Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The 2nd Annual OB Innings Of The Year Award

Some innings - a very few - are instantly and evidently great, usually because of their context. For most others, time adds to or subtracts from them; it reveals their weight. In February in Durban, Phil Hughes made 115 and 160 for Australia against South Africa. Cricinfo wrote: 'The transitional period is over. An emphatic series win in South Africa will imbue Australia with confidence that, after a harrowing six month search, they have uncovered a crop of cricketers capable of competing with the world's best'.

It was hard to see then that the year would close with Shane Watson in Hughes's place, and making a debut hundred of his own. Time has weighed a little on Hughes's achievements, but those innings have stuck in the memory. He's a weird, wild talent, and he is playing in the right era.

The criteria for the OB Innings Of The Year, as set out in the inaugural effort of 2008, are simple and arbitrary - an innings I've seen that upholds the noble and aesthetic principal that a great knock is worth more than the numbers in the book. Lord's is one of the places you might choose to play it, and both Andrew Strauss and Michael Clarke did so in the Ashes Test there. Strauss, like Gooch, is a different batsman as captain. Clarke was simply the best batsman on either side, and at Lord's he was at his best, low-slung and wristy.

That clamor for Mark Ramprakash to play at the Oval feels like it happened in a different century, a century in which Ramps seems to have been engaged in one long, unbroken innings for Surrey against the rest. It was more of the same this summer: he's still one of the best value tickets in town. But two other domestic innings broke through the drowsy joy of watching the master. Eion Morgan's 161 for Middlesex against Kent at Canterbury in an FP Trophy game was a ridiculous thing, as adept as it was absurd. It probably skewed his batting a little too far towards the offbeat for a while, but it was astonishing to watch. Even better was Vikram Solanki's dreamy 47-ball hundred for Worcester against Glamorgan. It was as beautiful and as magnificently melancholic as anything of Ramps' too, a late, pure flow of not-quite-fulfilled talent.

Yet this was the year that batting changed, shifted, moved on and the men who were moving it were openers. Tillakaratne Dilshan is 33 years old, a late-flowering freak who has reinvented himself and the game. T20 cricket has set his mind and his method free. The 96 not out against West Indies in the World T20 semi-final simply blistered. He made six Test hundreds in the year, five of them at almost a run a ball, and at Galle against New Zealand made 92 from 72 balls in the first innings and 123* from 131 in the second. 

Chris Gayle is even more terrifying than Dilshan because of the ruinous power he holds in those giant shoulders. Australia were this year's victims of choice. The 88 from 50 balls in the World T20 game at the Oval contained the most gargantuan straight hit I've ever seen. But even that wasn't as good as the 72-ball 102 at the WACA. There was an almost zen quality to the stillness of his head as he struck the ball. 

Virender Sehwag is another warrior from that distant outpost. The 293 in Mumbai came from 254 balls. In the way that he can sustain his assault, Sehwag is a man apart, flat deck or not [and while that criticism of him is valid, there aren't many scores of that size made on any other kinds of pitches]. I even dreamed about him. 

But the innings of the year is none of those. When twelve gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore last March, Thilan Samaraweera was at last in the form of his life. A career that had spluttered and stuttered had finally blossomed. He'd made two double hundreds in two weeks, the second of them just a few hours before he found himself laying on the same cricket ground with shrapnel in both legs, the madness of the world all around him.

If the attack had been on England or Australia, things would have assumed a whole other scale. Instead, the courage and modesty of the Sri Lankan team was embodied in Thilan, who returned a few months later, physically healed, mentally redoubtable, to make 159 against New Zealand in Galle, his tenth Test hundred in just his seventh innings back. Forget the venue, forget the opposition, ignore the number of balls it took, and the strike rate and all the rest of it, and just applaud the humanity of the man and the team and the game. Thilan, the innings of the year is yours.

Monday, 28 December 2009

The power of suggestion

In a few days time, we will farewell the first decade in the history of Test cricket that has seen more batsmen dismissed LBW than bowled. 

It's a stat highlighted by Sky's Benedict Bermange and it provoked a bit of on-air discussion as to why. Hawkeye was the verdict, which is, I'd say, only partly true. The UDRS is too new to have skewed the statistics; Hawkeye's major impact has come more casually, as umpires have been able to see on television what kind of balls go on to hit the stumps [I'd guess that the major shift in decision making has come in giving front-foot LBWs to spinners].

More than that, there are more LBWs because batsmen are batting differently. When Viv Richards began walking across his stumps and whipping straight balls through midwicket, it seemed freakish. Now everyone does it. The sight of a player taking guard and then moving right in front of the stumps before the bowler delivers is commonplace, as is asking the umpire for an off stump guard. There's another clue in the rise in players who are bowled after the ball rolls around the bottom of the thigh pad and back onto the stumps, another rarity ten years ago. Hawkeye and the pitchmap have served to illustrate the fact, too.

But Hawkeye has changed more than the stats. It is subtly altering the language of the game. After almost every replay now, the commentator will say something like, 'Hawkeye is suggesting that the ball will go on to hit...' or 'Hawkeye says it's missing leg'. 

It's a piece of Unspeak that always goes unchallenged, but it should be. Is Hawkeye 'suggesting' or is it right? If you watch a lot of cricket, you'll almost inevitably have formed the view that Hawkeye's 'suggestions' are quite often surprising, and sometimes dubious. They must be, because Hawkeye operates as an absolute: it assumes that once a ball starts doing something, it will carry on doing it. Life, and bowling, is not as infallible as that. 

Indeed, at the moment and egregiously, its accuracy is dependent on the television companies who set it up. The cost is also borne by them. That should be stopped immediately, and the ICC pay for all umpiring technology at all Tests [in South Africa at the moment, there's no snicko because, er, the home broadcaster can't afford it...].

Yet as a far lesser player, I always preferred being given LBW to getting bowled. Leg before allows plenty of room for moaning and argument. Being bowled is the ultimate failure of purpose, the killer blow to the ego...

NB: Tony at AGB found some interesting quotes from Daryl Harper on how Hawkeye has put him straight...

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Moving day

While England's batting order looks as immovable as Kim Jong Il [We won't be dropping Ian Bell because er, we didn't take anyone else apparently], perhaps Australia's will become more fluid ahead of next winter.

If Ponting misses the Boxing Day test, given his current run and the passing years, it might be time for him to turn the number five slot back into the 'skipper and proven batting great' position, much as Viv Richards and Steve Waugh did at the tail end of their careers, and come back into the side there. 

It would remove some pressure from Ponting, and allow Michael Clarke to shift, breaking the stasis in a line-up that doesn't quite seem to fit together any more. Clarke obviously needs to move up, Watson will ultimately move down. Hussey could shift to three until his exit, North is expendible - there is a new generation waiting now, and he, Hussey, Katich and Punter are all into their 30s. 

Transitioning towards the Ashes, Australia could line-up:


Marsh/Marsh/Klinger, whichever young blade is making the noise

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Why Benny's Benny

'He's unusual. Benny has always been himself. That's how he plays cricket... He's sometimes miserable at times, too. But that's just Benny...'
- Chris Gayle on Sulieman Benn

But why is he miserable? Perhaps it's because he's built like a combination of Courtney Walsh and Joel Garner, and yet he has to bowl left arm spin. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad...

NB: Anyway, free the Benn One.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

How sponsorship works

Makhaya Ntini's 100th test has been rightfully celebrated, for both the individual achievement and for its more symbolic meaning. Even the flint-eyed Graeme Smith seemed seduced by the romance of it all and gave him the last over of the match at Graham Onions. He was right, too; it would have been a helluva story had Makhaya sneaked one through to win the game.

When Ntini started playing cricket seriously, apartheid still existed. It's been a long road to that 100th test, and it was a nice touch to see that he wore a specially embroidered shirt throughout the match.

At the post-match ceremony, it was announced he'd receive a special presentation. As he stepped forward, a rather nifty cut-glass cricketer glistened on a stand behind him. That turned out to be for the man of the match. Makhaya got a fridge-freezer, provided by the sponsors. Throughout his interview with Ian Bishop, the large Castle logo on the freezer compartment got its three minutes of screentime. Job done.

NB: Credit to Makhaya, he seemed quite pleased. 'I've got a fridge with my face on it,' he grinned. I suppose when you started playing in the way he did, you'd have settled for a hundred tests and a fridge. Well played, Makhaya.

Poetry corner

So farewell then, Ian Bell

'I want to bat number three'

That was your catchphrase.

Friday, 18 December 2009

New things

Some new places to drop by, which I found via one of Jrod's many blogs [the guy's a machine...]: First, in from the wilds of Canada, is Cricket Minded, a blog inspired by the the much-missed Amy S. Some of her spirit is there. And there's Cricket Family, which is imparted from the home of the game. By an Australian* [I know... at Lord's]. Anyway the Cricket Wife [like it] is on the in, so there's some nice stuff there. 

* From Tassie, too. I went to Tasmania, and in Launceston was taken down to the bank, where I got to shake Boonie's hand. He worked there. Those were the days, eh...

Thursday, 17 December 2009

How was that dad {ii}

Courtesy of Mike Selvey, here is the glorious absurdity of the UDRS [how we love an acronym] in a single paragraph on Jonathan Trott:

'The not out decision was reviewed and upheld but Hawkeye had the top of leg stump clipped. Had Trott been given out and himself appealed, he would have been given out according to the protocol.'

So to summarise: Trott was, potentially, not out and out. Kurt Vonnegut [or Schrodinger] couldn't have done any better.

The problem here is not the use of technology, it's the application. By giving the power of umpiring to the players, decision-making has essentially become politicised. By allowing two incorrect appeals, informed decision-making has become arbitrary. As I've blogged before, the proper solution is to hand the technology entirely over to the umpiring team, and have each decision reviewed by the third umpire, who can then feed back in the way he usually does. 

The current system could only possibly have been designed by a committee, almost certainly after lunch...

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Arguing the toss

England's decision to bowl first today was a classic demonstration of a great contemporary malaise, that of overthinking. It's not just a cricket thing, it's a modern life thing. Everything is complex now. Everything is analysed, deconstructed, challenged. It's a product, in part, of so many people having jobs doing exactly that. 

England considered too many problems, came up with too many solutions. They went for six batsmen, four bowlers. Four bowlers, they thought, could get the job done. So should they bowl first or last? Six batsmen would offer depth. So should they bat first or last? South Africa's batting was undercooked, their best bowler crocked just before the game. Which should they attack first? The pitch was green, the weather was wet, the match was at altitude, the moon was in taurus*...

In simpler times, the analysis just wouldn't have happened. A wizened old pro would have said something like, 'let the openers worry about the first hour, that's their job', and the match would have a different shape.

*It may not be, I made that bit up. Is Taurus a place?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Viru: transcendent

Anyone doubting that the new age of batting is here, doubt it no more. Sehwag and his acolyte Dilshan are not just batting differently, they are thinking differently. The mindset of the game has shifted now.

I blogged before on the physical resemblance between Sehwag and the UFC lightweight champion, BJ Penn. Penn fought at the weekend, administering a zen beating to Diego Sanchez. He seemed to float while he did it, barely striking Sanchez [although Diego's face begged to differ]. Penn's nickname is 'the Prodigy'. He comes from a rich family, doesn't fight for money and until recently, barely used to train between bouts. He is an entirely natural fighter - within three years of taking up Jui-Jitsu, he was not only a black belt, but the first non-Brazilian world champion. It makes you wonder how much deeper physical similarities can go.

Sehwag's mind is as great a strength as any he has. He lets it set him free. When he was receiving the man of the match award today, he said, 'I was actually supporting Sri Lanka. When I support India, they lose. So I was supporting Sri Lanka.' Great minds think differently...

NB: As usual Geoffrey Boycott had an interesting take on Viru in his Cricinfo column: 'I am not sure it [Sehwag's batting] is modern; it is more old-fashioned. Wally Hammond made 336 at more than a run a minute for England against New Zealand in Auckland in the 1932-33 series. It took him just 318 minutes to get 336. That is very much how Sehwag plays... He is a rare, special player because he plays with a flowing bat and an uninhibited style. He has an uncluttered mind, which I like. I don't think he gets cluttered up with technique and footwork he just plays in a wonderful instinctive way, which is good. I think on good batting pitches he is a modern-day great.... if it moves around I don't see him getting 300 so easily, but on certain pitches he is a fantastic player'.

Shock of the new

400 - it's the new 300.

Although if you can get 200 in a T20 game, 500 will be the new 400 soon enough.

NB: Best bit of Cricinfo commentary from the game - '34.6 Kumar to Dilshan, no run, he has scooped it into his face'.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Wide of the mark

There was a quite extraordinary decision in the India-Sri Lanka T20 game yesterday. Jayasuriya was bowling to Sharma, who swept him behind square to short fine leg. The umpire called it wide. Jayasuriya, who has played a few games of cricket, turned round to the umpire and said 'wiiide?' in gobsmacked manner. Yup said the umpire, and the match carried on.

It reminded me of a game I played in many years ago, an away match umpired by their man at both ends with one of our blokes doing square leg. He was ancient. The bowler ran in, and I pushed the ball back down the wicket to him. 
'How was that?' he asked the umpire. 
'What?' I said.
'Out' said the umpire.
'Unlucky mate,' said first slip. 'He always does that'.

Oh does he, I thought, as I walked off...

Monday, 7 December 2009

Confessions of a man insane enough to live with beasts...

Jarrod Kimber is not a normal Australian. He doesn't live in Australia. He honours a non-Australian idol. He does un-Australian things, like write a book about the 2009 Ashes. For those reasons alone, it would be worth reading but I suspect it will be funny, too, and not just about Mitchell Johnson.

NB: The only other Australian to go into print about 2009 has been Gideon Haigh, another terrific writer. The England side of the ledger stands at Andrew Strauss, Andrew Flintoff, The England Team's Official Story, Stuart Broad, Mike Atherton, the official DVD and the back end of Michael Vaughan's autobiography. Not that the market is dictated by who won at all...

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Sehwag: The Dream

Further to the post below, another measure of greatness could be the degree to which it penetrates the subconscious. Last night I dreamed about Virender Sehwag. We were at the top of a very high green hill, which opened out onto a spectacular valley, me, Virender and another nameless cricketer. Viru was dressed in his whites and still had his blue headband on. 

For some reason, we had to get to the bottom of the hill. It was wet and had deep, muddy furrows in it, but Sehwag said, 'come on' and simply ran through the furrows like a mountain goat. At the bottom, with the skyscrapers of a distant city before us, I found some cards of the kind kids are meant to collect. Imbedded in each was a bit of footage of Sehwag playing a shot. The one I looked at was filmed from behind a net, and Viru came down the wicket and smashed the ball hard at the camera. 

The dream ended there, argument settled...

NB: Thanks to Jrod in the comments on the post below for pointing out that the Don got six runs closer than Sehwag to the three triple centuries. But then they couldn't field in those days. Have amended the post. 

Friday, 4 December 2009

Se7en: in praise of Viru

What is greatness in batting? It's a question worth asking. Virender Sehwag was seven runs away from doing something no-one has done. No-one, from Grace to Bradman, from Gavaskar to Richards, Tendulkar to Lara, no-one who's ever picked up a bat has scored three Test match triple centuries. In all of the history of the game, Sehwag has got almost as close anyone has. If he had scored seven more runs, the question would be moot already.

There is a certain tyranny to statistics. Seven runs, in the context of nine hundred, are neither here nor there, and yet statistics are an undoubted measure of greatness. There are batsmen - Border, Waugh [S], Tendulkar, Boycott, Chanderpaul, Dravid, Jayawardene - who are made great [albeit not exclusively] by them. Then there are batsmen who are ostensibly players of great innings - Lara and Viv Richards for example [which is not to deny the reach of their overall statistics]. There are others - Gower, Mark Waugh - whose aesthetic beauty overrode their stats.  There are yet more who were denied the chance but whose brilliance has them accepted anyway - Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock spring to mind. There are great partnerships - Greenidge and Haynes, Hayden and Langer. 

Then there is the notion of personality, best illustrated by the equivalency in stats between Shiv Chanderpaul and Viv Richards. Chanderpaul would certainly be more highly regarded if he had some of Richards' brooding aura.

So where does greatness leave Virender Sehwag? He has come of age in an Indian team containing three batsmen over whom the nation has obsessed. He is an avuncular and humble presence; he is more Inzy than King Viv physically. His average sets him alongside the greats, yet fifty is the new forty. He seems unconcerned by protecting or valuing his wicket. He even feels sorry for the bowlers he flays, not an emotion Boycott or Bradman usually bothered with.

And yet no-one has batted like Sehwag. Eleven consecutive times he turned centuries into scores of 150+, five of them went over 200 and two over 300. Last August but one in Sri Lanka, he carried his bat for 201 out of 329. He has made the game's greatest wicket-taker his bunny. He has scored the fastest 300 of all time. This is not just the stuff of greatness, it's the stuff of legend.

He may yet get another 300. His rarest talent is the ability to go on and on, to 'see ball, hit ball' for days on end. But even if he doesn't, I think history will see Sehwag as the avatar of a new era in batting, a transition between Tendulkar and Ponting and whatever comes next. He is a genius. He is undoubtedly, indisputably, ineffably great.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Top 40 hit parade

Two stories of note in the press today, firstly, Dileep Premachandran's excellent piece on India's new generation of batsmen in the Guardian, and All Out Cricket magazine's list of 'The 40 Best Players In The World Now'.

'If you don't agree with us,' AOC writes, 'then you're just plain wrong'. Here's the list:

40. Jesse Ryder
39. Ishant Sharma
38. Brendan McCullum
37. Zaheer Khan
36. Ross Taylor
35. James Anderson
34. Shakib-Al-Hasan
33. Shivnarine Chanderpaul
32. Umar Gul
31. Chris Gayle
30. Younis Khan
29. Daniel Vettori
28. Ajantha Mendis
27. Dwayne Bravo
26. Mike Hussey
25. Mahela Jayawardene
24. Andrew Flintoff
23. Gautam Gambhir
22. Brett Lee
21. Yuvraj Singh
20. JP Duminy
19. Shahid Afridi
18. Harbhajan Singh
17. Tillakaratne Dilshan
16. Shane Watson
15. Stuart Broad
14. Muttiah Muralitharan
13. Jacques Kallis
12. Virender Sehwag
11. Andrew Strauss
10. Mitchell Johnson
9. AB De Villiers
8. Kevin Pietersen
7. Sachin Tendulkar
6. Dale Steyn
5. Kumar Sangakkara
4. MS Dhoni
3. Michael Clarke
2. Ricky Ponting
1. Graeme Smith

Wot, no Ian Bell? 

NB: A prediction on the major points of contention: Hussey above 25 people. Mitchell Johnson above Andrew Strauss. Shane Watson above Dilshan, Gambhir and Gayle. 

Criminally overlooked player: Thilan Samaraweera

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


Form - or more accurately the lack of it - is an ineffable link between the club player and the pro. For the amateur, much of the professional experience can only be guessed at; it's probably impossible, even on your best day, to really know what it's like to hit the ball as they do, to deliver when you really have to, to play with your future on the line.

The absence of form, though, is universal. Watching Kevin Pietersen scratch around like a mortal, I could almost feel the ball hitting the bat just slightly away from the middle, could sense the disconnect between brain and hand, could know with some certainty how he felt. We've all been there

Being able to do something one day and then not the next is in a way what makes us human. The subtlest of things affect us in the smallest of ways, and it all adds up. It's not really the absence of form that's remarkable, rather it's the huge and complex sequence of reactions and timing required for being in form that's the miracle.

There seems to be no transitionary state between the two, either. Form doesn't appear to come back over a period of weeks. It's absent and then present, sometimes after the proverbial shot 'hit straight out of the middle' and sometimes after a scratchy fifty that has you remembering how it feels to stay in. 

Boycott always recommended a return to basics - hit the ball in the V enough times and the rest will take care of itself. Bob Woolmer's magisterial Art And Science Of Cricket has this to say: 'Many coaches can confirm that after a shocking performance in the middle, a struggling batsman's glaring technical faults evaporate the minute he enters the nets. Because batting is a reflex that occurs at a subconscious level, the more the mind tends to override those reflexes the more likely it is that errors will develop. It is thus vital to help the failing batsman to correct the erroneous thinking patterns that have developed as a result of repeated failure. That is not to deny the need for constant vigilance on the technical side, rather to stress that a more holistic approach almost always pays off when addressing a lack of form'.

Those two approaches are not exclusive. The beautiful internal rhythm that striking the ball straight back past the bowler produces is a holistic, healing thing in itself - the heartbeat of batting.