Friday, 26 September 2014

Column 30, 2014 – Top bants

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 102, Friday September 26, 2014.
[Full text below]

The Andrew Gale racism accusation has thrust player banter once again into the spotlight. The OED defines banter as ‘the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks’. The word had its time in the sun a few decades ago, but is now among the most irritating in the language, along with its own abbreviated form ‘bants’, largely due to its adoption by teenagers to mean ‘hijinks’, or any kind of boisterous schadenfreude they deem ‘top bants’.

Banter has a lot to answer for, and cricket is sorely afflicted. Sledging, some say, is part of the game. This I am prepared to accept on the condition – and it’s a non-negotiable condition – that it is funny.

South African batsman Daryl Cullinan is perhaps best remembered as Shane Warne’s bunny. He once arrived at the crease to Warne gloating that he’d been waiting two years for another chance to humiliate him, to which Cullinan deliciously shot back: “Looks like you spent them eating.”

Portliness is often at the heart of a good sledge. My brother-in-law once shouted from square-leg as I walked out to bat, “He’s wearing a stomach pad!” which had the whole field in stitches, including me. He was later delighted when I admitted that trying to think up a suitable riposte was consuming most of my concentration when I spooned one up in the air, so his sledge was directly responsible for my dismissal.

This kind of sledging seems to have gone out of fashion these days, in favour of brainless abuse.

“Get ready for a broken f***ing arm,” was Michael Clarke’s welcome to Jimmy Anderson last winter. Top bants, Michael. An army of ICC lawyers proved unable to determine what Jimmy himself said to Ravi Jadeja this summer, but we can be fairly confident it wasn’t a playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks.

We once played a much higher league side in a knockout cup, where they spent our whole innings telling each of our batsmen in turn what effing c-words we were. We found it rather baffling. Seven leagues above us, yet the manifest superiority of their cricket was apparently insufficient.

If you strip the Andrew Gale / Ashwell Prince exchange of anything that might be considered racist (ie where they were telling each other to go) it amounts simply to this: Prince: “F*** off.” Gale: “You f*** off, you f***er.” Top bants indeed. Devastating repartee. Like having Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain out there.

It’s not racist, it’s just abuse. It’s pathetic, the kind of playground name-calling that gets 15-year-olds detention. It’s embarrassing not because it’s racist but because it’s just so base, so charmless, so utterly devoid of wit or imagination.

In my view the ECB is wrong to pursue Gale for racism. But if its intention is to draw attention to and stamp out such indefensible, boorish, sub-prison-yard ‘banter’, then for once the ECB has my full-throated support.

- ends 484 words -

Friday, 19 September 2014

Column 29, 2014 – Chucked out

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 101, Friday September 19, 2014.
[Full text below]

NOTE: The Paper prints 'per cent'. This is wrong: it's degrees.
It's right in the full text below.

On 26 August 1862 at The Oval, Edgar Willsher was no-balled for an illegal bowling action. In the ensuing hoo-ha, WG Grace said he could see no alternative than to change the laws to accommodate Willsher’s action. The game must adapt, change was inevitable. What was Willsher’s controversial new action? He bowled overarm.

The rules, clearly, did indeed change to allow overarm bowling. As a footnote, following the infamous Chappel brothers incident in 1981, they changed again to outlaw underam bowling.

The point is, the game evolves. And that evolution is driven by those who play it at the highest level.

Last week Saeed Ajmal, the number one bowler in the world, was banned by the ICC for an illegal action.

Today’s Law 24.3 states that: “…once the bowler’s arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely from that point until the ball has left the hand…”

That Law is useless. Extensive research around the turn of the last century suggested that over 99% of all bowlers, amateur and professional, contravene Law 24.3 with every ball they bowl. The vast majority of people are physically incapable of bowling without straightening their arm.

The ICC playing conditions (why not the actual Laws?) were changed in 2000 to allow a straightening of 5° for spinners, 7.5° for medium pacers and 10° for fast bowlers. This proved unenforceable. In 2004 a panel of former Test players and biomechanical experts recommended a flat rate of 15° tolerable ‘elbow extension’ be used to define the difference between bowling and throwing. It is still in use today.

Indulge this apparent non-sequitur for a moment. I remember a real lightbulb moment whilst learning to read and write music. It’s so long ago that it seems like somebody else’s memory, but it was a realisation that instantly inverted what I was struggling with, and all its daunting complexity suddenly made sense: music theory exists because of music, not the other way around. Imagine! Its purpose is not to confuse and infuriate music students, as I was hitherto convinced, but a valiant and inevitably flawed attempt to describe something indescribable.

Is there something similar going on with the illegal action conundrum? Are we allowing the theorists to get in the way of the virtuosos? 15° is an arbitrary figure applied by rule makers – theorists. It is only definitive because they say it is.

Saeed Ajmal is one of the most watchable cricketers in the world game. He makes it more thrilling and less predictable, and consistently tests the skill of the best batsman in the world.

Ajmal’s average elbow flex when tested was completely unacceptable under the current rules. But whether it’s a change in the rules, a change in Ajmal, or some sort of compromise, I can’t escape the conviction that the game must accommodate him somehow. It is poorer for his exclusion.

- ends 488 words -

Friday, 12 September 2014

Column 28, 2014 – Knocking in

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 100, Friday September 12, 2014.
[Full text below]

A month ago I trudged back from the middle and slumped down with my teammates, who wasted no time in telling me, pretty much as one, that my bat didn’t sound right.

Now I get quite attached to my bats. But it turns out I’m pretty fickle – I clearly didn’t like it as much as the idea of getting a new one, and very quickly I decided to accept their pronouncement as gospel, and embrace it as a perfect excuse to get a new bat.

I love new bats. There’s something deeply seductive about the unknown promise of classy runs from a pristine blade. It’s an illusion, of course. No bat will never boost your ability. Though it may boost your confidence, and that is a priceless commodity.

Knocking in a bat is a strange chore. There’s something arcane and ritualistic about it, like some mysterious rights-of-passage ceremony. It’s one of those things you can simultaneously both relish and wish you didn’t have to bother with.

You are supposed to knock a bat in for a minimum of two hours, which is quite an ask unless you live on your own with no neighbours. Get your bat mallet out in front of the telly, see how well that goes down. Or when the kids are in bed.

The repeated knocks with the rounded mallet produce little indentations on the blade, tiny petals of trauma on the surface, like a beaten steel drum.

It’s like deliberately scuffing a new pair of shoes, distressing them for both functional and aesthetic purposes. Broken-in bats have a comfort and fit-for-purpose feel about them like worn-in shoes. Part of that is the knowledge that they’ve done it before, it’s just another day, there’s nothing to worry about. Whereas new shoes and new bats can both split on you without warning.

This new one doesn’t have the clear plastic anti-scuff sheet (or ‘bat condom’ as a teammate called it) that is the norm these days. The business part of the blade is naked wood, which absorbs the blows of the mallet, the thin coats of linseed oil, and the red cherries as you graduate to old balls. Already it has character.

‘Pay close attention to the edges and the toe’, say the clipped nineteenth century instructions. Yes all right, thank you. Have they seen me bat? It reads like a snarky criticism of technique.

Has it helped? Maybe. Who knows? I like it. It feels nice. And the runs are coming, if steadily. Sunday I was cruising along nicely, just beginning to think, “you know what, a fifty about now would be a perfect way to finish off a column about a new bat,” when Pauly ran me out – again! – on 37. But on reflection, that’s probably a more realistic way to finish it anyway. It’s certainly a realistic way to finish me.

- ends 477 words -

Friday, 5 September 2014

Column 27, 2014 – Howling empty void

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 99, Friday September 5, 2014.
[Full text below]

You can sit back from the edge of your seats, we stayed up. We did it the hard way: lost, but got the points. So next year we will remain in Regional Division One of what is generally thought to be the largest of its kind in the world, The Hampshire Cricket League (HCL).

I guess that kind of thing is hard to measure, and it sort of depends where you stop counting. There were, as far as I can tell, 342 men’s cricket teams competing in the HCL this year. Weather permitting that’s 3762 blokes playing league cricket throughout Hampshire every summer Saturday.

That’s not counting kids, colts, women and girls, a thriving disabled programme, or the 40 Southern Premier sides. Or of course the countless groundsmen, umpires, coaches, scorers, treasurers, tea-makers, secretaries and supporters. The point is, there’s a lot of us. All over the country there are many many thousands of people whose leisure time and social life revolve around recreational cricket.

Then all of a sudden, at the end of August, it just stops.

It’s an abrupt and cruel cessation. One minute you’re playing Saturday and Wednesday league and seeing if you can get away with the odd Sunday as well, the next minute there’s nothing but a couple of September friendlies, a few chilly net sessions and the occasional indoor game between you and a howling empty void, eight long months stretching ahead of you like a term in solitary confinement.

Usually, there is at least a winter Test tour or two to keep us going. But the England Test team now has a similar layoff to your average English club side. Eight cricket-free months with only the scraps off the table to be going on with.

By scraps off the table, I mean of course one dayers. After India we’re off to Sri Lanka, then there’s a tri-series in Australia before the World Cup. Because the World Cup is absolutely what this dearth is all about. It’s the sole reason for last year’s back-to-back Ashes, and why this year’s decks have been cleared.

No one else is having a Test detox. All the other Test nations play the long game right up to the World Cup. But I guess if we’re ever going to take ODIs seriously, we do need a run at it. As someone on twitter said recently, England still treat them like short Tests, while everyone else treats them like long T20s. We have until February to figure that out.

Next spring the Test drought is followed instantly by a flood. When the dam finally breaks, England play a faintly crazy 17 Tests in 10 months. In the meantime it’s either a strict diet of maximum-bosh-wallop, or watching the rest of the world play Tests. Until the first Saturday in May 2015 when the league starts up again, those are our choices. (Hint: Pakistan vs Australia starts next month.)

- ends 488 words -