Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Stats of the day with Haydos and the MCC

'Thousands': The number of balls Matthew Hayden had to hit with the Mongoose before he felt 'mentally prepared' to play with it.

One: The number of days it took for bowlers to start complaining about the pink ball.

Notes on stat one: Even Haydos admitted he found the short blade 'intimidating'. How glad Mongoose must be he gave this interview.

Notes on stat two: If we're going to continue to play matches on pitches like roads in forty degree heat, it won't matter if they bowl a Rubik's Cube, it ain't gonna swing or seam. It's not the ball we should be talking about...

Monday, 29 March 2010

Harbhajan Singh and the divine power of willow

Last year it was Sreesanth. This year it was Deccan that felt the implacable wrath of Harbhajan Singh [surely it's no coincidence that the name A. Symonds appeared on their team sheet]. His 18-ball 49 was the kind of innings that provoked a deep, chesty laugh and a shit-eating grin. 

For those who believe in the divining [and divine] power of willow, he was using a bat given to him by Sachin. That thing must have some universal vibes pulsing through it. But beyond that, Harbhajan is an example of a rarely discussed and probably underrated phenomenon, the bowler who can bat. 

It's a genre of its own, distinct from the bowling all-rounder [a group  that includes players like Graeme Swann and Daniel Vettori]. It's populated by men who came into the game to bowl, but then - by stealth, utilising a natural talent and via experience - batting ability, and often flair, asserts itself.

It's not usually measurable by average because performances will probably be sporadic and also late-flowering, meaning there is an early career's worth of stats to overcome. Bhaji's Test average is 16.86, his ODI 12.93. Shane Warne, a prime example of the breed, averaged 17.32 in Tests and 13.05 in ODIs; another goodie, Malcolm Marshall, averaged 18.85 in Tests and 14.92 in ODIs. In first-class cricket, you might pick out a player like John Emburey, who ended his career with seven first class hundreds, and ten Test fifties. 

All are or were dangerous. They have or had a little more to their batting than just tail-end hitting. It's a genre that, in T20 cricket and all of its freedoms, is likely to expand, because that style of batting is well-suited to a clear eye and a swing freed up by the lack of expectation. 

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Congratulations, Ricky Ponting!

Yes, after Daniel Vettori did him with a direct hit yesterday, Ricky Ponting is now Test cricket's most run out batsman

Well done Punter! To celebrate the achievement, let's enjoy this one again. And not forgetting this one, of course. 

NB: The next two on the list are Aussies too, AB and Haydos. Sometimes it's the only way to get rid of 'em...

Not done yet

When Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the third time in Manila, as Frazier hit Ali with another thunderous left, Ali said, 'They told me you were finished Joe'.

'They lied,' was Smokin' Joe's reply.

The great ones usually find something even as the fire glows rather than burns, just as Shane Warne did yesterday in Ahmedabad. He's almost ready to let go - just not quite yet.

NB: Maybe it's the poems Mandira Bedi's writing for him...

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Trotters: the long walk to freedom

A tour of Bangladesh, for batsmen, is supposed to be like one of those all-inclusive holidays for the languorous rich. Sure, it's hot, but everything's served up on a plate. You just help yourself to what you want.

So it proved for four of England's top five. The exception was Jonathan Trott. Poor old Trotters' postcard home read 'given out caught off helmet, given run out by third umpire on unavailable footage, bowled off foot, pad and bat, dropped world's easiest catch. Wish you were here'.

When your luck's out, your luck's out, but Bangladesh has brought the curtain down on the first wave of Trottmania, initiated at the Oval when almost everyone proclaimed England's search for a number three over.

One thing, though, was obvious about Trott's batting from the start: he was the kind of player who Test teams would dry up. The strike rate stats from Bangladesh bear that out. While Pietersen [74.18], Collingwood [73.26], Prior [64.48], Cook [63.33] and Bell [61.84] scored their runs freely, Trott went along at 41.59.

Trott is the inverse of Ian Bell. Mentally, he's all over Test cricket like a rash. It's his game that lags behind. Batsmen tend to come into Tests with a lot of shots and then learn to rationalise their games [ergo KP and the sine qua non Steve Waugh]. Trott needs to do the opposite, which is harder to achieve. He needs to be backed while he does it.

NB: Steve James, intent on proving that having played the game professionally is no guarantee of judgement [or being able to write] is backing Ian Bell for number three. What's that saying again, about history repeating itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce...?

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

There's nothing new under the sun

I'd speculated here as to how many, or rather how few, professional players it would take to beat a club team. As with all things, someone else had got there first.

The inaugural Wisden Almanack, published in 1864 ['post-free for 13 stamps' at the time - worth a little bit more now] reported on Parr's team in Australia, 'including scorecards of matches in which EM Grace and either Jackson or Tarrant had taken on and heavily defeated elevens of places like Otago and Castlemaine'. I like the 'heavily'.

EM, older and possibly even more maverick brother of WG, 'had on one occasion singly challenged the best six of the opposition, batting first and making an unbeaten century'.

And even as the Grace dynasty rose in Downend, learning the game on their orchard pitch, the All England Eleven would take on teams of up to 22 players in odds matches, rarely losing.

NB: Derek Birley's Social History Of English Cricket points out that John Wisden's Almanack also included 'a short history of China, results of the classic horse races and useful facts about coinage and canals'. He worked up the formula after that, obviously...

Monday, 22 March 2010

Use your proper bat next time, eh?

This time last year, Matthew Hayden had, quite plaintively, gone barebat. Now our favourite pigeon-chested, gum-chewing tough guy has a deal, and it's the deal everyone is talking about. He's only gone and called for the Mongoose. And what's more, he's had the minerals to call for the original Mongoose, too, the little one, as opposed to the full-sized bats they're now making.

It's been interesting, and a little complex. The first time that Haydos issued the call [and surely it's only a matter of time before Mongoose provide him with some sort of pocket-sized Viking horn which he can blow when he wants it brought out], he bludgeoned five fours and seven sixes from the next 34 balls he faced. The second time he pulled it out, for the highly entertaining super over between CSK and Punjab yesterday, he was knocked over first ball, a ball he missed by a spectacular and not undisturbing distance.

First the obvious point. The Mongoose is not aimed at a player like Matthew Hayden, who can clear any boundary on earth with a regular bat and thus need not increase his risk. Until Lalit Modi decides to reward big shots with runs commensurate to the distance hit [oh, it'll happen...], the only value Hayden gained was novelty. The trajectory of his hits seemed slightly shallower, the forward momentum slightly greater, not unlike a punched iron shot in golf. He also selected his moment well, a flat low pitch on a day where pitching short was even more fraught with risk for the bowler. On those terms, it was a marketing stunt, nothing more. Unless you have an eye like Hayden's the bat remains essentially useless, or at least disadvantageous, in a match situation.

In short [and it is short], it's a very IPL bat. And yet a new piece of kit is teaching an old lesson. Hayden's power with the Mongoose came from the batspeed. The long handle helped, but the force of the hit came from the overall lightness of the bat. If the club player is to draw some value from the Mongoose, it's that weight is key. There's no point in having a bat so heavy you can't swing it fast. It's nothing new. As WG said of his first coach, his uncle Pocock, 'he made sure I had a bat to suit my strength'. 

What would be truly interesting would be to see Hayden using a full-size blade of around 2lbs 7oz. My guess is he'd hit it as far as the Mongoose. There's another interesting bat about to come onto the market, the Joker. It is more traditional in shape, but with the kind of profile you'd find on John Holmes in tight shorts. It weighs 2lbs 8ozs, and I guess [again] that it is the VHS to the Mongoose's Betamax. 

A final thought. If I was captaining against Hayden, I'd have the bowler try and knock his head off, and not bother about him being called for no balls. That'd be controversial, and Lalit would love it, of course... 

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Unhappy medium

Although he probably hasn't seen it himself, Dirk Nannes is being captioned as 'fast-medium' on the IPL TV coverage, which for a bloke who has been up around 145kph and is acknowledged as nastily sharp when he's in the mood, is a kick in the teeth. And Dirk has good teeth.

The point at which fast-medium becomes fast has never been clear. Before everyone was on the speedgun, it seemed an arbitrary bit of knowledge, bestowed quite often by the descriptions in the Playfair Cricket Annual, where RGD Willis would be 'right arm fast' and IT Botham 'RFM' , a verdict that would usually extend onto the TV captioning and outwards into the great pool of common knowledge.

But now everyone is on the gun. In an excellent Guardian piece this week, Duncan Fletcher illuminated the difference between facing bowling of 130kph and 140kph. 'In Zimbabwe,' he writes, 'we actually recruited two South African baseball pitchers to come and throw at us as hard as they could from 19 yards. At first we could hardly get a bat on the ball...'

So in deference to technology, to avoid argument and to stop kicking ballsy Dirty Dirk in the teeth, we should probably pick a figure, maybe around 138-140kph, and award the unambiguous title 'fast' to anyone who can sustain that average over a few overs. 

Friday, 19 March 2010

Rajasthan 92 'Best innings ever' says Warnie

Shane Warne has called Rajasthan Royals' 92 all out against Royal Challengers Bangalore yesterday 'the best innings I've ever seen'.

The greatest bowler of his generation said, 'Believe me, I've played in the Australian team that lost the Ashes, seen India beat us after following on, watched England collapse hundreds of times but none match this. The Royals are leading the way once again'.

After Bangalore knocked off the 92 in 10 overs, Warne was heard muttering that Jacques Kallis was 'the fattest cricketer I've ever bowled to'.

Later he twittered that the Rajasthan Royals baseball cap would now be known as 'the Baggy Blue'.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Songs of innocence and experience

Monty Panesar hasn't told anyone to fuck off [apparently they don't cover fuck-offing on the ECB media training course] but you might remember him anyway. Lovely bloke, fond of an appeal, had Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid as two of his first three Test wickets. 

Panesar, who is now behind the prosaic James Tredwell for England, is the one shadow over notorious fuck-offer Graeme Swann's glorious and deserved rise. Their records bear comparison. After 17 Tests, Swann has 79 wickets at 29.55, with 6 five-fers and one 10 wicket match. Panesar, after the same number of Tests, had 65 wickets at 28.40, with 6 five-fers and one 10 wicket match. Swann had bowled significantly more overs, 779 to 634.4, and Panesar had the marginally superior strike rate, 58.5 to 59.1.

Swann is clearly the more talented cricketer: you only need look at his batting and fielding for the proof. I think he'll score at least one Test hundred, and his batting is evidently and glowingly superior to Stuart Broad's, even if no-one else seems to be able to see it. But he, like Monty, is in the side to bowl, and so Panesar's decline - which began statistically after 19 matches, whereupon his average began to rise - must play slightly on English minds.

Yet Swann has one great advantage. As one former pro told me, 'Swanny has seen everything. England are not going to throw him the ball in a situation he's never encountered in first class cricket. Doesn't matter if it's taking the new ball, blocking up an end, bowling to a big-name batsman who wants to take his head off, he's seen it before. He knows what to do.'

There's wisdom in that notion. Panesar was half a decade younger than Swann when he was first playing for England. Swann's next 17 Tests may be tougher but he'll probably cope better. Equally, Panesar can't be written off. He just needs to learn what to do. 

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Fuck off, says Graeme Swann

After almost 24 hours without a wicket, post-lunch, following a 167-run stand during which the batsmen had, according to the game analyst, played and missed at or edged almost 10 per cent of the balls they faced, coming to the end of a 49 over spell on a road of a pitch in the Chittagong heat, Graeme Swann got Junaid Siddique out. And then told him to 'fuck off'.

It might not have been gentlemanly. It lacked a little decorum. Maybe there was a touch of hubris about it. But it was understandable. It wasn't crime of the century. In fact, the only reason we knew about it was the stump mic.

The players are entitled to a bit of privacy out in the middle, strange as that seems in the era of super slo-mo and High Definition and mic-ed up fielders. There is an internal code amongst them, in terms of what they say and how they say it. They're human beings. They have the right to tell one another to fuck off every now and again without the world demanding an explanation.Or folks posting odds on the number of profanities used. It's one area of the game that the players should be allowed to police themselves.

New Zealand players have apparently decided that sledging Michael Clarke about his break-up with his fiancee won't happen, partly because Clarke isn't a sledger himself. That seems right, somehow. Players pretty much know where the limits are, and there will be plenty willing to tell Swanny to fuck off on occasion.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Not the IPL news

Virender Sehwag has signed for Northamptonshire for the T20 Cup this summer. Alright, it's a bit like Robert Plant joining Saxon, but it confirms an undeniable trend: There's no IPL in England, but there's an approximation of it, built by stealth.

The rosters aren't complete yet, but joining Viru will be Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq and Ajantha Mendis [Hants], Adam Gilchrist [Middx], Shaun Tait [Glamorgan], Cameron White and Keiron Pollard [Somerset], Tillakaratne Dilshan, Dwayne Smith and Yassir Arafat [Sussex], Herschelle Gibbs [Yorkshire], Kumar Sangakkara [Lancs], David Hussey and Dirk Nannes [Notts] and little Brad Hodge [Leicestershire].

Wonder how long it will be before Giles Clarke starts taking the credit?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

DLF IPL 2010: Best commercial developments so far

In reverse order:

3. The Coca-Cola logo on AB De Villiers' helmet. 
The combo of logo, helmet colour and style make it look like he's wearing a plastic toy fireman's hat provided by a fast food chain.

2. The Fly Kingfisher Third Umpire Decision Big Screen
The animated Kingfisher plane seems to take at least 15 seconds to fly across before 'out' or 'not out' appears. Tonight, AB had to stand there in his fireman's helmet for ages to discover whether he'd been run out. [He had].

1. The Maxx Mobile Time Out
Would love to have been a fly on the wall when Lalit sold them that one. 'Yeah lads, well the DLF Maximum and the Citi Moment Of Success have gone, but you can have the bit when the game stops for some adverts - it's going to be big...'

Best sell from the commentary box to date:
Danny Morrison debating with himself whether the muffed but successful run-out of AB De Villiers by Piyush Chawla could count as a Citi Moment of Success, as we waited for the Fly Kingfisher animated plane to pass over, AB in his helmet...

Friday, 12 March 2010

Stat of the day

Population of Bangladesh: 160,000,000

Number of bowling machines in Bangladesh: 4

From TMS this morning. That's why they can all bowl spin...

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

T20 is the future of fast bowling freaks: all aboard

Peter Roebuck hooks his wagon to the fast bowling in T20 theory, albeit at far greater length.

More words worth

Rock lyrics that aren't about cricket but could be: Number two of an occasional series

'Many too many have stood where I stand,
Many more will stand here too,
I think what I find strange is how you built me up
And knocked me down again'
- Genesis, Many Too Many

On England's limited over wicketkeeper-batsmen [Phil Mustard, James Foster, Tim Ambrose, Steve Davies, Matt Prior and next Craig Kieswetter...]?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Man dismissed by spin bowler in Bangladesh

This morning the British media seized on the extraordinary story of a batsman dismissed several times by spin bowlers in Bangladesh. Some outlets have named the man as Kevin Pietersen, 29, who is believed to live in Chelsea.

'It had to happen eventually and it's the story of the decade,' said one source. 'You'll be reading about it in all the papers'.

'We haven't had a story as good as this one since someone was dismissed by fast bowling in the West Indies. It's incredible. Actually, now I think about it, it might even have been the same man'.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Lalit Modi's Night of the Hunter

To lightly paraphrase the late Dr H.S. Thompson, 'The sports business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side'.

Lalit Modi probably doesn't know who Hunter Thompson was [although given the US college drug bust, maybe he does], but he understands the instinctive wisdom in the above quote. It informs the thinking behind his demand that bidders for the new IPL franchises have an individual worth $1bn in their midst.

'We put a high-end clause because we need to get solid companies,' he said. 'The business requires a long gestation period and that is the reason we want to secure ourselves'.

Anyone doubting the need for such a guarantee need only look [as Modi surely has] at football's English Premier League, which has one club in administration and wobbles like an Icelandic bank on a pile of magic beans; it's a long and shallow trench where clubs' assets can legally be used to secure the debt that bought them [The Glazers at Man Utd and Hicks and Gillette at Liverpool], where human rights abusers like Thaksin Shinawatra can pass the 'fit and proper persons test' for owners [Manchester City] and where clubs can change hands four times in a season [Portsmouth], each times to owners who haven't actually got any money. Your Russian oligarchs [Chelsea] might be be unpleasant, but at least they can pay the bills. 

The IPL has never pretended to be about anything other than money. When the cheques come in, Lalit needs people who can cough up. To employ another couple of Hunter's thoughts: 'In a world of thieves, the only sin is stupidity.' 

And then there's this: 'For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled'...

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Afghan Plan

England are in the midst of a five-year plan to become the number one Test team and win a major limited overs trophy. Five years? Hopelessly unambitious.

Twenty years ago, cricket in Afghanistan didn't exist. Ten years ago, it was banned by the Taliban. Until a few years ago, it was less popular than rugby on horseback with a sheep's carcass for a ball. 

Now Afghanistan are the twelfth best T20 team in the world. The players get a maximum of £200 per month, meaning that it would take them around three and a half years to earn enough to download Lalit Modi's tender form for new IPL teams. There will be an Afghani player in the IPL before then.

Life's not so bad for the team. They've been given laptops and parades, and posters line the streets of Kabul and Jalalabad. 'In the shops,' says all-rounder Raees Ahmadzai, 'whenever we buy something, we get another thing free...'

They beat Ireland to get to the World T20 and then a couple of days after that chased out 494 to win a four-day game against Canada. 

Their coach, Kabir Khan, told the Observer, 'During the cricket, the guns are put down'.

Now that's a plan. 

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Lalit knows how to make it

The cost of downloading the tender form for one of the new IPL franchises:


That'll keep the timewasters away.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Prosper Utseya remains focused

When you've been a sport's whipping boys for years, you must sustain yourself during those long days in the field by imagining what it will be like when you start to win, how it will feel to mount that dias and give your little speech to Athers or Mikey Holding or Tubby Taylor or whoever's got the mic that day, what it is you'll say when you finally get your say.

So it was for Prosper Utseya yesterday after the win over West Indies, and he played the proverbial blinder, opting for a withering reversal of the words he must have heard so often: 'West Indies are still a good side,' he said. 'We still respect them. For us to beat them we need to make sure we play hard, remain focused, pay attention to the small things and remain disciplined'.

Oh yeah baby. No wonder Chris Gayle looked pissed off...

NB: West Indies needed 15 from the last over. The first three balls went 6, 4, 1. They lost. The next three went w, w, 1. The game itself can mean only one thing: They'll hammer in England in their first game of the of the World T20 and reach at least the semi-finals.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The not knowing

Eoin Morgan not knowing that he'd scored a hundred the other day made him seem even more square-jawed and implacable than he actually was. You can only imagine how he would have felt inside, down in that dark quarter of the soul, had he just missed out.

Way back many seasons ago, I remember nearing the mark without knowing exactly how many I had, and taking a single. Team-mates on the boundary started clapping. It must have been a sunday game because back then the tradition was for the batsman to surrender his wicket if he reached a hundred. I slogged the next one high and the fielder at long off, somewhat comically, managed to fall on his arse and tip it over the boundary for six. When everyone had stopped laughing, I was caught off the next ball, by the same man.

Having a look in the scorebook at tea [come on, who doesn't...], I saw a sight that curdled the blood: in my column it said - 'caught bloke, bowled bloke 105'.

They'd miscounted on 99. I can still feel the chill...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The future of bowling: freaks required

A question we should be asking at the moment is not,'who is Eoin Morgan?' but 'what is Eoin Morgan?'.

He's the newest manifestation of the evolution of batting. He made an amusing remark after his slightly awe-inspiring hundred yesterday about 'knowing your areas' - amusing when you consider one of your areas to be backward point, through which you hit by reverse-sweeping balls wide of leg stump.

In the last five years, it's evident that batting has changed, become heightened, responded to the new challenges more quickly than bowling has. So it's interesting to consider what the response of bowling and bowlers will be. Because for a while, just before T20, it was bowling that had all of the edge in innovation, from reverse swing to slower balls to doosras. People like Malinga actually reinvented ways in which you could do it.

One prediction I will make: there will be a return to extreme pace, and quicker than it's ever been bowled before. Brett Lee's retirement provided the clue. Imagine what he would have been like if he was just asked to bowl four overs, flat out. Nothing else but fast at the ribcage.

Within the next couple of years, a freak will emerge who bowls 100mph for four overs a night and goes home. That will re-set the bar once again.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Quality not quantity

Theoretically, how many members of an international team would it take to beat the average club side? By club, I mean the traditional sort with a couple of saturday XIs and a sunday team, not the Lancashire-League-with-an-overseas-pro type. 

I think the answer is four. A quartet made up of, for argument's sake,  Pietersen, Prior, Collingwood and Anderson would do it. They'd only have one fielder on either side of the wicket, but I think they would quite quickly bowl out a club team. You'd back them to get a few hundred runs too.

On a good day, they might even be able to win with three, a sobering notion...