Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Geoffrey and Michael, ebb and flow

There is [if you believe Steve Harmison at least] a tendency for modern players to disregard Geoffrey Boycott. Yet here he is on Michael Vaughan today:

'Ultimately, I think his mistake was to try to play the same way for the rest of his career. Cricket is like life, it ebbs and flows, and you go through good times and bad. The trick is knowing when to eke out a gritty, ordinary half century, and when you are in terrific form and can get onto the bowlers'. 

That is just about as perfect a summary as you can get of Vaughan's last two years.

Geoffrey went on to praise Vaughan, and rightly so. His reputation in England will grow.

NB: Andrew Flintoff, however, is becoming a fucking buffoon. It's not so much that he missed the bus, it's what he missed by missing the bus that matters.

Monday, 29 June 2009

The end, and when it comes

You are Adam Gilchrist. For five and a half years, from 5 November 1999 until 26 March 2005, from the age of 27 until the age of 32, in 68 Test matches and 97 innings, against every Test playing nation, home and away, you score 4,452 runs at an average of 55.65 and a strike rate of 83.26, with 15 hundreds and 20 fifties, with 547 fours and 80 sixes, with a top score of 204. 

You define a new role in modern cricket, you sit at the heart of perhaps the greatest team there has ever been. There is not a batsman alive who would not want to bat an hour in your shoes, just to know how it feels to hit the ball the way you hit it. 

You come to England in the spring of '05. From 21 June to 8 September, in five Test matches and nine innings, you score 181 runs at an average of 22.62 and a strike rate of 71.82, with no hundreds and no fifties, with 24 fours and one six, with a top score of 49*.

Four of those eight dismissals come from the bowling of Andrew Flintoff. Flintoff wins and England win. You lose and Australia lose. You are 32 years old, and you sit at home and wonder if it's over.

'It was intense and emotional. My personal lack of results and contribution through that series played havoc in my mind. It started to allow a little demon in my mind to say, are you up for it still? Were you ever up for it? Did you have a golden run for five or six years and now you're gone?'

You start to see the game differently, feel differently about it, take it home with you. You're a less attentive father, a less attentive husband,  a man wracked with doubt. In your diary you write, 'I hate this game'. Eight innings is what it took, to tear down those five and a half years, those 4,452 runs at 55.65, those fifteen hundreds, those 20 fifties. Eight innings.

'Where that took me personally for the next 12-18 months was the toughest point of my career'.

Adam Gilchrist's interview in yesterday's Observer was full of the kind of honesty above. What it showed, what it proved, is how irrelevant physical talent can become when set against the weight of the human mind, and how unknowable the men who play the game can be. 

All but a handful of batsmen on earth are less talented than Adam Gilchrist. But there are many who would not lose their belief so quickly. Imagine Boycott doubting himself after eight innings. Imagine Botham. He would have backed himself after eight hundred.

It's easy to see how those of lesser ability than Gilchrist and similarly susceptible to introspection are destroyed by Test cricket, or county cricket, or whatever level of the game they reach. 

Gilchrist's interview came on the day Michael Vaughan hung them up. Duncan Fletcher's Guardian piece is by far the best valediction. In it, he describes watching Vaughan bat [in the nets, of course] and seeing something extra about him, 'a presence that was obvious... Everyone gets nervous playing sport at the highest level, but some hide it better than others and Vaughan was the past master'.

Such are the indefinables, and great are the men who can control them. Kevin Pietersen said today, 'I remember coming in at the Wanderers when 60,000 people were looking as if they were going to kill me. Vaughan walked up to me in the middle of the wicket and he said, 'the ball is white, the ball is round, you know what you've done to get here, just watch it as hard as you can'... That calmed me right down from being a gibbering wreck when I walked on that field to the player that I am, because that's all I do now. I just watch the ball'.

Simple game, isn't it?


Friday, 26 June 2009

The Id of Vikram Solanki

'Recalling that innings now is like a dream. Somehow I managed to sustain for a complete day the sort of form that usually materialises only in short, glorious moments'.

I thought of those words when I was watching Vikram Solanki make 100 from 47 balls for Worcester against Glamorgan in the T20 Cup the other night. They were spoken [or rather written - or more accurately still, ghostwritten] by/for Barry Richards about the time he scored 325 not out in a day for South Australia in Perth, against an attack that featured Dennis Lillee, Graham Mckenzie and Tony Lock. 

Richards made those runs in November 1970, way before an expression like 'in the zone' was foisted upon us, but that was where he was, more or less. He'd entered a rarified place where his natural ability was unobstructed by his own mind. It never happened to him again.

Solanki is no Bad Baz and the Glamorgan bowling was some way short of test class [it was actually some way short of first class] but then everything is relative. Vikram looked slightly shellshocked when Sky spoke to him afterwards. He had been in the zone, striking the ball with a rare purity, not a slog on the scorecard. He sustained it for a ball shy of eight overs. 

Playing that way is about a state of mind that can't necessarily be summed up statistically. It's a personal, unique thing. The night after Solanki's hundred, Flintoff made 93 from 41 balls and today Yuvraj got 131 from 102, but Flintoff was swinging and Yuvraj, who occupies the same higher talent plane as Richards, was doing his usual job of work. Solanki's knock - for him - was better than both.

The zone seems to be some kind of id state, a place where instinct rules the brain, where any kind of doubt or fear is banished, where, in Tom Redfern's phrase, a batsman is no longer 'wizened by risk'. Access to it is as mysterious as it is rare.

If there is a statistical measure for something that individual, then Tom's 100 in less than 50 balls is probably a good one. It represents a century scored at 12 an over, or a boundary every other ball. It feels achievable until you try and do it, but then that's the point. You can't really try. Batting often enough is the fee for entry, but no-one knows when - or even if - the gates will ever open for them. 

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Shane Warne: Doublethink

When he was bowling, Shane Warne could convince sane batsmen that straight ones were zooters and that the googly he hadn't bowled for two years was coming up next ball. He was a master of disinformation, a consummate psychologist, an unparalleled reader of the game. You didn't just face Warne's bowling, you faced Shane Warne and everything that brought with it. 

He has a natural talent for the convincing facade, hence his success in poker. It's what will make his media career watchable: there will be what he says and what he means, and the two will not necessarily match up.

His column in today's Times is a classic of the genre. Ravi Bopara is 'a bit flaky'. Michael Vaughan is 'not just a better batsmen than Bopara, I'd put him above everyone bar Pietersen. As long as he's making runs and can run between the wickets, he'd be in my team'.  

'As with bowlers,' he goes on, 'you have to pick on form rather than reputation'.

So is Bopara dangerous or a dud? Does he really think Michael Vaughan is in form? Is this a straight one or a zooter? Can he still bowl that googly? Did he really need hair replacement? How many cards is he holding?

Ah, Shane. It's good to have you back. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Warnie: It's all about looks

'Bopara is a good first class cricketer but he's not an international cricketer. I think he's got all the talent in the world but I don't think he's got the temperament. He can be put off his game too easily and he's too worried about how he looks'.
- Shane Warne, 18 June 2009

'I feel I am the victim of anti-doping hysteria. I have never taken any performance enhancing drugs and I never will. I have never blamed my mum. It was important to clarify where the tablet came from. It had nothing to do with cricket or trying to mask anything. It had to do with appearance.'
- Shane Warne, 23 February 2003

Father's day

My dad is 82 now. I imagine that I've faced his bowling more often than anyone else's, thousands and thousands of balls throughout my childhood, nagging little seamers delivered with a low arm, bop, bop, bop, over after over during hundreds of long summer evenings. 

He still bowls to me after a fashion, because we've taken to sneaking off to the nets whenever we can. He feeds the bowling machine for an hour and delights in delivering his traditional critique from the top of the ladder. There's been plenty to keep him talking, too. Form for me has been a hazy, indistinct thing.

Yesterday, we set the machine up as usual. 'Hang on,' he said as I walked to the other end, 'see if I've still got it'. He picked up a ball. He can't have bowled for ten years, maybe fifteen. The first one hit the side of the net halfway down and my heart sank an inch or two, but the second, bowled with that little hitch in his delivery stride that's as familiar to me as his face, dropped on a length and slid a little towards off stump. We both smiled. 82, he is. 

Monday, 22 June 2009

World T20... cut - and that's a wrap

So it's over, and it had a bit of everything; the redemptive story arc, the handsome hero, some noble deeds, feisty sidekicks, a little comedy, pathos, bathos, slapstick, farce, even the odd rewrite. And like all the best flicks, someone had the good sense to cut it and leave us wanting more, or at least not less. Stand up Steve Elworthy. You doing anything in 2010, buddy? There's a 50 over tournament that needs sorting out...

You know who the Oscar winners were. But who took home the Razzies, the brickbats, the alternative acclaim? Well:

Quote of the tournament: 'We're not bothered about the fielding' - Younus Khan. 
[Not bothered about fielding. Still won. Music to the ears.]

Best attempt at a not-outer [sponsored by Red Ink inc]: Jacques Kallis, SA vs Pakistan

Most dramatic injury: Kevin Pietersen ['I could break down at any time'].

Best haircut: Isuru Udana. Perennial Runner Up: Ishant

Deja Vu All Over Again Moment: England's first ball to Yuvraj, England vs India

Best run-out attempt, with overthrows: Stuart Broad, England vs Netherlands

Best Bowling: Brett Lee 3-0-51-0, Australia vs West Indies

The Best Australian Bowler Allan Border Medal Award: Dirk Nannes [Netherlands]

Best player of spin: Kieron Pollard, West Indies vs Sri Lanka

Best player of fast bowling: Suresh Raina, India vs England

The Hummel Replica Sports Shirts 'XI With The Most Upfront' Award: South Africa

Services To UK Tourism: Ricky Ponting - 'We've got two weeks in Leicester'.

The One Fact Everyone Knows Award: Don't square cut Shahid Afridi - AB de Villiers

Finished Exactly Where Expected Award: England [Super-Eights]

Understudy of the Tournament: Graham Napier, England

And finally...

Best retirement: That must go to Younus, too, ['I'm too old for this kind of cricket'] along with the most idealistic yet somehow hopeful speech: 'I am requesting of all countries, you must come to Pakistan. Everyone knows law and order is not good, but it's not our fault. Especially for youngsters, we need home series because there is no cricket in Pakistan. How can we motivate the youngsters, especially at school level and college level? I think this will help us build a new structure in Pakistan for our future'.

Well, until then, they can play here anytime. 

Update: The Sportsfreak Tipping Competition results are in. Now I know how Brett Lee feels. 

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Coaching unorthodoxy

Call it what you like - fate, luck, kismet, the work of a benevolent universe - Pakistan versus Sri Lanka just feels like the right outcome, the right final. There is a more earth-bound reason too. It's a match between the two best bowling sides in what everyone loves to call a batsman's game. 

In truth, the format is too young to know whose game it is. First there was primordial mayhem, no-one able to comprehend they were going to play a whole match in three hours. Then the bat edged ahead as the natural rhythm of twenty over innings emerged. Now evolution has developed a response, as it always does: bowling of magnificent natural flair and invention.

That old sage Duncan Fletcher nailed it in his column today. T20 rewards batsmen who know how to bat. Being able to hit down the ground is the key skill. 'You are forced to attack lines of bowling you would otherwise ignore,' Fletcher says, 'and you can only do that with sound technique'.

Batting in the near future is essentially mapped out. It's just a heightened version of what already exists. Bowling seems to have more room for advancement, it's where evolution can flower. Sri Lanka's attack could never have been invented, it's just too weird. It had to happen naturally. But once things exist they can be copied, replicated in whole or in part.

Coaches coach orthodoxy. If a guy like Mendis or Malinga or Afridi comes along, a decent coach just steps aside. They're taught that unorthodoxy is a thing not to be messed with. Stick your fingers into those sorts of engines and you'll get them ripped off. You'll probably bugger up the engine too.

What doesn't often occur is for a coach to try to recreate it elsewhere. Maybe they should. Bowling round-arm like Malinga is no harder than bowling with an upright arm, it's just not taught. But lots of kids could do it, and one might be a gem. 

Friday, 19 June 2009

Call them Ishmael

Tom Redfern has a mission, an obsession, to get a hundred, a maiden hundred and not just any hundred, either. This one must be a perfect hundred, or at least a perfect hundred for him, made 'against cricketers who rate themselves; against players who think they are better than you. It must come in less than fifty balls'.

It's one of the great beauties of cricket that a team game can sustain mad, glorious, destructive, overwhelming personal ambition. Tom's great quest reminded me of another, even simpler aim of an opener I used to play with. His desire was to hit the first ball of a match for six. That's it. That simple. The desire gripped his soul and would not let go. 

This was back in the days when sixes were a rarer currency. I was 13 or 14, just starting to play senior cricket along with age-group games. We'll call him Pete, because that was his name, a lovely man in love with the game. After twenty-odd years of playing, he was still to make a fifty, in part due to the pursuit of his dream. He opened the batting because he'd been at the club for as long as anyone, and there was no man there who wanted to deny him his chance. 

That chance was tougher because it was dependent on batting first, so sometimes he would go weeks without getting the opportunity. But when it came, well... Pete died often, but he never died wondering. He heaved at every first ball he ever received, short or full, wide or straight, good or bad. I would imagine he got more first-ball ducks than any other opener in the country, but he never adjusted his game, never thought 'I'll just bat and try and get that fifty,' never allowed reason to crush his vision, that pure and perfect vision of a bowler running in as the clock turned one, all heads pivoting as a new red ball sailed up and out into the endless sky. 

He never did it, or at least not to my knowledge. Tom Redfern is a much better cricketer, but I think he knows the feeling. 'Too many batsmen weigh risk,' he writes on the excellent, self-effacing blog that documents his mission. 'This is the credo all batsmen live by. After all we only have one chance, one life. From Test to village cricket, batsmen are wizened by risk'. 

His refusal to bow to that tyranny has cost him several ninety-odds, but it doesn't matter to him because they were just nineties anyone could have got. He has eschewed easy runs against lesser players because his dream of that first time, that perfect first time, sustains and nourishes him, enriches his love for the game. 

Pete did get that fifty. It came in an in-house game, the U-17 team I'd joined to play for against the men's side. We had some good players in that junior team, including a couple of very decent opening bowlers. They batted. Pete carved at the first ball, which missed everything. Then he carved at everything else, and miraculously, it came off. Balls fell wide of fielders, edges went for four. Finally he swung, connected again and the applause came up from the pavilion. 'Twenty-five years I've waited for that,' he yelled, his bat held high above his head, his face split by the grin that said every moment of the wait had been worthwhile.

NB: Tom has the most mythic of harpoons as he pursues his whale. He's been to Millichamp & Hall and had a bat made, a quest that has occupied my own dreams for some time. They are the wands of god. I must have one, but, like Tom, like Pete, it must be a particular one, made and bought when my bank account can bear it and, more importantly, when I feel like my game deserves it. Just call me Ishmael, too...

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

England - player-by-player, mano-et-mano

England's world T20 side, player by player. The mark out of 10 indicates potential, now or at some stage in the future, to be in a position to refer to themselves in the third person during interviews.

Ravi Bopara
5 matches; 145 runs at 29.00, s/r 112.40, hs 55 
Ooh, that straight drive. Ooh, that cut shot. Ravinder is quickly becoming as good as he thinks he is. Befriended by KP. KP's other friends: Warnie, Chris Gayle. Dead giveaway. Ravi, the world is yours.

Luke Wright
5 matches; 113 runs at 22.60, s/r 134.52, hs 71; 1 wkt at 58.00, econ 8.28
UB40 had a song called 1 in 10. It was not a reference to the ratio of innings in which Luke Wright is likely come good, but it's not far off. More like one in six or seven, which is around the number he should come in at. If, though, you require someone to hit the ball vertically up in the air to an implausible height, he's your man.

Kevin Pietersen
4 matches; 154 runs at 38.50, s/r 152.47, h/s 58; 1 wkt at 17.00, econ 8.50
You might not be aware of this because he barely mentioned it - he hates drama and attention - but he has an achilles injury, which has been injected. Still has those big match balls to go with his big match shots though, and is becoming a far more convincing T20 man.
11/10 - actually the first to use a third-person nickname whilst discussing himself. 

Owais Shah
5 matches, 106 runs at 21.20, s/r 108.16, h/s 38
Weird, twitchy, strangely melancholic, Owais needs more love than he's getting. Has the range of shots and the power. A minor manifestation of the Hick/Ramprakash enigma.  

Paul Collingwood
5 matches, 63 runs at 12.60, s/r 114.54, h/s 19; 1 wkt at 17.00, econ 8.50
The Peter Principal, which suggests that a man has been promoted out of a job, might now be renamed the Paul Principal. As a captain, he shares one quality with Mike Brearley - he bats like him. Anyone witnessing the group that surrounded Colly when any kind of decision needed making might deduce that he wasn't really captaining. Affected his fielding and he bowled only two overs. Farewell Colly, but thanks. 

Dimitri Mascarenhas
3 matches, 42 runs at 42.00, s/r 100.00, h/s 25*; 2 wickets at 22.50, econ 6.42
Quiz question: who came top of England's batting and bowling averages at the 2009 World T20? Correct, it was Dimi, one of Warnie's go-to men at Rajasthan. The clue's in SHANE WARNE, selectors. Goes without saying that you know better than him, though.

James Foster
5 matches, 37 runs at 12.33, s/r 115.62, h/s 14*; ct 3 st 3
Nervy at first but that electric, quicksilver stumping of Yuvraj turned the India game. Because this is England, there is now a body of opinion that says he should be replaced by Matt Prior. Wrong. Prior is good enough to play as a batsman. With more power in the middle order Foster's nurdling will be given a proper context, and T20, with its contractions and distillations, is the one format where a single piece of wicketkeeping brilliance can effectively win a match. 
1/10 - far too self effacing for all that. Which is nice.

Graeme Swann
4 matches, 5 wickets at 19.40, econ 6.92; 15 runs at 7.50, h/s 10*, s/r 93.75
About as good a conventional, non-mystery, straight-up, loopy, hit-that-if-you-can off-spin bowler as there is. Nous and swagger are his defences. Dreams of owning a Ferrari - that speaks of uncomplicated ambition. Potential to be a Harbhajan-type slogger if he practices.

Adil Rashid
4 matches, 3 wickets at 31.66, econ 7.30; 9 runs at --, h/s 9*, s/r 52.94
England were far more scared of him than he was of playing for England. The absolute best thing was his response to being hit. 

Stuart Broad
5 matches, 6 wickets at 17.33, econ 6.50; 22 runs at 22.00. h/s 10*, s/r 200.00
At the last one, he went for six sixes. At this one, he produced the overthrow that let the Netherlands beat England. That neither of these things will be held against him reflect his character. Came up with the round the wicket thing - good, and the arm-pointing thing - bad. 

James Anderson
5 matches, 5 wickets at 26.20, econ 7.55; 1 inns, 0 runs
Compared to Umar Gul, a disappointment. Compared to Mitchell Johnson, a success. That's Jimmy, occasionally devastating, more often middle of the pack. Didn't appear once as nightwatchman though, which must have felt weird.

Ryan Sidebottom
3 matches, 3 wickets at 22.00, econ 7.39; DNB
Probably undercooked, which made the last over against India impressive. Like most England bowlers, has a tendency to over-think things. Six yorkers are the default position - go on  from there.

Eion Morgan
1 match, six runs at 6.00, s/r 75.00, h/s 6
Bought the hype. Thought that England had selected him for the offbeat shots [let's be honest, they had], and felt obliged to play them. Needed proper direction. England - as usual - ran away in fear after one game. Must now be haunted by the name Ed Joyce.

Rob Key
1 match, 10 runs at --, h/s 10*, s/r 125.00
The most cursory study of Rob Key's career will reveal that a] England have toyed with his emotions like Madonna with a third-world orphan, and b] underneath the robust, ruddy exterior, Key does not feel like he belongs. The selectors' ambiguity extended to one game and being batted out of position like a red-faced sucker. A good player has been internationally neutered.

Graham Napier
o matches
What could England possibly want with a world-record-holding  six hitter who bowls at 85mph? I mean, really, what did he expect - a game? In this team? Sheesh.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Stats life

This morning the skies were a blameless blue, but they knew what they'd done last night, oh yes... 

When the great rains swept the Oval and Duckworth-Lewis set West Indies 80 in nine overs my immediate thought was, 'that's low', and I wanted England to win not just for the obvious reason, but because questioning dear old D-L afterwards would seem less like sour grapes.

It's not. England aren't out of the tournament because of Duckworth-Lewis. The fault-lines that run through the team are all too apparent: they're a super-eights type side, nothing more and occasionally less. 

And yet... In the sharp-end super-eight games of the past few days, scores of 144, 153, 159 and 158 have all been successfully defended. D-L is a essentially a measure of worth and in the light of recent history, England's 161 felt like it was worth more than 80 from nine. Even the blunt, base-rate over-by-over comparison  shows that England were 75-2 after nine of their regular twenty.

I'm not numerate enough to understand how the D-L calculation is calibrated, but I don't think that the calibration has been adjusted since 2004 to allow for the rising primacy of the bat, and for the mindset that has accompanied it.

Perhaps the simplest way to load the calculation would be to adjust the number of available batsmen. What really swung last night's D-L figure in favour of the batting side was the 10 wickets in hand. England would have had to take more than one per over to bowl them out. A ratio of, say, seven batsmen - ie six wickets to win - would have felt fairer on the bowling team.

NB: Another delicious little titbit came to light on the radio - apparently net run rates would have been adjusted to allow for D-L if points could not separate the sides. Good luck working that one out, boys...

Update: The Guardian are reporting that Duckworth-Lewis will be revised towards the end of the year to reflect the increase in T20 data - reinforcing a point made by Dave Barry in the comments below. 

Monday, 15 June 2009

Another country

Ben over at Crucket recommended Netherland, Joseph O'Neill's book about a Dutch banker living in New York and playing for the Staten Island club. I'm only a little way in, but there are some excellent moments - a description of fielders who 'again and again converge in unison on the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm'; someone's silver nail polish wearing away to 'a fishy shimmer'; the 'mechanical dark' of a hotel's service staircase.

O'Neill seemed to be writing a lot from life, and, googling him, it turned out to be so. The New York Times followed him down to Staten Island to watch a match for a piece that was warm and funny, if not always intentionally. O'Neill, they report is 'a decent off-speed bowler' who also 'led off the batting, hitting some nice cuts and sweeps, a couple of long balls, even a delicate backwards slice before being 'run out' for a disappointing 21. He was picked off base as it were, trying to eke out a run where there wasn't one.'

'After just 17 overs [the cricket equivalent of a inning, roughly] the team was all out with 117 runs, a meagre score.'

Fact-checking departments at American magazines are legendary [a friend of mine was once asked 'how he knew' that Kurt Cobain was dead], so it's good to see that some subjects - off-speed bowling for one - still lie beyond their fearsome reach. It's truly another country over there.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Nobody knows anything

Latest odds for World T20:

Pakistan [Wins over Netherlands and New Zealand so far] 9/2 third favourites

England [lost to Netherlands, beat Pakistan and India] 15/2 fifth favourites

West Indies [Couldn't beat England at all before tournament began] 7-1 fourth favourites

New Zealand [Who's injured? Who's flown home? What's going on?] 12-1

Admit it chaps, you've got about as much of a clue as the rest of us. It must be a half-decent tournament...

Not them ones

Great story from John Holder in today's You Are The Umpire in the Observer. The question was the old chestnut about the bowler losing his grip on the ball and delivering a three-bounce dolly that stops just in front of the batsman. Holder gave the usual answer, and then went on:

'In the late 80s I was umpiring a match between Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire when Curtly Ambrose lost control of the ball during his delivery. It looped high in the air and dropped at forward short leg in front of batsman Derek Randall. His eyes lit up as he saw the chance of some easy runs: he teed up the ball and smashed it to midwicket for four. Turning round, he saw Ambrose towering over him with a face like thunder. Realising he would have to face a pumped up Ambrose, Randall looked to the bowler's end umpire Merv Kitchen and shouted, 'Merv, I don't want them runs - cancel them!' Of course Merv couldn't cancel the runs, but everyone fell about laughing, and Curtly, ever the professional, let Derek off with one of his normal, blisteringly fast deliveries'.

A glory era of county cricket, too...

NB: On the subject of the law, came up against an odd one in a match the other day: the batsman pulled away as the bowler ran in and gestured to the fielder at long-off that he was in his eyeline. The fielder at long-off gestured back, not unreasonably, that he was standing at least two yards away from the sightscreen. He moved, but I'm not sure that he had to. Anyone know for sure?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Time's arrow

Perhaps Ricky Ponting has played his last T20 international. The game's waiting for no man at the moment, and Ponting looked like yesterday's man during Australia's two games. His bewilderment at their exit was perhaps the most bewildering thing of all: how could he not see what was wrong?

It's strange that such an instinctive batsman, one with an eye for the kill, seems to lack a feel for the ebb and flow of the game, yet it has always been missing. Ponting's professional life has run along straight rails, he is the uber-pro, brought up by Taylor and Waugh, the man anointed young to take over the war machine. So grooved was that machine it didn't take much insight to run it, just that flinty sporting heart that allows you to put a foot on a head that's already been in the dirt for days. 

But few great sportsmen are schooled purely by victory. Waugh was the last Australian captain that knew not just what it was to lose, but to be beaten. On the few occasions Ponting has been confronted by it, he hasn't really known what to do. The most resourceful captains of recent years - Hussain, Vaughan, Vettori - knew the feeling inside out. When your plans work for years on end, you don't really need any others. 

The other great and intangible facet of captaincy is personality, but what is Ponting's? After all of this time, I'm not sure anyone really knows that much about him. Under extreme pressure Waugh had that bloody-minded steel, that thrilling love of the fight. Vaughan had a preternatural calm that held flaky England together. Ponting's prime traits have been anger, frustration. 

He's been uneasy with his selectors, short of faith in some of his players, and, like Langer and Hayden, he has a hankering for the good old days. He thought T20 was a joke - he was not alone there - but he failed to catch up. He looked bewildered at the World Championship, and more than that, he looked old, his face deeply lined, his body-language agitated. His confusion was manifested most in his handling of Brett Lee. In a game where one bad over results in a 'thanks very much' and a quick hoicking off, Lee bowled three in a row. 

Now he's clinging to the win over South Africa at the start of the year, but South Africa's recent history is one of boom and bust, each big win followed by a big deflation. Australia's weaknesses - no spinner, a tendency to collapse against spin, Mike Hussey's decline and Brett Lee's too - have not been managed, or even addressed.

That's not to say that England will win the Ashes, but they might if they exploit the holes. T20 may be nothing like Test cricket, but it proved a decent x-ray of the Australian condition, and of Ricky Ponting's. Time's arrow is flying his way.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Television personality

One of the archetypes of club cricket is the ersatz pro, the player who exhibits a growing number of the things he's seen [or thinks he's seen] the professionals do on the telly. For a reason I can't pinpoint, it's older players who are most susceptible. 

I played against a classic example of the genre last week. Coming in at number three, he was one of those who has a couple of heaves early on and then, more by luck than judgement, seems to get his eye in. As he got to twenty-odd, his mental transformation into Kevin Pietersen began. He started walking singles. He began calling the umpire 'Umps' in a loud voice. Every time he got the strike in the middle of an over, he'd hold his glove across his chest with either one or two fingers outstretched to indicate the number of balls remaining. When he hit a boundary, he'd engage the nearest fielder in some sort of banter. He looked like he wanted to ruffle their hair too.

When they won the game he ran off and up the steps, waving his bat, weaving past the non-existent fans who hadn't come onto the pitch. Ran off! Presumably he thought he'd have to give an interview to Nasser Hussain or something.

This man was, I'd guess, way past 35 years old, a classic ersatz pro, watching a mini-movie in his head in which the boundary was no longer deserted but ringed by misty-eyed admirers, the pavilion occupied not by a junior football team who'd just won a five-a-side but rheumy old fellas in egg-and-bacon ties, his vanquished opponents walking from the field in wry contemplation, well beaten but able to tell their families they'd played against him.

The ersatz pro. You've got to love them. Haven't you?

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Luke Wright, jacuzzi, hotel...

... Enduring image, isn't it?

Well Brit is the man who shared said bubbles. And then saw Mushtaq Ahmed having dinner. And then wrote a poem about it

Just remember that when you're watching him open against South Africa this week [Luke Wright that is,  not Brit. Or Mushtaq].

Monday, 8 June 2009

Measure for measure

Sky have a revealing little graphic for their World T20 coverage. As they preview the next three batsmen in, they show a single stat - their strike rate.

Murdoch companies make their fortunes by taking complex pieces of information and making them simple; it's worked across tabloid newspapers and television channels for forty years. They have a nose for what the punter likes, and a saucy strike rate is the sexiest new stat in cricket. It's easily understandable, and it's a comparatively big number. 

T20 has produced an obvious demand for new ways of measuring player data. Batting average doesn't cut it for T20, it's too skewed. In Test cricket a benchmark of, say, 40 works across the top six. It's universal enough to apply to each of those batting positions. But in T20, the opportunity for numbers one, two and three batsmen to build higher averages than those coming in after over number 10 is far greater. Equally, a number six or seven in a decent side may get a very high proportion of not outs. Either way, the average loses meaning, and stats are all about meaning.

So strike rate measures the speed of scoring, which is meaningful. But it feels as though it needs a supplement, a stat that tells you over what period that speed has been sustained. Average would be the obvious measure, but again it doesn't feel accurate enough. The skewing mentioned above is one reason. Another is that high team scores in T20 generally come from using a variety of batsmen to optimum effect: blazing hitting is usually suited to shorter individual innings, and individual wickets hold less value than they do in longer games.

So what measure should sit alongside strike rate? Maybe it should be average duration of innings, or average number of balls faced. Something like: 's/r 150.33, av b/f 28.1'

Now like KP, maths is not my strongpoint. I guess that multiplying those two stats out would result in something very much like an average. But batting effectiveness might be more clearly stated via the method above. 

Over to you, stattos.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Never mind the quality...

...Feel the run rate: +1.88.

England ease into the Super-Eights*. You never really doubted them, did you?

* As officially announced by, er Nasser Hussain whilst interviewing Kevin Pietersen on Sky Sports. 

Nasser: 'I can tell you that you're definitely through Kevin'.
KP: 'How do you know that?'
Nasser: 'Maths, Kevin'.


Friday, 5 June 2009

Nether Netherland

Er, lads, don't s'pose anyone's still got that number for Michael Vaughan?

NB: Update from the Planning Dept:
Number of England players entering the tournament with known injuries: 1 [Kevin Pietersen]
Man chosen as Pietersen's replacement: Robert Key
Number of warm-up games for which Key was selected: 0

Ricky Ponting, Assistant to the Regional Manager

A decade ago, Ricky Ponting would have been high on the list of people who might never utter the phrase 'moving through some processes'.

Now though he has uttered it.

There is no hope. We've run it up the flagpole. And the world has finally jumped the shark. 

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Sex drive

Mike Selvey thinks Australia will win the World T20 because they have 'virile batsmen'. 

Not after today they don't.

They just sent their only 'virile' batsman home. As for the rest - Michael Clarke, Mike Hussey and Shane Watson, virile? Not that lot, pal. Bunch of pantywaists. 

So if Selvey is correct and virility is the key to T20, which team is really the manliest? Who has the most testosterone coursing through their blood? Who's really got the balls for the job?

All nominations welcome... 

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Freddie disses Fiddy, India, hotel receptionists: storm brewing

In an interesting adjunct to the post below, GQ magazine have just released some details of an interview they'll be carrying with Andrew Flintoff. The highlights:

'I have no problems with a multi-cultural society, I think it's to the benefit of the country. But you have to be careful what levels it takes you to. It annoys me when I phone a hotel receptionist in my own country and they don't understand what I am saying because they don't speak English'.

'There are places I wouldn't go to now. You see these reports of stabbings, bottlings, shootings and you think, 'what's happening to this country?' I think rap music's got a lot to do with it. It makes it sound cool not to conform and to be violent. That's why I think sport has such an important role to play. Cricket kept me away from trouble.'

'There's knife crime, gun crime, homelessness, the financial crisis, so many things need fixing. But when you go somewhere like India you realise we're not in that bad a shape. We have a tendency in Britain to talk ourselves down.'

Lucky we've got Andrew Flintoff to, er talk things back up, then...

NB: Excuse odds just in: 
Misquoted 2/1
Taken out of context 7/4
Jocular comments made in private 6/1
'I love going to India/talking to hotel receptionists/listening to rap music' 11-2

Monday, 1 June 2009

Who's boss?

It's fair to say that much of the best sports writing is American. They take it more seriously for a start, and they have a vast but self-contained canvas. The cream of it is in a wonderful book, The Best American Sports Writing Of The Century. The stuff inside is so good, it's kind of irrelevant whether you like the sports they're writing about, or even whether you like sport. 

There's Al Stump on his near-death experiences with the twisted, quite possibly insane baseball genius Ty Cobb, J.R. Moehringer's astonishing story on a boxer's identity, Resurrecting The Champ, Paul Solotaroff's The Power And The Gory, about bodybuilder Steve Michalik ['It was only a question of which organ was going to explode on me first'], Thomas McGuane's obsessive pursuit of an uncatchable fish called a Permit, and much, much more.

The final section is devoted to Muhammad Ali, the defining sportsman of the century and - uncoincidentally - its most accessible. George Plimpton once recounted a story of travelling to Ali's house for a Sports Illustrated cover piece and waiting his turn for an hour because Ali was giving an interview to the local school newspaper. Ali was world champion at the time. 

All of which is a long-winded way of getting round to Sunday's Observer Sport Monthly and its 'Ashes Special'. It was a very modern piece of journalism. On the cover were Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen putting on suits. On the inside front cover and facing page was a double page ad for Hugo Boss suits featuring Steve Harmison, James Anderson, Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Monty Panesar.

The story itself saw the OSM journalist granted access to, er, the England team's fitting for their Hugo Boss suits. Inbetween taking off their trousers, they offered a few words. A very few. The journalist even noted how keen some of them were to disappear. In case anyone missed the point, all of the pictures featured the players trying on their Hugo Boss suits, and carried the caption 'All clothes and shoes by Hugo Boss. Call 020 7544 5700 for details'.

This is 21st century sports writing: controlled access for a commercial return. Who, apart from Hugo Boss, gains from the arrangement? Not the readers, and ultimately not the players. Part of the resentment towards them comes from the shield that keeps them from the world. It just seems strange, and sad, that in an age of so much media, we know conversely less about them. 

Ali's greatness was apparent in his boxing, but it was enhanced and contextualised by the people who wrote about him. He trusted them to know what to put in and what to leave out [he was given a free pass, for example, about his womanising]. That same relationship was true of the old-school cricket writers and players like Botham and Boycott, yet we have much fuller portraits of them than we do of Pietersen or Ponting. Something that added to the fabric of the game is being lost. 

On the plus side though, Hugo Boss will be pleased. That's 020 7544 5700 if you're interested.


On Saturday, I made the worst 30-odd I've ever made. It was an unwatchable and visceral horror, like Oldboy.

Somehow surviving what felt like a stone-dead leg before third ball, I got off the mark with an edge between the keeper and first slip which they both watched sail by. There followed a spell of trancelike Boycottian contemplation when I wondered if I would score another run not just then, but ever. 

The spell was broken by a cut that came off the toe of the bat and went between the wicketkeeper's legs, so I decided to listen to my internal Peter Moores [doesn't everyone have one?] and take the positives from the experience - i.e. that it was quite funny I was still in. 

It lasted another hour or so - oh yes - during which the most productive area was the half-bat squirt through backward point. After the umpteenth one of those, first slip threw back his head and said, 'fucking hell, it's Paul Collingwood...'

I'll take that as a compliment, boys...

NB: One of their openers had a Charlie French bat. It was a handsome blade, the first one I've seen in the flesh [I was going to say in the wood, but that sounds somehow wrong...] I spent his innings making eyes at it.