Friday, August 15, 2008

Sticky Fingers

What's the problem with Monty? A familar question in recent conversations between England supporters, so let's stick in the TRSM oar...

We'll leave the appalling batting, fielding, running between the wickets and catching for another time - time enough though, to marvel again at how Northants let him get so far without apparently teaching him the rudiments of how to catch a cricket ball.

Let's also leave out the incredibly patronising crowd reaction to his every move which is enough to make you grind your teeth. It's a reaction that treads very close to racism. Does anyone actually realise how offensive it is to continually shout out 'Montee' in a cod Indian accent every time he's fielding on the boundary? It's the same as shouting a Love thy Neighbouresque 'Aloo-dere' at a West Indian.

No, I think the big problem with Monty is one of expectation. When he came on the scene we'd been tormented for years by a whole series of top class spinners - Shane Warne, Anil Kumble and Murali the most obvious examples. The assumption was that we now had one of our own and we could sit back and watch as the wickets and victories mounted up. That's obviously a rather simplistic precis, but you get my drift.

On top of that you had his lovely repeatable action, the fact that, for an English spinner, he actually turned the ball appreciably - and had the sort of boyish enthusiasm and naive charm that instantly made him a marketing mans dream. Plus his Asian heritage gave hope that the game could be sold to a whole new audience.

All this excitement overlooked the fundamental truth - in these days of covered wickets, finger spinners don't win many test matches. Consider that the top finger spinner wicket taker is Lance Gibbs at number twenty in the charts with 309, and who bowled about a million overs to get to that figure. He also has the worst strike rate of anyone who has taken more than 200 wickets.
Finger spinners have historically provided an element of control for a bowling side based around impeccable line and length mixed with some slow turn. To be a match winning, attacking finger spinner these days you need some sort of variety that sets you apart - Saqlain's doosra for example, and/or bowl in tandem with an attacking spinner - Harbajan with Kumble.
Beyond that, finger spinners rely on changes of flight, pace and turn. They also need to have a decent arm ball to keep the batsman honest and stop him assuming the same turn on each delivery as Graeme Smith did at Edgbaston. It's extraordinary that Monty doesn't appear to have one, and therefore remarkable that he's got this far without one!

So maybe instead of bemoaning his failings, we should be accentuating the positives - and considering that with some decent advice and mentoring, he could seriously develop into the most statistically successful finger spinner ever. It's the advice and mentoring that could be key. There's been very little progress or advance in his bowling over the past couple of years, which suggests that up until now, he's assumed that he could get by on what he had. I suspect that Edgbaston may well have changed that. On a wearing fourth innings pitch providing variable turn and bounce it must have been a chastening experience not to have bowled England to victory - or at close to one.

You could sense at The Oval that maybe a lesson has been learned, as there seemed to be more variation in his deliveries, and the histrionic appealling had been toned down somewhat. In an odd way, Graeme Smith's masterpiece of an innings might well have done England a favour.

Now, about the batting, fielding, catching and running between the wickets....

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Alternative TV

Without any sense of irony, the Sky commentary team were pretty vociferous for most of the summer in describing the England batting order a 'cosy club'. Odd really, because nothing epitomises the settled life more than the current commentary team.

To an extent, much of the problem is self-inflicted. By going for the star names - 'ex England captain or coach' seems to be the main qualification, Sky have painted themselves into a corner and made it very difficult to move someone out of the box without putting noses out of joint. This means that what we're being served up with is becoming tired, stale and - for the most part, entirely predictable. To be fair, the producers have done the best with what they've got by mixing up the pairs and increasing the frequency of 'third man' features but lately that feature, copied from Channel 4, has simply become the vehicle for a 'lets pan round the ground and have a look at some of the fancy dress costumes', with the gratuitous shots of some female cleavage mixed in for good measure.

They increasingly rely on the visiting commentator to add some colour and variety - with mixed results. Jeremy Coney was a big positive. He had people writing him up as the heir to Richie Benaud with his erudite comments and insight into the game. There's also an attractive element of eccentricity in Coney's commentary which makes him come across like Bumble with a Doctorate. But for the second half of the summer they took the predictable route and went for the star name, rather than the guy with more ability, hello Shaun Pollock. A fine opening bowler, yes, but someone with all the charisma of a bus shelter. I'll admit he's improved as time has passed, but that generous perception comes from him setting his personal bar so very low in the first couple of tests.

'What about the quota system Shaun?'
'Er, well it has its opponents and supporters'
'What do you think of KP?'
'He's a fine batsmen'
'What's it like to play in a side captained by Graeme Smith?'
'He's an excellent captain'


Let's quickly go down the rest of the order -

Starting with the positives - Athers and Hussain are very much worth their place in the side, and provide an interesting contrast in styles and outlook. Atherton is suitably detached from the game now - and has gone on record as saying, remarkably, that he doesn't look back on his career with any fondness. Nasser lives every ball, and you can tell that he'd love to be out there in the thick of it.

I have to confess that I've grown to appreciate Bumble over the past couple of years. Originally I saw him as an 'idiot savant' with rather too much emphasis on the 'idiot', but now I can appreciate his total and utter devotion to the game and the way he manages to bring that out in everything he says. He's also a massive Fall fan, a huge plus in my book, and never misses a chance to mention them.

Then there's 'Sir Ian' Botham. I know a couple of people in the media who've told me that titled folk appearing on TV or radio are routinely asked how they want to be addressed, and how their name should appear on the credits at the end of the show. The default position is to use the title, but they are given the option. Bearing that in mind then, you have to assume that Botham actually insists on everyone referring to him 'Sir Ian' on each occasion. Every hand over, every pitch inspection and occasionally every question during the post game summary. Now this isn't an anti-honours system rant (we'll save that for another time) and it in no way suggests that Botham doesn't deserve recognition, but for a self-painted anti-establishment figure (he's still wonderfully scathing about MCC members) it's a little odd, to say the least.

What's helped 'Botham the commentator' is having Atherton and Nasser alongside him - he works well with both of them, and there's been a noticable drop off in the Truemanesque 'I don't know what's going on out there' moments, and the playing to the gallery.

On the negative side, I think 'Mikey' Holding is now past his sell by date. In all honesty he actually seems bored with the whole thing and, at times, simply seems to be going through the motions for the sake of it. The same goes for David Gower. Here you get the impression that he thinks he can do the whole thing in his sleep - almost seeing it as effortless, like his batting! This means he often comes across as being boring and laboured - like Holding, just going through the motions.

Then there's the studio duo of Colville and Willis. To be fair to the bouffanted one, he's actually improved a lot and doesn't appear to be as out of his depth as he was in the commentary box. He's stopped trying to be a personality or the 'voice of the fan', and just gets on with the job at hand - call it 'playing to your strengths'. I've worked out what it is about Bob Willis that is just so off-putting and irritating. In simple terms, he talks pure tabloid-speak. Listen to it, and you'll see what I mean. Everything is a shocking headline, or an ill-informed rant. Mix that with the 'great aunt Agatha' mad staring expression and, oddly, it's hyponotically entertaining.

Unfortunately for Sky, there's not much in the reserves. Paul Allott should be re-christened 'Paul Alittle' in terms of what he brings to the party, Ian Ward defines the word 'banal' and Nick Knight is too eager to come out with something edgy or contraversial rather than talk about what's going on out in the middle - where he's actually pretty insightful. In their occasional appearances Robert Croft and Mark Butcher have done a good job - Butcher especially seems a natural... and he did skipper England in one test too, so he's a sure fire cert for the main test team assuming he wants the job.

So what's to be done? Well, to my mind they need some new blood to freshen things up - to give a slightly different perspective on things and a different voice for us to listen to. For starters, how about Phil Tufnell? I admit I turned on TMS with a certain amount of trepidation when I heard he was doing the summarising there, but he's proved to be an absolute revelation. Still plays the 'artful dodger' on occasions, but mixes it with some clever comment and analysis and a fine line of self-deprecation. He's even done some ball by ball, which is normally only left to the BBC experts - and Jonathan Agnew.

If Tuffers isn't to everyones taste, then how about Alec Stewart? Ticks the 'ex-skipper' box, and is opinionated enough to make things a bit 'sparky' in the box - which means he'll stand up to Botham at every opportunity.

Then they should give Gower a year off to tend his vinyard and put Atherton up front as host.

One final thought - the Aussies are here next summer, so what price Shane Warne being signed up by Sky? Odds-on, I'd say. They might even clinch the deal by offering to cover his mobile phone expenses.

Monday, August 11, 2008


Anyone, like those in the Sky commentary box, expressing surprise at the number of people who turned up at the Oval for around half a days play today should bear in mind that over EIGHTY per cent of the British population have to get by on a thirty minutes highlights package of the days play.

So for a lot of that 15,000 at The Oval, it was actually a cheap chance to watch full-scale test cricket - a chance not to be sneezed at.

The recent announcement from the ECB confirming that the BBC are not bidding for the new TV rights package, means that cricket is effectively limiting its target audience to a very small minority of the population.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Four More...

You can imagine the scene in the Strauss Mansion on Monday night after KP was announced as England skipper. Sudden calls to Hello magazine to cancel the ''New England captain and his beautiful wife show us round their lovely home'' feature, half a hundred-weight of Jimmy Choo shoes sent back to the manufacturer, and poor Andy Pandy sleeping in the spare room when Mrs S found out that 'that oik' Kevin got the job instead. Ouch!

38 wickets fall in two days at Chester le Street, even with two hours lost on the first day - yet the pitch inspectors find nothing wrong with the wicket? It's not that I'm bitter
(although I am) but it's a really annoying way to have your Championship hopes blown out of the water - Cricket as Lottery. Then you read that Sialkot, who have replaced Kent in the Champions League 20/20 won the Pakistani domestic tournament with a couple of IPL players - which is exactly the same reason Kent have been barred from the Champions League themselves.

A very good day at The Oval yesterday. You could close your eyes and almost imagine it was 2005 all over again. Overlooked in all the 'Harmison is back' hullaballoo was the fact that Jimmy Anderson produced his best bowling performance for a long time. Add to that the fact that the Oval authorities seem to have sorted out the old '45 minute queue for beer' problem, and the fact that it's now Marstons on tap and you're entering 'perfect day' territory.

Harmy still doesn't get it though - calling our Nasser and Athers for daring to suggest that county cricket got him to where he is now.... Er, well actually Steve, it did!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

An All-Run Four

- Good to see Matt Prior recalled to the England one day squad. All rather confusing though, bearing in mind it was less than two months ago that the Chairman of Selectors was saying that they wanted to have the same keeper in both forms of the game...

- When you think about it, KP was really the only logical choice the selectors could have made, bearing in mind that for the past eighteen months or so he's been the only person who has consistently been able to justify his place in the side.

- The toss-up on Thursday will be worth the ticket price alone: -

"Hids or tails?"
"Nah, you call - hids or tails?"
"Call it you muppitt - hids or tails?"
"Nah, it's mugs away Mr Ego - you call..."
(and so on)

KP now becomes the first England captain to sport a tattoo since Colin Cowdrey who, famously, had an image of Janis Joplin tattooed onto his left buttock after a monumental rum and ganga session in the West Indies on the 1967/68 tour.

Monday, August 04, 2008

There is nothing like a Dame...

JRod has a rather unique take on Mark Ramprakash's hundred hundreds, including this quote of the week month year...

"It’s quite an achievement. It’s like winning a commonwealth gold medal when you routinely didn’t make the finals of the Olympic finals. Or, to use a far more apt analogy, it’s like wanting to fuck Natalie Portman and waking up with Helen Mirren."

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Tears for Souvenirs

Literally, a crying shame but probably inevitable given the circumstances.

This bit is rather worrying, to say the least -

"There was no immediate confirmation, though much speculation, about whether Kevin Pietersen would take over as England's Test and one-day captain."

We need KP concentrating on scoring runs - nothing else. At the moment he's all we really have, so it would be lunacy to ask him to captain the test side.

Minority Report

That's the series effectively over, so here's the 'end of term' reports.

Cook - It may not just be coincidence that the two batsmen who scored first innings 50's and therefore, in their own minds, cemented their places in the Oval line up, were the two who played the most brainless shots second time around.

Sir Geoffrey is probably one of the most irritating people on the face of the earth (a Yorkshire friend of mine says, happily, that it goes with the territory...) but he probably sold his wicket more expensively than any other English batsmen since the war. Mix that with an insaitable desire for runs that bordered on the downright selfish, and you have the blueprint for exactly what England need now. Cook could well do with sitting down with Boycott for a long chat. He'll come out wanting to punch something, but if he learns lessons like cutting out high percentage shots, setting yourself to bat all day for a hundred and simple accumulation, then it will have been well worthwhile.

Strauss - He's probably looking more at Vaughan's scores than his own - though, cynically, he could probably do with one decent score around 80 to cement his place for the winter. As the next England captain, he's really just waiting for the call - which could be around eight days away.

- It's an awful position to be in, but he needs to start asking himself whether he's giving the side more than he's taking away. If he does go, or is pushed, it'll be incredibly sad because there's no one you'd rather lead England next summer. But England can't afford to carry a passenger.

- The one World Class batsman we have, and proves it time after time. South Africa was always going to be a bigger challenge than anyone else (winter after next is the next big date in the diary) so there's no reason no to expect masses of runs in the next twelve months - which is handy because without a change of selectors he's going to be surrounded by roughly the same cast.

Bell - Is probably calculating how long the 199 will keep him his place in the side. 'Not much longer' should be the answer.

Collingwood - I haven't felt more pleased for an England batsman for years - and actually gave him a round of applause from the safety of the living room! Hopefully that's the monkey off his back. When you consider the circumstances and what had gone before, his six to go to a hundred was probably one of the most extraordinary shots ever hit by an England batsman.

Ambrose - Seems to have decided that he's going to concentrate on crease occupation rather than accumulation or flashy shots. If that's the way it's going to be, then that's fine - 90 minutes for 15 is ok as long as it becomes the norm. If England know that, they can build around it. Too many England keepers have been sacrificed on the altar of 'Gilchrist'- Ambrose is setting the bar slightly lower. Pretty safe behind the sticks too.

Fred - Batting is getting there, bowling is already there - but needs some support from bowlers who can take wickets on good pitches without helpful conditions... otherwise he'll be in a wheelchair by next April.

Anderson - See above. Maddeningly inconsistent. If the ball isn't do anything he seems to turn into a cafeteria.

Sidebottom - Patently unfit for the last test. Badly needs a rest and will probably get it.

Panesar - I might have asked this before, but am I really the only one getting bored with the whole Monty-shtik now? Yes, he's still the best spin bowler we have, but he's really not quite as good (yet) as a lot of people think he is. There's far too little variety in his bowling when he's trying to take wickets, and good batsmen (Smith yesterday) can knock him off his stride far too easily. If Cook is going to have a word with Boycott, then Monty might like a chat with Shane Warne.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Outlaw Blues

Sad news from the BCCI regarding Kents non-involvement in the 20/20 Champions League.

Frank Woolley's Ghost has a good summary of the details here, though I think he underestimates the financial impact of this decision on Kent. As one of the smaller counties, the money this would have brought into the county coffers would have been crucial for future development (there's already talk of the improvements to Canterbury being 'postponed').