Saturday, 20 October 2012

One-day cricket: the end of the affair

County cricket in England can be an anachronistic thing, a once-beautiful, now mad old aunt who should be visited dutifully each April, cared for but not really listened to, ancient and ever present as the world speeds by outside the window.

Yet it has been the engine for change in the international game. On 2 May 1962, Leicestershire played Derbyshire and Northamptonshire met Nottinghamshire in the Midlands Knock Out Cup, sixty-five overs per side. They were the first professional one-day fixtures: at 130 overs it was a long day, admittedly, but a day nonetheless. The following season, the Gillette Cup began (and the first fixture took two days to complete because of the weather). Forty one years later, on 13 June 2003, English counties played the initial round of games in the Twenty20 Cup. That idea kind of caught on, too.

This week, the ECB announced another revamp to the county fixture list, one that has been surveyed and workshopped and heralded with a press release that went out a couple of hours after the one that announced Kevin Pietersen's return. Guess which story made the papers...

The thinking was interesting: T20 games to move to a Friday night, the bulk of Championship games to begin on a Sunday, the 40-over game to be dropped and replaced by a 50-over competition. They were reactionary measures, though. Perhaps it is time for the old girl to lead once more, to do something really revolutionary, to set an agenda.

The first limited overs game I saw live was one of the most famous, the Prudential World Cup Final 1979 at Lord's, ODI number 74, England versus West Indies. King Viv 138 not out, Joel Garner 5-38 and, as anyone who was there will tell you, Collis King's matchwinning 86 from 66 deliveries when the West Indies were rocking a bit. West Indies made 286-9 from their 60 overs. To little kid sitting in the top of the Compton Stand, that total seemed vast, unassailable, futuristic, and so it proved.

It's hard to describe how different the one-day game was then. The teams played in whites. They selected pretty much their Test XIs. England, for example, opened with Brearley and Boycott, and no-one found that odd or thought that they should change. Richards' century felt like a hurricane, but he faced 157 balls in all. The fielding had no relay throws, no boundary riders, no dives, yet England had Gower and Randall, the Windies Lloyd and Richards, the best of their era. Joel Garner's yorkers were considered not just unhittable but unplayable.

Since that day, there have been another 2,929 ODIs, and we are all played out. There is nothing about them that we do not know, technically, statistically, emotionally. The format is exhausted, and there is nothing left to discover. Had they ended with MS Dhoni's on drive screaming into the Mumbai night to make India World Champions, it would have been the perfect fin de siecle moment; there really was nothing more to say, nothing more to see, nothing more to be done.

The point is, all things change. For all of the tweaks and twiddles with Powerplays and fielding regulations, it's evident that the great and predictable hole in the middle of every innings cannot be filled. Not even the rippling power of transferred T20 skills has moved that period on - or even, curiously, overall scores, which still seem to have 300 as a benchmark. The players, as several have admitted, are bored by its formula and its ubiquity. No-one sells himself as a 50 over specialist.

The only truly compelling reasons for its continued existence are commercial. As a format for filling TV hours and selling adverts it is hard to beat, yet it will be beaten, and probably soon, by a combination of franchise leagues and shifting calendars and changing priorities. T20, as a vehicle for raising money, is a more urgent proposition for investors: nothing exceeds like excess, and newness.

Imagine for a moment then, a county season that didn't bother with 50 over cricket, that made a bold gamble on how the game will pan out, that said the future is Test and T20 cricket and we want to dominate both. At a stroke, the calendar would open out, the treadmill would ease up, time for training and preparation would increase, and perhaps a little scarcity might get some more people through the gate. It's hard to imagine that the skills of the players in both forms would not improve, and the English game needs that.

There might be short term financial pain, but there are lots of ways that counties might benefit. The T20 format allows two games to fit easily into a day, and weekend double-headers could fill grounds and screens. The women's international game has benefited from being played alongside the men's. Why not put a county T20 game on before an T20i too?

About the only thing that everyone can agree on is that something has to give. Players are being burned out by travel, boredom, ennui. There will, ultimately be an IPL window; the international calendar will shift. It's genuinely difficult to think twenty years ahead and imagine 50 over cricket being played.

The county game in England has been an odd force for change, but it has been intrinsic in shaping cricket. Maybe it should make another bold move before the world leaves it behind once more.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Saj Mahmood and the infinite sadness

There's a tremendous passage in Leo McKinstry's Boycs, in which Boycott describes his final game of cricket. It came at Scarborough on 12 September 1986. "Something had come to an end, something wonderful," the great man said. "I just thought, this is it then. I waited for the ground to clear. Then I wandered around among all the newspapers and food wrappers and tin cans".

I thought of it the other day when I drove past one of my own favourite grounds. The leaves had begun to come down over the outfield. The grass was uncut and already starting to thicken for winter. The chains were up around the square. Early evening rain swept overhead. Something had come to an end. When I got home, the counties had announced which players they wouldn't be retaining, and one of them was Saj Mahmood.

Lots of others were on their way, a few of them quick bowlers, too; Brooks, Shazad, Punkett. But they all had new gigs. Saj hadn't had his contract renewed. It's always a melancholy time, but in Mahmood was a story of more than just a county and a player running out of steam. He'd been at Lancashire for ten years, had more than 300 first class wickets, but his last game for them had been a Friends Life game against Derbyshire in which he'd conceded 42 from 2.3 overs. He'd gone to Somerset on loan, and taken eight wickets in three games at just over 30.

In 2005, Duncan Fletcher had seen a vision of the future. Injury, bad luck, hubris, whatever meant that his Ashes-winning side would never play together again. Fletcher looked around, not for old school fast bowlers like McGrath and Pollock, but for men like Lee and Tait and Malinga. In his analytical way, he stared into the game that was starting to emerge and deduced that the next generation of batsman would need to be detonated from the crease by swing at high pace. He wanted men who could bowl at 90mph, and Saj Mahmood, who was 22 and had been playing in the Bolton leagues not too long before, could. So could Liam Plunkett.

The game did morph, but not quite in the way that Fletcher thought it might. Tait, Malinga and to an extent Brett Lee became white-ball specialists. Saj played eight Tests and got 20 wickets at 38. He bowled fast but inconsistently. Sri Lanka climbed into him in an ODI at the Oval; in 11 of his 26 one-dayers he went for more than 50. In the last of his four T20 internationals, he bowled four overs for 61. Liam Plunkett's record was quite similar.

When the news about Saj came out, several reports mentioned Duncan Fletcher's idea about the 90mph bowlers. It seems that Saj will forever be its public symbol. It was couched in terms of failure, a failure echoed by the decline of Mahmood and Plunkett. And yet England are at the moment stocked with more men who can bowl at 90mph than perhaps ever before: Broad, Finn, Tremlett, Dernbach, Meaker, Shazad, and with lots more tweenies on the way at Loughborough, where David Parsons and his men have identified the physiological factors common to those who will be able to propel the ball at such a speed. Australia have a new batch of their own, who are about to go up against Steyn and Morkel in what looks to be a series that will be decided by quick bowling.

The truth may be that the international careers of Mahmood and Plunkett dropped into a gap in the game, a brief interregnum between generations, between old and new, between pre and post T20. It might be that they were just below international class, too. But as a concept, the notion that fast bowlers would have to bowl fast was being borne out even as Fletcher's idea was being stitched once more into stories about Saj Mahmood.

Fletch is with India, now, of course, where his thought about 90mph bowling is about as relevant as those on using the sweep shot to get off strike. Saj Mahmood, for the moment, isn't with anyone. Something had come to an end after all, something good, an opportunity that proved fleeting and elusive and not quite his to seize.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The world moves away from England

In the fog of the phoney KP wars, its easy to forget that hostilities began with him pilloried as a mercenary for wanting to play in the IPL, and ended with Andy Flower saying that 'ideally' England's players should participate in franchise cricket but 'the calendar doesn't allow it'. That seems to be a significant shift, almost unremarked upon.

As Muttiah Muralitharan said in the summer, English T20 cricket is already behind the curve. Shorn of Pietersen and put up against sides studded with men who share his worldliness and  experience, 'callow' was the adjective that attached itself to them. And it attached itself most to the younger players, who have grown up in the era of T20 cricket, who have known nothing else. Bairstow, Hales and Buttler may only be 23, but then so is Virat Kohli. The two English batsmen who can wreak the appropriate havok, Wright and Morgan, are franchise players - indeed England owe the Big Bash one for Wright's re-emergence.

It's easy to say the T20 game has moved on and slightly harder to anatomise how, but at its centre has been Chris Gayle. His method (blogged about here) is based around hitting sixes, and he has an IPL championship and a World title to back up his point. It's obvious now that the side that hits the most sixes usually wins (just as the side that takes the most singles usually loses). In Sri Lanka, five of the top six runscorers in the tournament - Watson, Samuels, Gayle, McCullum and Wright - also hit the most sixes (the exception was Jayawardene, and after him Kohli, who are players of the very highest class). West Indies, who have achieved the rare feat of winning a sub-continental World Championship while coming from outside the region, have, in Gayle and Pollard, the two most prolific six-hitters in the history of the format.

If England saw their chance to sample a future without Pietersen, well now they know. The scale of their decline should worry them. It may cause deep pain in the dressing room, but how he was missed.

For KP, who is said to have trousered $2m for his commentary work, things could hardly have worked out better. His deep-rooted instinct that the IPL is not just a chance to make money, but a place to learn how to play T20 cricket while competing with and against the very best under high pressure and in front of big crowds, is deeply right. The ECB, who, while England held the World Cup had the semblance of an argument for their insistence that the only things that will save Test cricket are two early-season games against weakened opposition, now don't have that. Their team director now agrees with Pietersen. KP really is winning big, here.

Perhaps they can now see that dogma will not save Test cricket, just it will have no effect on the doomed 50 over game (and it is doomed, it's just dying slowly). What will save Test cricket is meaning and competition, not frequency. Its genius will not be dimmed by adjusting the calendar.

NB: it's interesting that while contractual dogma meant England played a World T20 competition without the world's number one ranked player, they also played it without the fifth-highest runscorer in all of T20 cricket. His name is, er Owais Shah.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Making bats: an addendum

Further to the post below, the provenance of pro cricketers' bats remain the source of intrigue and rumour; the only thing we know for sure is that the stickers offer only the sketchiest of clues. I've yet to meet a batmaker who hasn't shaved one for Sachin...

Objects Of Fetish vii: Laver's got wood

The malleable, ultimately pregnable psyche of a batsman can turn to just one physical prop, and that's the bat itself. With its owner beset by doubt and by failure, never more than one ball from disaster, it's no wonder that the cricket bat becomes more than an interchangable tool (and if you don't believe it, just ask any cricketer a simple question - what was your first bat? - and then pin back your ears for a five-minute answer).

That it was once alive; that it is willow, the rare and ancient wood of diviners and dowsers; that it is hand-made using old tools; that its creation is dependent to a degree on the arcane knowledge and intuition of the bat maker; that it is, ultimately, a one-off, as individual as a fingerprint; all add to the feeling of destiny when the right one falls into your hands. Like Excalibur, there is, you presume, one out there that's got your name on it.

In an age when people queue overnight to buy an identikit phone assembled in sweatshop conditions, the idea that something is made so organically has a sense of myth about it. And never has the cricket bat been as fetishised: its last decade has been its most glorious. In the 70s it got sexy: the Scoop, the V12, the Jumbo, but in the noughties it got dirty; thick edges, massive profiles, deep bows. It has developed its own language, it has reinvented itself from nut-brown, hard-pressed utility club to bone white, shark-finned driver, its new-found power happily coinciding with the rise of a format of the game that would showcase it like never before.

There are more brands than ever; there are internet forums on which batmakers themselves are minor celebrities. In the same way that a bog-standard Ford car of 2012 performs better and is more technologically advanced than the marque of twenty years ago, so the standard, mid-range bat is unlike anything available to players of just a couple of generations back. There is probably just enough leeway in the bat's physical dimensions to allow the makers to tweak and spin each year, to let them salami-slice the market.

With that, there is now a prime cut, a slice so rare that it takes the object beyond function and into form, from artisanship and into art. Newbery, noble podshavers of Sussex, offer the Cenkos, a bat that costs a grand, made to the buyer's specifications. That though, however beautiful (and it is) is still a tool. Laver & Wood's Signature range is something very slightly different. In thirteen years, James Laver has found just 87 pods of willow good enough for the Signature, and the first of those he kept for himself.

The extraordinary thing about the others is they are supplied with an exact copy of the bat made from the next grade of willow down, "if you prefer to keep the Signature as a piece of art". It also comes with a display stand. It's strange and wonderful and slightly sad to think of a bat that might actually be too beautiful to use, and yet here it is. That James Laver makes them far away on the edge of the world in New Zealand, mailing them out once they are finished (and the bounty of $1,999NZ is handed over) only adds to the mystery of their creation. Even Laver himself is slightly in awe: "The finished bat is always a marvel to behold, and it is often a shame to let it leave the workshop".

Bats like that are at the very edge of actually being bats, unique and beautiful objects that transcend their purpose to exist simply as art, as examples of what can be done. They fire the imagination, not the ball.