Friday, 29 May 2015

Column 16, 2015 – Playing on the mind

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 119, Friday May 29, 2015.
[Full text below]

Screwing up in cricket has a unique way of messing with your head.

Most team sports you’re part of a bigger whole, and it’s often hard to tell where the chain broke or who messed up. And if you miss a straight black on the pool table, or slice into the cabbages on the golf course, it’s only you it annoys.

But in cricket, your incompetence lets your mates down.

The core of it lies in that oft-quoted aphorism that it’s a team game played by 11 individuals. It is you – just you in the spotlight – who must do it. Make the runs, take the wicket, stop the boundary, CATCH IT!

This is why it’s fun. That pressure is wonderfully focussing, you will push yourself harder because others rely on you, and success is all the sweeter for it.

But it makes failure even more bitter. Dropped catches and disasters with bat or ball are harsh because it’s not just you they punish, it’s the team. Your inadequacies are manifest, laid bare for all to pick over. And, most cruelly of all, the structure of the game means there’s always plenty of time for you to mull over your mistakes.

Cricket definitely provokes self-analysis. Meeting with triumph and disaster (and treating those two imposters just the same) shapes your character, as well as your game.

I don’t think I’m overly sensitive, but I am not beyond kicking myself, and certainly prone to dwelling disproportionately on my failings.

A few weeks back I brought a low-scoring game to an abrupt conclusion, gifting the 14 runs they needed in four filthy deliveries.

It was a nasty time to bowl your first ball, the batsmen were set, the game was gone anyway – no matter how many excellent get-outs I am handed by commiserating teammates, or how true I know them to be, I also know I blew it. Not a day has passed since when I haven’t thought about it and shaken my head in disgust.

Occasionally I’ll daydream about what should have happened. How the game might have gone if those four deliveries hadn’t been ludicrous full-tosses. Wickets, maybe. Or dots. Dots would be fine.

Next time. There’s always next time.

So here’s a question: are introspective self-flagellating dreamers naturally drawn to cricket, or does cricket itself provoke that response in people? The game has its share of grumpy brooders, but it’s also full of happy-go-lucky idealists and self-aware, well adjusted realists. Few of any cast are exempt from this phenomenon. It’s not a simple question. I’m not sure it’s answerable.

But there is one thing we can be certain about: cricket plays on the mind.

I’m away with the family for half term, and as I write just played my last game for a fortnight. Clearly the best way to leave it is to bowl two overs for 20, and then nick off for a third ball duck.

Brilliant. Have a nice holiday.

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Friday, 22 May 2015

Column 15, 2015 – Massive trust issue

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 118, Friday May 22, 2015.
[Full text below]

In a grimly ironic mirroring of Downton’s disengagement charge against KP, over the last year or so there’s been a creeping feeling of disconnect from team England among fans.

Some of it is to do with selection: clinging on to Cook as ODI captain until giving it to Morgan was a poisoned chalice; the stupefying refusal to pick promising young talent like Hales and Rashid.

And some is an ongoing frustration with a kind of wilful conservatism of thought, an obfuscation of truth and reality with tedious, meaningless, cliché-ridden platitudes, and the apparent conviction that the way to run something ostensibly joyous and fun is through tracksuited Stasi whose main function seems to be calculated press leaks.

Cricket fans among my teammates, friends and family, colleagues and twitterati, probably quite accurately represent the general spectrum – from a passing interest if there’s no football or rugby on, to statistic-chewing fanatics who will get up at 3.30am to watch Pakistan v Bangladesh. There has been a marked shift in attitude among them of late. Many don’t feel that the England cricket team represent them anymore.

Another factor in the loss of hearts and minds has been the consistent and prolonged lack of respect, for both their employees and their public, shown by the ECB.

Paul Downton and Peter Moores both probably deserved to lose their jobs, but neither deserved to find out the way they did. Moores was actually in the middle of an international fixture when journalists told him he’d been fired. Who, precisely, did that benefit? What does it say of an organisation that they think so little of their own people? Something for potential employees to be mindful of, be it a new coach or a new chef.

The great irony of KP-gate this time around is that it’s not about KP. It is indeed, as Andrew Strauss insisted, about trust. Just not in the way he thinks. It is again ironic that he used the word and hid behind the concept so heavily last Tuesday.

Colin Graves told the cricketing public: forget personalities, if Pietersen went back into county cricket and scored lots of runs, the selectors couldn’t ignore him.

10 weeks later, Pietersen makes his extraordinary front-page-grabbing 350 for Surrey, and with jaw-dropping hypocrisy, even by his new employer’s standards, Strauss publicly declares once more that Pietersen will not be considered for selection regardless.

You’re damn right there’s a “massive trust issue”, Straussy old bean.

For the first time I’m aware of – perhaps ever? – many English cricket fans are actively willing England to fail. They’d rather see McCullum with his foot on Cook’s throat. Because it might lead to change? Because they prefer that stripe of cricket? Who knows.

I’m personally not feeling quite that disenfranchised yet, but I understand why people are.

Graves, Strauss and whoever they recruit as coach have some serious work to do. And the most important stuff is nowhere near the field.

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Friday, 15 May 2015

Column 14, 2015 – All-rounders

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 117, Friday May 15, 2015.
[Full text below]

Selection in professional cricket, especially at the highest level, will always depend on the balance of the side, which is invariably dictated by the available talent pool.

The simple option, taking the keeper as read, is five batsmen and five bowlers. This can leave you a bit light on batting though, so what you really want is an all-rounder.

So option two is five batsmen, an all-rounder and four bowlers. This is the classic set up. If you haven’t really got an all-rounder, you’ll have to compromise on the purity of your batsmen, and pick a couple who can bowl a bit, as sort of two halves of your fifth bowler.

A luxury version is four batsmen, two all-rounders, four bowlers. But you don’t see that a lot outside of T20, because genuine international class all-rounders are very, very rare.

A genuine all-rounder can be defined as someone you could pick solely as a specialist bat OR as a dedicated bowler – but who just happens to be both. One of the five best batsman AND one of the five best bowlers in the country.

Apply that criteria strictly, and you’ll see there really are very few in the international game. Lots of players we call all-rounders fall short of it – they’re really bowlers who can bat, or batsmen who can bowl.

In club cricket, standards are naturally a little more relaxed, so you’re much more likely to have players who satisfy the genuine all-rounder criteria. Ravi Bopara and Luke Wright, for example, while arguably slightly wanting in both disciplines internationally, would be blow-them-away match winners in most clubs.

All-rounders in club cricket are pretty common. In fact, most clubs have got at least a couple, and if they have a good game, it’s amazing how often they decide it. They are usually the players you remember from prior encounters in previous seasons.

Our first league game of 2015 was against old friends and rivals Godshill. We know them well, and were well aware that their star all-rounder would be key. Coops is a fine swing bowler and a monstrous batsman. He doesn’t slog, but he hits the ball as hard as anyone I’ve ever played with or against. To field close in the covers to him, I would want to be clad in 20 layers of bubblewrap.

It’s an over-simplification of course, but not by much: the game would be decided by whether or not we could get him out.

We could not.

England have a promising all-rounder in Ben Stokes. Still maturing as a player – mentally more than physically, as his recent run-in with Marlon Samuels ably demonstrated – he is prodigiously talented. If he can harness that temper rather than surrendering to it, he could yet be the real deal. My money is on England going for option two when they line up against a powerful New Zealand at Lord’s next week. Let’s hope he makes the difference.

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Friday, 8 May 2015

Column 13, 2015 – Mediocrity

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 116, Friday May 08, 2015.
[Full text below]

“I’d certainly be disappointed if we don’t win, because I am pretty sure they are going to have a mediocre team.”

It is unknown whether these words were uttered at Eversley Cricket Club prior to our encounter in the National Village Cup on Sunday. It would certainly have been fair enough if they had been. Even at our strongest we would cheerfully describe ourselves as mediocre. The same could not be said of the West Indies.

Eversley is a big club. They have a beautiful ground, an indoor centre, six age group sides, two girl’s teams, a ladies side and four men’s XIs. I’m confident they didn’t have people on email, text, WhatsApp, twitter, facebook, and even the good old fashioned phone all week, trying to get 11 yeses.

When a little single-side outfit like ours plays a big club in a knockout competition, turning up with 10 players is not only a bad idea, it seems somehow almost rude. Like we’ve deliberately set out to waste their time with our mediocrity.

Between Thursday and Saturday we must have gone through 40 people for that 11th spot. If we were going to waste their time, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. Through arm-twisting and cancellations, we did eventually get 11.

By drinks they were only going at four an over, and we dared to daydream.

“If we don’t win, I can tell you now there will be some enquiries why we haven’t.”

Outgoing Yorkshire and incoming ECB chairman (same person) Colin Graves seems to be eyeing the spring-clean broom.

The ECB have also been leafing through dusty address books, doing some frantic late-evening phone-calling to see who’s up for it. The director of cricket position has piqued the interest of several old boys who might be tempted back, a few more have firmly declared their unavailability. Sounds familiar.

Additionally, it may not be insignificant that as England were in the process of losing a Test match in Barbados, the successful and highly respected coach at the new chairman’s former county turned down the opportunity to coach South Australia.

Just hang on a minute there, Dizzy old son. Stay available.

However, it now appears Moores will be spared the implied threat of a formal enquiry before the start of the international summer, as apparently ‘some enquiries’ merely meant ‘some questions’. Presumably along the lines of “So. What happened there, then?”

Eversley, too, spared themselves the enquiries, in their case by employing the clever tactic that eluded England: winning pretty comfortably, as expected. They ramped it up to nearly 10 an over after drinks, smoothly taking the chase beyond our reach.

Our defeat was sealed just as the West Indies began smoothly taking victory away from England, in a decidedly non-mediocre fashion. Still, there may yet be some hope. Last time England lost a Test in the West Indies was 2009. Then they came home and promptly won the Ashes. Perhaps it’s all part of the plan.

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Friday, 1 May 2015

Column 12, 2015 – 'Bats these days'

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 115, Friday May 01, 2015.
[Full text below]

To hear commentators talking about ‘the size of modern bats’, you’d think cricketers were all wielding telegraph poles. Cricket bats are allowed to be 38 inches long and 4¼ inches wide. There are no restrictions on depth or weight.

The misconception is about size. A bigger bat is not more powerful. Only a heavier one can deliver more power, and the truth is that most bats are lighter now than they were in the seventies and eighties, when Clive Lloyd wielded his 3lb 4oz Duncan Fernley Magnum, the SS Jumbo left no doubt as to its selling point, and the Slazenger V12 evoked weighty profligate power.

So what is the problem, all of a sudden? The problem is that today’s bats are simply better than yesterday’s. How they got to be better is partly science, partly batmaking skill. By way of explanation, let’s briefly visit another sport.

What should you do when there’s thunder and lightning on the golf course? Hold a one iron above your head. Because even God can’t hit a one iron. Anyone who’s played golf with old blades will understand this ancient gag. Tiny thin faces with sweet spots the size of a pea, they were almost impossible to hit.

In the late sixties, Karsten Solheim of PING made his fortune building up the edges around the back of the club face. This ‘perimeter weighting’, made a crucial change to what is known as the MOI, or moment of inertia, which basically in this context means its propensity to twist. Off-centre strikes cause the face to twist, robbing the shot of power. Perimeter weighting reduces this tendency, making it more forgiving, and effectively increasing the size of the ‘sweet spot’.

And this is basically what’s happened to cricket bats. Bigger edges means better middles, and a bat’s middle has always been the measure of its worth. Modern bats taper towards the top and bottom, removing wood where it’s not needed, leaving more for the middle.

Elegant slender neck and shoulders extending in graceful curves along the sweeping spine towards the swollen sweet spot – this is the language we use for bats these days. No wonder we’re seduced by them.

If the trend is more Marilyn than Twiggy, more Scarlett than Kiera, it’s because with those curves, you can middle a cricket ball more often, and get better results when you don’t. Which is even more seductive. We love big bats, and we cannot lie.

The downside is that to be both big and light, the water-hungry willow is dried out so much – moisture content can be reduced below 10% – that durability suffers. Bats break constantly. A pro’s might not even last an innings.

Bats for amateurs are necessarily less extreme (new bat every year, maybe; new bat every game, maybe not,) but they’re following the same principles. Friends of mine have started, making custom spec bats for club cricketers. They could be on to a winner.

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