Friday, 11 September 2015

Column 31, 2015 – The Future

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 134, Friday September 11, 2015.
[Full text below]

This is my last column for The Cricket Paper, at least for a while. So this seems an appropriate time to peer into the crystal ball, and have a look into the future of cricket, to see how it all turns out.

2017 South Africa hit 500 in an ODI. New Zealand chase it with four balls to spare.

2019 The World Cup in England is investigated under the Trade Descriptions Act, and ordered to re-name itself the FEENIO Cup [Former Empire Elite Nations Invitation Only]

2022 Akira Sharma becomes the first woman to play men’s international cricket. The tiny 17-year-old makes a hundred on debut against men twice her size and age.

2027 In his last game in an England shirt, Ben Stokes scores the first quadruple century on day one of a Test match.

2031 N Srinivasan and Giles Clarke demand an $80bn ransom from the ICC for something called ‘The Spirit of Cricket’. The organisation initially shrugs it off, as no one there has the faintest notion of what it could possibly be. No one that is, except the janitor, who has a vague nagging memory from his childhood. He becomes chairman, and injects joy back into the game. Clarke and Srini are banished to Napoleon’s exile island of St Helena in the south Atlantic, and forced to give the $80bn to kids’ cricket in developing nations. Everyone lives happily ever after.

2037 The full-body ‘nerve suit’ becomes commercially available, allowing the wearer to completely experience the physical sensations of others. Marketed as a sex toy, it is soon subverted by ingenious hackers and used to resurrect Michael Vaughan’s cover drive for everyone to experience as if they’d hit it themselves. A software engineer fined £1m and jailed for a month says it’s “a small price to pay”.

2044 Sir Joe Root fills fellow pundit Gary Ballance’s shoes with mayonnaise live on air for the 12th consecutive season, and is finally rewarded with a knighthood for Services to Practical Jokes.

2052 After the successful colonisation of the moon, cricket is struck off as a Star Fleet Approved pastime when Jamaican astronaut Christopher Gayle the Third breaks the glass ceiling on the life support dome and becomes the first person to literally hit a six into orbit.

2069 I play my last game for Damerham CC, aged 101, declaring: “I can’t complain, I’ve had a pretty good knock.” Needing just four runs to achieve a lifelong career average in double figures, I am run out without facing with an average of 9.94.

2077 Bicentenary Ashes Series. England beat Australia 5-0 in Australia. Again.

2091 The Cricket World Cup is held in New Argentina, contested by 247 of the world’s 292 recognised countries, a team of expats from Mars, and a delegation of visiting Nnncrulians. The time-dilation technique used in ‘Relativity Tests’ allows each nation to simultaneously compete in a five-Test series. Finland beat China by eight wickets in the final. Some things never change.

- ends 496 words -

Friday, 4 September 2015

Column 30, 2015 – Death of a Gentleman

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 133, Friday September 4, 2015.
[Full text below]

In the fast paced, cash obsessed world of modern sport, what hope is there for the gentleman’s game? Is Test cricket’s fate already sealed? And is T20 the prime suspect? These are the questions cricket journalists Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber set out to answer with their documentary Death of a Gentleman.

The cinéma vérité style is reminiscent of Nick Broomfield, or more recently the likes of Michael Moore: the journey of the film-makers forms part of the narrative. Initially they’re motivated by the frustration of watching something wonderful wither, but during the course of its making, the film solidifies into something else, and the power-grab by the ‘big three’ of India, England and Australia dominates its third act.

The most remarkable thing about this outrageous coup d’état was just how little outrage it caused. Implicit in this is that those who might have been outraged – the ‘lesser’ full nations and associates – had already been effectively silenced by the big three.

That’s the real story at the heart of this film, and if it doesn’t entirely succeed in fully unearthing it, it does succeed in shining an unforgiving light on its shadowy architects.

As in most films, the most striking figures are the baddies.

Former BCCI president and current ICC chairman N. Srinivasan wields all the power, and is so entrenched in the centre of his own web, that he appears impossible to untangle. As Kimber puts it, “Any committee that could possibly get rid of him, he’s on”.

But the real boo-hiss baddy of the piece is Giles Clarke. The former chairman and current president of the ECB conducts every interaction from a position of lofty entitlement. His bellicose brand of arrogance borders on open aggression, and he appears genuinely affronted by the idea that anyone might question his actions, or hold him to account. How DARE they. Haughty disdain wafts around him like cologne. He’s a real pantomime villain, and the screening I was in shuffled and bristled in indignation at his every utterance.

By contrast, there’s a strand of the film following batsman Ed Cowan and his family as he makes his Test debut for Australia. Cowan is engaging and likeable, and his story is by turns heart-warming and heartbreaking.

But its relation to the film’s thrust is peripheral. It represents all that’s good and pure and worth saving in Test cricket, but this film is about the boardroom battles rather than those on the field, and Cowan’s story, poignant though it is, only highlights that disconnect.

But that is not to detract from its worth. Death of a Gentleman its an important film for anyone who loves cricket, as Collins and Kimber and many of their contributors so evidently do.

Seek it out, and decide for yourself if their campaign to #savecricket is worth supporting, before the corruption, greed and short-termism of the administrators at the heart of our game destroys it before they’ve even finished counting the money.

Death of a Gentleman is showing at selected cinemas nationwide.

- ends 493 words -

Friday, 28 August 2015

Column 29, 2015 – Alternate thrashings

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 132, Friday August 28, 2015.
[Full text below]

It’s an odd situation to find yourself in, that of suddenly winning.

Not just winning either, but really convincingly being the ones doing the thrashing, rather than the ones being thrashed.

This Ashes series has been most bizarre. Surely the most one sided 3-2 scoreline ever. This was far more one sided than either of England’s 5-0 down-under drubbings in the last decade. It’s just that it wasn’t always the same side being drubbed.

After Trent Bridge I touched on that curious suspended limbo a team experiences when staring down the barrel of an almost certain heavy defeat, and how that detached air of inevitability robs the game of drama.

It’s extraordinary to have had that for all five matches in a series. Five Tests between England and Australia, the conclusion of each not in doubt from early in the piece, and played out with a total absence of tension.

In club cricket, such roller-coaster inconsistency is normal. Weekend warriors with more important things to worry about all week than where their off stump is, can expect to swing wildly between competence and ineptitude.

But when the very best in the world meet to battle it out in five games over five days (A five day Test match! Can you imagine such a thing?!) such reckless profligacy is as disappointing as it is baffling.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that England won. But it’s hardly as much fun as a proper, competitive, knife edge, can’t-call-it-till-the-death game of cricket, is it?

As you may have gleaned, Damerham have been on the receiving end of our share of heavy defeats of late, to the extent that, with just two games to go, we found ourselves flirting with relegation.

Last week we self-destructed from 100-2 to 120 all out. This week, in our own tribute to this Ashes of ferocious contrasts, we bowled the opposition out for 66 then knocked off the runs without loss before tea, for a most emphatic maximum-point win. We were done by 4.30, in the pub by five (five!).

Recently I talked about the ritual dissection after the game: who did what, the turning points, the successes and failures. Well, we’ve never really had occasion to find out before, but it turns out that winning that comprehensively leaves a lot less to talk about. There weren’t exactly any awkward silences, but once you’ve got over the initial novelty of being in the pub by five, (five!) it turns out there’s just less to say. “So. We did pretty well and they did pretty badly, eh? Mmm.”

Again, don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful to be a thrasher rather than a thrashee for once, and I’m delighted we catapulted ourselves away from the relegation zone with such unaccustomed panache. But it’s hardly as much fun as a proper, competitive, knife edge, can’t-call-it-till-the-death game of cricket, is it?

There’s just no pleasing some people.

- ends 485 words -

Friday, 21 August 2015

Column 28, 2015 – The importance of The Pub

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 131, Friday August 21, 2015.
[Full text below]

Some people regard cricket solely as a mechanism for working up a thirst.

I think that’s probably going a little far, but I can appreciate it as a philosophy.

Certainly I agree that the hour or two spent in the pub garden after a match – dissecting it, celebrating it, rueing it, even collectively ignoring it – is an intrinsic part of the game. If for any reason I have to rush off after stumps, it feels like I’ve missed some vital element. Like having a bat then leaving before we field.

We are extremely lucky with our pub.

Proximity is one major plus. If you’re sitting on the bench outside the pavilion, it’s roughly the same distance to the crease as it is to the bar in The Compasses, just in the opposite direction.

But the warmth of the welcome is a bigger bonus. A country pub is a village’s beating heart, and ours has a good strong pulse.

It wasn’t always this way. We’ve had some great landlords in the past, but recently some less great ones. The previous owners cared little for cricket, or weekend trade, or the village’s heartbeat. In a famous nadir two summers ago they pretended to be out after a Sunday friendly, rather than serve two dozen thirsty punters.

Shortly afterwards they did a runner, taking everything that wasn’t nailed down, as well as several things that were, including most of the kitchen, and even the woodburners.

The sight of those doors boarded over was chilling. Along with the village school, the pub was a major factor when we settled here. The seeming certainty of my summer garden pints, my winter pool team and log fires being turned into a retirement home haunted my dreams those few bleak weeks.

But then new landlords Simon and Lee arrived like a breath of fresh air.

Along with their virtual defibrillator, they brought with them experience, enthusiasm, and a fundamental understanding of what a village pub should be. The food is great, they care about beer and know how to keep it, they put on live music and summer festivals. It is busy, buzzy, and once again the heart of the village.

Better yet they have embraced the cricket club, sponsoring our shirts, and – perhaps best of all – provide us with post match sustenance. A magnificent speciality sausage roll, about the size and shape of a giant’s cricket bat blade, filled with eggs through the middle, gleefully christened the ostrich sausage.

So after a game, you will always find us in that beer garden, congregated around an impressive pastry, discussing that catch (“man that was some catch” / “how did you drop that?”) that LBW (“plumb” / “missing the next set”) and various other cricket related nonsense that begins “It’s like that time…” or “Do you remember that game when…”

Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He would have enjoyed the beer garden after the game. Cheers.

- ends 490 words -

Friday, 14 August 2015

Column 27, 2015 – Earning the fruitbowl

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 130, Friday August 14, 2015.
[Full text below]

A few months back, Andy rescued a spectacularly kitsch fruit bowl from the dump. He bought it, for a pound, washed it (I hope), filled it with fruit and brought it to the game for some light refreshments while we batted.

It was so unlovable, we took something of a shine to it, and it’s now taken up permanent residence as our man of the match award. It seemed fittingly silly.

So whoever stars with runs, wickets, catches or whatever, even in a losing cause, has to take this ludicrous fruit bowl home and explain it to their family.

The reason I bring this up now is that the other week, we were so awful, so utterly devoid of merit, that we were forced to award the bowl to our top scorer.


We shook our heads at our own ineptitude, baffled at how every single one of us could be that simultaneously dreadful, lamenting aloud how you don’t see that level of abject collective failure in proper cricket.

Except of course we just did. Our scorebook that day was remarkably similar to Australia’s titanic collapse at Trent Bridge. We were all out for 59. Only one of us staggered into double figures, as opposed to their two. Our extras did one better than theirs though: we managed 15. And we lasted 25.2 overs, 6.5 more than them.

Even though we wanted to, and might as well have done, we couldn’t just get changed and go home, any more than Australia could.

There are always examples of stunning wins from unlikely positions, of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Early this season we defended 88. Somebody somewhere in one of the leagues defended forty-something. There are Test examples too: Headingly 81 (obviously), and Laxman and Dravid’s 376 run fifth wicket stand following-on against Australia in Calcutta to secure a wildly unlikely win.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Unlikely. We celebrate these rare examples precisely because they’re so unusual.

99% of the time, if you get yourself into that bad a position, you’re going to lose, and you deserve to. One of the great old clichés cricket has in such bounty is that though you can’t win a game in the first hour, you can lose it.

But you have to work yourself up into believing that it’s not a lost cause. You have to absorb that psychological hammerblow of building your own mountain to climb, and construct the preposterous self-delusion that you can still win it. The fantasy of false hope.

There’s something a little bit soul crushing about communally pretending you believe you have a hope in hell pursuing a lost cause. An unspoken mutual confidence mirage, wilfully deceiving each other with chirpy optimism. “Where there’s tea there’s hope, eh lads?” All hope is lost. “Come on boys, we’re in this!” We’re really not.

We’ve all been there. So well batted, Aussie extras. There’s a fruit bowl here with your name on it.

- ends 494 words -

Friday, 7 August 2015

Column 26, 2015 – Spotlight on the ball

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 129, Friday August 7, 2015.
[Full text below]

Either side of the war, the legendary Compton brothers played cricket for Middlesex and football for Arsenal. In 1952 a Lord’s colleague of theirs, Jack Young, had a benefit cricket match between the sides, played at Highbury.

This was not unusual in the north London clubs’ long and happy association. What was unusual was that this game was played on a Monday evening, under Highbury’s newly installed floodlights, before an audience of several million, live on the BBC.

It must have looked like the future back in 1952. We wouldn’t see floodlit cricket again until the Packer Revolution, 25 years later.

The balls used at Highbury that evening were literally painted white, and had to be replaced every few overs when the paint flaked off. They could easily fix that though, couldn’t they? How hard could it be?

Surprisingly for a civilisation that has advanced so spectacularly in so many ways in the intervening 63 years, a white cricket ball that stays relatively white, hard and generally ball-like remains elusive. Hence the two new balls in ODIs.

This is a plus for traditionalists. There’s money in Test cricket under lights, so it WILL happen. If anyone had developed a successful white ball, we’d be looking at pyjama Tests. But they haven’t, so instead we’re looking at a compromise.

White balls don’t work. Red balls under lights are invisible against the sky. So. What’s halfway between red and white?

It’s only five years since the initial first-class trial of the pink ball at the 2010 Champion County fixture in Abu Dhabi. The following year a pink ball was used in a County match at Canterbury. Last year pink balls were used in Sheffield Shield matches in Australia. And this summer the first pink ball Test match was announced: Australia vs New Zealand at Adelaide on 27 November 2015.

That’s pretty quick. In a similar timeframe, bright orange balls have transformed amateur evening cricket. At tree-lined grounds at dusk, a dark red ball is all but invisible, the bright orange much easier to pick up, especially in the field. It makes a massive difference. Of course that’s visibility in bad light, rather than artificial light. Which is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a-whole-nother ball game.

Reports from pink ball trials vary wildly. The main problem is getting it to last 80 overs. Kookaburra have tested 16 different pinks. Their latest, they claim, wears at the same rate as a red ball. Let’s hope so. The wearing ball is an intrinsic part of Test cricket. If you have to change it every 20 overs, you can’t really pretend it’s a Test match.

Visibility is apparently good. Though some keepers have struggled, batsmen see it fine.

With one notable exception – Chris Rogers won’t be opening the batting for Australia in the Test at Adelaide in November, just as he didn’t for Victoria against Tasmania in the Sheffield Shield last year: his colour blindness means he can’t see the pink ball.

- ends 496 words -

Friday, 31 July 2015

Column 25, 2015 – You'll never walk alone

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 128, Friday July 31, 2015.
[Full text below]

        (Not all that delighted with how I was subbed this week.
        Suggest you read the original text, below the pic.)

I got myself into another ‘walking debate’ on twitter again the other day.

A columnist (not a cricket specialist; a political commentator writing about cricket) expressed the opinion that Jos Buttler walking in the second Ashes Test at Lord’s was refreshing, and caused him to reflect once more on what a shame it is that cricket is no longer on free-to-air telly, as that’s exactly the sort of honourable conduct he thought impressionable youngsters should witness from sporting heroes.

A little dewy-eyed perhaps, but fundamentally I agree. (Somewhat surprisingly, as I disagree with most of what he says.)

A cricket writer expressed derision for this bleeding heart sentiment. I enquired after the nature of the contempt. Another writer joined in. Here, in essence, is their stance.

Walking is not a thing, said one. It doesn’t matter if you do it or not, we shouldn’t focus on it. All it does is fuel the ‘spirit of cricket’ pomposity which blights the game. Exactly, said the other. The spirit of cricket is baloney. [I’m paraphrasing.] In fact, I’ll go further: it does matter, walking is selfish, no professional cricketer should ever walk as it’s never in their team’s best interests.

I understand this attitude, especially in the professional game with professional umpires. But I disagree with it. Which is fine, of course. Other opinions are available.

In their view, the issue is whether the umpire thinks you hit it. In mine, the issue is whether you think you hit it.

You hit it, they catch it, you’re out. That’s cricket. I don’t mean that’s ‘the spirit of cricket’, I mean that’s cricket. That’s the game.

Their version seems to be “don’t-get-caught-getting-caught”. Which, as well as less fair, to me also seems a lot less interesting than cricket.

Saturday was the last of our league derbies, against Hyde. We know them well, share nets and players for friendlies, midweek and indoor leagues. This always lends Saturday derbies spice.

I turn my head to see the ball hit the keeper’s gloves and the slips go up. I didn’t hit it. I’m sure I didn’t hit it. If I thought I had, I’d be walking.

The cordon’s clearly convinced, but only one opinion matters. I turn back to see it delivered via an unequivocally raised index finger as the appeals turn to celebrations. I feel that momentary flash of indignation at being given out, usually reserved for LBWs. That’s life. No one said it was fair. Head down, I turn for the pavilion.

I’m not even halfway there when a second, rather larger indignation creeps over me. This one is much more complicated and subtle. These people I play cricket with, teammates on other days, are going to assume I did that on purpose. They’ll think I hit it and deliberately stood my ground. That’s what it’ll look like: like I’m playing “don’t-get-caught-getting-caught” instead of cricket.

Talk about not fair.

- ends 485 words -