Sunday, 28 February 2010

Little Britain

Is Ian Bell 'too English' to ever really succeed in Test cricket? Is Matt Prior a better player because he's given up eating sausage and chips and sunday roast? Is Steve Harmison a victim of Durham's insular community, and is Chris Tremlett just a big Southern jesse?

These might be at best tangential explanations of their failings. They probably wouldn't gain much traction in any lengthy debate. Every man is to a greater or lesser degree a product of his environment, and it's unlikely that a selection meeting involving Geoff Miller will offer the world an answer to a 'nature versus nurture' conundrum that has defied both science and philosophy.

The cricket correspondent of the Times, Michael Atherton, posed some similar questions in a piece this week, though: Is Monty Panesar too Indian to succeed for England in Test cricket? Is Ajmal Shazad in the squad because he's given up eating his mum's curries and chapatis? Has Samit Patel made that same dietary commitment, and if not, should he? Is Owais Shah not deferential enough and Ravi Bopara less mentally tough than other batsmen? Is Adil Rashid a 'slow learner' [and, by the way, is 'slow learner' now some kind of euphemism]?

It's a tortuous path to negotiate, this question of 'British Asian' cricketers, and Atherton has, to his credit, been unafraid to go into print with some of the arguments that are heard in dressing rooms and board rooms. Yet being set down in the paper somehow exposes them as bogus, from another age. Athers scrabbles for a foothold, but crashes to earth around the time he suggests that Monty's 'full blown Indian' wedding is somehow indicative of his dilemma.

Atherton asks if South Africa's outstanding batsman in India, Hashim Amla, has succeeded because he is 'better, or mentally stronger' than British Asian players. That's a bit like trying to compare apples and oranges, but within Amla's stats lie a different, and more revealing argument. He debuted in November 2004, and his average did not hit 40 until his 31st match, almost exactly four years later in November 2008. After two years and nine tests it was 22.47; after three years and 18 matches it was 32.56. After 41 tests it was 40.75, and it is only after his success in India that it has risen above 47. In short, Amla, had he been England-qualified, would have been in and out of the side like Bopara and Shah. Only South Africa's selection policy has allowed him to flower so late. Perhaps there is a lesson there - one of how some talent develops rather than how positive discrimination works.

In the Guardian, Mike Selvey made a far more acute point than Atherton's. 'Of the 30 or so batsmen to have played U19 tests between 1999 and 2006, only three - Ian Bell, Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara - have reached the test team at all'.

That is the real question, and the answer lies in 'British' rather than 'Asian'. It's that question that we need to address. 

NB: One thing did Athers no favours - the lack of quotes in his piece. Surely he knows the players involved well enough to pick up the phone and ask them the question?

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

So farewell then, Charles Coventry

You don't need to write anything when Sachin Tendulkar scores 200 in an ODI. You've seen him bat. Just close your eyes and imagine. 

But The Master [surely it's time to drop the almost pejorative 'little'...] has eradicated one of the great trivia questions: who holds the record for the highest score in ODIs, along with Saeed Anwar? Yup, it's so long to Charles Coventry and his 194 for Zimbabwe against Bangladesh. 

Regardless, Sachin now has 93 international hundreds. Seven more, and it would have to be considered one of the all-time feats of batting, the equal [at least] of the standard 100 first-class hundreds

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Let there be light

Messing around in the nets last year, I picked up an old bat my dad found in his loft, a Gunn & Moore Maestro that can't have seen action for at least 15 years. Ripe as an old conker and half as dark, I expected it to split down the middle. Instead, with the bowling machine cranked up for some short stuff, it played like a dream. The ball didn't trampoline from the face as it would from a modern bat, but it came off well enough, yet the real surprise was how much more quickly it felt like I was in position. When I got home, I stuck it on the scales: 2lbs 4oz.

I thought of it when reading about the Hawk batmakers [sponsors of this man] and their new LPi10 bat aimed at women players. It is, they say, 'lighter than a conventional bat' - and starts at 2lbs 6oz.

It shows how time has shifted: well-known ladies like Denis Compton [2lbs 2oz], Dame Don Bradman [2lbs 3oz] and Mrs Geoffrey Boycott [2lbs 4oz, sometimes changed to 2lbs 3oz after tea if he'd been batting all day] would have chucked a 2lb 6oz plank back into the kit bag. As Bob Appleyard once said, 'Billy Sutcliffe had a 2lb 6oz bat and he had to have it specially made'.

The game has changed of course. Much like forged golf clubs that used to have minute sweet spots, old bats were made for uncovered wickets, and for men who had to be able to manouvre the ball. But it's easy to get sucked into using a railway sleeper because the odd one you hit in the middle really pings. I'm trying to find a bat that looks manly and weighs around 2lbs 8oz at the moment.

NB: Any offers welcome...

Friday, 19 February 2010

What's words worth

Rock lyrics that aren't about cricket but could be - Number One in an occasional series:

'Bring me my broadsword, and a cross of gold as a talisman...'
- Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull

An opening batsman, about to bat...?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Naming ceremony

I love the Allan Border Medal, and not just for Hayley Bracken's dress. It debuted during my sojourn in Oz, and it was always a joy to watch, not least because of the baroque scoring system and the fact that someone, and sometimes more than one, were suitably refreshed as they took the stage. 

So much so that the only thing stopping me from proposing the same thing over here is what we'd actually call the medal. Let's have a vote. Here are my candidates:

The WG Grace Medal

The Sir Ian Botham Medal

The Douglas Jardine Medal

The Graham Gooch Medal

The Frederick Sewards Trueman Medal

The Mike Brearley Medal

The Michael Vaughan Medal [although he's so modest, he'd probably refuse the use of his name]

And naturally

The Mark Ramprakash Medal

Feel free to chip in... 

NB: An inside job on this year's ABM at Cricket with balls

Brett Lee

Brett Lee might not play again. The Times report said the news 'may act as a filip for England'. I disagree, and I think the England players would too. The odd beamer aside, Lee has been an exemplary opponent and the kind of bowler you'd tell your grandchildren about facing.

Australia may remember him for other things, but in England it will be for 2005, where, Warne apart, he was the man who came closest to changing history. There was the innings at Edgbaston of course, and the howitzer that removed Flintoff during the hide-behind-the-sofa run chase at Trent Bridge. And then there was the spell he bowled at Kevin Pietersen either side of lunch on that deathless last day at the Oval, one of the epic passages of modern Test match cricket.

As Pietersen said later, 'I knew it was me or him.' It was KP in the end, but it was nearly Lee, and then who knows what might have happened. He bowled brutally quickly, and it took a genius like Pietersen to counter-attack him. Both touched greatness then.

There was another spell too, perhaps the last we'll see of him, in the warm-up game at Worcester last summer, when it looked like he'd bowled his way back into the Test side. Again he hit that level of pace where the smallest increments of swing or seam on any one delivery made it effectively unplayable.

Recently in Australia there was a horrible series of racist beatings carried out on Indian students by dimwit up-country shit-kickers. It was Lee that the Government asked to make a broadcast to India to say that not all Australians were like that. They're not and Brett Lee is not.

'I may never bowl another ball,' he said, 'and if that's the case, then I'm so satisfied with my career and my longevity'. He left nothing behind out there, he was a worthy foe.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Andrew Flintoff: Do You Buy That?

The Wall Street Journal reported that Dubai wobbled again today, its precipitous debt mountain barely upright, its property shipping value as quickly as it once acquired it. Apparently RBS holds a huge chunk of the debt. Somehow that figures.

So all is not well in Dubai, unless of course, you're Andrew Flintoff, one of the city state's new celebrity residents. Today's Telegraph gave over plenty of space for Fred to plug 'the ideal location for a cricketer'.

'Dubai's position geographically and its amazing facilities I think will tempt more and more people to do what we've done, and move here in the next few years,' he says.

Yes, Fred, it's almost impossible to see a downside to relocating to Dubai at the moment - even if you play for Lancashire, England is 'only' a seven hour flight away.

'Andrew Flintoff has recently been appointed as a sports ambassador to Dubai' runs the sign-off at the end of the Telegraph story. You don't say.

NB: With Fred living in the gulf, does he now hold the record for being the non-Kolpak, non-overseas player residing furthest from his county?

Friday, 12 February 2010

At least you know where you stand, Giles

Poor old Toni Terry, put-upon wife of England's Brave John Terry, knows where she ranks now that the great man has run to her side in Dubai a mere three Premier League games after his shagging exploits caused her to flee. She's more important that a cup tie against Cardiff, but less important than matches against Everton, Hull and Arsenal.

Then there's Elin Nordegren, wife of Tiger Woods. She's proving more important than all golf tournaments this season, but then Tiger doesn't usually play in those anyway. The acid test - is she more important than the Accenture World Matchplay and the Arnold Palmer tournament at Bay Hill - await.

Spare a thought too, for Giles Clarke and the ECB. They had the whole English season nicely planned out before Lalit Modi let them know that they'd have to shift things around a bit because of the Champions League, passing the message along via the prestigious route of Twitter.

At least Allan Stanford and the Rajasthan Royals bothered to turn up at Lord's. Allan even brought a helicopter. Still, you know where you rank now Giles. Just keep an eye on that Twitter page...

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

I've seen the future and it works...

So Rajasthan Royals didn't bother running their franchise plans by anyone. Welcome to the future my friends, a future in which the gloves are off. 

Without blowing my own trumpet - oh alright then, blowing my own trumpet - some years ago I sat in a meeting about a certain football club's pre-season tour [translation: coffer-filling third-world smash-and-grab] and heard lots of waffle about 'global reach' and 'brand extension'. I offered up the idea that all of these huge teams should stop fannying about buying feeder clubs and going on tours and just franchise themselves to developing leagues, which, by definition, had no deep-rooted tribal loyalty to the local teams. Thus Manchester United or AC Milan or Barcelona or whoever could have five or six sides playing all over the world: imagine 'Manchester United Japan' and 'Manchester United Australia', or 'AC Milan USA'. The clubs get to sell loads of shirts and have loads of players and the locals get a league with an immediate identity and history. It looked like a no-brainer.

The Royals have beaten them to the punch. But that is not the real battle here - the real battle is between domestic and international cricket. As Shane Warne and many others have said, T20 should be a domestic game. In a globalised market, we are watching the creation of of club brands that might one day operate alongside international teams and play at the same level.

The boards hate it of course, not for any purist reasons but because it will deny them money, at least in the short term.

But in the spirit of the football franchise idea, here's a blueprint: T20 becomes a domestic game. Test cricket remains the pure form. Fifty-over ODI cricket is ditched. In its place comes T40, a two-innings T20 game played only at international level, offering a tactical dimension not available to the club teams and a natural progression for young players. 

Cricket boards of the world - you can have that idea. Cheques to the email address to your right...

Monday, 8 February 2010

The mindset of Abdul Qadir

Bowlers, those mad drones, don't have much that batsmen don't have too, but there is one thing: mystique. Even the very greatest batsmen don't have mystique, because everything that the great batsman does is on display. It's there for all to see. Thus they may have presence, they may have aura and they may have charisma, but not mystique.

A very few bowlers do though. The point was emphasised by Christopher Ryan in his terrific piece for cricinfo on Abdul Qadir's season of grade cricket in Melbourne in 1998, when he was 43. Qadir, perhaps even more than Shane Warne, was a bowler with mystique. Partly that was because his every ball wasn't subject to TV analysis, partly because Warne himself advocated Qadir's genius, and partly because... well, read the piece.

Suffice to say that one player is still in thrall to his encounter with Qadir twelve years later: 'There I was thinking I had broken him when all that time he was working up a trap for me. I mean, my god, the mentality of the man. The mindset...'

'I saw it in his eyes,' was Qadir's reply. 

That, I'd say, is mystique.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Pass the thesaurus, I've got wood

The first equipment catalogue of the year is out [like Marcus Trescothick, I luvvem] and the language of love is alive again. The first season of the new decade has an unprecedented number of bats available, described in an unprecedented number of ways. The copy writers - and surely they're now employed on this mission - have spared no page of the thesaurus in their search for a lucrative niche.

Bats are objects of fetish, of course, and this year, things have taken a sexual turn. There are bats to appeal to what Tom Wolfe once called 'BSDs' - Big Swinging Dicks: the Willostix Anaconda; the Kookaburru Kahuna Biggest; the Ram Rambow; the Gray-Nicolls Powerbow.

There are bats that sound like condom brands from the 1970s: the Choice Willow Black Prince; the Salix Pod Performance; the Fearnley Magnum Ultimate; the Gray-Nicolls Ignite Pro-Performance; the Adidas Libro Elite; The Bradbury M Players; the Surridge Duke.

There are bats for men who drive 4x4s and bat in the middle order: the Newbery B52 Bomber XL; the Gunn $ Moore Hero DXM; the Newbery Uzi SPS; the Warrior Classic; the Kippax Fireblade; the JMS Attitude; the Redback Surefire. 

There are the counter-intuitive: the San Andreas Fault Premier Willow; the Redback Paradox; the Surridge Enigma; the Duck And Run. There are the unpronouncable: the Salix Praestantia Performance; the Piripiri Naga Jolokia 5 Chilli.

Best of all, there are the incomprehensible: the Puma Iridium; the Adidas Incurza; the Newbery Mjolinar; the Gray-Nicolls Xiphos.

There has to be a champion, though. Some years ago, Viz comic ran a contest to name an imaginary car they'd designed. The winner, brilliantly, was the Satsuma Castanet. So the inaugural Satsuma Castanet Award must go to the choice of the inimitable KP, the Adidas Pellara.

'The Pellara means to beat, banish and push away',' runs the ad copy. 'It features Adidas-specific contours...'

Of course it does. How could you resist...?

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The way it used to be

Read today that Neville Cardus used to write his copy in longhand and send it to the Guardian in a taxi.

Now that's better than email...

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

So what do they see in the multi-millionaire employers the ECB?

Well we now know that Ottis Gibson is one of life's glass-half-full merchants. Only an optimist goes to work for the WICB as West Indies coach, after all [good luck Ottis, pal. No, really...] 

The ECB remain world cricket's favourite employers though, judging by the list of candidates said by the papers to be interested in the vacancy for uttering the words 'wrist positions' and 'right areas' a lot, whilst deconstructing the inner life of Ryan Sidebottom over dinner.

As of the first 24 hours, the list stands at: Allan Donald, Jason Gillespie, Geoff Lawson, Darren Gough, Mike Kasprowich, Shaun Pollock, Kevin Shine, Phil DeFreitas, Steve Watkin, Vincent Barnes and Ian Pont. 

Form an orderly queue outside the office marked 'Clarke' lads...

NB: Here's a name they should perhaps consider: Wasim Akram. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Don: not done yet

Found an old piece of Frank Keating's for Wisden on Bradman's pre-eminence that mentions the research of Charles Davis, the mathematician who found a method of calculating the Don's domination.

Davis came up with a table that gave a numerical rating to the stats of great sportsmen. Pele rated 3.7, Nicklaus 3.5, Michael Jordan 3.2, Bjorn Born 3.15. Then he worked out Bradman - 4.4.

Statistically speaking, Davis said, Bradman's career 'should not have existed'. To top him, a footballer would have to score in 100 consecutive internationals, a tennis player win 15 singles titles at Wimbledon, a golfer 25 majors.

It would be interesting to have Davis go back again now that the careers of Roger Federer and Tiger Woods have evolved. Woods may be serving his time in the doghouse, but at one point a couple of years ago he was so far ahead in the world rankings that the number two player, Phil Mickelson, was statistically closer to the man ranked 999 than he was to Woods. Tiger needs another eleven majors to reach 25, but he has a lot of years left. Federer may not make 15 titles at Wimbledon, but what's so special about that one major? He has 16 already, and may play for another five years. 

But there are other miracles to consider too. Bradman is remarkable, but is he any more unlikely, statistically, than the outliers of the great West Indies sides? Representing a nation that exists only notionally, from a few small islands [and a thin strip of mainland], came the great men of the 60s and early 70s. Amazing enough. Then consider the next few years: Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Andy Roberts, Sylvester Clarke, Wayne Daniel and more, plus, at the tail end of the comet, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Brian Lara. Per head of population, what are the odds of that?

And then there is Sachin Tendulkar. He has scored 90 hundreds in international cricket. Ten more, and how do you compare?

Come back Charles Davis. You're needed here...