Friday, March 28, 2008

He's Been to Taunton Too

When the County Championship fixture list was published earlier this year, I perused it with more interest than usual. In fact I actually marked some dates on the calendar - Hampshire at The Oval on the 9th September, Hampshire at Canterbury on the 30th July, even a trip to the Rose Bowl at the end of May to follow Kent - sitting down the 'away end' of course! The reason for this sudden interest - to watch one of the greatest ever cricketers in his last season in this country.

Sadly, with today's announcement that Shane Warne wants to spend more time with the seven of diamonds, it's not going to happen.

It now becomes one of my biggest regrets - I've never taken the, very simple, chance too see Warnie at the County level. It would have been fascinating to see how he played it. To be honest, for those used to performing on the largest stages in the world, and there are few bigger than 90 thousand on Boxing Day at the MCG, strutting your stuff in front of 100 people is hardly going to set your pulse racing. A bit like U2 playing a secret gig in a backstreet pub but forgetting to tell anyone. But read the reports from last summer and you find that he was still the uber-competitor - taking wickets through sheer force of personality, and doing a fantastic job of leading Hampshire.

No other player in my memory has had that impact so close to retirement. Gary Sobers had almost single-handedly dragged Nottinghamshire into the top half of the Championship when he first turned up, but by the end of his career he was really only going through the motions - albeit still at a higher level than many of those around him. Ian Botham joined Durham with great fanfare at the end of his career (but then what has he ever done quietly?) but he was a shadow of the 'Beefy' we knew and idolised. Carrying too much weight, and obviously not fit, he trundled up to bowl medium pace, admittedly with an impeccable line and length in a sort of silent tribute to his mentor Tom Cartwright, but there was only the very rare batting cameo to quicken the pulse. I was actually pleased when he finally called it a day - it made sure that the bad memories wouldn't outweigh all the wonderful ones from when he was in his pomp.

This personal idolisation of an Australian cricketer is slightly odd. After all, I was brought up to hate that particular species - with an absolute passion. Which, truth be told, probably translated to a suspicion of all Australians during my youth - with the honorable exception of Nick Cave and the other members of the Birthday Party. After all, if your main Australian cultural touch-points are Dame Edna and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, you're going to have a rather jaundiced view.

Later I started developing more of an appreciation and understanding. I learnt about 'Kerr's Cur' and the establishment coup that got rid of the Whitlam Government. I started listening to Midnight Oil and Redgum, and pissed myself laughing at Clive James's autobiography. But even so, I was only scratching at the surface, and Border, Hughes and McDermott quickly replaced Lillee, Marsh and Thompson in my 'list of loathing'.

Don't forget, mine was a very cricket-centric universe. As I've said here before, it was only when Neighbours appeared on our screens that I realised that not all Australians sounded like Alan McGilvray, or looked like Ian Chappell.

It's quite ironic, therefore, that I've now got an English brother in law serving very happily in the Australian army and I'm related to an Australian by marriage - though I'd guess that he probably feels the same way about English cricketers as I do about those who wear the Baggy Green!

Warne transcended all of this. How? Well, in simple terms he mastered an art form that was as good as extinct outside the sub-contintent. Beyond that, he also made it accessible - almost sexy. His ultimate legacy is that almost every club side we play now has at least one youngster rolling his wrist to emulate Warne - throwing in some gestures and a bit of chat after each delivery too. Admittedly it's rather tiresome being sledged by a fourteen year old whose voice hasn't broken yet, but what the heck - without Warne he'd probably be standing on a street corner taking a crafty drag on a B&H and looking for 'something stronger' from the local dealer.

True story - a mate of mine used to work in Sportspages, the bookshop in Central London. They used to have regular book-signings where a sporting figure would come in and sign a load of copies of his recent, ghostwritten, autobiography. Normally the form was that they'd turn up with a couple of minders in tow, shake a few hands and then spend an hour or so signing books before buggering off home. Not SK Warne. He showed up on his own, spent two hours signing books, and then took all the bookshop staff to the pub, and spent the whole evening talking to anyone who wanted to talk about cricket before, as my mate later told me, they tipped him into a cab and sent him home!

I've been casting around for a similie to best describe Warne's approach to bowling. As I've recently watched The Day of The Jackal, the best I can think of is that of a hired assassin. It's an occupation that involves supreme self-confidence and meticulous planning,. Careful methodology based around masterful disguise, silent movement and perfect timing down to the milli-second. Then on the day of the hit, you walk out into the middle of the street, pull out a homemade sawn-off shotgun and blow the president's head off.

Swann's Way

How egalitarian - the England team have let their drinks waiter do the post-tour report!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

So, Farewell then...

Stephen Fleming.

To my mind, Fleming is probably the second best New Zealand test player ever. I know those of a certain age get all dewy eyed when they talk about Martin Donnelly, and that John Reid basically carried a woeful Kiwi side for about a decade, and for a couple years in the early seventies Glenn Turner was probably the best opener in the world, and Martin Crowe is one of the great 'what might have beens had injury not taken its toll' stories.... but in all honesty they've only had one true world -class player in their history (Hadlee) and I don't think Fleming comes up to that standard.

However, he can certainly take his place as one of the best-ever captains. Leaving results aside, which are very much dependant on the players available to you at the time, the one true measurement of captaincy is how you manage to get the most out of the players you lead. Ultimately this is what captaincy is all about, and Fleming is up there with Benaud, Cheetham, Worrell, Illingworth, Ranatunga and Alan Border at the very top of the captaincy tree.

New Zealand are going to miss him... badly.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Pressure Drop

According to Mike Selvey in this morning's Grauniad, the reason Andrew Strauss got the nod over Owais Shah for the current test was because -

"he had done well in a torrid net from two angry bowlers in Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard."

Say, what???!!!

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but if the ball hits the stumps when you're in the nets, you turn round and put the bails back on before preparing for the next delivery. If you hit one in the air, someone will call out "caught at mid off", before you, once again, prepare to face the next ball.

In other words, there's very little pressure on you when you're batting. It's purely practice, and bears as much relation to what actually happens out in the middle as rice pudding does to arsenic.

Incidently, the same goes for bowling. If Duncan Fletcher was to be believed, Saj Mahmood was the second coming of Sir Harold Larwood if his net performance was anything to go by, yet when push came to shove out in the middle and the pressure was on, Saj couldn't hit a barn door from ten paces. So there's a certain amount of (very irritating) irony that Steve Harmison has Lord Snooty in trouble in the nets, yet was only able to give an impression of Ian Greig with the ball in the first test.

Maybe this explains why Lord Snooty looked so stunned when he was out earlier today. He looked around, and couldn't understand why the Black Caps were celebrating like mad, until he suddenly twigged that this was 'for real'. Or maybe it was the pithy "f*** off, posh knickers" from Stephen Fleming that brought reality to bear...

I thought we'd left all the 'looks good in the nets' bullshit behind with the advent of the Peter Moores regime. Sadly not.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Just finished reading this. Highly recommended. As the Amazon review says, Gordon Ramsay does Dog Day Afternoon!

Now it's time to start watching this.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Comfortably Numb

In any big organisation, you'll always find a certain number of 'time servers'. The sort of people who do just enough to keep from being fired, but who are unwilling or incapable of making the leap to a higher level.

England's current level of cricketing mediocrity - which, if you think about it, stretches back to 2005, is caused in part by the fact that they currently have six 'time servers' at the top of their batting order.

The big problem is that, secretly, management like people like this. Any big company does actually need a certain number of people with limited horizons, but who are happy to do a routine nine-to-five job with just enough reward to keep them happy.

In English cricket terms, it means that the selectors do not have to make the difficult decision of dropping anyone. They can point to the fact that Ian Bell, for example, has a pretty decent average and constantly gets good scores - sixties and seventies. The problem with Bell is that he doesn't go on and get really big scores - which is what a true test quality batsman is supposed to do.

Ask yourself, when was the last time Paul Collingwood made a really big ton? Yes, he's scrappy, makes the most of his ability, scores useful runs and is a fine fielder, but if you're going to be batting in the top six, you need to be making at least one score of 150 plus every five tests or so - not every five years.

The same goes with Lord Snooty. He did just enough in the first test to keep his job, just enough to avoid any direct criticism - a typical 'time-server' attribute. But when was the last time he scored a ton for heavens sake - let alone a big ton? Showing rare bravery, the selectors actually dropped him in the summer, but as soon as they could, and without any evidence to suggest he'd got better, they spinelessly withdrew into their comfort zone and picked him again. Based on what evidence?

Vaughan? A ton on his return last summer (against a very weak Windies bowling attack) but since then a whole series of average scores, and a whole load of constant bleating about how 'big scores are just around the corner'.

Then there's KP. There'd be an outcry if he was dropped, because he's still the one 'English' batsmen that everyone in the world genuinely fears. But it's a heck of a long time since he made any big runs - plenty of flashy fifities to keep the average up, but the growing sense that bowlers are starting to suss him out.

The current level of performance demonstrated by the top six means we win the occasional test (big celebrations all round) then lose a couple, drew a few, win another one, and so on. Sorry, that's not good enough. If we're really supposed to be the number two in the world (Vaughan's laughable comment before Saturday's debacle) then they can't afford much more than one or two defeats in a calendar year.

You don't need much of a crystal ball to see how the next eighteen months will pan out if things don't improve. We might (just) scrape a draw in this series, then maybe win on home turf against the Kiwis, before going close against South Africa. Then defeat in India, followed by a close win in the Carribbean (cue much talk of being 'number two' again after that) followed by a predictable three-one defeat in the Ashes 2009 - and we're back where we started from.

Now - I'm not suggesting that the selectors adopt a 'rip it up and start again' strategy (It was 'Orange Juice' if you're trying to remember...) but they do to do something to let the top six know that they really need to start performing properly NOW, or else they are going to be shipped out.

At the moment, everyone's far too comfortable - secure in the knowledge that if they get a forty and then a thirty, they'll keep their place - and be in good shape for another central contract when the spoils are handed out each year.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Numbers Game

Cricket now has it's own Bill James.

Grab yourself a beer, check out this link - and let the numbers do the talking!

(Incidently, if you've any interest in baseball at all, The Historical Baseball Abstract is a 'must read'. Absolutely fascinating, and nowhere near as dry as it sounds.)

Three Men in a Box

Anyone watching the Channel 9 Cricket coverage from Down Under over the past couple of years will be aware that the station have now adopted a 'safety in numbers' approach to commentary. Gone are the days of two men behind the mic - now we have a line up of three, so that the handover of shifts there are so many names flying around that you're half way through the new over before anyone's had a chance to clear their throat.

I've ranted on about the art of commentary before here, but to summarise, all you need for effective TV cricket coverage is a commentator, who describes what's going on and a 'colour' man, who explains it. That's it. It applies to all sports, not just cricket. Anything else is overkill - with the exception of when the two man line-up have a guest in the box with them.

If you set your expectations to 'very low' - let's call it the 'Allott/Willis' end of the evolutionary chain, you just want the commentators to make the odd remark, but keep it mundane enough so you aren't tempted to kick in your TV, or turn the sound down and put on some Napalm Death for some soothing light relief. Further up the scale, a decent pairing can actually add value to the watching experience. Athers and Holding for example or the ''banter with an edge to it that could likely end in someone getting an off-air slap'' of Hussain and Botham.

Putting three men on at the same time creates far too much 'clutter' and limits the time each of them has to make points, or expand on thoughts and themes. Watching the Perth test in Australia last winter, for example, I didn't actually realise that Richie Benaud was behind the mike half the time. Anything he had to say was drowned out by such legendary erudite wordsmiths like Bill Lawry and Ian Healey. It was a bit like The Beatles letting Ringo do all the singing. Even at the age of 154, they should be making as much use of Benaud as they can - it's hardly a tough call when the alternatives include Tony Greig.

The problem of the three man line up is that they are all trying to justify their existence and make the game sound exciting, when sometimes it patently isn't. If nothing happens in their half hour microphone stint, why not just accept it and be quiet.

Are Channel 9 scared that some people will switch off if they don't get three voices continually assaulting the senses with incessant waffle. Sadly, it's only a matter of time until Sky follow suit. They are occasionally moving to the three man phalanx already when a third man starts going on about technical stuff. Obviously a reaction to Simon 'Bilbo Baggins' Hughes in the troglodyte subterranean burrow used effectively, by C4.

It's like a variation of the old joke - ''How many commentators does it take to change a lightbulb?' Answer ''Three. One to change it, one to explain how he did it with such delicate timing, and another to suggest that no one has done it quite that well since Viv Richards did it at Adelaide in 1982.''

At a simple level it's overmanning that would make a 70's print union leader blush. More pertinently, it's a worrying sign of things to come here in the UK.

After all, Sky Football here in the UK are already at the stage where they have FOUR on the half time panel - to cover a twenty minute period, a third of which is going to be filled with ads. Richard Keys, Uncle Fester (Ray Wilkins) Graeme Souness and David Platt were one recent line up. None of the ex players could have said more than fifty words.

There's only one 'three man line up' I'd like to witness. Let's have Ian Botham and Ian Chappell finally sharing some airtime - together with someone emolient between them to keep the peace. Someone like Matthew Hayden!

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Mind Games

What goes through Steve Harmison's mind as he's running up to bowl?

"Ok, here's my mark.... deep breath.... left foot down first, and off we go...... focus on off-stump.... just relax ..... get my left shoulder up..... and....THE FOG ON THE TYNE'S MINE ALL MINE, THE FOG ON THE TYNE'S ALL MINE..... oh, shit...."

Friday, March 07, 2008


Showing my usual impeccable timing, I clambered aboard the Boston Celtics bandwagon around the time the wheels started falling off in the early/mid 90's.

So, to me, this picture is extraordinary.

Reduced Interest Rates

Big outcry - England only managing to totter along at 2 an over in the current test.

What short memories we all have. Thirty years ago it was the same (and that was eight ball overs!)

It wasn't much better twenty years ago either!

And even in 1997 it had still only reached the giddy heights of 2.7 ish.