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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Saturday, 13 June 2015

Column 18, 2015 – Girls allowed

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 121, Friday June 12, 2015.
[Full text below]

What does it mean to throw like a girl, run like a girl, play like a girl? These are the questions in the Always #likeagirl campaign, a major winner in last month’s D&AD awards, advertising’s equivalent of the Oscars.

For the world’s biggest advertiser (Always is owned by Proctor & Gamble, whose annual ad-budget is around $5 billion) this is provocative, unusual stuff.

With not a product demo in sight, the campaign sets out to reclaim the phrase ‘like a girl’, and flip its meaning from insult to empowerment.

It stole the show at this year’s Superbowl, dominating the conversation in both mainstream and social media. If you’re not in either advertising or America, you probably missed it. It’s worth Googling and pretty inspiring, even – perhaps especially – for those of us not generally in the market for sanitary towels.

My youngest daughter plays cricket after school on Mondays, and my niece plays in the U9 section of a big club. My oldest tells me cricket isn’t an option for her at school, just as netball isn’t an option for boys. This means I don’t know any females over the age of eight who play cricket.

So it was most heartening that the league side we played Saturday included three young women. They were not making up the numbers. One batted at four, one opened the bowling, the other was first change. All three had played district or county.

In sports like rugby where physical power is so central, girls playing in men’s teams is neither sensible nor common, but in cricket there is no reason why not.

The girls we played Saturday all said they enjoyed the challenge of playing men’s league.

Women’s cricket has come a long way in a short time. Believe it or not it was only 1999 when the MCC admitted its first women members. Former captain and women’s membership campaigner Rachael Heyhoe Flint was among those inaugurated in The Long Room at Lord’s, ending 212 men-only years. (The only woman previously admitted during play was Queen Elizabeth II.)

The women’s national side and the funding and support it received is probably the only unqualified success story of the Sky TV deal swelling English cricket’s coffers this last decade. Last year they entered the professional era with 18 centrally contracted players.

Two years ago there was quite a stir caused by the prospect of Sarah Taylor playing first class cricket for Sussex men’s team. It never happened, despite many high profile observers declaring her good enough.

It will happen. Like the 450 Test run-chase and the 10-ball limited overs 50, it’s inevitable. Another of those firsts just sitting out there waiting to be ticked off someone’s list. That someone may even now be out there learning their game in men’s club cricket.

And as for the ‘like a girl’ comparisons, on Saturday’s evidence, running and throwing like a girl seems like a pretty good idea to me.

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Friday, 5 June 2015

Column 17, 2015 – Umpires and mistakes

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 120, Friday June 5, 2015.
[Full text below]

Last Saturday, neither side had an umpire.

They are not mandatory at our level, but both sides are ‘expected to provide’ an ECB ACO qualified umpire, and normally do. Sometimes there’s only one, but it’s rare to have none. You need them. You miss that neutral authority.

Player-umpires are always problematic. It’s difficult to accept the bloke who was bowling an hour ago and batting five minutes ago as a neutral voice of authority.

Also they invariably officiate over their teammates as batsmen – never as bowlers, as they’ll always be in the field with them for that.

This is very tricky. You always risk the wrath of ‘triggered’ teammates, or ‘robbed’ opponents.

Now. I am not going to dwell on detail or specifics here – we did enough of that in the pub afterwards, which is where it should stay. Suffice it to say that as an umpiring side, we may have fallen short of elite level.

But never mind, I say. Everyone did what they thought was right at the time, at a task they were performing reluctantly, and if there were mistakes (there were mistakes) they were honest ones, driven by the compulsion to be fair to our opponents – to the detriment of our own team – rather than biased against them. They were, if anything, admirable mistakes.

Mistakes are not such a bad thing anyway. They usually even out. Perfection is unattainable. As long as the intent is pure, we must accept any errors.

Whatever you think of DRS (I have expounded on it in the past, and if anything am becoming less of a fan as time goes by) the one thing it consistently highlights is just how difficult the umpire’s job is.

Umpire’s Call – a somewhat preposterous construction which basically reduces decision-making to tiny parameters within which the machines can’t agree – appears to be where elite umpires now operate. It is, as someone said on twitter during the proliferation of Umpire’s Calls during the second NZ Test, like arguing with your spouse: identical information can prove they are right or wrong depending on which apparently arbitrary position they took in the first place.

The thing is, mistakes are part of the game. They’re what get you out, and other people’s are how you get away with your own. They’ll never be entirely eradicated.

And would we want them to be?

The conclusion of ‘The Greatest Test’, Edgbaston 2005, was a mistake.

Kasprowicz gloves Harmison behind to the keeper and we cut to the umpire raising that flamboyantly crooked finger, the moment immortalised by the late great Richie Benaud simply shouting their names in breathless excitement: “Jones!” (pause) “Bowden!” It’s spine-tingling stuff even a decade on.

But replays clearly show that the glove was off the bat in the moment the ball struck it. DRS would have overturned that decision. Not out. Match and Ashes almost certainly lost. Is that what you want?

I’ll keep the mistakes, thanks. They’re all part of it.

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