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.


Monday, 3 June 2013

April and May 2013 round up: all CC's performances in FULL

Apologies to all those who've been hoping for more regular updates since the season began. Purely extreme busyness, rather than any aversion to blogging. In terms of things to work on, CC's ambition is pretty simple: bat like less of a twat. Be more ruthless. Stop caring about other people giving a go, just believe the team's better off with you at the crease than back at the pavilion, even if you're not timing it. With the ball, bowl as fast as you used to, before you get too old.

Objective 1 has gone quite well. In a way. In digestible form (all innings have involved opening the batting):

1. 36 on a really tricky pitch with one very tough chance dropped before a ball bounced and seamed and gully took a diving catch off a slightly loose drive. Loads of rain between innings meant I had to bowl spin with wasn't very good. We lost.

2. Two wickets for not many again in very easy bowling conditions, swung it lots but didn't bowl very fast because that requires time in the gym, and I don't have any free time. Did not bat. We won.

3. 18 on another difficult pitch before a stupid mow across the line, 2 for not many - again accurate and moved it but need more pace. We drew.

4. 23 before one took off from a good length, took the bat shoulder and the keeper caught it one handed. One of those where I honestly don't know what I'd have done differently. Didn't bowl. We won.

5. 60* on another difficult pitch and of the four innings actually the worst. Honestly. On the other three I really tried to concentrate and keep my technique tight and hardly played and missed at all until the wicket ball. With this one I was dropped on 0 and again on 1 - both tough chances but still. One for not many with the ball. We won.

Findings:

a) It is really bloody hard to bat on most club pitches in England at the start of Summer. If you look at those knocks, I've played one really bad shot but only made one substantial score. In all those games most people haven't got past 30 and no more than one person has reached 50. None of the attacks were what you'd call good, but none of them were particularly bad, either. I feel really good, weirdly.

b) There really is no great science to playing in these conditions. Wait for a short one and smack it (you won't get many because every bowler worth his salt knows even Brett Lee would do well to give you the hurry up on these tracks), only drive the really full ones, play everything else as late as possible. The ball will turn a long way but very slowly, so hit with the turn. There is nothing harder to face than an accuratish seamer dobbing them down around 60mph. Speaking of which, I think I've been hit for half a dozen boundaries at most. And that's pretty much it.

c) I've bought a new bat and sold the old one. The old one was so much fun against crap spinners and slow seamers - it weighed 3lb and you could hit the ball *miles*. There is no better feeling than having a ludicrous mow across the line, connecting in the middle and watching the ball sail out of the ground. The trouble is it's a rather addictive feeling, which may be why I never made particularly big scores with it. The new bat encourages proper batting.

There it is: bit boring but nothing of much excitement to report. What is of note is that the 60* won The Decrepits their first match since August 2011. That was rather joyous - usually when you carry your bat you're a bit wary of the fact no one else has had a go, but two years of bummings meant that everyone was just happy we got over the line. Huzzah.

In other news, I managed to get to Lord's to see NZ capitulate to Stuart Broad. Last night I watched highlights of them piling on 350+ against us in the ODI. I must say, the huge, huge discrepancy in performance from both teams in the two formats is slightly odd. I mean, I know it's a different game with some different players but it's not that different and there aren't that many different players. A few thoughts about England's ODI selection:

1) I don't get the point of Jade Dernbach.
2) Until Woakes adds a yard of pace he's basically Mark Ealham and I'm not sure that's a good thing these days.
3) In theory the batting line up's really good. In practise apparently not.
4) Bresnan is another one of those bowlers who's good when he's bowling at 85mph and rubbish when he's bowling at 80mph.
5) I don't really care about ODIs any more.
6) Maybe this gives us a clue as to the problem.

There it is. Will try to make the next one a bit less prozaic.