Friday, 30 May 2014

Column 13, 2014 – Bowlers who bat

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 85, Friday May 30, 2014.
[Full text below]

Since the seventies, Major League Baseball has had a ‘designated hitter’ rule, allowing a player picked for his batting to bat in place of one picked for his pitching.

Fortunately for all concerned, cricket entertains no such nonsense.

The game’s structure means not everyone has to bowl, but everyone does have to bat. A player in the side for his batting will not be forced to embarrass himself in front of a global TV audience doing something he’s not as good at as many amateurs.

Whereas those picked for their skill with the ball will inevitably be required to show off their batting chops, or lack thereof.

Favourite of this column Chris Martin, as he so often does, provides a wonderful example. No, not Gwyneth Paltrow’s estranged corporate rock warbler, the other one. Chris Martin was a rangy workhorse with a distinctive skip into the crease, whose 233 scalps made him New Zealand’s fourth highest Test wicket-taker of all time. Far more entertainingly, he was an absolutely dreadful batsman. In 103 innings he accrued 123 runs, 36 ducks, and an average of 2.37, only made that respectable by 51 not-outs.

Martin was unusually bad, but he’s just an extreme example of Test cricket’s most thrilling spectacle: ordinary, just-like-us batsmen facing world-class attacks.

Who can forget Jimmy Anderson and Monty Pannesar, both excellent bowlers, one an ordinary bat, the other a few grades below ordinary, blocking out the end of the first Ashes Test in 2009? It was genuine edge-of-your-seat stuff, a by-the-fingernails draw that those who don’t understand cricket cannot grasp the appeal of.

For me it’s when cricket trumps all other sport. Bowler vs bowler is a contest of skill vs heart. Flintoff and Harmison with the ball vs Kasprowicz and Lee with the bat: perhaps the game’s most epic battle. And Graham Onions surviving a brutal onslaught from Morne Morkel in Cape Town was more memorable than a hundred efficient wins.

So you can see why England have been guilty in the past of picking bowlers for their batting. It’s understandable, but never a good idea. When it comes to Tests, you want your best bowlers. Let the batsmen get the runs.

But if you find a genuinely good bowler who also knows which way up the bat goes? Well, that’s a different story.

Chris Jordan has been demonstrating for some time now that he’s an accurate, mid-eighties quick with a tasty bouncer. In the truncated Scotland ODI, the last ball of the innings – the only one he faced – was nonchalantly dispatched onto the pavilion roof. Last Thursday he did that to the best death bowler in the world to cap 38 off 13 balls. He has yet to be tested at the highest level trying to preserve his wicket rather than smash sixes, but I have a feeling he’ll get his chance.

He bowls pretty well. But excitingly, Chris Jordan can bat.

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Friday, 23 May 2014

Column 12, 2014 – The family game

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 84, Friday May 23, 2014.
[Full text below]

The first week of the Hampshire Cricket League was pretty much washed away. Our game was one of the last called off, and the local rag turned up, desperate for something – anything – for the first official day of the league cricket season.

The resultant picture, cajoled out of us on our sodden square before we trudged off for an afternoon of reluctant shopping or DIY or some other ignominy, exposed something about our demographic we mostly tend to ignore. But there it was staring back at us from the back page, thrown suddenly into sharp relief: it’s just possible we may not be in our prime.

The prime of your sporting years is 25-40. Guess how many of us there are in that age bracket? That’s right. None at all. Not one.

Sachin Tendulkar retired at 40, and he was about as late as it gets. A legend with 100 international hundreds, and still many thought he’d outstayed his welcome. Two other recent legends, Ponting and Kallis, were both 38. Mark Ramprakash managed to hold out till 42, domestic cricket being more forgiving than the world stage.

Bowlers tend to go earlier, the stress on the body a little more telling. McGrath and Warne were 36 and 37 when they strolled off into the Sidney sunset together for the final time.

Part timers, really. Last year we had to persuade Al, an off-spinner in his fifties (and a character generally known as anything other than ‘retiring’) that he still had a good decade left in him.

Because village cricket is almost exclusively contested by +40s and -25s. And it’s not just us. Most clubs we know are in similar straits. There may be a few, but they are the exceptions, when you’d have thought they’d be the rules.

Why this should be is not entirely clear. The almost complete absence of cricket in state schools surely can’t help, but doesn’t account for the -25s, who are to be found in healthy numbers at most clubs.

It must, I can only conclude, simply be the call of the family, the growing necessity of two working parents meaning most men in the prime of their cricketing lives are required around the nest at weekends. (For more on this, see my book, which derives its title from my wife’s attitude to cricket.) Good for families, perhaps. Bad for cricket, definitely.

Anyway. It turns out, this time of year is an excellent time to encounter any side relying on players in their early twenties, before they’re overwhelmed by the pull of the nappy.

We finally played our first league match on Saturday and won at a canter by eight wickets in half the overs. Bramshaw II were largely over 50 or under 18, but in a month’s time they’ll be bolstered with half a dozen 20-somethings back from university, and they’ll be a very different proposition indeed.

Like most things in cricket, it’s all about timing.

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Friday, 16 May 2014

Column 11, 2014 – An underdog's chance

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 83, Friday May 16, 2014.
[Full text below]

In the wake of the Holland debacle, the Scotland game was an absolute must win for England. They had nothing to gain, everything to lose.

The phrase ‘out of your league’ is a metaphor everyone understands when applied to hypothetical romantic liaisons, but it can also be more literal.

There are no leagues in international cricket, though we can guess how they’d stack up if there were. Division 1 would be the top eight full ICC members. Division 2 would be Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, plus a select group of ‘Associate Nations who’ve made full members look stupid’ – Ireland, Afghanistan, Holland.

Scotland would be in Division 3, with the bulk of the Associate Nations, striving for promotion to the ‘make full members look stupid’ brigade.

(The rest of the leagues would be made up of the Affiliate Nations, countries you can’t quite believe actually play cricket at all: Estonia, Morocco, Sweden, and, perhaps most improbably, The Falkland Islands.)

Anyway, Scotland were playing a side a good few leagues above them, with nothing to lose and everything to prove.

Not a dissimilar scenario, just on a different scale, to The National Village Cup, the early rounds of which are effectively a series of Heffalump traps for the better clubs to avoid.

This year we were drawn against Tichborne Park. We’ve played them before, and know them as a pleasant bunch with a lovely ground. We also know that they are much better than us. Their seconds play at our level, but their first team are Southern Premier II. Which is out of our league in a distinctly non-metaphorical way.

After a shaky start, with one opener bowled behind his legs and the other subjected to a run call that would have tested a cheetah with a launch catapult (yes, me – what gave it away?) we settled down to a respectable 150, young Ben making amends with a jug-avoiding 48.

Giant-killing possibilities didn’t even cross our minds. Until they had a bit of a wobble: a simple caught-and-bowled, a thick edge, the next guy clean bowled for a golden. At 12-3, the slightest ripple of belief could almost be felt running round their enormous outfield.

It dissipated fairly quickly, that enormous outfield put to efficient use as they knocked off the runs before drinks with a minimum of fuss and no further loss.

Scotland won’t have really thought they had a sniff, especially not when they were set 170 in 20 overs. But there can’t have been too many people, on either side, who didn’t experience a little flicker in the stomach when Michael Leask was smashing Tredwell around The Granite City on his way to 42 from 16 balls.

In both cases, at either end of cricket’s spectrum, the clear favourites prevailed comfortably, as everyone knew they would. But in both, for just the briefest of moments, it looked like it might get interesting.

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Friday, 9 May 2014

Column 10, 2014 – Antici... ...pation

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 82, Friday May 9, 2014.
[Full text below]

It’s that time again. Every year it happens. The long slow build up of expectation as the cricket season approaches and the first outdoor outing looms ever larger on the horizon.

I played a few indoor games over the winter. It’s good fun, and eerily reminiscent of cricket. It even contains many of the same elements – bowling, batting, throwing, catching – but remains definitely and resolutely something else.

Indoor cricket is not cricket to the same extent that table tennis is not tennis. The extra word changes it completely.

There were winter nets, and now outdoor nets too. Outdoors feels closest, perhaps because you’re in natural light, and at the place where actual cricket happens. It smells of new grass, and you can’t help wandering over to inspect the square and speculate.

In the brief summer of Easter week, the square dried out, and the strip Derek prepared even had little cracks in it. Anticipation reached a rolling boil. Easter Sunday, our first scheduled game, it rained solidly all day. Of course it did.

The next week, after a deluge on Friday, the slate grey skies never looked like lifting and the game was called off before 11. I don’t remember an April with no cricket at all.

This week, the forecast was clear, and Saturday dawned bright and blue. I stood staring out the window, searching for the grey. There wasn’t any.

Finally, it was actually going to happen. I was so excited I nearly cleaned last year’s mud off my spikes. Instead, I worked out how long it had been. Last autumn was as wet as this spring, so our final game of 2013 was the first day of September. Over eight months. 244 days. 66.85% – just over two thirds – of a year. That’s a lot of anticipation.

We batted first and I opened. Walking out to the middle, pulling on gloves, sniffing the air, feeling the breeze, squinting at the sun, I tried to freeze the moment, frame it in my mind.

You can see where this is going, can’t you? This story can’t end well.

Even in wet outdoor nets, the ball skids on to the bat pretty quick. On early village pitches when there’s been this much rain, the ball does no such thing. Anything below express pace sticks in the surface, mooching on to the bat with all the urgency of a reluctant teenager with revision to do. I know this perfectly well. It is not new information.

I defended a few, left a few. Then I went to flick one off my pads for an easy single, and was through the shot so early that when the ball finally deigned to turn up, it was met with the full face of my outside edge and went straight up in the air for some gentle catching practice. Betrayed. I always suspected nets were a bad idea.

The first game has finally arrived. The first run will have to wait.

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Friday, 2 May 2014

Column 9, 2014 – Bring back the ginger genius

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 81, Friday May 2, 2014.
[Full text below]

Next month England will pick a Test side to replace the one broken, humiliated and generally kicked around the gutter in Sydney.

So despite the almost exclusively dreary weather, this has been one of the most interesting starts to the County Championship in years, because the door to the national side, for the first time in ages, is wide open.

Cook, Bell, Broad and Anderson you’d think are nailed on, barring injury. Of the next generation, it’s relatively safe to assume that Root and Stokes are in, and Buttler will get his chance with the gloves if Prior doesn’t step up. The last quick’s spot will probably go to Jordan, Mills, Finn or Onions.

The batting spots are harder to call. And there are three of them.

There’s no shortage of strong cases. Compton, Carberry, Bopara, Ballance and half a dozen others are looking to add to their Test cap collection. Ali, Robson and Vince are heading up the queue to start one.

But for me there is one name leading the chasing pack by some margin. I’ll be disappointed if England’s middle order doesn’t feature more ginger than just the fiery Stokes come June.

Eoin Morgan made his first big splash in 2010, when he steered England home in Bangladesh with an assured hundred, becoming in the process the first ever player to score international centuries for two different nations.

But that’s not what stood out about him. We’ve become quite blasé about reverse sweeps and all the rest of it, but when you see Morgan and all his busy, breathtaking chicanery at its best, it looks so easy and natural you wonder why everyone doesn’t do it. Until you remember that most simply can’t.

And he can do it under pressure. He’s an aggressive middle order finisher who scores quickly and destroys conventional fields. Pietersen’s natural successor. And only 27.

In Test cricket he seems to have been hobbled. Impossible to be sure, but it’s almost as if he’s been told – or felt compelled – to abandon his natural game and play like a classicist. If England are serious about a fresh approach, giving Morgan his head would be an excellent place to start.

And there is another reason to get him back in the fold: he’s a natural captain.

He’s impressed whenever he’s deputised for an injured Cook or Broad in the short forms. Broad has helpfully reminded everyone of late how tough it is for bowlers to captain themselves, and Morgan clearly has a fine cricket brain, and is imaginative and inventive in ways that neither of the incumbents have demonstrated.

I’m a big fan of Alastair Cook the opener, not so much of Alastair Cook the captain. It’s often said that the best argument for Cook’s captaincy is the lack of viable alternatives. Well guided, Morgan could be that alternative. And maybe Cook could go back to averaging 125 against Australia.

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