Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Touch of Class

Through the good services of the extraordinary search engine on Cricinfo.com, I found out today that - between June 1952 and June 1965, England played a total of 120 test matches.

I picked those parameters because they coincide exactly with the test career of Fred Trueman. Here's the staggering thing - of those 120 tests, Trueman - arguably one of the three greatest fast bowlers ever, and certainly the greatest English one, only played in 67 of them. That's less than two-thirds for those of you scoring at home.

Now admittedly, in his time, Trueman was considered 'difficult', 'hard to captain', 'troublesome', 'opinionated', - and any other number of perjorative descriptions that the establishment time-servers use to describe someone who doesn't quite fit in their rose-tinted, gin-sodden, view of the world. But to 'punish' him by leaving him out of over fifty tests seems like a textbook example of cutting your nose off to spite your face. It's like taking a big cannon into a medieval battle, but not firing it because it would make a loud noise.

So we get sentences like this in Trueman's autobiography: - 'After getting nine wickets in the first two tests of the series I was dropped for the third and fourth tests with no reason being given, but then brought back in for the fifth test at The Oval after I took thirty two wickets in four games for Yorkshire.'

Yes, I'm paraphrasing - but only just, and if you check the records you'll find it's pretty accurate.
He took 307 wickets in those 67 tests, which transposes to over five hundred in 120. To my mind, leaving him out in over fifty test matches, and thus reducing the effectiveness of the England team in the process, is almost a treasonable offence.

Before anyone suggests that he might have been injury prone, he was able to bowl over a thousand overs a year for Yorkshire without much trouble, and was actually notorious for not getting injured. Which set me thinking about any England quick bowler in the past fifteen years or so who hasn't got injured....

The ironic thing, for someone who was supposedly so 'anti-establishment', is that he was one of the biggest Tories ever to nail his political colours to the mast. For some reason that wasn't good enough for establishment bigwigs like Gubby Allen, the Duke of Norfolk, FR Brown, Dennis Compton, Sir Bufton Tufton and all - he spoke with a northern accent, drank beer, and his old man was a miner.

Why am I pointing all this out now? Well, there's much talk at the moment as to why Mark Ramprakash can't get in the England side. Well, if you go back and re-read some of the descriptions applied to Trueman in the third paragraph, you might get an idea why Mark Ramprakash wasn't given the extended run in the team he deserved, whilst people like Mike Gatting and Graeme Hick were given every opportunity. It also might explain why Owais Shah wasn't picked ahead of Andrew Strauss last winter.

Also, if Ramprakash's surname was 'Richardson' or 'Roberts' I reckon he'd be in the England team today. Let's face it, with an average of over a hundred in the past two years, and one ton already under his belt this year, he certainly justifies it on form

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mr Big

News this morning that Michael Vaughan has now decided that he wants to bat number three, suggesting that he swaps places with Andrew Strauss.

Oh, really? How do you think that plays with other specialist openers around the country, who are increasingly seeing the England top six as a private club, and now see that places in the order seemingly at the gift of the captain, who has to be accomodated wherever he wants. Carberry and Key for example, might think that they could do a better job at the top of the order than Lord Snooty - and both of them would be a better 'fit' to open with Alistair Cook.

In some respects this swap does actually make a certain amount of sense, but there's a tangible whiff of 'cosy clique' about the whole thing. What happens when Vaughan decides that he can't stand the heat of batting three anymore and decides he wants to drop down to No. 6? (Much like Bell has been allowed to do.)

Vaughan's comments are quite instructive; -

"You have real periods in your career which probably go beyond your normal and
2002-2003 was a stage where everything went incredibly well for me. That
period can come back again."

Again - oh, really? There seems to be a ludicrous amount of clutching at straws here - almost a denial that he's getting old, and a denial that he's ever had any injury troubles. You have to admire the optimism, but he's talking about a period over five years ago, when he was a fully fit Michael Vaughan, without the pressure of captaincy.

We've already had Vaughan still thinking he's capable of playing ODI cricket (we'll see how often his creaky fielding and 'steady strokeplay get him picked to play 20/20 for Yorkshire this summer shall we...) - and also coming out and saying that he thinks there should be the same England skipper for all forms of the game - presumably him...

There's no doubting that he's been an inspirational leader, and is, probably, the best captain this current team could have - but there's equally no doubt that he benefitted hugely from all the hard work done by Nasser and Duncan Fletcher and by the fact that Freddie morphed into Superman for a couple of years.

Monday, April 21, 2008

We're only in it for the money

I really can't get excited about the Indian Premier League. (IPL)

To my mind, strip away the lights, noise and action, and when you get down to it, it's really just one group of mercenary all-stars playing against another. That's not using 'mercenary' in it's perjorative form, just simply stating fact. That sort of format is alright as a one off - maybe as a charity game for Tsunami relief as we saw at The Oval a few years ago, but 59 games over six weeks just smacks of complete and utter overkill.

Believe me, I've tried, and I'm prepared to admit that it's early days yet and as the tournament moves to a climax I might start booking time with the remote control, but I somehow doubt it because deep down, I don't think I really care.

Maybe I need to try harder. Maybe I need to get deeply involved in the fortunes of one or other of the teams. After all - I've no problem supporting Millwall, Kent, Fiorentina, Barcelona, Paris St German, St Pauli, Boston Bruins Celtics and Red Sox, Hawthorne and Harlequins in their various sports and league set-ups. I've often woken up in the early hours during the summer and put the TV on to see how the Red Sox are getting on. Tonight I'll set the alarm for one a.m. because the Bruins have a huge 'game seven' against the hated Canadiens. If Hawthorne stay the pace in the AFL I'll make a point of watching any of their games that are on Setanta. Because of an attraction to those teams, I can also watch other games in the same leagues with more than a passing interest. Roma vs Milan - yes please. St Kilda vs Geelong - certainly.

I actually care about how all those teams get on. Not to the point of irraitonality, but just enough to make me want to watch, or check online or in the paper to see how they are doing. Of course it works at different levels for different teams. When the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, I was walking on air for a week (and just typing those words gives me a nice warm feeling!) whereas I'll get over Fiorentina losing to Juventus in the time it takes to open the next bottle of Valpollicella - Barcelona losing to Franco Madrid takes a little longer....

The thing about all of those teams is that there's a history to the team, a geographic and cultural identity that supporters can relate to - even from 12,000 miles away - and a historical background to the league or cup they are competing in. With the IPL there's no 'connection' whatsover. Teams have effectively been airlifted in to big cities, with only the big star as connection to the home town. When it's all over, they'll pack up the tents, the the players will be helicoptered out and the circus will leave town.

Before I start sounding too much like an old traditionalist, let me be clear that I've nothing against the 20/20 format. The 20/20 World Cup was fantastic viewing, and I've had some cracking evenings watching the county version, but there there's actually some identity and it's not all about the money. Of course, the prizes are handy for the country and county, but they're not the be all and end all. In the IPL, it's all about the money - full stop.

The IPL reminds me, slightly, of the early days of the US Football league, when Pele, Beckenbauer, George Best, Rodney Marsh (no, not that one - the other one!) and so on, were lured by big dollars to strut their stuff in front of American audiences. There, they played to large crowds, and everyone got very excited for a short time - and then gradually the attraction died.

Admittedly it's a step up from the self-congratulatory 'All Star Games' each American sport has in it's mid-season, but barely.

Now there's talk of a 20 million dollar challenge organised by Allen Stanford. Yes, I suppose it'll be exciting. But if a team loses, what the heck, there'll be another one the year after. Now, if the losing team had to pay the winners 20 million out of their own pocket - or even 20 thousand, that would be worth watching. Imagine the cut-away shots seeking out the looks on the player's wives faces as their husband has to score twenty off the last over or they'll end up on the street...

The history books might mention Stanfords big challenge, but who's going to remember a few months or years down the line? There's nothing intriniscally wrong with big cash rewards, but they have to be prepared to accept that the big cash prizes strip all emotion out of the game so you're left with an empty shell.

To be fair to Stanford is using the 20/20 format to help rebuild West Indies cricket. Yes, there's money involved, but deep down there's some altruism as well.

Of course, it helps the IPL that Indians are cricket mad. Also helps that the pricing of tickets seems to be realistic. It also helps that it's currently the next 'big thing', and that the amount of money spent means that it mustn't fail, so therefore it won't - but is it really going to hold the interest of the cricketing world for TEN YEARS?

I suppose it might help from an English perspective if there were a smattering of English players, but probably not. if Freddie and KP were on opposing sides I suppose the one or two overs when Freddie is bowling to KP might be quite interesting - but that's about it really - and that's about ten minutes. To any Australians reading this, is Ponting v McGrath or Warne v Gilchrist really going to be that gripping?

In a test match format, opposing batsman can be worked over by a bowler utilising a longer term strategy than that provided in the 20/20 format. It's like comparing a seven course meal (served with appropriate wine of course...) in one of the finest restaurants with a Big Mac and fries. Both, effectively, do the same job - but how long are you going to remember the Bg Mac for? Maybe up until you have another one the day after, and then another one the day after that - and so on.

Here's the bottomline. It's all about the money, and it's all totally manufactured, totally artificial, and therefore - beneath all the hype and hyerbole, totally sterile.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Green shoots

At The Oval this afternoon, Surrey piled up 500 plus for 5. The Lancashire bowling attack looked pretty ordinary on an, admittedly, very slow pitch.

All apart from about half an hour after tea when Freddie was bowling. Suddenly the ball started flying through and Afzaal and Ali Brown were actually forced to defend and were repeatedly hurried in their shots. In short, it looked a different game, and you got the impression that Flintoff was playing at a higher level than anyone else on parade. (Particularly Saj who bowled like a big girls blouse)

Yes, I'm probably tempting fate, and it's obviously far too soon to say for certain, but maybe... just maybe....

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Two Tribes

The gloves are off.

Let's break it down.

England cricket boss Giles Clarke has dismissed Kevin Pietersen's plea to let centrally contracted players appear in the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Pietersen says it is "ridiculous" that England stars are not allowed to compete in the new 20-over competition.
"'Irresistable force', meet 'immovable object'."

But Clarke told BBC Radio 5 Live: "There won't be any centrally contracted players playing in it.

"We aren't changing our season under any circumstances - there's no possibility of us doing it."
Hail, King Canute!

Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), added: "I can't see any England player wishing to take the risk of losing his England place.

"Our centrally contracted players have very heavy workloads, so we need to be realistic here."
Probably true, but we're talking millions of dollars here. Note the clever way KP uses a very weak currency to make his point... very clever! If the lira had still been a valid currency, I'd guess he'd have quoted that.

Twelve England players, including star names like Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff, Paul Collingwood, Ryan Sidebottom and Michael Vaughan, were handed 12-month central contracts in September 2007.

England's centrally contracted players are the only international cricketers unable to cash in on the riches available in the new tournament
And that must grate. Apparently Chris Gayle is sending taunting text messages to KP involving lots of dollar signs!

Pietersen told The Times on Saturday that England players should be allowed to compete in the IPL next season.

"It's definitely something that the hierarchy needs to fix into our fixtures," he said.

"You want your best players playing both for their country and for the IPL. You don't want them choosing between the two.

"It's silly to think that you're losing up to a million (dollars) over six weeks."
True. But then wasn't KP the person who was moaning about 'burnout' recently? Maybe he's not the best person to make the player's case. There's also those very strong rumours that his middle name is actually 'Mercenary' that still have to be dispelled.

However, Clarke insisted the ECB would not be budging on the subject.

"The only county player who has gone off is Dimitri Mascarenhas," he said.

"No other county has indicated that they wish to release a player for the IPL - it's worth people considering that rather interesting fact."
Sound of heels being dug in. Also, consider how many games KP actually played for Hampshire last year. I'd guess they may have even forgotten who he is. Ultimately the counties will be taken out of the equation.

Hampshire all-rounder Mascarenhas has played at one-day and Twenty20 level for England, but is not on a central contract.

"I'm sure the ECB will loosen their stance in time once they see the tournament and more England players say they want to play," Mascarenhas told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Probably true.

Clarke said no England player would risk losing his place by competing in the IPL, recalling the example of former England skipper Tony Greig choosing to play in Kerry Packer's breakaway World Series Cricket in the late 1970s.

"The last time there were issues of this nature, Mr Greig gave up playing for England, probably because he thought he could get back in easily, and then Ian Botham appeared," he said.
Clarke is being very economical with the truth here. Greig knew all along that there was no way on earth that he was ever going to be selected by England again. The cricketing authorities don't like being made to look foolish - especially in a court of law.

Players' boss Sean Morris has warned "money will talk" if players are not given the chance of competing in the IPL.

Morris, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA), warned that the England team could be "decimated of its stars" if this does not happen.

"There is a very real threat here, and it's not from the ECB," Morris told Five Live Sport last month.

"It's perfectly natural for the PCA to want our members to take advantage of the IPL - it's a unique opportunity."
Sound of battle lines being drawn.

Monday, April 07, 2008

You don't need a Weatherman...

If, as seems likely, the advent of the IPL is going to provoke a re-think on the structure of the first class game in this country, maybe they should start with 'opening day', and how cricket announces itself at the start of the season.

On Thursday, the 2008 season kicks off with the utterly meaningless The 'Champion Country v MCC' match at Lords, which is going to be played at a maximum temperature of 12 degrees - comparable to Helsinki or St Petersburg. What ECB numbskull decided it would be a good idea to start the season on 10th April for heavens sake.

Presumably participation in this game is seen as some sort of 'reward' for the Champion county - to which I'd imagine the rather salty response from the Sussex dressing room would be something like "gee thanks, but we'd rather being playing a game in Barbados if it's all the same to you"

They'll be a lot of 'team huddles' on Thursday - not for any tactical purposes, but to give the players a chance to gather together for warmth.

The MCC side contains some borderline test players to give the game the spurious credibility of a test trial. Bearing in mind the conditions, I fail to see what possible value is there in a batsman scraping out a hundred in sub-Arctic temperatures against bowlers reluctant to crank it up over three -quarter pace through fear of ripping a hamstring - with fielders trying to keep their hands warm, wearing three sweaters to ward off imminent hypothermia. Especially in these current times when it would take one of the top six to be caught with five prostitutes, talking German wearing a Nazi uniform to lose his place in the team.

Even this, however, is a step up over what we used to have - a county piling up 450-3 against a hapless Cambridge University side at Fenners in front of some mystifed American tourists and a couple of undergraduates skiving off a lecture.

Why not start the season properly, with a bit of a fanfare?

May Day Bank Holiday weekend is the ideal opportunity. It's a fixed date each year (first Monday in May). Start the game either on the Friday, so you have the possibility of a nice tight finish on the Bank Holiday Monday, or the Saturday which probably guarantees a full days play on the Bank Holiday, regardless of the final result.

Then make the games local derbies wherever possible, obviously within the confines of the divisional set up. Lancs v Yorkshire, Kent v Surrey, Middlesex v Essex, Sussex v Hampshire and Gloucester v Worcestershire would all be viable games this season. Or be imaginative and start with the top two counties from the previous season - or two counties where there was noticably some 'bad blood' in last years fixtures.

As it's before test matches kick in (albeit only just in the current 'squeeze a quart into a pint pot' way of things) all the England internationals will be on parade, so young fans will be able to see, in the flesh, the players they've been watching on Sky all winter.

Some would argue that teams and players need warm-up games before moving on to competitive cricket. That's fine - just don't make them first class, and don't charge people to watch them - not that many will be watching on Thursday.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Taking Stock

Idle thoughts and rants - just seven days from the start of the new season - and four days from a BBC forecast of snow over London!

Money for Nothing -

In normal circumstances, having a settled first six in the batting order would be a good thing, but typically for England, in this case it's not. Strauss and Bell score hundreds against a bowling attack that was little more than Division 2 county standard, and suddenly they are world-beaters again. The two of them must be laughing all the way to their next central contract. And then there's the skipper. A much heralded ton against the West Indies last summer, but not a heck of a lot since then. No doubt all three of them will get runs in the Kiwi tests this summer - but what will that prove?

Giles Clarke seems to have the right idea in terms of maybe reducing the overall worth of a central contract, and paying the rest by performance.

Temporary, Like Achilles?

Reports are that Freddie is aiming for a Lords Test comeback in May - but, really, what's the hurry? It's not like he's needed at this stage, after all. Why not play the best part of a season for Lancashire - which would certainly please some county treasurers, and look to return later in the summer, maybe for the last couple of tests against South Africa. This would mean that he comes back with some overs under his belt, and with some decent time in the middle with the bat. After all, if the ankle goes for a fourth time, that really is 'stumps' in terms of his career.

Sins of the Father

What's Mike Selvey's problem with Stuart Broad? Every time he mentions the blonde bombshell in the Guardian there are enough caveats floating around to fill the servants quarters in Andrew Strauss's mansion. And it's not just Selvey - Angus Fraser and Derek Pringle are happy to pile in too, casting doubt on Broad's action, temperament and even his stamina. As a guess, maybe Chris Broad wasn't the most popular person on the county scene and Broad Minor is reaping the rewards , in a 'next generation pays the price' type deal.

Haircut 100

Talking of Stuart Broad, I'd guess there hasn't been an English bowling attack with quite as much hair as Broad, Sidebottom, Show Pony and Monty since Led Zeppelin used to appear together in charity matches in the early 70's.

Hey Joe

Lots of talk of Joe Denly getting into the England set up this summer. Let's hope not, as Kent need him this summer to have any chance of staying in Division One. Rob Key kept them in the top flight batting-wise last season, so it would be nice to have someone else who can give them a thousand runs in the Championship.

OK Computer

The TRSM computer whizz-kids have hacked into Peter Moores' lap top, and we can now exclusively reveal the starting eleven for the first Ashes test at Lords next summer: -

12th Man - Rashid (Presumably to give Owais Shah some time off...)

Outlaw Blues

If Shoaib Akhtar is going to be allowed to play in the IPL, despite his five year ban, will Marlon Samuels be allowed to bowl? Similarly, if a player is caught 'doing a Giddens' in his relevent domestic game, will the IPL overlook that as well? If so, the IPL could quickly become the cricketing version of 'Hamsterdam' in The Wire. Maybe they'll offer Dwayne Chambers a contract as a 'pinch runner'!

Season in the Sun

Finally - the TRSM predictions for this year's County Championship...

Division One - Lancashire to win, with Sussex and Somerset picking up Champions League places. Relegation spots to be filled from two out of Hampshire, Kent and Nottinghamshire.

Division Two - Middlesex and Warwickshire to come up.

Which means that next season's Division One could well include all seven test host counties - conspiracy theorists might suggest that that was the idea all along.