Friday, 29 August 2014

Column 26, 2014 – Cryptic point scoring

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 98, Friday August 29, 2014.
[Full text below]

The methods of scoring cricket in leagues are arcane and esoteric, and appear to have been specifically designed so that even people who’ve been doing it for decades have to look it up to make sure.

In the County Championship, you get 16 points for a win, eight for a tie and five for a draw. Then there’s a bonus batting point available at 250 runs, then another for every 50 up to a maximum of five at 400. You also get a bonus bowling point for taking three wickets, another for taking six, then a final one for the ninth, but only in the first 110 overs of the first innings, regardless of who wins.

Got that? Good now pay attention, I’m just getting started.

The Hampshire Cricket League is similar but different (of course it is). You get 12 for a win, six for a tie. Batting bonus points start at 50 runs, and then every 25 up to 200, to a possible maximum of seven. Bonus bowling points come every two wickets. Both have 24 point maximum wins, which may or may not be coincidence, who knows.

There are plenty of instances where maximum points are denied the victor, mostly by the weather. For instance, if your opponents batting first are all out cheaply, there are further points available for wickets in hand, but not in rain-reduced matches. I suppose that’s about right, as the game’s least fair factor has always been rain.

Hampshire Cricket Leagues are at least calculated on points average – total points divided by completed matches – so sides are less likely to be penalised for being rained off.

But I’ve never really understood why we bother with bonus points at all for the winners. If you win, well that’s it – you’ve won. You can’t really do any better than winning, so forget bonus points. For my money, if you win you should get maximum points. The loser can pick up bonus batting and bowling points, as, well – consolation prizes. Doesn’t that make sense? Doesn’t it put more of a premium on winning?

Anyway I digress: this is the time of year when people start paying attention to the scoring system, because promotion and relegation are suddenly looming.

Having gone up last year, our sole aim this year was to stay up.

Tomorrow (Saturday 30th) is our last league game of 2014. We are 13th. 17 and 18 are already down, and the last relegation spot could go to anyone from 12 to 16. Without relying on the misfortune of others, we need nine points to guarantee our safety. As you can see from the system above, getting nine points and not winning is actually quite tricky to pull off, so realistically, we need to win our last game.

Alternatively, we need cricket’s least fair factor to come to our rescue. Is it cowardly to pray for rain? If we’re rained off, we’re safe.

- ends 489 words -

Friday, 22 August 2014

Column 25, 2014 – The Big Mo

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 97, Friday August 22, 2014.
[Full text below]

The ‘Big Mo’ is a massive advantage in cricket. No, not England’s new off-spinning all-rounder: momentum.

It’s really just a physics metaphor. Instead of mass times velocity, in sport you can break it down as success times confidence.

Many argue that the notion of momentum in sport is an illusion, and that in fact nothing has changed – the abilities and opportunities of players and teams remain the same, regardless of perception.

But this is to deny psychology. It makes a huge difference, even if it’s 100% in your head. Here’s an example I’ve used before: A side is 9 down chasing 40 to win. If 10 minutes ago they needed 40 to win and hadn’t yet lost a wicket, it’s fair to say they have surrendered the initiative. If, on the other hand, an hour ago they were 9 down chasing 200, it could reasonably be argued that the Big Mo has swung in their favour.

On Saturday we made 207-6. At drinks we’d been 74-0. At the halfway stage in the opposition’s reply, they were 77-6. Nothing in it in terms of runs, but six wickets is a massive difference. While it certainly wasn’t all over at that point, the momentum was all ours, and confidence in the field was such that it felt like a question of when we’d win, not if.

There comes a point in an innings, a game, a series or even a season, when it seems it’s gone so far one way that to pull it back again is just too big an ask. As in physics: a bolder rolling downhill is not easily stopped.

After Lord’s the India series looked in the balance, could easily have gone either way. At Southampton England gained the initiative, in Manchester they gathered momentum, and by the time they had India 36-5 on the first morning at The Oval, they had all the soul-crushing impetus of a runaway steamroller.

The experts will tell you that a good batsman should ignore what’s happened previously and concentrate on ‘staying in the moment’. This ball. Now. That’s all very well, and a laudable enough aim perhaps, but it also involves him ignoring his own experience – a large part of what makes him a good batsman in the first place.

In practice, you must always be aware of your situation, and very few of us are good enough at compartmentalising not to be affected by it. If you’re Joe Root batting with consummate ease in a side riding the crest of a wave, the situation could hardly be more helpful. If you’re Gautam Gambir and you’ve just played and missed at two overs in a row, the force of momentum seems so enormous, the outcome so inevitable, that to be run out the ball before a rain break is almost a blessing.

- ends 471 words -

Friday, 15 August 2014

Column 24, 2014 – ooncuvered peaches

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 96, Friday August 15, 2014.
[Full text below]

Cricket can ruin your weekend. For some people, getting out takes a whole week to get over. Despite my rich and varied catalogue of options for getting out, I’ve never really suffered from this.

No, what really makes me throw-stuff-across-the-changing-room angry, is being rained off on a lovely day.

If it’s sheeting down all day, then obviously you’re not going to play. But heavy rain the night before or morning of a match, when come 2pm it’s warm and sunny? Nothing is more likely to induce a weekend-long sulk in me.

The only answer is covers. The snag with which is that covers cost about four and a half thousand pounds. Unless…

A few years ago we ‘invested’ in an ancient set of steel cricket cover frames. I’m sure you can sense the sarcasm in those inverted commas.

The frames were so big that they had to be cut in half and transported to our ground in the bucket of Dave’s massive tractor, and then welded back together again.

Marky H is a welder, and brought a portable MIG kit to the ground for several consecutive weekends, joining the bits back together and replacing lost or broken elements with new box-section steel.

We sourced some old lorry curtain-sides and fashioned them into the right size coverings, tensioned underneath with ropes. Experiments showed that even under tension, water would collect in the gaps, so to prevent sagging, Joel, H and I spent hours covering the frames in ‘pig wire’ fencing, donated by sportsfield chairman Rob.

Our groundsman Derek spent days with the garage trying to refurbish the wheels, which under the weight of the frames would deflate or burst. Mark fashioned brackets for makeshift gutters. More welding. More wire. More inner tubes. More 25mm fish pond hose.

Goodness knows how many hundreds of volunteer man-hours went into trying to make those cursed things work. I’ve never really understood the expression “throwing good money after bad” (there was nothing bad about the initial money) but that’s definitely what we did.

They never worked. The uneven sides would leak all over the pitch, the wheels were perpetually flat, the gutters would collapse when moved. They were so heavy they needed four of us to shift each one. Even when they were deployable, more often than not they added to the problems rather than solving them.

Now they rust beyond the boundary, quietly mocking our lack of four and a half grand.

The other Saturday morning we had a crazy amount of rain in a very short time. An hour before the game was due to start, the carcasses of the failed covers looked on sarcastically as large puddles formed on the cut strip, the white lines of the crease washed away along with all hopes of playing.

Two hours later we were up at a local rival’s watching them play in glorious sunshine.

And I had a right sulk on.

- ends 487 words -

Friday, 8 August 2014

Column 23, 2014 – Mixing with politics

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 95, Friday August 8, 2014.
[Full text below]

On the second day of the third Test at Southampton, Moeen Ali wore two wristbands. One said “Save Gaza”, the other said “Free Palestine”.

I happened to be at The Ageas Bowl that day, and at one point Mo was fielding not 10 yards from us. You would never have noticed the wristbands. But the cameras did.

The ECB defended his right to wear them, saying his stance was “humanitarian, not political.” This seems reasonable. Ali is Muslim, but not Palestinian. Born in Birmingham, he’s of Pakistani descent.

The ICC saw it differently. Its code prohibits players from “conveying messages which relate to political, religious or racial activities or causes”, and Ali was warned by match referee David Boon (yes, he of the 52 beers on the plane, now in a rather more sober capacity,) not to wear them again. He is free to express his views on such causes away from cricket, but is not permitted to do so on the field of play. Again this seems reasonable.

Then the very next day, the England team – including Moeen – wore Help for Heroes logos on their shirts to commemorate of the 100th anniversary of WW1. Help for Heroes does terrific work, raising a great deal of money and awareness to help wounded British veterans of recent and current conflicts. But surely no one would pretend it isn’t political. Anything involving the human fallout of nations in armed conflict is by definition political.

Twitter got very aerated. The media’s punchier elements latched on to the apparent hypocrisy. The old arguments about how “sport and politics should never mix” came trundling out.

Sport and politics have always mixed, whether or not they should. In cricket, the Basil D’Oliveira affair played no small part in bringing apartheid to world-wide public attention, and lit the touch paper for South Africa’s exile from international sport that helped end the regime.

More recently, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga risked their lives and guaranteed their own exile from their homeland, wearing black armbands mourning “The death of democracy” in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe during the opening match of the 2003 Cricket World Cup.

Would these incidents have been allowed under today’s rules?

But with hindsight, would anyone rather they hadn’t happened?

Sport at all levels is a great arena for doing good. If you play cricket, chances are you’ll have played in your fair share of charity matches.

In the international game, the McGrath Foundation Pink Test in Sydney, fighting breast cancer in memory of Glenn’s late wife Jane, has in a short time become a cricketing institution. The Lord’s Taveners, A Chance to Shine: it’s everywhere.

Cricket must continue to do its bit to support and draw attention to worthy causes, but there will always be fine lines to be drawn. I do not envy those who must draw them, but the key to doing so must surely be consistency.

- ends 482 words -

Friday, 1 August 2014

Column 22, 2014 – Over Cooked?

NOT Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 94, Friday August 1, 2014.
[Full text below]

The column I wrote this week was on Alastair Cook. It was entirely an opinion piece about Cook and the England captaincy, and my conviction that he shouldn't have it. This was fairly controversial, coming as it did in the wake of perhaps his finest win as captain, in a Test in which he didn't put a foot wrong, either as batsman or skipper. 

The editor decided that there were too many opinion pieces on Cook in this week's paper, (David Hayter, Aakash Chopra, Paul Nixon, Ashley Giles,) and one more solely on the England captain from a columnist whose brief is the amateur/fan's perspective on the game was one too many. He elected, as is his inalienable right  his job, in fact  not to run it. 

Ironically, the only one not to run took me by far the longest to write. It's a complicated and involved subject, and was whittled down from an initial brain-splurge of nearly two and a half thousand words. Though I remain sure of the convictions in it, I was not as surprised as I thought I'd be that it didn't run. If that makes any sense.

Here it is. (The paper writes the headlines, which is why it doesn't have one.)

The column will return to the paper next week. If selected, of course.

2014 column 22

Here’s a contentious premise: Alastair Cook’s Rose Bowl runs were bad for England.

Cook made 95 dogged, hard-fought runs in the first innings, and it would take a hard heart indeed not to feel happy for him, or rise with the crowd and the ovation that clapped him off the field. There’s a lot of goodwill for Cook, and rightly so.

But I honestly don’t think it did him or England any favours. The likelihood is that runs for batsman Cook will mean a stay of execution for captain Cook – wrongheaded, but almost certain to be the case.

Had he continued his run drought, sooner rather than later the powers that be would surely have been forced to relieve him of the captaincy. For the wrong reasons, but that’s how this works.

I am an Alastair Cook fan. I remember his debut in Nagpur in the winter of 2006. Trescothic went home with depression, Vaughan’s knee flared up, and Cook was flown in at the last minute. It was a dramatic, daring rescue, a fresh faced public school choirboy whisked off the plane and straight out to open the batting for England. It was like a Boy’s Own fantasy adventure.

He instantly belonged, scoring a half century in the first innings, and a full one in the second. He has never looked back. Eight years and 25 centuries later, he’s never been dropped. There was a period in 2010 when he was out of form and there was some talk of dropping him, but that was swiftly forgotten after a magical Ashes tour with 766 runs at over 125.

He is a fantastic batsman.

Remember that guy? I want that guy back. The guy who averaged 125 opening the batting against Australia.

Remember him? He’s only 29. He could still be opening the batting for England in the next Ashes, and the one after that. And the one after that.

Will he though? If he continues to also be saddled with a job he is so clearly not very good at, and which is so evidently stressing him out?

He is not a good captain.

The nascent young England team (six of this side have single figure Test caps; the seventh is Joe Root) needs to coalesce as a unit, and they need to do it under a strong captain who can take them forward. I don’t believe Cook is that captain, I don’t know anyone who believes Cook is that captain, and I can’t help wondering if the only people who do are those with a vested political interest. And him.

Cook making runs in Southampton will not miraculously make him a good captain. All it will do is delay the inevitable – either he goes as a captain or he goes altogether. And for my money, as a fan of both, that delay is bad for Alastair Cook, and it is bad for England.

- ends 485 words -