Saturday, 24 May 2014

Here are three questions Jonathan Agnew could have asked Paul Downton, if he'd been arsed



I've been following the KP situation closely and refrained from writing on it because a) I don't have time to do much this blog this year at all, and b) Every voice I've heard thus far has been, to a greater or lesser degree, speculating on the situation. You don't need me to do that.

However, I did hear Jonathan Agnew's interview with Paul Downton (available for six days at time of writing), and have to say it made me feel far less comfortable about what's gone on than I'd felt previously.

To put it mildly, this was not a very good interview at all. Agnew accepted all of Downton's points with barely a hint of challenge. It wasn't Agnew's job to argue Pietersen's case. It was his job to probe inconsistencies in Downton's story. He simply failed to do so.

Here are some points where Agnew could have raised issue with what Downton said, if he'd been doing his job properly.

1. When Downton said he felt KP was batting badly/disinterestedly in Australia and it was time to make Cook and Bell the core of the team, might it not have been worth pointing out that KP was still our top run scorer?

If you're going to sack KP for being an unlikeable and divisive character, fine. But it seems a dubious argument to put to fans that a man who averages just under 50 was sacked because he had one bad series. My God, we've stuck by underperforming players for entire Test calendar years in the past.

2. When Downton said he couldn't find a single member of the side who supported KP, was it not worth mentioning the fact that the media has found around half a dozen who say they have no problem with him?

Maybe they're just being diplomatic. Maybe KP's got incriminating pictures of them all. It's still a point that needed challenging.

3. When Downton said KP initiated the split, rather than saying "that's interesting", might it not have been worth pointing out he knew at that stage he wasn't to be picked for the World T20?

Which had implications for his career, as per his subsequent statement.

Those are the first three questions that occurred to me. No doubt there are more. Here's the thing. I actually have no problem with the ECB deciding a very good player is, behind the scenes, more trouble than he's worth. I have no problem with them deciding that it came down to Captain Cook or a team with Pietersen in it and picking one.

It might well be the wrong decision, it might be ludicrously unfair on Pietersen, or we may find, come October, that he'd done things that meant he couldn't continue to be a part of the team. It's really impossible to say until we get a fuller account from both stories.

What I do have a problem with is the ECB's managing director putting forth his side of the story without any challenge whatsoever from the BBC's senior cricket correspondent. It either looks like a conspiracy, or that the latter's very bad indeed at his job.

I also take exception to said cricket correspondent's mention of dissenting voices from "people on social media", as if this is some special tribe of cricket fan that doesn't represent the majority. He may wish to note this poll of the Telegraph's notoriously radical readers:

Was the ECB right to sack Pietersen?












Saturday, 2 November 2013

The perfect shot

On 21 October, 2006, England and Australia met in a group game for the ICC Champions Trophy. It took place in Jaipur. England batted first and, after a good start from Strauss and Bell, struggled to accelerate and were bowled out for a paltry 169. Facing an early exit from the tournament, the Lancashire pair of Anderson and Mahmood tore into the Australian top order, nipping out the dangerous Gilchrist, Watson and Ponting.

The two Australian middle order batsman, Damien Martyn and Michael Hussey, began to consolidate the innings. At 75-3 the game was somewhat in the balance: the run rate wasn't an issue, but a couple more wickets would make it very interesting. Mahmood raced in to Martyn and delivered a quick ball, a shade under 85mph, on a perfect length, about four or five inches outside off stump. The batsman came half forward in defence and prodded it out into the covers.

And then the strangest thing happened.

The ball bounced a couple of yards away from the batsman. As it headed at around waist height towards the gap between cover and point, it seemed to accelerate. By the time point and cover had turned around to give chase, it was taking its second bounce a couple of metres away from them, and it was only getting quicker as it made its way towards the boundary. They began to give chase but in just over five seconds it had crossed the off side boundary, to be picked up by a ball boy.

Damien Martyn had just played the perfect cricket shot.



The bowler can be seen looking in desperation at the ball's progress. What is he thinking? He's bowled a perfect delivery. The batsman has just hit it for four, without taking any risk whatsoever.

What I love about this moment is what it tells you about the art of batting. The ball's gone for four because of timing. And timing is not just about making sure the ball hits the middle. And it's not just about making the bat connect with the ball at the right time. It's about making the bat connect with the ball at the right time and transferring weight up from the feet, through the hips, over the ball through the spine and head as you do so. And when we talk about the timing for all this, all at once, we're talking milliseconds.

For such an unlikely occurrence, everything must be perfect. The bowler must be the right pace (a delivery at 84mph is probably about perfect for a quality test player on a slow track), must come on to the bat nicely (Mahmood was always an unfortunate bowler - he had pace, but also had an action that I imagine was rather easier to pick up than, say, a Malinga or Tait, and he rarely moved the ball a great deal), and above all the stars have to be in their element.

That's how a shot like this happens: the cricket equivalent of Bruce Lee's one-inch punch. Martyn was one of the greatest timers the game has ever seen. He'd do similar on many occasions - here for example - but I'm not sure he ever played a better shot than he did that night in Jaipur.

Maybe we need to rethink the way we coach batsmen. We compartmentalise our front foot shots - the drive, the glance, the defence - but all this play is really based around various extensions of the same shot, played in different directions. Maybe we need to stress the importance of timing the front foot defence: most coaches will tell you you're playing it to keep out a good ball - not score off it.





Thursday, 22 August 2013

Monday, 19 August 2013

The CC's season in review

It has, I suppose, been a good season. But also a funny one. I've been able to play a lot more than the last two years, and that's meant I could play for both my teams.

For one team, it's been incredibly frustrating. The thing is, we have a lot of people who can bat a bit and bowl a bit. These days I can't stand the "bowl a few overs and bat around 6" role. I told the captains I'd either be 1 or 11 (and bowl) if possible.

It turns out that's not as much fun as it seems. I managed to end up at 11 on a pitch where someone hit 200, and opened on a succession of council tracks. And bluntly, I've had enough of bad wicket batting. Even if you get runs it's miserable. So, game by game:

1) 23 on a piece of outfield before one pitched on a length, ramped up, clipped the glove, and was taken by the keeper. Did not bowl. The oppo managed 80.

2) 4 not out coming in at number 10 before the rain came. Did not bowl.

3) Opened on a good wicket, caught off a leading edge for 2. The one game where I feel I did something really wrong. Though to be honest I've made far bigger mistakes in my time and not even offered a chance.

4) Bowled 8 tidy overs amid a run glut on a shirt front, came in at 10 with us needing 10 an over, hit my first ball for four, caught off the next one.

5) A very good (if I may say so) 56 on a pretty up and down pitch, and some tight overs that won us the game. But batting on that wicket more about survival than anything else.

6) 47 out of 123 on the same nightmare pitch, did not bowl.

7) 29 on a slow track with evenish bounce but lots of lateral movement, hard to time the ball and a team that kept swinging the ball too much so it kept going down leg. Pleased to see off the openers who were very good. Got trapped on the crease to a good one that swung in and seamed away and lost off stump. Just before some shite change bowling came on. A mistake, but innings worth a bit more than that.

8) One on a piece of outfield before one pitched on a length, ramped up, clipped the glove, and was taken by the keeper. Bowled ok but no wickets. Oppo struggled to chase 85.

9) When batting in 8), had taken guard miles outside the crease to negate the track. It didn't help. So this time took guard miles inside the crease and decided to swing at most balls. Made 9 with two fours before one pitched on a length, ramped up, clipped the glove, and was taken by the keeper. This time we were 90 all out. Oppo set 150 because we bowled really, really badly at them.

So you'll see a recurring theme here: balls flying off a length, brushing the glove, and being caught behind. I have tried two different tactics, and I've come to the conclusion there is honestly nothing you can do but hope you miss them.

Bloody annoying. Two match-winning knocks on difficult tracks, only one dismissal where I really blame myself, and I'm still averaging under 20. I finally broke down and had a big rant after number 8. I'd just had enough of shitty council pitches where the performance of every batsman is, by and large, a complete lottery. We've played loads of games on these tracks and in the past I suppose the roulette ball has landed in my zone more than enough, but it sure as hell hasn't this season.

It all sounds like excuses. But I know I'm in good form. Because in 7 games for my other team, I average about 45, and 15 with the ball. And if anything I've played worse for them. Off the pitch, it's been great fun. Team spirit is good - we could do with a bit of recruitment but the club is looking like it might survive, which last year I wasn't so sure about. I was really hoping to hit a ton this season, but looking at the games I've played, I can't even see when it would have happened (the one good track I played on we were chasing under 200, while my other team always like to bat second which rules most of those games out).

I think I'm getting old. You put up with this kind of thing when you're younger, but the more you play the more you're aware you have plenty of ways to get yourself out, thank you very much.

Grumble, grumble, grumble. I should have written about the Ashes instead.


Friday, 2 August 2013

Two more book recommendations

Well, I got sent this too:



The Bodyline Hypocrisy by Michael Arnold (Pitch Publishing).

And it is utterly fascinating. It changed my understanding of the farrago completely.

Excuse me for using some of the blurb to explain:

"Australia was a young, isolated country in the midst of the great depression where - just as today - sport was a religion, winning was essential, and the media prone to distortion in order to sell newspapers. In England, the MCC was pressurised by a British Government fearing trade repercussions, leaving Harold Larwood and Douglas Jardine to be hung out to dry on a clothes-line of political expediency."

That's right - "and Douglas Jardine". As Arnold asks, "Had Australia won that series, would anyone have put Jardine's personality under the microscope? In fact would anyone have cared?" In fact, the picture that emerges is not of a stern and supercilious commander of fable. As he cogently argues, the problem wasn't him but the culture he stirred up, not to mention the lack of support he received from a cynical and opportunistic British Establishment.

Time changes everything. It allows Arnold to look at the series in a clearer light. Consider this: in 2010 Ian Chappell argued that Flintoff should use the same theory of leg bowling to Ricky Ponting. Consider this: 16 years after Bodyline, the MCC invited Larwood to become an honorary life member. Might that have anything to do with the intervention of the Earl of Gowrie, then president and former Governor General of Australia? Why did John Major award him an MBE at the the age of 88? Was he trying to right a very obvious wrong? Were the Australians' failure to cope with Larwood's pace exacerbated more by religious and racial discrimination, along with more mundane selection blunders?

It's an utterly convincing argument. One doesn't wish to provide spoilers, but it's almost impossible not to agree with Arnold's argument that "Today Douglas Jardine might have been knighted and instead of having to emigrate, Harold Larwood would have continued as a national hero...Both these men...were treated in a shabby fashion in England for political reasons by a dishonest political establishment for merely doing their best for their country. The names of those who conspired against them have sunk from sight. Their own names will endure far longer."

I've also been sent this:



Outside Edge by Marc Dawson (Pitch Publishing)

It's just a collection of cricketing facts and figures, so it doesn't warrant a conventional review. Instead it has to satisfy two criteria:

1) Are they well-presented?
2) Are they interesting?

Pleased to report the answer to both is a huge "yes". If you're a tragic like me, buy this book. And now I can get on with quoting some of my favourites, to pick three sections at random:

Political:
- Danny Alexander got out a former Sussex Second XI batsman for 0 in the only game between the MCC and Lords and Commons before rain came.
- Matthew Hancock MP tried to play cricket on the North Pole, but was stopped by frostbite.
- David Cameron suggested Darren Gough should run for a Commons seat, and Gough hung up thinking it was a prank call.

Crime:
- In 2007/8, Peshawar had two fast bowlers who were both later murdered.
- A cricket fan was killed by an umpire in Bangladesh in 2012 after running on the pitch upset over a dismissal.
- Umar Gul's house was raided in 2012 with a family member suspected of harboring a militant.
- So far seven test cricketers have ended up in jail.

Food:
- Inzamam ul-Haq and Saeed Anwar run a successful chain of meat shops.
- Jonathan Trott's career was almost ended by booze.
- Harold Larwood (see above) went on to work on for Pepsi-Cola as a driver.

You get the gist. It's a perfect toilet book. And not in a bad way.

What should you be reading and watching during the Ashes then?

God bless you, sainted people of PR. I don't know, you pick up a couple of thousand Twitter followers and suddenly it's worth sending you stuff. Obviously I'm a proper journalist and have previously railed against the calumny of PR-driven writing. I work to no man's agenda. I want to make that very clear.

But. If they will send such good stuff.

First up, then, a package containing a DVD of England's Ashes Miracles (BBC Worldwide) and The Ashes Match of My Life, by Sam Pilger and Rob Wightman (Pitch Publishing).

Ashes

To the DVD first then. Highlights of three matches: Headingley 1981, Edgbaston '05 and The Oval '09. You may well be familiar with these matches. In fact, it's rather unlikely you'll be reading this blog if you aren't. In short: Botham heroics, Flintoff! Jones! BOWDEN!!, and Stuart Broad putting in one of his occasional brilliant performances.

Is it worth getting it given the huge amount of cricket you can just watch for free online? It is. It's properly edited, you can see what's going on, and you really get a feel for the match in the context of the series. You're reminded that '81 and '09 were essentially fought out between two quite bad teams, and '05 was fought out between two very, very good ones. They're very different matches. In the first, Botham's 149 was little more than a chance to have fun in a lost cause - and indeed for all its brilliance would have remained so without RGD Willis's intervention. It was a curious game and for all the skill on display it wouldn't be unfair to chalk some of it up to Australian complacency.

'05 was a game with more ebb and flow. That's what happens when two powerful forces meet. England smash the Aussies around at five an over. Australia come up short in reply, but even against arguably England's best ever attack, still score at four an over. Then they run through the English top order, but England are able to secure an advantage through a brilliant Flintoff knock. A challenging 282 was set. And we all know how that played out.

'09, on the other hand, was a game England largely dominated. But it was amazingly tense, and we rather forget that now, given how the teams' fortunes developed afterwards. I'd forgotten a couple of things: the extraordinary composure of Trott on debut (his first shot, an exaggerated forward defence, reeked of positive intent), and the fact Harmison was still playing, and actually bowled rather well in the second innings on a pitch that in no way suited him. Oh, and England were perpetually stymied by the bowling of Marcus North. It turned a bit.

A fun way to spend an afternoon, but I was particularly taken by The Ashes: Match of My Life. In this book, a group of international cricketers talk at length about what particular matches meant to them. What really strikes me about these narratives is how little fun being an international cricketer appears to be. Geoffrey Boycott, Ashley Giles and Paul Collingwood are all remembered fondly by England fans - but much of their testimony is about the rage and hurt they felt at negative media coverage and waning powers.

Merv Hughes talks in rather harrowing fashion about the pain he felt as his body was letting him down throughout the 1993 series. Then he describes his calorific intake, and you wonder how he ever made it as a sportsman at all. It almost made those memories of him destroying our batting line up less upsetting. It's a properly brilliant cricket book, the sort that doesn't get written these days. The authors haven't just done their homework; they've interviewed intelligently. International cricketers have very, very interesting things to say. You just have to ask the right questions.

The other great thing about this book is that the chronological ordering of the essays really gives an insight into how the game's changed. Or indeed, hasn't. Ian Harvey starts by talking about the 1948 Invincibles, and we finish with Collingwood in 2011 - granted, there's a jump from Harvey to Ray Illingworth in 1971 but as an overview of the international game's history you could do worse. Booze and camaraderie are near constants, as is external pressure from fans and media alike. It's no wonder the modern game places such emphasis on sports psychology. Fans often feel like players don't really care as much as they do about the game they're playing at that very moment in time. They do. Because they're haunted by them long after we are.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Ravi Bopara: the problem child that isn't


Every teacher will tell you about their favourite problem child. He's the one who sits in the back of the class, dossing about and showing no interest at all, every now and again knocking out a bit of homework that knocks spots off everyone else's. So you give him an A, and lots of encouragement, thinking that this might be his break through moment. But it isn't. He continues not to live up to his potential, and however much you carry on pointing this out to him, he seems to pay not a blind bit of notice.

To stretch this metaphor: England's coaches have been blessed with a very good class in the last few years. Yes, there have been problems - Broad has been a little hit-and-miss, there's a question mark over the bowling depth, but by-and-large we fans have had precious little to grumble about for the simple reason that everything has gone to plan. And that's what we fans particularly like: if we pick Mark Ealham and he doesn't get 10 wickets that's fine; we expected that, but what we prefer is when people waste the talent we don't have. Then we can really moan. So: we didn't play well against the South Africans, there was the Pietersen bust-up last year, and Eoin Morgan has failed to break through in the longer format: all of them disappointing, but none entirely surprising.

No: I put it to you that for anyone who's watched him play county cricket, the only surprise let down over recent years has been Ravi. He is our favourite problem child. Perhaps it's because the talent is so obvious. Yesterday, he struck 33 off 13 balls - a staggering little innings that included a lofted cover drive that carried 85 metres. The balance, timing and eye required to play that shot are ludicrous. This shot wasn't the shot of a man who'd faced a couple of overs. It was the shot of a man with an unbeaten century to his name, and I'd suggest with a test average rather closer to 50 than its present 30.

We lost, and this innings will be forgotten. But that's Ravi in a nutshell: the problem child who, when you look at it carefully, isn't. He began his career with three centuries against a West Indies attack that really wasn't all that bad, then struggled in the 2009 Ashes at number 3, at a time when Cook was in such bad form that he was essentially operating as our default opener. It wasn't that he was unfairly dropped, but you have to ask why he was there in the first place given the received wisdom about blooding new players at number 6. Trott came in and did well, so all those who said Ravi had been found out at a higher level felt vindicated. Fair enough: but batting at the top is bloody hard for a young player. At the time of writing England are weighing up whether to drop the under-performing Compton in order to give Root a go there. I'm going to go out on a limb and say we won't.

Ravi refused to go to the IPL in 2011, but Morgan still got the nod for the Test team, which was the wrong decision and didn't work anyway. Two years later, when he finally did get a go at number 6, he was up against the best attack in the world (South Africa), was suffering from personal problems, flunked and ended up being dropped again. You can't say he hasn't had enough chances, but at the same time you have to look at the long runs of bad form others in the team have had (Cook and Broad come to mind immediately) and yet the idea of their being dropped has rarely been countenanced. The spectre of Mark Ramprakash looms large: yes, the onus on the player is to make the most of his opportunities, but at the same time I wonder if in 20 years time we will, a la Ramprakash, look back and wonder if we couldn't have done things a little differently.

In the mean time he's been a generally sound - some would say very good - ODI performer in a role that doesn't really allow you to shine: indeed, many of his best performances have seen him pick up the run rate at the end of the innings before weighing in with some extremely parsimonious wicket-to-wicket seam up - none of which really argues the case for Test inclusion, but when people say he's "wasted" his talent they're forgetting that for years he's done whatever's asked of him. And there's another little thing: part of me (call it leftist, whatever) wants to see a boy who grew up above a newsagent's in Forest Green come good.

So here's what I say: come the First Test, Compton out, Root to open, Ravi at six. Give him the rest of the series. It's purely my suspicion, but I think we'll see he's less of a problem child than we thought.