Thursday, 27 November 2014

What Phillip Hughes Meant To England Fans

It was 2009, and my girlfriend was getting annoyed. We were in a hotel room in the Gambia, and getting ready to go out to dinner. Or rather, she was. I was watching the television. A young batsman I'd never heard of was about to hit a ton against the best attack in world cricket. And he hadn't fought his way there: he'd blitzed them.

New Bradman, so they said. And it wasn't just the preposterous scores. It was the technique. Like Bradman, he did plenty of things he shouldn't have. Barely got into line, but it didn't matter. That just gave him room to laser the ball through the off side. He batted like a number 9 who was having fun: it looked like it could end any second, but that thin snick behind never came. The ball just kept disappearing to the fence.

So why didn't they bowl straight? Because it's easier said than done. Because he was just a kid having fun, and it couldn't last. We all know what Geoffrey says: "If the batsman cover drives you for a few fours then nicks off, you've won the battle." But the batsman didn't. He just kept dispatching ball after ball. And we sent the YouTube highlights video to each other, and said "Look at this kid!", because we're a family.

But then we had to play him, and we began to worry. If it hadn't been for the weight of those early runs, we would have realised what we were watching: not an ungodly talent sent to terrify us: just a very good young player who hadn't ever known the setbacks that inhibit the strokeplay of every batsman as they age.

Of course, our initial suspicions were right. It couldn't last. Nothing ever does, in cricket. So we gleefully watched as that uncultured technique was found out. Nothing huge changed: a slight shift in line, in length, so he couldn't play his favourite cut. Cricket is a game of inches, and our bowlers found the right ones. Hughes was dropped almost instantly: a couple of failures shouldn't have been enough to justify it, but everyone could see the jig was up.

For two years, little changed. He was in and out of the side, and we couldn't understand why they kept giving him another go. This was a player who had been found out. Damaged goods. Back to domestic cricket for you young man - go and learn your trade.

But then came 2013. You'll recall that Ashton Agar nearly made 100 batting at number 11. Agar was 19 years old, on debut, and like Hughes, about to accomplish something incredible. His youth, his charming smile, his nerves in front of the cameras - they all immediately endeared him to us. So we cheered him on, against our own team. It helped that we were winning, of course. But in no other game would the fans cheer on a member of the opposition like they did that day.

And at the other end? Phillip Hughes, now a number 6, calmly accumulated. The technique was still scratchy, but more refined. The flaky young genius was on his own journey - he was becoming a reliable professional. What did he say to Agar? A few years ago he'd been there himself. I'd like to think he just told him to enjoy himself.

We'd been wrong about him. He had class, and class isn't just about eye, or technique. No, turned out that flamboyant, borderline-genius tyro actually had that most unexpected and least valued of sporting attributes: character.

We cheered them on as they took 163 runs off our bowlers. Because we're a family.

Agar fell on 98, and we were distraught. Hughes finished unbeaten on 81, from 131 balls. A mature, responsible innings. He was on a journey, and now it won't ever be completed.

Something else happened in that series. Shane Watson had become a running joke because he kept getting out LBW for low scores. We do cruel running jokes better than any other sport, of course, because we're a family - sent each other pictures of photoshopped massive pads and the like.

Anyway, in the last test Watson finally came good. And during the highlights package someone asked Mark Nicholas what he thought this innings "meant". And Nicholas said the strangest thing. I don't know if these words are quite verbatim, but I do know they've stuck with me, for some reason:

"The truth about Shane Watson is...the truth is...he's a very nice young man, and all we wanted was to see him do well."

It was kind of a weird response. Because the question was clearly about what it meant for Australia's batting order. I found it such an interesting little moment: I don't really know where it came from, but it did feel more true than any other answer he could've given. We'd had our fun, we fans, for several months, and now Watson had somehow prevailed, and actually, we were fine with that, because we're a family. And today we're grieving as one.

Friday, 25 July 2014

On hiatus.

Have a job, trying to write a book. Literally no time to write.

Things that have happened this year.

1. Only played about 5 games.

2. Scored a ton (!) in one, but the best innings was probably a 30 against a really good team when I was really in the mood and attacked their opening bowlers. Outscored a properly good player who was batting at the other end. Bowling well, taking catches (!), it's amazing what a difference getting away from the emotional investment in a team and just being Some Bloke Who Turns Up And Plays makes.

3. Would love to talk about the collapse of England cricket, but just too GODDAMN busy. I finish the book in October and we all know what happens in October, don't we? This is going to be fun... 

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Here are three questions Jonathan Agnew could have asked Paul Downton, if he'd been arsed

I've been following the KP situation closely and refrained from writing on it because a) I don't have time to do much this blog this year at all, and b) Every voice I've heard thus far has been, to a greater or lesser degree, speculating on the situation. You don't need me to do that.

However, I did hear Jonathan Agnew's interview with Paul Downton (available for six days at time of writing), and have to say it made me feel far less comfortable about what's gone on than I'd felt previously.

To put it mildly, this was not a very good interview at all. Agnew accepted all of Downton's points with barely a hint of challenge. It wasn't Agnew's job to argue Pietersen's case. It was his job to probe inconsistencies in Downton's story. He simply failed to do so.

Here are some points where Agnew could have raised issue with what Downton said, if he'd been doing his job properly.

1. When Downton said he felt KP was batting badly/disinterestedly in Australia and it was time to make Cook and Bell the core of the team, might it not have been worth pointing out that KP was still our top run scorer?

If you're going to sack KP for being an unlikeable and divisive character, fine. But it seems a dubious argument to put to fans that a man who averages just under 50 was sacked because he had one bad series. My God, we've stuck by underperforming players for entire Test calendar years in the past.

2. When Downton said he couldn't find a single member of the side who supported KP, was it not worth mentioning the fact that the media has found around half a dozen who say they have no problem with him?

Maybe they're just being diplomatic. Maybe KP's got incriminating pictures of them all. It's still a point that needed challenging.

3. When Downton said KP initiated the split, rather than saying "that's interesting", might it not have been worth pointing out he knew at that stage he wasn't to be picked for the World T20?

Which had implications for his career, as per his subsequent statement.

Those are the first three questions that occurred to me. No doubt there are more. Here's the thing. I actually have no problem with the ECB deciding a very good player is, behind the scenes, more trouble than he's worth. I have no problem with them deciding that it came down to Captain Cook or a team with Pietersen in it and picking one.

It might well be the wrong decision, it might be ludicrously unfair on Pietersen, or we may find, come October, that he'd done things that meant he couldn't continue to be a part of the team. It's really impossible to say until we get a fuller account from both stories.

What I do have a problem with is the ECB's managing director putting forth his side of the story without any challenge whatsoever from the BBC's senior cricket correspondent. It either looks like a conspiracy, or that the latter's very bad indeed at his job.

I also take exception to said cricket correspondent's mention of dissenting voices from "people on social media", as if this is some special tribe of cricket fan that doesn't represent the majority. He may wish to note this poll of the Telegraph's notoriously radical readers:

Was the ECB right to sack Pietersen?