Friday, 30 January 2009

Final Score

So the Bearded Wonder has gone, carried off by Legionnaire's Disease, apparently contracted in Dubai. Legionnaire's Disease - there's something curiously TMS about that, but I can't quite put my finger on what. A touch of Raj-era doom, perhaps. 

Many years before the era of analysis, Frindall proved the baroque beauty of stats, filling his scorebooks with dots and marks and tics of all hues. Some of them look as dense and gothic as long equations, pages and pages that only a few could really translate.

One of the great wonders of cricket is that is has the depth of field to contain personalities as diverse as scorers and sloggers. It's the game of Andrew Symonds and John Arlott, Bill Frindall and Ian Botham. 

Tonight I dug out Frindall's Scorebook, a record of the 1979-80 season in Australia that, as a kid, I coveted for some months before I cobbled together the £15 price tag. Expensive even now, let alone 1980, but it was worth it. It's an extraordinary document. 

Cricket had been divided by Packer and Australia's response was to invite both England and West Indies to tour, playing alternate Test matches against each. Australia lined up as McCosker, Laird, Border, Chappell, Hughes, Hookes, Marsh, Bright, Lillee, Hogg, Thomson. Not bad. England: Gooch, Boycott, Randall, Willey, Brearley, Gower, Taylor, Dilley, Willis, Underwood. Not bad. West Indies: Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Kallicharran, Rowe, Lloyd, Murray, Roberts, Garner, Holding, Croft. No spinner, then.

Australia lost 2-0 to West Indies and England lost 3-0 to Australia. Australia got 48 hours between the third Test against West Indies (lost by 408 runs) and the third Test against England (won by 8 wickets). 

Frindall described it as 'long, hot, confused and often bizarre summer'. He was not wrong. The first Test against England was the one when Lillee used his aluminum bat and Geoff Boycott carried his bat for 99 through England's second innings, the first time that had happened in Test cricket. 'I hate to imagine what he said to poor Willis,' noted Frindall, wryly.  

Looking at the reproductions of Frindall's scorecards in the book brings it all back. Here is the power of his work. Viv Richards' lowest score on the tour was 74. Boycott's 99* occupied 337 minutes and 285 balls. He hit eight of them for four. England were all out at 5.11pm on the final day. To Geoffrey's deep joy, Ian Botham was man of the match. The gate receipts were $138,153. There are stories inside all of those stats. Frindall even notes which batsmen wore helmets. King Viv, needless to say, did not seem to have one in his luggage.

Reading the foreword, this was the sixth such book Frindall had produced. Even so, it requires a six-page explanation of how his scorecards work. Many parts of them remain a mystery, but within those pen strokes are the story of an remarkable summer, trapped forever. That's his legacy.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Carve your name with pride

At my first club, you declared your availability by writing your name on a clipboard hung outside the dressing room window on a piece of string on mondays and tuesdays. Selection was on a wednesday, and the first, second and third XIs were posted on the other side of the clipboard on a thursday. Well come on... need I say that this was pre-internet, back in the days when the Six Million Dollar Man was a vision of the future.

As little under 13s, the biggest dare in our world was to run up to the board after nets on a monday night and boldly enter our monikers alongside those of the seniors. We knew of course that there was no chance of our names appearing on a thursday, but it was de rigeur to turn up and have a look. There was always the smallest pang in the heart when you read the list.

Now Lalit Modi has dangled his own little clipboard from the window and the men of England have run up to it and signed their names. In a neat inversion, the chancers here are the old guys. Goughy's on there, and he's no doubt written 'still brilliant at yorkers' next to his name. Dominic Cork's is there too, and he's just been on the radio, referring to himself in the third person ('you know Dominic Cork will give you one hundred per cent') and estimating his chance at making the cut as 'one in three thousand' (I'm no mathematician, Dom, but it must be better than that...)

If Goughy or Corky get a gig, it will be a pleasant surprise for them, but they've not invested any emotion or reputation in the process. Others will find the experience of not making the cut for the auction somewhat more painful. The names of IR Bell and SJ Harmison loom large.

Bruised egos aside, the beautiful brutality of the IPL selection system (here is true democracy in action, money and all) may shine an uncomfortable light on England's selectors. Napier and Mascarenhas are already there; Wright, Bopara, Shah and Patel, lukewarm picks for England, might appeal more to hard-nosed franchises. And supposing an old lag like Shane Warne fancies Goughy's guile over Harmison's sudden interest in playing overseas. 

It would be a good thing if England's thinking is influenced by the IPL. The ECB might not want to admit it, but it's the real proving ground. There will be plenty of pangs in plenty of hearts soon enough. I feel your pain, my friends.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Objects of Fetish iii: talk dirty to me

Quiz: Which of the following are cricket bats and which are cars?

Turbo, Libro, Mettle, Steelback, Boomslang, Glory, Harlequin, Xiphos, Stealth, Vendetta, Catalyst, Hero, Ignite, Incurza, Ice, Pellara, Venom, Scimitar, Recurve, Predator, Advance.

Yes, well, trick question of course. They're all bats, although it's not beyond the realms of possibility that they are all cars as well. They are a part of the new language of cricket, or rather the new language of selling cricket. Bats - the good ones at least - are made the old way, but they are described and sold in the new way.

The new language has much in common with the language of cars. It's full of machismo, it's designed for men. Someone, somewhere is coming up with words like 'Xiphos' and 'Incurza', some real - Xiphos means sword; some invented - Incurza means nothing, but suggests some kind of heroic invasion. 

Someone, somewhere is writing copy for the brochures and websites, too, copy that describes a  'massive profile',  'mid swell', 'steep spine', 'huge sweet spot', 'extreme edge', 'imposing appearance'. Who wouldn't feel good looking down and seeing that lot in their hands?

It's a con, of course, and a fine one. Batting is about repetition and desire, and anything that involves repetition and desire invites ritual. Bats are fetishistic things, they are invested with emotion, with the dreams of what they can do. Every bat in the world is individual. You can pick up five that weigh the same and each one will feel unique. The same bat will feel different day to day, different depending on your mood. In the best possible way, they are intimate things.

Bat makers have made their language emotive, but when you're choosing one you must resist their words and their stickers. All that matters is how it feels when you hold it in your hands. And now I'm sounding like them.

A new bat is a meaningful purchase. They're not commodities, they are things of beauty, made by artists. They're seductive enough without the new language. 

And check out Jrod's new thing - it started me off. Bats do that.

Monday, 26 January 2009

The Unusual Suspect

Owais. Oh Ace. What a waste. The litany of obscure and unlikely injuries sustained by England players that will forever be topped by Derek Pringle, who did his back writing a letter, and Chris Lewis, who shaved his head and got sunstroke, has a new entry. Owais Shah has scratched his cornea. 

Scratched it after out-batting Ian Bell in Basseterre, too. Ian Bell and his dodgy ticker, long suspected if not officially diagnosed. 

Shah deserves his go. His eyes - when not scratched - burn with the kind of ambition that seems to have faded in Bell's. Energy radiates from him. Caught on hotspot, he looks like something out of Predator. He fidgets and flickers at the crease, and for the first few overs seems self-consciously aware of the doubts that surround him. But he's just so unusual, so loose and unpredictable with his front foot splats over square leg and his forehand drives through the covers, that it's easy to see him as a distant cousin of Chanderpaul or Katich, a man to whom convention means little and results mean everything.

I remember watching Alvin Kallicharran bat for Warwickshire against Hampshire in a John Player League match way back when at May's Bounty. Kallicharran was five feet tall if he was lucky. His bat was the length of his leg. The tops of his pads approached his waist. He looked like a boy in a man's world. But he simply slaughtered the bowling that day, hitting several sixes down the ground and over the hedge into the road, a carry that only the gifted could make. Kalli was smaller than most of the kids in the crowd, but he'd found a way. Shah has found a way too.

No team with Kevin Pietersen in it should be afraid of the unconventional. Shah would be a rich addition to the middle order, with KP taking the totemic number three position at last. 

Saturday, 24 January 2009

'I Have A Dream...'

I suppose that if cricket occupies enough of your waking life, it will exist in your subconscious and your dream life too. I dream about cricket all the time. 

Quite often, in that odd state between consciousness and sleep, I jolt myself awake ducking a ball coming quickly at my head. Ever since I was a kid my anxiety dream has always been the same. I'm in a dressing room trying to get padded up and however many times I buckle them (old days) or velcro them (now) they're never on properly, and I feel the time passing by. Sometimes the pads are okay but I open my bag and find I haven't put any boots in, or shirts, or something. I've had hundreds of variations of the same dream.

Other times, it's better; I'm in a net and hitting the ball really well*, or, rarely, in a match and hitting it even better. I've never bothered to work out whether the good dreams tie in with good times in waking life, but I suspect that they do.

Cricket, and especially batting, seem like natural arenas for anxiety. There must be a connection between the subconscious outlet of dreaming and the many and strange rituals and superstitions that drag down so many batsmen. For every Denis Compton, who could apparently pick up any bat in the dressing room and saunter off and stroke a hundred with it, I suspect there are far more Graham Thorpes, obsessing about the state and weight and feel of their bat, or Vinod Kamblis, who end up with 14 grips on the handle. Their dream lives really must be hell...

* No, these don't involve MP Vaughan, although I hear he's hitting them really well in the nets as we speak.

NB: I'm posting this in the absence of TV coverage of the KFC Big Bash All Oz Vics v NSW T20 Final Showdown or whatever it's called - which I'd like to have seen - but read Jrod and Moses for the visceral, I've-looked-at-life-from-both-sides-now experience. Boys, it felt like I was there (or not, as the case may be).

Friday, 23 January 2009

Harmi available: IPL officially saved

Lalit my friend, relax. Kick off your shoes. Pour yourself a drink. It's friday night, and your work here is done. After three months of exhaustive negotiations with the ECB, you've cracked it. Yes, Steve Harmison is available for the IPL.

You might want to drop the franchises an email though, just a heads up so they don't go wasting their salary-cap on bowlers ranked inside the ICC Top 100 ODI ratings, or on anyone who hasn't retired from limited overs cricket because they don't like touring, or on anyone who's played more than two Twenty20 Internationals.

Expect a call from Mumbai Indians, Lalit, because they brought in Zaheer Khan from Bangalore before the news broke, and that can't be fair. 

Let's face it, getting Virender Sehwag to admit he couldn't stop hitting Harmi for four even when he wanted to is never going to work, is it. They'll all want him, and that's an end to it. 

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Haigh and mighty

Gideon Haigh's farewell to Matthew Hayden in today's Guardian was a couple of weeks late, but to mangle a cliche, if it's good enough who cares how old it is?

Haigh's is very good indeed, and he seems as engaged as everyone else by Hayden. Writers love an enigma, and Hayden's character and career are divisive things, inherently contradictory. 

He pulls out a glorious stat and a raging sledge to make an incisive point. The stat is that Hayden averaged 67 under the captaincy of Steve Waugh and 41 elsewhere. The sledge came after he took Zaheer Khan apart in the World Cup Final. 'Smell that Z?' he said. 'That's your house in India burning down'.

Haydos was Waugh's battering ram, the bull-chested alpha-male given license to mete out the mental disintegration. The pay-off for Hayden was the peace that continuity offered him. 

Haigh began his piece with some EJ Thribb: 'So Farewell then Haydos/mental disintegration/That was your catchphrase/Keith's mum pointed out that you have a higher test average than either Viv Richards or Denis Compton/But I found you about as interesting as your nickname'.

That's part of the reason why Haigh can write about Hayden two weeks late and still be worth reading. It's also part of the reason why the media should not consist solely of ex-cricketers. 

Further evidence was provided by another of today's intros, this one from Mike Atherton. 'In this week of fresh starts and renewed hope,' he wrote, 'has English cricket found, in Andrew Strauss, its Barack Obama?' 

That is probably the single most stupid sentence in all of the newspapers this year, and I'm including the Daily Mail. Private Eye run a regular round-up of tenuous and tortuous analogies made by hacks attempting to link their unrelated copy into the big story of the day. If Atherton doesn't make the Obama-Balls section, I'll eat Channel 9's Baggy Green ceramic replica.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

England and Australia: the differences part 354

Australia have been asked to return the ICC Test Champion Trophy that has been theirs for all but four months of its eight-year existence. 

But there's a problem. Cricket Australia's spokesman Peter Young said, 'Our building has been designed around the trophy'.

That's right. Australia designed and built an entire office complex around the Test Champion trophy. 

You've just got admire that, really.

The Few

Still on the melancholy subject of time, Bill Stone died last month. He was 108, and one of the last four men to have fought for Britain in World War I.

Three remain of the five million who went. One of them is Henry Allingham, who is 112, and who fought at Ypres. He's Europe's oldest man. In 1903, at the Oval, he watched WG Grace bat. He is the last human on earth who can make that claim. 

He didn't visit the Oval again for 103 years. He's the only man who can say that, too. 

Monday, 19 January 2009

Days of Grace

Someone should write a thesis about cricket grounds in winter, or a poem at least. On saturday I passed Farnham's, by the castle on the hill above the town. It was covered in frost, the grass on the outfield white and too long. It looked half the size it does in summer. Today, I was at Lord's, where the Nursery had pools of water in the saddle of the square and mile-wide rainclouds were banking up over the Pavilion. The place felt sombre and untended. 

Along the back wall of the bar at the indoor school are photographs of everyone who's ever captained England. In a sure sign that confusion still reigns, it ends with Marcus Trescothick. I counted twelve men who'd lasted just one Test. KP's total of four leaves him well ahead of John Emburey (two) and Allan Lamb (three), and puts him level with Lord Hawke. 

There are more pictures lining the viewing gallery upstairs. One is of WG Grace, walking out to open for England against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1899. He was 51, and it turned out to be his last Test. Coming down the steps behind him was his opening partner, CB Fry. Victor Trumper and Wilfred Rhodes were making their debuts in the same game.

English cricket was in a state of flux, with Grace realising that his time was up and the side about to lose its captain. It still is of course, and probably will be in another 110 years, when someone is looking at a picture of Kevin Pietersen* and wondering how it was to watch him bat. Everything passes, and summer always comes. 

* Provided they remember to put one up.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Old school

There was something odd about the Sri Lanka-Bangladesh-Zimbabwe Tri-Series. Not the fact that Sri Lanka were 6-5 in the final, or that Murali (Murali!) got 33 from 16 balls to win it. It was that we didn't see it on TV in England.

It's a rare series that goes by without airtime, what with Sky trying to hold off the red-headed stepchild of 24-hour sports broadcasting, Setanta. You may have to pay, but if can, you can see pretty much everything. 

When I was a kid, you got cricket on the BBC, during the summer, sometimes interrupted by horse racing. Test matches had rest days on sunday. England's tours were available on the radio or in the paper and you'd get to see the Australians play once every four years, when they came to England. 

The BBC covered the John Player League on sundays, too, plus the Gillette Cup and the Benson and Hedges Cup. It was here that you could follow Test stars from overseas because most of them played county cricket: Richards and Garner at Somerset, Clive Lloyd and Farokh Engineer at Lancashire, Greenidge, Marshall and Barry Richards at Hampshire, Alvin Kallicharran at Warwickshire, Sarfraz at Northants, the brooding, much-feared Sylvester Clarke at Surrey, Wayne Daniel and, for one mad season, Jeff Thomson at Middlesex, and Imran Khan and Garth Le Roux taking it in turns to steam down the hill  at Hove.

The only ex-players in the commentary box were men of certain vintage; Jim Laker endured marathon spells at the mike, preserving his voice by saying something about once every three overs. The host was the genial, gaffe-prone Peter West, a BBC man down to the buttons on his blazer who got the gig after being recommended by CB Fry. 

It all has a golden haze to it, but it probably holds better in the memory than in reality. One of the BBC's tropes was to broadcast both ends from a single fixed position, so that every other over was viewed from behind the batsman, with the bowler running towards the camera.

In was from that angle that Bob Willis took 8-43 at Headingley in 1981, and Botham 5-1 a Test later. It was a good way to watch the quick men: you saw less of the batsman, but got his view of the bowler. Spinners fared less well; the last quarter of a delivery was usually obscured by the fuzz of the wicketkeeper's sweater. 

Nonetheless, you could see what the ball was doing, and got a sense of how the bowlers were feeling that you don't have quite as often now. If Sky offered the angle on red button as a kind of hip and knowing retro coverage, I'd watch it.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Sachin Tendulkar, nil points

'Selected on a basis of ranking points by the jury'. 'Our rankings take into account a player's entire career'. 'Not a measure of greatness over a career'. 'Sustaining excellence over a long period'. 'Based on detailed data analyses of the year's performances'.

Ah, statistics, those noted chums of lies and damn lies. Today we have had Cricinfo's Awards, based in part on the first and last statements in the paragraph above, and the ICC's Reliance Mobile Best Ever Test Championship Ratings, calculated according to the others (and never mind the apparent contradictions). 

They have dispatched the following information: Virender Sehwag and Dale Steyn gave the Test performances of the year, Shiv Chanderpaul was the Batsman of the Year, Sachin Tendulkar is the 26th best Test batsman of all-time, some 23 places below Ricky Ponting, and Shane Warne has been comprehensively outbowled by Derek Underwood and Tony Lock.

It seems trite to say that some things are quantifiable and others are not. Cricket is a comparatively measureable sport; that's one of its great pleasures. The accuity of the Cricinfo Awards and the patent absurdity of the Reliance Mobile Best Ever Test Ratings (almost too tempting a name, isn't it?) have made for an entertaining day.

But they open a wider and more enduring point, and that's the role played by aesthetics and beauty. To draw a simple, football-based analogy, would David Beckham have lived the life of David Beckham if he had looked like Paul Scholes? 

Life rewards beauty. And beauty distorts statistics. Who was the better batsman, David Gower or Matthew Hayden? The stats are conclusive, the emotions less so. Would you rather watch Mark Waugh or Steve? Gooch or Boycott, Lara or Border, and so on, forever. Today, stats have proven a blunt tool. 

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Boycott's Red Riding

Novels about sport are a bit like Naomi Campbell: notoriously difficult. The trick, if there is one, seems to be to take the sport out, or at least to use it as texture. The most successful for some years, artistically and commercially, must be David Peace's The Damned Utd, a reimagined secret history of Brian Clough's 44 days as manager of Leeds United in 1974.

Peace's take on the tropes of soured northern manhood, from Clough's alcoholic revenge-fuelled fantasies and paranoias to Don Revie's obsessive secrecy and compulsive planning took place at a football club, but weren't really about football. His real subject, as he has mentioned several times, is Yorkshire and the 1970s and 80s, from the Ripper murders in his Red Riding quartet to the miners strike in GB84

Geoffrey Boycott, like Brian Clough, was a man of that time and place; like Clough had done at Derby County, he provoked a revolution by being sacked. When Yorkshire CCC refused to offer him a new contract in the October of 1983 a winter of civil war followed, a war that concluded with Boycott's reinstatement and the departure from the Yorkshire committee of  Fred Trueman, Billy Sutcliffe and the terrifying Ronnie Burnet. The people had risen up behind Geoffrey.

It's a perfect subject for Peace's writing, and he has said that he has begun researching the story. I hope he writes it; his Boycott will have Shakespearean dimensions, and Geoffrey deserves a mythology of his own.

The Red Riding stories have been adapted for Channel 4, and The Damned Utd movie comes out this spring, with Michael Sheen as Clough. Which leads to the glorious proposition of Boycott: the movie. Sheen's a natural for Clough, but who could possibly play Geoffrey, and who could capture Frederick Sewards Trueman? All suggestions welcome.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Haydos and Hick: Time's Arrow

Great players tend to create a consensus, at least about their greatness. The reception for Matthew Hayden has been ambiguous. Opinion has been less keen to coalesce, but there has been plenty of it. Perhaps the best measure of what he achieved is the desire the world has to write about him. Don't read it, Matty, weigh it.

Peter Roebuck at Cricinfo and Richard Hobson in The Times danced around the subject of Haydos as belligerent bully, one more lightly than the other. Roebuck dwelled on his divided character: 'his conclusions about himself and his game confronted each other'. Hobson touched on two incidents from Hayden's underwhelming Ashes tour of 2005; the England players surrounding him as he attempted to stare down Simon Jones in the Edgbaston ODI - Hayden was dismissed without further score - and his bleak, festering mindset after being accused of swearing at a child in the guard of honour in the same game. He thought England had stitched him up.

Both pieces implied that Hayden's persona was, to varying degrees, a front, and usually a very effective one. 

Roebuck also drew a comparison that hit home, with Graeme Hick. He was talking about their early careers, parallel lives that featured the battering of first class attacks before a chastening entry into Test cricket. 

Hayden reinvented himself, Hick did not, and Roebuck put it down to Hayden's location. 'Hick might have made it in Australia,' he wrote.

It's a tantalising thought, but I'm not sure it's true. It's more an accident of time than location: Hick is five years older, and just caught the last wave of great fast bowling: Ambrose and Walsh, Wasim and Waqar. 

Hick debuted in 1991, Hayden in '94. Hick played all but 11 of his 65 matches before 2000. Hayden played 96 of his 103 from 2000 onwards. 

King Cricket nailed the point. Hayden averaged 21.75 during that time. Conversely, Hick had a three year spell from 1993-6 when he averaged 45. 

Ambrose retired in 2000, Walsh in 2001, Wasim and Allan Donald in 2002, Waqar in 2003. Hayden may have learned how to succeed against these men; it's unfair to assume that he wouldn't. But he would have been a different kind of player, and opinion might not be quite so divided.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The Parable of Matthew and the Burning Bush

And Matthew walked in the garden until he found a bush of tomatoes and he bent to pick them. And the bush spake with him. It said 'You shall not score 380 against Zimbabwe again. Nor shall you play in the Boxing Day Test, nor in any others'.

And Matthew listened and was glad it was the tomato plant that spake with him and not Andrew Hilditch.

'Dress in new robes and head forth to give my words to the world,' the tomato bush said, and then it burst into flames that rose into the sky. 

And Matthew put on his new robes, which were not of green and gold but of grey, and they did not have upon them the logos of KFC or Travelex. 

And pilgrim Ricky sat with him as he spoke, and Ricky did still wear the cap of KFC and this gave Matthew comfort.

'What will you do now,' asked those who he had once outcast, and he said to them, 'tonight I shall appear in a chariot of blue before the crowds at Woolloongabba. And I shall speak with them and tell them that I shall lift my bat once more for the Chennai Super Kings. 

And then I shall remember stories of the years of Justin and of Shane and Glenn, and of Adam and before him of Steve and Mark and others. And those stories shall be called 'Matthew Hayden: The Autobiography'. And the crowds shall buy it.

And then I shall walk into the wilderness, which they know as the outback, and I shall tell them to follow me. And Pilgrim Roy will bring fishes with him, and I will take them and make them feed fifty, with barbecue sauce.

And I will cast my board upon the water, and they shall remember me and the things I have done, and the story of the tomato bush.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Warner's plum

Eleven days into the year, and David Warner has played one of 2009's landmark innings. Not for what it was - good though it was - but for what it means, for what it predicts. Warner, 22 years old and with a few list-A games on his slim CV, proved that youth is fearless and has nothing to unlearn; essential qualities for a new game.  The fish does not ask about the water. 

It was a bravura selection by Australia, but one that taps into an existing trend. The IPL's recruiters had already found Warner, and more of his ilk. The belief that Twenty20 is a game for young batsman and old bowlers continues to hold up.

The world understands this and will embrace it. The world outside of England, that is. It is simply impossible to imagine a kid from a county second XI opening in the next T20 international. 

Instead, here's the last England T20 side: Bell, Prior, Shah, Pietersen, Flintoff, Collingwood, Patel, Wright, Swann, Broad, Harmison. No place for Graham Napier or Dimi Mascarenhas, let alone Dawid Malan. England are already behind the curve, and they do not sense the future. 

In Twenty20, England don't do 'nothing to lose'. They just do lose. With a little clarity of thought, Pietersen's departure offered them a chink of light for the World Championships. They could give the captaincy to a Mascarenhas or a Key, and do what the world is doing: choose life.

They won't of course. England has a decent Twenty20 side. They're just not going to pick it. 

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Mark Nicholas: Man Love

What has happened to Mark Nicholas? Louche, debonair, self-regarding: those are his strong points, or at least they were when he last departed these shores. 

Nicholas loved one man above all others, and that man was Mark Nicholas. It was the quality that gave him his edge throughout his county career, when he used it to captain, with some skill, many players who were better than he was. 

And it was a talent that transferred well to television, where his effortless charm on commentary and in post-play interviews combined the bedside manner of a particularly brilliant, somewhat haughty surgeon and a brief chat with Prince Charles. He pulled it all off with a nudge and a wink, too.

So who exactly is this bellowing, brazen groveller fighting for his life in the Channel 9 commentary box? Nicholas is now the most Australian man in there. And that takes some doing when you're sitting next to Shane Warne, Bill Lawrie and Mark Taylor. Even Tony Greig has responded by becoming South African again. 

During the Test series (which, lest we forget, involved two catastrophic defeats) Nicholas seemed to spend many hours in his green and gold reverie, watching a different game to everyone else. 'That is one of the most dramatic pull-shots you will ever see,' he yodelled as desperate, sweaty Matthew Hayden hoicked one to cow corner. 'OH NO!' he yelled, when Haydos was caught a couple of balls later.

Today, when Hussey took an (admittedly excellent) outfield catch in the Twenty20 game from his brother's bowling, he said, 'That one's Michael, the other one's David - the Husseys have just had a Melbourne moment...', a toe-curler that he followed later with: 'Gilchrist, Haddin, Ronchi.. Australia really are blessed'. 

Adam Gilchrist, if you didn't know, had been added to the C9 roster for the day. 

Well, they say the converts are always the most zealous. 

Saturday, 10 January 2009

'Don't tell them other boogers...'

In the Observer last week, Nasser Hussain picked out Ajantha Mendis as one of the paper's 'New Stars' for 2009. It's an astute choice, as Mendis is still under the radar as far as the British media is concerned; more so after the cancellation of the planned two Test series with Sri Lanka at the start of the summer. 

Come the T20 World Championship though, expect 101 newspaper analyses of his mystical prestidigitation and of that mindbending T20 average of 5.00 and strike rate of 6.5. Everyone loves a mystery man.

Yesterday, I dug out my copy of Barry Richards' autobiography, The Barry Richards Story (nice title, marketing was altogether simpler circa 1978) a book that I used to read daily like the quasi-religious text that it was: Bad Bas held godlike status back then.

Dipping into the chapter on his four-Test career, he'd written this on John Gleeson, who, for a fleeting time, was the Mendis of his day: 'I only heard about his secret much later; the delivery that looked like a leg break was an off-spinner, while the ball you thought must be an off-break was a leg spinner. Once word got around, his mystery disappeared and he faded from the scene'.

Richards was never dismissed by Gleeson, who had nonetheless had arrived in South Africa with the aura of 'a magician... His secret lay in his unusual use of the middle finger, which he bent behind the ball; he could then flick the finger to either side to impart either off or leg spin'.

I doubt that Mendis's secret will be as easily unravelled as Gleeson's, although from the description above their techniques sound vaguely similar (as was the original mystery spinner's Jack Iverson's). The key to his longevity will lie not in his tricks, but in their effectiveness when everyone understands them. 

The chilling phrase for Mendis in Richards' description is 'once word got around'. In the age of analysis, nothing stays secret for long. Who will be the first to say they've picked him?

NB: Gleeson was the bowler at the centre of one of the most legendary of Boycott anecdotes: He was batting against Gleeson when Basil D'olivera came down the pitch and said 'Geoffrey I think I've worked him out'. 'I worked him out two weeks ago,' Boycott allegedly replied before gesturing at the dressing room, 'but don't tell them other boogers...' The reason I think this story is apocryphal is simply that running out of partners whilst batting would have filled Geoffrey with far more horror than having to help out some lesser players.

Friday, 9 January 2009

KP: Batting and ego

One of Norman Mailer's most famous pieces of magazine writing was about Muhammad Ali, and was simply titled, 'Ego'. 

Mailer called ego 'the great word of the twentieth century... everything we have done, from monumental feats to nightmarish destruction has been a function of that extraordinary state of the psyche that enables us to declare that we are sure of ourselves when we are not'.

He was writing at the start of 1971, when the concept of ego was not as commonly used to pigeonhole great sportsmen. His was the first big piece, for example, that zeroed in on Ali's and examined it at length (everything Norman ever wrote involved tremendous length, because he was man of ego himself - it took one to know one).

Of course Ali was so hard to pin down, his life such a lightning rod, that his ego was some way down the list of things to write about. 

Thirtysomething years later, ego has become the default position for writers and editors alike, because it's quick and easy shorthand for something far more complex. Of the thousands of words squandered on Kevin Pietersen this week, many have assembled themselves around ego. 'He's the kind of man who'd join the Navy so that the world could see him,' wrote one.

Pietersen has ego of course, but it is ego in its truest Freudian sense: a mediating force between desire and reason, a defence mechanism, a shell. Cricket's unique proposition to its batsmen - one chance and you're out - demands nothing less.

In a player of Pietersen's talent, ego is a finely balanced thing. The many well-documented rows and rejections over the early part of his career, his tenuous and unlikely path towards his current position and the fragility of a sportsman's life fuel his compulsive desire to control external forces and give his talent its greatest chance.

To hark back briefly to Bob Woolmer, in The Art and Science of Cricket, he writes: 'to review the raw, split-second data of what actually happens when batters execute a shot is to wonder how any batsman survives more than one delivery'. It's from this most basic point that any batsman starts out in cricket. To survive it mentally requires as much from the psyche as surviving physically does from the physiology. 

Now imagine Pietersen's defining innings, the 158 at the Oval in '05. It would not have happened but for a magnificent decision from Billy Bowden on the first ball he faced, and a couple of dropped catches. By such slender threads, careers hang. It's enough to give anyone a few sleepless nights.

The most apparent parts of his character - the celeb wife, a love of the spotlight - cover a far less secure side governed by a natural conservatism. In one interview he admitted to going home after every shopping trip and immediately deducting the money he'd spent from his online bank account so he knew what was there. In another, asked what he thought of the naked pictures female fans sent him, he replied 'Dunno, it's your country, not mine'. Underneath the flamboyance lies a streak of moral rectitude: he may be a brash guy, but he's not a bad one. 

The pivotal passage of that 158 came immediately after lunch, during a thrillingly quick spell from Brett Lee. 'I remember thinking, okay, it's him or me,' Pietersen said. Ego, real ego, kicked in, allowing his instinct full rein. 

The stern decisiveness that's so necessary in batting does not work as well in real life, certainly as far as English officaldom goes. That mentality is a mystery to Pietersen. His mistakes this week were of misjudgment, of over-estimation, of immaturity and a bullish rejection of mediocrity. 

What they were not were the signs of an uncontrollable ego. Batsmen, even those as brilliant as him, do not have them. Batting doesn't allow it. He competes in a fragile place, and he understands it perfectly. The way he reacts to the rest of life is just its consequence. 

Pietersen is England's best player by a mile, and he deserves the same latitude afforded to Flintoff and Harmison. He hasn't received it yet. 

'To declare that we are sure of ourselves when we are not'. That is ego. Norman had it exactly right, all those years ago.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Middle Order

'The cricket business is a cruel and shallow money trench, where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side'.* - Kevin Pieters...

Oh, sorry, wrong statement: 'I now consider it would be extremely difficult for me to continue in my current position with the England cricket team,' - Kevin Pietersen.

* With apologies to HST.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Schrodinger II: The Eyes of Bob Woolmer

Having unilaterally anointed Bob Woolmer's The Art and Science of Cricket as the Book of the Year, I felt sure he would have considered the notion of good and bad deliveries, and how a batsman perceives them.

He had of course, in a fiercely practical way. In fact, he devoted an entire chapter to it, titled Vision And Batting. 

Like those crazy quantum theorists, Woolmer looked at the evidence and came up with a remarkable conclusion. At the start of the 80s, at the University of Cape Town, a researcher called Tim Noakes conducted a series of experiments into a batsman's perception. Gary Kirsten, then one of the best players of quick bowling around, was his guinea pig.

The first thing Noakes discovered was that Kirsten couldn't hit the ball when it was delivered at a speed of 130kph by a bowling machine, even though he could play bowling of almost 150kph in Test cricket. In other words, Kirsten was relying heavily on visual information gained from the bowler's run-up and delivery when facing genuine pace.

Then Noakes rigged the bowling machine up to the lights, switching them off the moment the ball left the machine. Kirsten was able to accurately predict the course of the ball, and hit it, seven times out of 10, despite having seen it for as little as 100-200 milliseconds - about a quarter of its flight (Noakes also experimented on some provincial players, who ran out of the net...).

Noakes established that the best batsmen had no better eyesight than anyone else: they were simply better at processing advance clues about the bowler and the delivery. Even Kirsten could only defend balls after the lights went out; he needed more information in order to attack. As the amount of information increased, so did the number of batsmen who could cope. 

Woolmer was able to conclude that 'the fundamental difference between elite batters and those with average ability is the ability of the elite to know where the ball is going even before it is delivered'. 

Experiments in 2005 by Land and McLeod uncovered something else: batsmen don't always watch the ball. Instead they undertake a 'saccade' about 140 milliseconds after delivery, and look at the spot where they expect the ball to pitch. They also don't watch the ball for the last 100 milliseconds (as super slo mo often shows). In all, an elite batter might actually be watching the ball for around 52 per cent of its flight. 

So Woolmer's answer is that, physiologically at least, a ball is good or bad before it's delivered. Philosophically, you'd have to say that whether a ball is good or bad is down to the batsman who's looking at it - except that sounds like the kind of thing Jeremy Snape would come up with.


Sunday, 4 January 2009

Schrodinger's Cat and sporting psychobabble

Over the past year, on the back of a spate of documentaries and books, I've been trying to get the most basic grasp on quantum physics. Like being able to spell it, for a start. 

It grabbed me because so many strange and beautiful brains, each in the grip of their own wild, beguiling theories, had engaged in lifelong mind-wars with each other; wars fought out on an intellectual plane inaccessible to 99.94 per cent* of all the humans who have ever lived. 

One 'thought experiment' is called Schrodinger's Cat, after Erwin Schrodinger, who designed it to illustrate the illogicality of the Copenhagen Interpretation, the prevailing quantum theory of the age.

Schrodinger imagined a cat in a box with a particle of radioactive material, which may or may not decay and kill the cat. The Copenhagen Interpretation implied that the cat is both alive and dead until someone opens the box and observes its state. Schrodinger's Cat asked when something stopped existing in a mixture of states, and became one thing or the other.

Quite honestly, who knows? Who really knows what they're on about? But then one thing clicked. Schrodinger's Cat is a thought experiment made for Jeremy Snape, author of this madness.

To wit: A bowler delivers a ball. At what point does that ball become good or bad? Does it only become good or bad when the batsman decides it's good or bad and acts accordingly? Is this why 'good' balls get hit for four, and 'bad' balls take wickets?

I'm still thinking about this. Can Jeremy help? Can anyone?

NB: Rather brilliantly, a man called Hugh Everett, father of E of the Eels, came up with an answer to Schrodinger's Cat: his Many Worlds theory suggests that both outcomes are true, and are going on simultaneously in separate universes. Which means that somehow, somewhere, Matty Hayden is still in at the SCG. 

* approx

Matters arising from the SCG, and Joe Previtera

Brian Clough is said to have grabbed hold of one of his players who'd just made his international debut and asked him, 'young man, who won two England caps in one day?'
'I don't know,' came the reply.
'You did,' went Clough. 'Your first and your last'.

Cruel maybe, but it came to mind while watching Andrew McDonald at the SCG. 

It's the first time this century that the Australian team has included two debutants. The last pair were Scott Muller and some wicketkeeper called Gilchrist who appeared against Pakistan at the Gabba in 1999. Muller won two caps, although he probably could have done without the second, in Hobart, when he so incensed Channel 9 cameraman Joe Previtera with a poor piece of fielding he became the subject of the infamous 'can't bowl, can't throw' sledge.

Who knows if Previtera is at the SCG, or what he thinks of McDonald and Doug Bollinger. One man who might have a view is the best one-day bowler in the world, Australia's Nathan Bracken. Who has he upset?

Friday, 2 January 2009

Haydos: A farewell to arms

England is separated from Australia by more than distance. From afar it's easy to paint Oz as a less nuanced country built on principals of straightforwardness, mateship and a national pride unaffected by nationalism.  

Having lived there for three years a while ago, I think it's more complex than that. We share a lot more than we'd admit to. But yesterday, I found myself doing something peculiarly English: feeling a kind of affectionate sadness for an intractable opponent, Matthew Hayden.

There was lots of coverage in the papers and online of Jane McGrath Day, which was launched by Glenn and Hayden the day before the Sydney Test. There was Haydos, in a pink helmet, shoulder to shoulder with his great mate, letting Glenn's nine year-old son bowl him out in the nets (at least he said he was letting him. Given his current form, one might have crept through). It was a vision of genuine, lasting friendship.

Hayden is emblematic of his country. Imposing, huge, sun-cracked, he bats with ego that sometimes tips into hubris. It's an ego, like many, grown in response to the trials and insecurities of his youth. Years of success seemed to have made it impenetrable. 

But his sudden vulnerability somehow highlights the scale of his achievement. He probably knows, in his heart of hearts, that it's gone, but he still walks back out there, and will again in Sydney. 

Australians love to win. England's relationship with victory, and with winners, is ambiguous. The example that comes to mind is the image of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath walking off the ground together in the sun at the Oval after the last Test of 2005. There was a pride and nobility to their exit that, to this Englishman at least, exceeded the swagger at the end of the rematch. 

Therein lies the difference, I think. Hayden wouldn't have chosen this type of farewell, and he'd probably regard the empathy of the English as about as welcome as a text from Harbhajan, but it somehow makes him greater. 

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Nasser Hussain 96, Ian Harvey 0

Sky Sports began the New Year by doing one of its favourite things: obsessing over the Ashes of 2005. It's now officially an Ashes year, you see, and so it's out with the tapes (and the super slo-mo, for added gravitas) and into the studio with Gower, Hussain, Willis and Botham to talk us through it again, with all of the stern wisdom that hindsight can bring.

In need of an Australian view, they whistled up Ian Harvey, the only man present not to have played in an Ashes Test, or indeed in any Tests at all, despite being good enough for Wisden to make him one of the five Cricketers of the Year in 2004.

Harvey's presence made a subtle point all of its own. By accident of birth, he qualifies as one of Australia's lost generation of cricketers, men who enabled everyone from selectors to pundits to point at successive teams and say, 'look at the players who can't even get in'. Stuart Law played one Test (and was never dismissed), Tom Moody eight, Martin Love five (both got hundreds), Jimmy Maher none and so on. Darren Lehmann could have have played many more than 27 times had he played for England; Adam Gilchrist would have been in any other team in the world years before he was in Australia's; Stuart MacGill might have four hundred wickets. All leant psychic weight to the notion of Australian dominance.

Next to Harvey sat Nasser Hussain, who played 96 Tests, arguably 96 more than he would have done had he been Australian. 

Accidents of birth, accidents of time. The past is another country, as the programme showed in more ways than one. 

NB: Harvey does have one little piece of history that will be his forever: in 2003, he scored the first ever Twenty20 century. Nice. 

'There are three people in this relationship'

Kevin doesn't like Peter, because Peter doesn't like Michael. Michael likes Kevin but he doesn't like Peter. 

Giles says there's nothing to worry about, but no-one believes that.

It's always the young ones who suffer in these circumstances. Monty, Alastair and Ian aren't doing so well and Owais doesn't know if anyone fancies him.

'It's him or me,' says KP. So shut the door on your way out, Mooresy.

NB: Who would be surprised if the brains trust for England's Ashes 09 features, in one configuration or another, D. Fletcher, M Vaughan, A Giles and K Pietersen?