Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Billy Shaf And The Top Of The Mountain

Andy Bull has written a lovely piece on Bilal Shafayat, who has been released by Notts and is turning out for a club side in the Birmingham league. It's a story that's been written before about different players from other eras and other countries. It's common to all sports and to most other areas of life, too, because it's a story about young talent brought to earth, about the souring of promise.

Billy Shaf was, as Bull points out, the star of an England U19 team that also featured Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel, Luke Wright, Tim Bresnan and Liam Plunkett. 'He stood head and shoulders above his team-mates' noted Wisden. 'I had always been the first pick of every side from a very young age,' Billy acknowledged.

It's easy to see Shafayat as a talent unfulfilled, but to do so says something about how we view talent. Billy Beane, the baseball coach who is the subject of Michael Lewis's Moneyball, says 'don't be victim to what you see'. It's a very human trait to be seduced by aesthetic beauty - it's why we think of David Gower as more talented player than Geoffrey Boycott, even though Boycott's career is superior. The players themselves subscribe to similar definitions, and yet to see talent in this way is to take a narrow view of what it actually is. Beane's theory, borne out by his assembly of over-achieving teams, ignored aesthetics and worked entirely on empirical evidence of ability.

Shafayat's career, though, has not been built entirely on aesthetics. His numbers, as a youngster, stacked up. And he is not the archetype George Best-style waster. As Notts coach Mick Newell, who let him go, said, 'his attitude and approach have been exemplary'. It's just that as Billy rose higher in the game, he began to reach his ceiling.

'I'm still figuring out what I struggled with,' he told Andy Bull. 'From what I can gather at the moment, it was doing it over and over again under the immense pressure that I felt was on myself in every game. That was it more than anything. It felt as if every game was so important, and as though I was playing for my spot. When you're young you compete with others without knowing it, but you're certainly not put under any extra pressure by the management or by people around you. But the expectations grow as you get older. People expect you to perform day-in, day-out.'

Well of course they do. Talent is not just a measure of physical ability, otherwise many more of the human race would be involved. If you view the game of professional cricket as a pyramid built on merit with Bradman and Tendulkar, Warne and Murali at its apex, Billy Shafayat is somewhere towards the top, above all of the good juniors who never made it and on a level with some of the solid county pros who look more prosaic when doing their job, but do it just as well.

Ultimately, talent as described in the case of Billy is taken to mean the ease with which they appeared to play. Ease in any physical activity is deceptive, a trick of the genes. Perhaps Billy Shafayat will come back with another county [I hope that he does], but ultimately the numbers tell his story. He has played 119 games and averages 30. That is how good he is.

NB: Billy's record is almost identical to Mark Lathwell's - of whom an identical piece could be written.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Don't bother having a look, lad...

At the end of the sixth over in their game against Rajasthan yesterday, Kings XI were 77-1. It would be easy to pass this off as symptomatic of one of the many warping forces T20 is applying in its first era.

Yet it hints at something more fundamental. In distilling the game down to an extreme form, conventional wisdoms will be challenged. Just as it won't be long until the very fastest spells of bowling come routinely in T20, so the paradigms that have contained the way batsmen bat will shift.

One of the most beloved of those wisdoms, passed down through generations, is to 'play yourself in, son. Have look'. Lara always said, 'the first hour belongs to the bowler'. The first hour? When Sehwag bats, the first ball doesn't always belong to the bowler.

Playing yourself in is a convention from time past, when the game was slower and longer, when conditions and expectations were different. It's also a psychological state: the nerves and fear dissipate once you've batted for a while and have a few runs on the board.

What there isn't, though, is a physical reason why you should have to play defensively when you first bat. If you have the skill and training to hit a ball, there's no limit on when you're able to do it. The brain and eye are more than capable of assessing external conditions immediately, otherwise you wouldn't be able to make the fine motor adjustments needed to play defensively, either.

What's coming is a generation of players with a new skill set and a different expectation of the possible. If they have a look in any format, it probably won't be in the way we know it now.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Duckworth, Lewis and The New Information

In Smart Mart Amis's The Information, his protagonist Richard Tull writes a literary novel so boring that it induces migraines and nausea in all of the agents and publishers who have to read it. He ends up dragging a sackful of the finished product around America on his back [this sackful turns out to be the total number of printed copies, save for one, which goes on sale in a bookshop but is returned by its purchaser].

Last week saw the publication of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's posthumous unfinished novel that also sets out to deal with the notion of boredom [some pages of it are - apparently intentionally - so boring they induce much the same reaction as Richard Tull's...]

Also arriving in bookstores [and - full disclosure - free, gratis and for nothing on my desk] is Duckworth Lewis, The Method And The Men Behind It, by [obviously] Frank Duckworth and Tony Lewis. Like The Information and The Pale King, it deals with envy, ennui and boredom, although not for the same reasons. And like them too, it is a deeply pleasurable little classic, albeit in a slightly different way.

The collision of theoretical mathematics and cricket is not always a happy one. Both rely on numbers, but similarities end there. The information that throbs behind and between every line in Duckworth Lewis, The Method And The Men Behind It is that the didactic, pedantic, logical mind required by maths is quite different to the less certain, more emotional sporting one.

In this realm of pure logic, in this land of numbers, Frank and Tony's solution to the problem of rain-affected matches is elegant, almost perfect. It's the humans that fuck it up, with their intuition, with their experience and their guesswork. 'Whereas we like to think that the current formula could be written on tablets of stone and left for perpetuity, the truth is that while the game continues to change the formula will always need continual adjustment,' D&L confess stoically.

The method is explained at greater length than the the average reader will ever require, yet the real joy in this book come from its voice, which emerges, brilliantly deadpan, from a prep school essay of the 1950s, and from its anecdotes, which peter out to glorious effect.

The sentence 'Clive Hitchcock's secretary, a young woman called Izzy, came out of the meeting room and gave us a piece of paper with the agenda, showing our slot at 11am' is typical and it's almost genius: with a tweak it could have come from Graham Greene; as it is, it's more like Monty Python. The book is full of them. The anecdotes reach their peak with the tale of the time when Tony Lewis is mistaken for his namesake, AR Lewis the former England captain and MCC president, and receives an invitation to Lord MacLaurin's country estate: 'Usually both of us were invited,' sniffs the text, 'we even discussed whether Tony should turn down the invitation if only he of the two of us was on the guest list'.

Potential schism is avoided when 'Tony quietly informed Lord MacLaurin's PA of the gaffe', and this gentlest of yarns concludes with the note that 'Tony still occasionally receives ARL's communications from the MCC. One envelope contained the agenda papers for a meeting that was due to discipline a well-known player - we shan't name him of course!' Englishness at its most pure.

In its way, Duckworth Lewis, The Method And The Men Behind It is revelatory, its pleasures subtle and all the better for it. I still don't understand the method, despite the pages of patient lecturing, and I misread the charts detailing it at the end. Me and Shaun Pollock have that in common, but I suspect neither of us - nor anyone else - holds it against them.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Michael Clarke and the New Hyperbole

It has always been one of the pleasures of cricket that it is a sport with a written literary history. It is a game with a cerebral, emotional and aesthetic hinterland; it has depth and soul. It eschews hype, partly because it unwinds slowly. Its greatest and most resonant deeds take time. This is important because it gives the game a context, a frame into which everything can fit.

It's not as simple as the distinction between an explosive, short-duration sport and a lengthier, more complex one. Boxing and football fall into the former category and yet one has a noble literary lineage and the other has The Sun. The relentless hyping of football has been to its detriment; the game lacks a language with which to describe itself properly. Within its narrow paradigms, the players and commentators flounder. None seem capable of uttering a useful thought. They communicate in bursts of hysterical cliches which narrow their worldview. In a place with no nuance, everything happens at fever pitch.

Cricket's most reductive form, T20, attracts hype, but it's ringfenced by the rest of the game, from the meanderings of county cricket to the ferocity and indelible greatness of Tests.

It's probably appropriate that Australia's much-hyped 'modern' captain, Michael Clarke, hit the slippery slope when he described Shane Watson's slogathon as 'probably the best innings I've ever seen'. Not seen a lot of cricket then, Michael?

Watson's skill can't be denied, and yet, thuddingly, it lacks any context, coming in a meaningless ODI against a weak attack, a few days after a limited overs tournament of genuine grandeur was settled by an innings of substance from MS Dhoni. Cricinfo had it exactly right when they aligned Watson's knock with Jason Gillespie's double-hundred against the same opposition. Watson's deed is only diminished by Clarke's offhand hype.

Clarke, as he well knows, has probably seen scores of better innings. This one was an inevitable product of the new age and it will be repeated soon enough, something that truly great innings can never be.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Glorious Day

'You can tell the cricket season has started when you hear the sound of leather on Brian Close'...
Eric Morcambe

Old but still gold...

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Objects of Fetish IV: Bigger, harder, Thicker

Like a Steven Seagal revenge-fantasy franchise, each edition more fevered, more heightened, more alluring and more ridiculous than the last, so the new season brings its new weapons, its ammo, its bats.

Yes, it's bat catalogue time for the manufacturers, it's gear-test time for the mags, it's time-to-dream time for the buying public. This blog has been following the moment for the past two seasons [the first here, the second here] and reading back on them, the ramping up of commerce, the refinement of the sales pitch, become obvious. Bats are boys toys, like cars, like guitars, like bikes, like all that stuff, and men are simple to sell to: it's about machismo, it's about lust, it's about power. Cricket took a while to catch on, but now, the language is in place to frame it in that way.

Bats have been invested with emotion by their users long before they became consumables, because that is the nature of batting. It's about repetition, and like most things of that ilk, there's an obsessive edge to it. Its psychological demands mean that the bat itself becomes imbued with a kind of totemic power. Many pros and many amateurs are familiar with this odd psychic terrain, where the same piece of wood can feel one way one day and one way the next.

It's this conflux of urge and need that the manufacturers have tuned into. The bat, essentially unchanged for so long, is now a thing of technical and aesthetic beauty, machine-tooled yet natural, recognisible but reinvented for a new game that pulses with action and power. There are certain key adjectives that are common to all of the 50-plus batmakers and podshavers that have their wares on sale. Profiles are always 'massive'; edges are 'imposing'; bows are 'exaggerated'; middles are 'huge'; willow is 'prime'... If you don't feel rugged and ready to rock n roll with that lot on hand just below your waistband, then this probably ain't the game for you.

Sex and violence dominate the marketplace. From the same lingual category of 1970s men's mags, condoms and hairspray come the Willostix Anaconda, the Kookaburra Rogue, the Hunts County Envy, the Redback Surefire Performance, the Fearnley Magnum Super, the Adidas Libro, the Choice Black Prince, the Charlie French Recurve, the Ram Rambow, the San Andreas Erus Premier.

For those with the self-image of a destroyer, the lone-wolf hunter, there's the Gray-Nicolls Oblivion, the Adidas Incurza, the Hawk X-Bow, the Buffalo Bison, the Shark Tiger, the Bulldog Growler, the Warrior Grade A, the Choice Saladin, the Gray Nicolls Nitro Powerblade, the Samurai Tessen.

But the coming form is futuristic, faux-technological, suggestive of some new and weird science: the Woodworm iBat Gamma, the Gray Nicolls Quantum, the Vantage Lithium, the Puma Kinetic, the San Andreas Fabrica, the SS Matrix. They are shadowed by bats that allude to a kind of irresistible super-nature, an unstoppable act of god: the Vulcan Fire, the Newbery Krakatoa, the Black Cat Voodoo, the Hell4Leather 666 Monster, the Hunts County Mettle Cyclone.

Some have struck out alone, on their own esoteric little tip: Chase, from Hampshire, have, quite sweetly, the Finback, the Orca and the Beluga; Surridge have the Ocre, Charlie French the Aria and the Ovation, Gunn & Moore the Luna. Choice are probably trying too hard with the Teutonic, and Redback's Paradox remains in a baffling corner of its own.

This year's winner though introduces to the mix the kind of divine feel every batsman needs. Who wouldn't feel better going out there with a Hunts County Glory Almighty in their hands. Praise the Lord...

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Old Dog's New Trick [Oh alright, I'm on Twitter...]

The Old Batsman is now on Twitter. Well, you have to really, don't you? It's the Twenty20 of blogging.

Easing into it gently of course...

Monday, 4 April 2011

No country for old men

A random selection of arbitrary World Cup 2011 awards...

The Kipling 'If...' Trophy
MS Dhoni
After the semi-final win over Pakistan, Dhoni gave a remarkable interview in which he described how he'd had nothing to eat until he reached the ground because the hotel that the team were staying in was now hosting ICC/BCCI/government guests and they weren't able to serve him breakfast. Dhoni was absolutely calm about this, even though it's an almost perfect example, in miniature, of every committee that's ever run any sort of cricket throughout the history of the game. The real sign of a good leader is that they never pass pressure downwards - this is Dhoni's great skill as a captain. It's hard to think of anyone who could have borne so much expectation with such ease. In comparison to the off-field stuff, the game itself must be an escape. He sauntered out ahead of Yuvraj in the final like a man walking up his garden path after a hard day at work, ready to relax at last.

Best display of human fallibility
Sachin Tendulkar
Every player has had days like Sachin did in the final, striking everything out of the middle of the bat and then inexplicably feathering a wide one. Many of his hundreds would have started less well than that 18 in Mumbai, and yet he may come to see his dismissal as a curious kind of blessing. Had he scored a century, he might have had to lay down his bat and ascend through the clouds immediately, because his legend would have blotted out the rest of his life. As it is, the failure was almost Bradmanesque, and the weight of runs earlier in the tournament entirely outweighed it.

Best transformation
Yuvraj Singh
And there we were thinking he was the sulky, spoilt one...

Heroic loser
Tillakaratne Dilshan
500 runs, 8 wickets, killer beard - didn't even need to get out the Dilscoop.

Easiest on the eye
Upal Tharanga
A rapier amongst the broadswords

Most surprising out-batting of Sachin Tendulkar
Andrew Strauss
For one innings only...

Prophet in his own land
Jonathan Trott
422 runs at 60.28, 5x50, strike rate above Bell, Haddin, Misbah, Kallis and Ponting, fifth in the ICC ODI rankings. 'He was batting like a schoolboy' - Mark Butcher and Bob Willis

Best strategist
Tim Neilsen
Three fast bowlers, one spinner. 'They [India] will be answering all the questions... on the surface, about their line-up...'

Noble Sacrifice
Ricky Ponting
'There's been no tap on the shoulder'.

Best 'fuck you' hundred
Ricky Ponting
All talking done with the bat...

Best Associates player
Ryan Ten Doeschate
307 runs at 61.40, 2x100. You sure he's not English...?

Best stat
The number of World Cup matches Shaun Tait had to play before he got a bat. Australia's recent history is contained within that number somewhere...

Overall winner
The 50-over game
Any format that can contain an innings as subtle as Mahela's in its biggest game must have something going for it. Now, if we could only play a bit less of it...

Truest words
Shahid Afridi
'After this match, we will all be old men...' On Pakistan's youngsters before the India semi-final

Now, when does the IPL start...?