldn't be unfair to chalk some of it up to Australian complacency.

'05 was a game with more ebb and flow. That's what happens when two powerful forces meet. England smash the Aussies around at five an over. Australia come up short in reply, but even against arguably England's best ever attack, still score at four an over. Then they run through the English top order, but England are able to secure an advantage through a brilliant Flintoff knock. A challenging 282 was set. And we all know how that played out.

'09, on the other hand, was a game England largely dominated. But it was amazingly tense, and we rather forget that now, given how the teams' fortunes developed afterwards. I'd forgotten a couple of things: the extraordinary composure of Trott on debut (his first shot, an exaggerated forward defence, reeked of positive intent), and the fact Harmison was still playing, and actually bowled rather well in the second innings on a pitch that in no way suited him. Oh, and England were perpetually stymied by the bowling of Marcus North. It turned a bit.

A fun way to spend an afternoon, but I was particularly taken by The Ashes: Match of My Life. In this book, a group of international cricketers talk at length about what particular matches meant to them. What really strikes me about these narratives is how little fun being an international cricketer appears to be. Geoffrey Boycott, Ashley Giles and Paul Collingwood are all remembered fondly by England fans - but much of their testimony is about the rage and hurt they felt at negative media coverage and waning powers.

Merv Hughes talks in rather harrowing fashion about the pain he felt as his body was letting him down throughout the 1993 series. Then he describes his calorific intake, and you wonder how he ever made it as a sportsman at all. It almost made those memories of him destroying our batting line up less upsetting. It's a properly brilliant cricket book, the sort that doesn't get written these days. The authors haven't just done their homework; they've interviewed intelligently. International cricketers have very, very interesting things to say. You just have to ask the right questions.

The other great thing about this book is that the chronological ordering of the essays really gives an insight into how the game's changed. Or indeed, hasn't. Ian Harvey starts by talking about the 1948 Invincibles, and we finish with Collingwood in 2011 - granted, there's a jump from Harvey to Ray Illingworth in 1971 but as an overview of the international game's history you could do worse. Booze and camaraderie are near constants, as is external pressure from fans and media alike. It's no wonder the modern game places such emphasis on sports psychology. Fans often feel like players don't really care as much as they do about the game they're playing at that very moment in time. They do. Because they're haunted by them long after we are.