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 -

Friday, 24 July 2015

Column 24, 2015 – Four day endurance test

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 127, Friday July 24, 2015.
[Full text below]

Every club cricketer harbours daydreams of playing a full, first-class-style-two-innings match. If I’ve had this conversation once, I’ve had it a dozen times. “11am start. Lunch and tea. No bowling restrictions, no over restrictions, just bat till you’re out. Twice. Amazing – we should so do that!”

They usually happen at either end of the season, these conversations, when enthusiasm is high, or the prospect of the long cricketless months is looming large again. Or in the depths of January, when the winter tours are in full swing and we’re up into the early hours watching England toil in equatorial sunshine.

The conversations invariably conclude with the doubtless accurate assertion that it would either result in a very long game with very low scores, or it’d be all over inside a day. These are village cricketers we’re talking about, after all. Besides, 22 blokes off work and domestic duty for three extra cricket days? The organisation alone is surely beyond us. It’ll never happen.

I like to delude myself that my batting lends itself to a longer game. You know the sort of thing: patience, defend the good balls, leave anything off-line, punish the bad balls. Brigadier Block. The Wall. I indulge this delusion, despite a convincing pile of evidence to the contrary.

The latest neatly provided by England’s attempts to staunchly bat out the draw for a day and a half at Lord’s, crushed in 37 overs. TMS had a telling stat: batting five sessions to save a Test has only ever happened five times.

But that doesn’t stop us weekend warriors wanting a crack at it.

The other factor is fitness. If I bat for 30 overs, I know about it all week. If I bowl 10 overs of gentle leggies, my shoulder aches for days. Bat all day? Bowl 25 overs? Three days on the trot? Not sure I’d make it.

Doing the fixtures this winter, a next-best-thing opportunity presented itself. Old Wimbledonians, a big London club, were touring the New Forest and had one fixture left to fill – did we fancy a game on the Monday?

With a league game on Saturday, and a friendly scheduled for the Sunday, this could be the closest I ever get to the full game. Not one three day game, admittedly, but three consecutive days. To top it off, I’d be at Lord’s for the Test on Friday. I’ve been looking forward to it all year. Would I survive this four day endurance test!?

The answer, somewhat predictably, was deeply disappointing. Saturday we got almost as soundly thrashed as England at Lord’s. I was one of several ducks, clean bowled through the Delusional Brigadier Block Wall. I’ve had more tiring bowel movements. Sunday the opposition couldn’t raise a side so I spent the day being dad-taxi, and Monday I was out for 8 in two overs and took 1 for 8 in two overs, comprehensively cancelling myself out.

My four day endurance test turned out to be basically a weekend off.

- ends 500 words -

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Column 23, 2015 – Useless tosser

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 126, Friday July 17, 2015.
[Full text below]

An old friend of mine, who’s also a psychologist, a statistician and a game-theory geek, almost convinced me once that there is no such thing as luck.

Chance, Tom says, yes of course. But one’s propensity to succeed in matters of chance is merely an illusion of our own devising. “A quantifiable parameter of a statistical distribution”, luck is a convenient way to talk about how chance is apportioned, nothing more.

That makes sense. Though it’s hard to buy it completely.

What is lucky? Lucky socks or similar are clearly a ludicrous construct, worthy of the snorts of derision usually reserved for astrology. But it remains hard to resist the notion that there’s some element of luck in the toss of a coin. And the toss is the only aspect in all forms of cricket that is entirely down to chance.

Napoleon famously said that he’d rather have lucky generals than good ones. Our captain Henry is a fine all round cricketer, but frankly a useless tosser. If you see what I mean.

Of the ten Saturday tosses this season, he’s lost eight. That’s actually quite unlikely in itself. Each in isolation is a 50/50 chance, and of course the coin cares nothing for history. But if you take them as a sequence of 50% chances, it’s tempting to see the likelihood of repeating the result halving each time. So in a five Test series like the Ashes for example, if Cook won the first four, he’d have a 96.875% probability of losing the last one. (At the Oval. Now, is that wise?)

Total nonsense, of course. If you toss a coin 10,000 times, you’ll get roughly 5,000 heads and 5,000 tails. Five is too small a sample to be statistically relevant. And each time it happens it’s still a 50/50 chance.

A more important question might be: do you want to win the toss?

There’s always much discussion about it on Saturdays, but the truth is, in good weather, it comes down to whether you as a team prefer setting or chasing a target. Test cricket is different. Ask Nasser Hussain about Brisbane 2002, or Ricky Ponting about Edgbaston 2005 – Michael Vaughan has gone so far as to say that Ponting’s decision to bowl first that game cost him the Ashes.

Statistically this year, we are more likely to win when we bat first (five out of seven) but only when we’re put in. Of H’s two successful tosses, he batted once and bowled once. We lost both.

Which has led him to pose an interesting question: if you win the toss, can you still defer the decision to your opponent?

The laws don’t help answer this question. Law 12.4 states: “The captains shall toss for the choice of innings…” but it doesn’t say that the winner must decide. So how about: “My decision is: you decide”?

Or he could just keep doing what he’s doing. Stay lucky mate: lose the toss.

- ends 493 words -

Friday, 10 July 2015

Column 22, 2015 – The best catch ever

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 125, Friday July 10, 2015.
[Full text below]

Ben is a first-year uni student, back for the summer seemingly twice the size and twice the player. Under a high one at deep square leg last week, he was composed enough to take his eye off the ball and note that his heels were just inside the rope – any step back would mean six. As it happened, he pouched it cleanly without moving.

I think it was probably Adam Voges, Australia’s late blooming Test batsman, (who may or may not have made his Ashes debut by the time you read this,) [he did] who raised the bar for the boundary catch, as recently as 2009.

Every aspect of cricket has changed at a dizzying rate these last few years.

If you were to draw a graph for the pace of change in human history, it would be a more-or-less horizontal line for tens of thousands of years, curve sharply from the start of the industrial revolution, and in the latter part of the twentieth century, go more-or-less straight up.

A compressed version of this graph has happened in cricket in the last few short years, with the IPL standing in for the industrial revolution.

KP’s reverse-slog-sweep six off Murali ushered in the ‘switch hit’ paradigm shift. A few years later Voges was, I think, the first to pull off the type of spectacular solo relay catch that has yet to be satisfactorily christened.

He caught the ball right on the line, realised he was going to overbalance, tossed it up before he did so, then scrambled back inside the rope to complete the dismissal, in the process redefining the boundaries of the phrase ‘good catch’.

Ridiculously, this kind of audacious athleticism has become commonplace.

When Boult and Southee combined with slick precision in a full pelt duet version at the Oval last month, it only just made the highlights package.

Wednesday evening we were away at a picturesque little club in the grounds of a private estate. The boundary was an indistinct fluffy strip where the cut grass merged into meadow. Under one at long on, mindful of Ben’s check, I set myself inside the last definitely mown bit, knowing that any backward step would probably mean conceding the benefit of the doubt to the batsman.

The ball was going over me, so my only option was to blindly stick one arm out behind me and hope.

I reckon I could try it 100 times, and the next 99 the ball would land with a disappointing thud in the long grass. This time though, that fizzing angry-hornet sound a well-struck cricket ball makes stopped abruptly behind my head in my outstretched hand, making me look like the nonchalant catching genius I’m definitely not.

Amongst the exuberant high-fives, Ben declared it to be the best catch he’d ever seen. Hardly. But 2009 is an aeon ago to a teenager, so coming from Ben, I’ll take it.

- ends 485 words -

Friday, 3 July 2015

Column 21, 2015 – When bad is better than good

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 124, Friday July 3, 2015.
[Full text below]

Part of cricket’s unusual dynamic is that you can have a bad game personally and win, and a brilliant game personally and lose.

In the spirit of anticipation, here’s two Ashes examples.

Adelaide 2006, England threw away a virtually certain draw, destroyed almost singlehandedly by the relentless will of Warne. The indomitable Paul Collingwood made a double century in the first innings and carried his bat in the second. A personal career high point, in a game no England fan wants to remember.

Edgbaston 2005, a game every England fan remembers: The Greatest Test; one of our most famous victories over the old foe. Ian Bell scored 6 and 21. In one of the all time great games, our greatest stylist just never got in.

Getting in is everything. Batting gets easier as your innings goes on. The more you’re there, the more you get used to the pitch, the light, the weather, the bowlers – swing, seam, turn. You become attuned to this particular task, not just batting in general: batting here, today, now. You pick the right shots. Your timing is crisp.

Different players take more or less time to get in. Old-school Test openers in bowling-friendly conditions may not allow themselves an aggressive shot until well into the afternoon session. 40/50 overs – a whole game’s worth getting your eye in.

Chris Gayle, for all his ferocious hitting, invariably plays himself in, even in t20. He doesn’t take long about it, but he has a look. His jaw-dropping 151 off 62 balls for Somerset a month ago (in a losing cause, incidentally) included 10 fours and 15 sixes. It also included at least one dot ball from every Kent bowler: their first to him. Even in full bludgeon mode, Gayle allows himself time. Imagine if he was in a hurry.

It may happen sooner, but for most of us less gifted mortals, half a dozen overs is usually enough to get yourself in.

Saturday I batted for half our innings and didn’t get in at all. Instead of getting easier, it seemed to get harder as it went on. I’ve no idea why. The pitch was a bit sticky, but it’s not like we’re not used to that. I didn’t time a single ball off the front foot, only the odd pull finding the general vicinity of the middle. It was a desperate, scratchy knock. I tried everything: batting two yards outside the crease, hanging right back, charging down. Nothing really worked. Just one of those days. The 39 runs look fine in the book, but I’ve had ducks that felt better. It was ghastly.

And yet we won comfortably. A maximum 24-pointer, finally sealed by their tenth wicket with just three balls to spare. An excellent all round team performance, in which I was personally horrible.

Still, better that way round. In this area at least, it’s better to do an Ian Bell than a Paul Collingwood.

- ends 489 words -

Friday, 26 June 2015

Column 20, 2015 – Playing with a smile

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 123, Friday June 26, 2015.
[Full text below]

Giving up every summer Saturday to play cricket is a big ask.

Not just for you, but for your wife and kids. Or husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, mum and dad: whoever it is you share your life with.

There are myriad reasons to do it, untold ways in which cricket enriches our lives, characters and friendships, many of which this column has touched on in the past.

But the most important thing is to enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, there really isn’t much point.

And it’s not just us on village greens. The visiting Kiwis have reminded everyone, not least England, the importance of enjoying the game.

Brendon McCullum, short of runs this tour by his own lofty standards, has not stopped smiling. His charges, too, go about their business as if they’re actually enjoying being well paid to travel the world playing cricket. Fancy.

When McCullum got the captaincy two years ago, his countrymen regarded their national cricket team as “overpaid, under-delivering prima donnas,” he says, “and a lot of that was fair. One of the things we decided we had to change was the public perception of us as people.”

Coach Mike Hesson played his part, encouraging the team to “play like the kids who fell in love with the game in the first place.”

It shows.

Win or lose, the fun they’re having is infectious, and the joy of it permeates their cricket. They have reminded us all of the value of playing with a smile.

But the game is not always joyful. Saturday was probably the least fun I’ve ever had on a cricket field.

We were generally sloppy in the field, but the worst of it was 10 dropped catches. TEN! Two of us had hat-tricks of drops. I was one of them. They got easier too: the first was difficult, the second regulation, the third so straightforward I remain at a loss to explain how it ended up on the floor. It was gloomy and drizzly; we were off twice for rain; the ball was an oval bar of soap; the straight boundary was unprotectably short; we only had 10 men – we had plenty of excuses. Bottom line: we were dreadful, we got thrashed.

It’s difficult to enjoy a game like that.

Particularly difficult, after that abject nonsense in the field, to remain chipper having got out cheaply, then sat there watching all your teammates get out cheaply.

Difficult, but important.

About the only thing you can do when you’ve been that bad is shake the opposition by the hand one by one, look them in the eye, smile, and tell them well played.

Then go home, mope a little bit, but not too much. We owe it to our loved ones and the sacrifices they make to put a brave face on this nightmare of ineptitude, struggle through it, and turn up next week with full ear-to-ear grins ready to pretend it never happened.

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Friday, 19 June 2015

Column 19, 2015 – Full throttle

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 122, Friday June 19, 2015.
[Full text below]

Traction control is designed to help you not crash. It regulates power, minutely applies brakes and adjusts suspension to individual wheels, increasing grip and reducing skid risk.

It’s actually quite difficult to lose control of a modern car. It creates a false sense of confidence. I drove through town with a flat tyre the other day. It handled so smoothly I didn’t even notice. It masks problems.

Turn traction control off, however, and you have a very different beast. A drunken, lumbering, overweight behemoth with all the cornering prowess of an oil tanker.

But a car designed to function without all that nonsense in the first place – now that’s a different proposition altogether. No power steering, no ABS, no traction control. Just raw, stripped engineering. You can feel the tarmac through your fingers on the wheel and the seat of your pants. A beautifully balanced chassis and a honed engine perched directly over the drive wheels, right behind your head. There’s an elegance, excitement and sense of eager purpose to it that traction control can never give you. But if you lose it, you’ll lose it big time.

That’s a long set up.

I hope it’s worth it.

Attempting to play hard, aggressive, foot-to-the-floor, fast and furious cricket in a luxury family estate with the traction control off is asking for trouble. The England we saw at the World Cup was just not equipped for that kind of ride. They were still driving like they had a boot full of shopping and the kids’ bikes on the roof.

The engine – let’s keep this metaphor revving into the red zone – of that side is the same as this new one: Morgan, Root, Buttler. But it’s built on an all-new chassis with state-of-the-art running gear. And boy, does it go.

This shiny new vehicle, besides being a metaphor, is a mindset. It’s an attitude, a sense of belief, a statement of intent. And it has worked wonders in very short order.

In their first four outings, they scored over 400 for the first time, very nearly chased down 400 for the first time, made their third consecutive score of 300+ for the first time, and then their fourth, chasing 350 with six overs remaining. It’s the fastest scoring ODI series ever.

Previously, England’s approach to batting in one day cricket was not unlike our efforts in club cricket: play yourself in, keep wickets in hand, go hard when you’ve got a platform. Us mere mortals have to play that way.

But we’re an ageing hatchback to their race-tuned track cars. They can go, and keep going, at full throttle.

Occasionally of course, they’ll spin off the track. This has already happened to an extent: that record-breaking 300 was universally regarded as disappointing. Imagine that six months ago.

300 being a bit disappointing is a remarkable place to suddenly find ourselves. It’s going to be a fun ride. Buckle up.

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