Saturday, 27 August 2016

Timing's right for Bell's return

Ahmedabad, November 2012. Kevin Pietersen lurches forward to the left arm spin of Pragyan Ojha, bat and pad divorced and estranged. He's beaten in the flight and his hands grope for the ball like a drunkard searching for a candle in a blackout. But it's to no avail - the ball beats the outside edge and he's comprehensively bowled.

His dismissal leaves England in real trouble, tottering at 69 for 4 in reply to India's 521. Alistair Cook is still there but the next partnership will be crucial, it may even decide the game. Fortunately replacing Pietersen is a man with more than 5000 test runs, a man possessed with an unnatural degree of talent and a consumate player of orthodox spin. We are in safe hands.

His first ball is a slow, floated delivery. There's a chassis down the pitch, a full swing of the bat and the ball floats gently into the hands of mid off.  Ian Bell c Tendulkar b Ojha 0.  Horrid. Not ugly, never ugly, just horrid.

For many such dismissals will always define Bell. Soft and self-inflicted, seemingly proving that deep down he just isn't made of the right stuff. It's nonsense of course. This is a man who now has almost 8000 )Test runs and 22 hundreds. Only Cook and Pietersen have more. This is the man who almost single-handedly ensured that England won back the Ashes in 2013. You don't do that by being soft. Of course when you stop scoring runs as well (Bell averages less than 30 and is without a hundred since those 2013 Ashes) then you are in trouble. The decision to drop him following the 2014 series in the UAE was tough and I would argue mistaken given the weakness of the alternative candidates, but hardly unfair.

Ironically he now stands on the cusp of an unexpected comeback in part because of a succession of 'soft' failures by what we might call his aesthetic successor, James Vince. Currently England's top order is hopelessly shaky. Alex Hales and Gary Ballance have done little to settle doubts about their long term suitability although it is likely that at least one will survive to tour this winter. In this context the return of Bell seems essential, he might not be in the greatest form but it is not form that this top order is lacking. It is class.

If nothing else, Bell's return should immediately relieve some of the pressure that has piled up on Cook and Joe Root. Despite decent looking figures neither will be entirely happy with their summer's work with promising starts too often failing to result in match changing scores (and dare I say it one or two rather flaccid dismissals too), But these are clinical, pragmatic reasons. Important for selectors, irrelevant for cricket lovers. I just want to see Bell back. For me, for you, for the game. We should all want him back.  In these power obsessed day where bats have sides rather than edges there is a special joy in witnessing a player defined not by muscles but by grace and timing. Like so many things you don't appreciate it until it is gone. I know I didn't. This time I'm just going to sit back and enjoy it.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Mystery Spinner: The Life and Death of an Extraordinary Cricketer by Gideon Haigh

I've been reading and collecting cricket books for more than thirty years. My first was "Kiwis and Indians" a pictographical account of the 1983 season, the photos of Patrick Eager complemented by Alan Ross' pithy commentary. It's a big dog-eared now but I still know it word for word, picture for picture. It will always remain my favourite because it was there beside me as I was discovering the game - at the boundary's edge at my local club, on my favourite seat in the Ladies' stand at Old Trafford, in front of the television set on a Thursday morning in the height of summer and next to the radio smuggled into my bed on a winter's night.

When I was seven, cricket was simply wonderful - the best and only important thing in the world. But then I started to grow up and I realised that it was much more (and of course much less) than that. Even today I'm still discovering the depths of its richness, its complexity, its subtleness and its occasional brutality. Of course first hand experiences, playing and watching, have been the greatest influences but alongside throughout have been my books. Not all have been great, although many have been, but very few have failed to enhance in some way or other my love of this silly old game.

This is one of those books. If you haven't read it then hopefully it might persuade you to do so, if you have read it then maybe it'll inspire to re-read as I have just done. 




Hubris. It can be a mortal enemy. Like a parasite, it finds us at our weakest moment and silently, insiduously latches on. It bides its time, waits for us to lower our guard, and then it strikes.

And our weakest moment? When we dare to hope, we dare to aspire, we dare to dream. When we do so we leave reason to the wind and embark on a glorious, epic journey where there are no boundaries except the limits of our own imagination.

Jack Iverson knew all this better than most. From the moment he first flicked a cricket ball in earnest  he felt hubris' shadow at his back, stalking him, taunting him. "Go on Jack", it said, just you dare to believe.

But he never did. Despite his obvious talent, unique and precocious, he wouldn't, he couldn't. Not even when selected for the Australian Test team for the first time, alongside nine of Bradman's '48 'Invincibles' did he let his guard down. He never aspired beyond the current game, always convinced he was going to be "found out" once and for all. His threat to "give the game away" became a ritual in the face of the slightest set back. One can only imagine how long he would have survived in today's world. For there would be no sneaking away at the end of a day's play for a solitary bite to eat at a local greasy spoon, as he did on his Test debut.

And herein lay another of Jack's problems: he wasn't a cricketer at all. He was wasn't even a bowler really. The extraordinary flicking action produced by a superhumanly strong middle finger, was a result of years of practice with a ping pong ball. He had merely adapted a supreme talent to a new format. True he was both metronomic and deadly. Able to land a viciously spinning ball on a sixpence seemingly at will. Leave it there and one has in mind another Shane Warne. But infuriatingly for his captains and captivatingly for us, there was one thing missing, one crucial element that talent could never replace.

Virtually every cricketing source that Haigh interviewed confirms the same thing - poor Jack was entirely lacking for a 'cricketing brain'. He had no idea about field placings, no concept of bowling strategy and no eye for batsman's strengths or weaknesses.

It has always been a pet peev of mine, the lazy, catch-all use by cricket commentators of the word 'inexperience' to explain an error.  Whilst Test cricket may be well-named and undoubtedly asks more questions of a player than any other form of the game, it is still essentially the same one that they have been playing for over a decade in most cases.

Well, almost all Test cricketers. Jack Iverson had been playing regular cricket for approximately four years when he made his debut at the age of 35. In Jack's case and in his defence, he really didn't know better.

Ultimately hubris did get him but not in the Shakespearean way. Jack stood strong to the end, but his mind buckled under the weight of his own self-restraint. His star burnt brilliantly bright but more briefly than it should have. Self-doubt (coupled with a noble but perhaps exaggerated sense of familial responsibility) cost him a Test career that many felt had not peaked (had he toured England in 1953 many experts thought him likely to be unplayable on the soft, uncovered wickets); and it may ulitmately have contributed to his premature death.

Gideon Haigh guides us through this compelling but inspiring tragedy with guile, skill but most importantly with empathy and genuine compassion. Because for all his 'strong, silent type' persona Jack was a sensitive soul.

Of course the book is also beautifully written, forensically researched (as it needed to be because for Jack was a tough man to track down) and the story flows wonderfully. Even the title is perfect for a man who remained an enigma until the very end.

The only real quibble I have is the amount of time spent putting Jack's particular skill in its historical context. A whole, rather long chapter in the middle of the book is dedicated to bowling innovators through time. Some background is useful but the length seemed unnecessary and, if I am honest, led this reader to indulge in spot of page flicking. For one thing, there are many books which cover these details better and more comprehensively but secondly and, and perhaps this is something of a back handed compliment, it takes us away from Jack for far too long.

As if to illustrate the point, Haigh finally seeks refuge in that slimmest of libraries "cricketing fiction" in an attempt to find a figure and a story to match Jack's. Unsurprisingly he does not suceed. Mystery spinner indeed. 

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Trescothick can provide the template for Hales to open up

It's not just that May in England is too early for serious cricket watching, it's that it's far too early, uncivilised really. All right I grant you there may be the odd early cricket riser who's been up since April, probably awoken by some unholy racket coming from India but that's hardly a worthy reference point is it??

If there are still vestiges of cherry blossom on the trees, football and rugby on the back pages and  Eurovision jingles in our heads, then it's too soon. It still seems like pre-season. My visual constitution is simply not ready to digest anything more taxing than a couple of championship entrees, a few bites of limited overs stuff and a maybe an ODI snack. (I yearn to be magically transported back into that wondrous twilight zone that was the Benson and Hedges Cup group stage. This, I will acknowledge, is probably just me though.)

Nevertheless the first repast of the Test summer will be served up this morning at Headingley, a ground admittedly more dog's dinner than royal banquet. Ridiculous "point system" aside, there is much to play for particularly for two of England's top three, Alex Hales and Nick Compton neither of whom is close to offering convincing proof that they are right persons for their positions.

Compton's issues have been discussed at great length without anyone really identifying what the problem is. Too intense? Not chummy enough? Lackadaisical in the field? An unfitting face? Apparently he's changed, relaxed, mellowed. And yet the doubts remain. Long term he seems unlikely to keep his place. In the short term, however, a remedy is available: runs, lots of them.

Hales' difficulties may be easier to qualify but more difficult to solve. He suffers from a similar problem to that which afflicted another one-day expert Jos Buttler: the inability to know whether to stick or to twist. Should he just play his natural attacking game or allow it to be tempered by the conditions, the quality of bowlers and the match situation? Ask five people and you would get five different answers. Graeme Fowler, the former England opener, referred to a similar dilemma as the  "England Player Syndrome" whereby a player comes into the Test side having scored a bucket of runs in county cricket. He then immediately goes about changing the way he plays, the method that got him selected in the first place, in order to bat as he thinks a Test player should. Self-evidently it is a recipe for disaster.

Adaptation, as Darwin has shown, is the very essence of a survival strategy. At the same time the role of a Test match opener has changed (or been adapted) as well. Opening bowlers must earn respect where once it was all but given. Even thirty years ago the mere sight of Test match opening bowler with a new cherry was enough to ensure a degree of deference. Not any more.  Players like Michael Slater and more recently David Warner, Virender Sehwag and Chris Gayle have redefined the job description.

Not all of these dashers make good models for Hales to follow. Gayle and Sehwag "see ball - hit ball" approach is based on enormous talent, but also aided by largely benign pitches and the prevalence of the batsman friendly Kookaburra ball.  Unsurprisingly neither has enjoyed great success in England.

Warner's approach is a better one. His lightening progression from T20 specialist to Test opener without having played a single first class match was not a simply an inspired selectorial hunch. They saw that his powerful striking had its roots in a sound technique and a decent sense for the location of his off stump. His weakness, such as it is, lies in the field of "shot selection" - lofting the spinner with a man placed back, manufacturing pull shots off good length balls. A Test average of 50 suggests there are worse faults.

By far the best model for Hales is the man England have been trying to replace for almost ten years, Marcus Trescothick. Known for his pulverising cover drives and brutal slog sweeps, he was far from the traditional English Test opening batsman in the manner of Boycott, Atherton or Cook. He was, and remains, the most statuesque of openers - not through being tall and elegant but because his feet always seem cast in stone. The simple technique worked though as did the equally simple approach of playing the ball on its merit. If it was a half volley it got spanked, whether it was the first ball of the innings or the last ball of the day. Once 'in' he also latched on to the anything with width, scything it through gully and point. But when high quality bowlers put the squeeze on in helpful conditions he also had the discipline, temperament and patience to stick it out.  None more so than on his Test debut against the West Indies at Old Trafford in 1995, where he went an hour without scoring, doggedly seeing off a typically testing spell from the parsimonious duo of Ambrose and Walsh. He ended up making 66, scoring more freely from the less challenging fare offered by Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon.

So far Hales' has failed to show that he is the man to fill Trescothick's boots. It really doesn't seem to be a technique thing, in fact he looks a lot more solid than he did a couple of years ago when those in-duckers were causing him such problems. And yet in South Africa he fell to a succession of heavy handed but indeterminate pushes outside off stump.  There are those who would suggest the fault was in his half-heartedness. Neither one thing or the other. If you going to flash.. etc. Well it's a theory and may indeed be a good approach for someone like Ben Stokes, but for an opener more discriminating judgement is required.

 I have my doubts as to whether Hales has what it takes to make these improvements but nevertheless he remains a gamble worth taking for this Sri Lankan series. For the rewards of a fast start, as Trescothick and now Warner have showed, can be rich and long lasting.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Hope, hubris and Haddin

Well another Ashes series is here and England is a buzz with a strange feeling. A sort of cautious, whispered hope. Gallows humour has been temporarily suspended and across the land the first sprouts of belief are peeking through the cracks in sun-baked outfields. No one speaks it out loud of course, instead they exchange nods, knowing winks and half-raised eyebrows. But the meaning is all too clear "maybe we do have a chance after all".

But on what great feats do we base this new found slither of confidence? A strong World Cup performance? Ah, okay, well some pretty convincing Test series wins then surely? Right, I see, so basically this new found belief is based on a drawn two match series with the Kiwis and a 3-2 victory in the after party hit and giggle. Oh if only blind optimism was an Olympic sport!

You think I'm unfair. That's understandable, it really is. The thing is we don't come at this from the same perspective. I'm guessing that eighteen months ago you didn't spend seven weeks of your life trekking (not literally, there were planes involved) from one stiflingly hot antipodean mega stadium to the next, watching the same dismal, depressing show play out time after time after time after time. Well I did and frankly I haven't recovered. And to be honest I'm not sure that I'm going to.

You know what made it worse? It all started off pretty well. Just before lunch Stuart Broad directed a short ball into Michael Clarke's ribs looking to exploit a weakness exposed in England a few months earlier. The Brisbane heat seemed to have done little to help the back problem deemed to be the root of Clarke's discomfort and he fended the ball straight into Ian Bell's hands at short leg. Australia 74 for 3. Teetering.

It was Broad's third wicket of a morning in which he had seemed energised as seldom before, spurred on no doubt by sustained personal abuse that must have shocked him, not for its content or vociferousness but for how widely it was taken up. When you have pre-teenage children joining their parents and thirty odd thousand other people in chanting "Broad is a wanker" you really have to wonder about a society.

Giddy in my English superiority, both moral and cricketing, I took to Twitter. "it's gone rather quiet at the Gabba" I drooled. It was my first tweet of the series. Also my last...

Hubris, you say? Haddin, I reply.

Australia struggled on to 132 for six but then everything changed. Mitchell Johnson joined his keeper, a partnership of 112 ensued, and a below par total morphed into a more than respectable one.  This became the unbreakable, inevitable pattern of the series from first match to last. Johnson may have ripped away English nerve and confidence but it was Haddin who sapped our hopes. Bloody Haddin. Five times he walked to the crease and five times he walked off having doubled the first innings total (give or take a couple of runs in Melbourne). It didn't even help that you knew what was coming. When Broad removed George Bailey just before lunch on the first day at Sydney (oh George how we miss you!), the Aussies stood 97-5. I knew better, of course I did, but I just couldn't help it. So I hoped, I willed, I prayed. "You've taken so much, just give us this one little something".

Close of Play - Australia 326, England 8-1. Bloody Haddin.

Do you understand better now? You see I'm just not ready for your kind of hopeful objectivity. I don't care that Haddin's only averaging 18 in Tests in the last year. I'm not interested that since he arrived Lyon has been carted by just about every batsman he's bowled at. It matters not a jot to me that Australia haven't won a series in England for fourteen years. And it is most certainly not relevant that their best bowler has just announced his immediate retirement.

I know you don't agree but trust me, it's better for everyone like this.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Phillip Hughes: a tragedy in many parts

"He died doing what he loved."

It's funny how often you hear that, as if in some way it mitigates the tragedy of an untimely, unforeseen, senseless death. Surely it only makes the thing more tragic? If someone died doing something they hated then at least there would be mitigation in them not having to do it any more. So we must reject that idea. Phillip Hughes' death is an unmitigated tragedy. And it is a tragedy on many levels.

There is the level on which we can all relate. The human one. This was after all a life cut off in its prime. It has left families and friends distraught, a part of themselves lost forever. And in the cruel warping of nature's cycle of life it has left parents to bury their own child. Amongst all the inevitable talk and speculation, of which I am now going to add, we should never let this be forgotten.

There is a particular tragedy in the premature deaths of sports people. They are not usually our friends, nor even acquaintances but as fans we can develop, well fanatical attachments. Often we have watched them or noted their names from a young age, fifteen or sixteen, sometimes younger. There is something of the talent scout in all of us, we like to talk about the young lad we saw in the nets when he was eleven, the next Sachin we confidently and erroneously predict. And once we have identified them we like to stick with them, see where the story leads, smugly celebrating their successes and cursing their inevitable failures. We don't know whether they will make it but now we have invested in their lives we want to see how the story ends. But for Phil Hughes we never shall. And it is particularly sad because his story was a fascinating one. Brought up in a small, rural town, he batted as you might expect - with freedom, freshness and scant regard for urban convention. And then it became a bit of a struggle; the city slickers worked him out, and he disappeared back into the crowd. But he wouldn't go away, and significantly, many good judges continued to believe in him. Whether they were right or not we will now never know. We have been denied the end of the story and that's not supposed to happen. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, it is hard not to imagine him looking down on us, aghast, that rather than proving his critics wrong, he had, in his final moments, added grist to their mill. It was a cruel and undeserved end.

And then there is the wider tragedy. I have a sense that cricket has finally, truly lost its innocence. Let's be honest we all thought this had happened a long time ago - match fixing (18th century style), Bodyline, World Series Cricket, sledging, match fixing (21st century style), IPL cheerleaders - but we were wrong, these were just trivial events, situations to be managed or glossed over. What's that they say when people start taking sport too seriously? "Calm down, nobody died". Well they were right. They were right then and they are right now. Someone has died and we can't calm down and we shouldn't. As much as we want too, we can't just brush this under the carpet and carry on as before. It's the last thing we want to do but we have to face up to this.

In some sports such as motorsport or boxing danger is front and centre, it is integral. In cricket it is no more than incidental. It's a hard game sure, requiring courage every bit as much as skill to succeed, but dangerous? It's not really a word we use is it? And yet we should, at least we shouldn't shy away from it. You know what might be the strangest aspect of this horrible incident? That when it comes to the game we love, suddenly it looks as if our fussing mums knew the truth better than we did. If they could see it, why couldn't we?

In recent years we have seen more and more Test cricketers get hit on the head and yet not one of us worried. They rubbed their heads, sometimes they changed their helmet, at worst they got a broken nose. Injuries, they're part of sport aren't they? He's got a helmet on, he'll be fine. We were blind, wilfully blind. We trusted in these helmets as if they were lucky totems - beyond all rational reason. We saw the consequences - the hits, the cuts and bruises, the momentary losses of equilibrium but we didn't see, or we didn't want to see the danger. And when I say we, I don't just mean "us" the spectators, the supporters, the commentators, I mean "them" too, the players, especially the players. They thought they were indestructible. It's not that they don't know how to avoid these deliveries, it's not that they aren't taught properly, they are. They know they should get their head inside or outside the line or under the ball, but they don't or they didn't know why. They were blind, wilfully blind. And it has cost Phil Hughes his life. His blindness, all our blindness. But we can claim blindness no longer.

It is worth reiterating, that this wasn't just any old cricketer, this was Phil Hughes. He was a Test match batsman. This wasn't a club match, this wasn't a weekend grade cricketer, this wasn't even a hapless tailender pummelled mercilessly from around the wicket. Not getting hit by a cricket ball was Phil Hughes' job and of the 7 billion or so people on this planet he was considered one of the very best at it. And he was killed. He was killed.

I don't know how this will change cricket, I just know that it will. It is of course right to urge against rushes to judgment, although where the ICC is concerned this is hardly a real concern. Can we make helmets safer? Of course we can. Can we make helmets safer to the point where there is no significant risk of this happening again? Probably. But can we make helmets safer to the point where there is no significant risk of this happening against whilst at the same time ensuring that that batsman retain the same freedom of movement and sensory perception? The answer is probably not and if this is the case then some tough decisions will have to be made and we may not like them.

One place where the word "dangerous" does actually appear is in  Law 42.6 (a)(1). It states:

(a) Bowling of fast short pitched balls

(i) The bowling of fast short pitched balls is dangerous and unfair if the bowler’s end umpire considers that by their repetition and taking into account their length, height and direction they are likely to inflict physical injury on the striker irrespective of the protective equipment he may be wearing. The relative skill of the striker shall be taken into consideration.

From a legal standpoint I have always found this a strangely worded clause. It  implies that the frequency of the short pitched bowling should be taken into account in considering danger. Why? Do we wait for a bowler to deliver a third or a fourth beamer before considering the batsman to be in danger? And conversely if the delivery is designed to gain the batsman's wicket why should the bowler be limited in such a way. 

Of course my mistake is to read this as a legal clause, it is not. It is a deliberately broad and inexactly worded guideline designed to give umpires a degree of authority in managing the game. A rough translation would be that "bowlers do not have carte blanche to bowl as many short balls as they wish at batsmen of limited ability". We can imply no stronger message than that.

The problem is that the cat is now out of the bag. We now know what "dangerous" means, it means potentially fatal. And as such this clause can no longer be taken so lightly. We can wish that the law of the land stops at the touchline or the boundary edge but increasingly it does not. How will this affect umpires? Do they not owe a duty of care to each and every player, just as a rugby referee does? What about the captain? These are questions we don't want to hear, but we cannot avoid them. Putting our heads in the sand, whether wearing helmets or not, is no longer an option.

We should also not forget one more tragedy, one more victim. A living one. Mike Atherton wrote on Tuesday about Peter Lever's struggles after nearly killing Ewan Chatfield. It seems hard to imagine Sean Abbott playing again this season, and you have to wonder whether he will ever play again. Whilst we can and should honour and remember Phil Hughes, Sean Abbott needs our support.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Sri Lanka may regret poking these dozy lions

This sudden outrage about Sachithra Senanayake has got me deeply confused. Not only has it been established that it was within the laws but he is not even the first 'culprit' - there are numerous precedents throughout the history of the game and many recent ones. (Incidentally it is perhaps not a coincidence that many of the recent incidents involve the same sort of bowler, perhaps something to do with that exaggerated pause at the moment of delivery?) Why this sudden backlash? In essence, as has been repeated ad nauseum the argument comes down to whether it is in the spirit of the game. Here there is little agreement. One argument is that it is an innovation and brings an extra dimension to the game. Cricket is famous for its innovators even  if those brave souls were not always appreciated in their own lifetimes. At the same time, having watched a myriad of replays from the stump cam to blimp in "super slow-mo" and in "real time" it really doesn't look good. It doesn't feel as if it should be allowed. And that is perhaps as good or at least as clear a definition of "the spirit of cricket" as any.  No doubt we can expect a response from the ICC in six to nine months. Anyway that is enough about bowling actions for the time being.

A word on the Mankadding incident. Jos Buttler is an exceptionally talented prat. Just as Ian Bell was a wonderfully gifted chump three years ago at Trent Bridge when he made a dash for an early tea. Ethically grey areas or not, both deserved to be given out if only for doziness. Any comments relating to young, impressionable minds should be directed chiefly at aspiring batsmen.

The answer to why of the two only Buttler's innings was terminated may simply lie in their differing opponents. Whilst Indians may be "soft" in such matters, at least according to Virender Sehwag, as Vic Marks has  noted you could never say that about Sri Lanka. Not now, not ever.

Whether Sri Lanka were more irked by the umpire's report on Senanayake's action or by Buttler's brutal assault at Lord's is hard to gauge but their response has added further spice to the upcoming Test series. Just as in Australia, Alistair Cook has attempted to plant the Cross of St. George firmly in the moral high ground. It seems no more justified here than it was then. Nevertheless provocative gestures have been known to backfire on touring teams in the past and whilst it is unlikely that either side will find themselves "grovelling" come the end June, Sri Lanka may yet come to rue poking these dozy lions.

Whilst Sri Lanka have a choice amongst three specialist spinners to leave out for next week's match, England seem set to ignore Monty Panesar their sole credible candidate. Instead they seem intent on choosing a spinning all-rounder, or rather a batsmen who tweaks. It would be yet another triumph for hope over experience. If Panesar can't tie up an end as Graeme Swann once did, what makes anyone think Moen Ali or Samit Patel will be able to, especially against a batting line up stronger than Australia's. Presuming on the fitness of Ben Stokes, England will play four seamers rather than the three of the Swann era, surely Joe Root can fill in if needed?

All this is not to say that Moen Ali is not a candidate for the number six position purely on batting merit. But here Matt Prior is key. If Prior plays a slight risk can be taken with a new cap at six, if he doesn't it leaves a long tail albeit one more than capable of wagging. That tail would have been shortened considerably had the option of Josh Buttler not been ruled out. I was surprised by Cook's startlingly frank assessment that he is not yet ready as either at batsman or keeper. It seems overly simplistic. His keeping needs work but so did Prior's when he started and so did (does!) Bairstow's when he took over Down Under. As a short term replacement whilst Prior regains fitness it is worth the gamble. As for Buttler's batting well he may not be ready for a place in the top six but a combination of himself at Ben Stokes at 7 and 8 would be formidable. England, it seems, have other ideas.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A big blast from the past

Nostalgia maybe a dangerous and unreliable mistress but that doesn't mean some things really weren't better in the past. One-day internationals for instance.

From 2000 the ECB decided that the one-day international series should follow the first Test series of the summer rather than precede it as previously. In doing so they brought to an end those joyously irreverent and irrelevant three match series sponsored by Texaco which heralded the start of the international season. Irrelevant but from the fan's perspective, not pointless. On the contrary they gave you the chance to get your head around new fielding regulations, your eyes around new TV graphics and and your tongue around Sri Lankan surnames. They were the appetite-whetters, the sneaky 11.30 sausage roll before the main lunch. By the time the Tests arrived you were properly hungry.   

Aside from giving England's fringe players a chance to press their Test claims - an opportunity seized this week with uncommon relish by Josh Buttler - they were also a low pressure start for the visiting teams, most still contending with chilled fingers and frozen footwork. From 2000 all this changed and opponents were thrust into the frays of cricket's most demanding format when pitches were still the colour of a dollar bill. Objectively, the results have not been pretty. In the 37 Tests played in the May-early June slot, England won 26 and lost 2 with their last defeat being in 2006 (by contrast in high summer they won 29 and lost 16 of 59 Tests). There have been few good contests. You can point to the quality of opposition - Zimbabwe (2), Bangladesh (2), New Zealand (3), West Indies (3), Sri Lanka (3) and Pakistan (1) - but that doesn't change the point, in fact it reinforces it. These matches were afterthoughts or in the case of the opposition no thought or real respect at all.

Much is made of the legitimacy of home team pitch preparation, but if you schedule a Test for mid-May you know what you are likely to get - Headingley in the 80's. I remember watching the Bangladesh openers shuffle out in long sleeved sweaters with collars raised and wondering why the selectors didn't give Jimmy Anderson and Steven Finn a bit more time off and just bring back Steve Watkin and Neil Mallender. Aside from giving Anderson the chance to get that average below 30 (an increasingly desperate quest), it served little objective purpose.

So bravo ECB, even if a two match series is not ideal this season's international schedule is still the best from a cricketing perspective for some time. Anderson and Broad versus Sangakkara and Jayawardene in mid-June on a fair pitch should provide for a terrific contest, every bit as good, if not as commercially profitable, as the India series that follows.

Of course when I speak of a return to the days of the Texaco Trophy, the similarities really start and finish with scheduling. Back then coloured clothes, white balls and black sightscreens were still something strictly antipodean, whilst Duckworth and Lewis were just the solicitors down the road.

More importantly, you could write the playing conditions on the back of a beer mat. Today you need an instruction manual and a calculator, or an app. Back then captains' minds were focused solely on field placing and bowling changes, there were no power-plays or such like to worry about. But does this matter? No, of course it doesn't, not if the product is better as a result. But here is where my problem lies. It is palpably worse.

One-day cricket is like nature: the more you try to manipulate it, the more it resists and mutates. I'm no free market libertarian but forty odd years of regulation has proved only one thing, it is not the answer. In particular the obsession with the "problem overs" between 15 and 40, has never come close to being solved. A better question was why it needed solving in the first place.

In fact the problem has already been solved. You get rid of them, because that is effectively what T20 is, one-day games without the "boring bit". I'm not a fan of the format, but like Test cricket it is an honest product. The ingredients are written in big letters on the front of the package - if you don't like it, don't buy it. One-day internationals are no longer honest. They would have you believe they are the cool kid's elder brother: same smile, better car. The problem is that car is a Prius and, even if they are wrong, people don't think a Prius is cool. So what to do?

The answer is to stop trying to be cool and start being serious. Once again to go forward we need to look back. Growing up the Natwest Trophy was my favourite format. For one simple reason, I could go down to Old Trafford and watch an entire game of proper cricket in one day. Even then, with long school holidays, I didn't have time to go to an entire Championship match but the Natwest was the next best thing. Batsmen played themselves in, seamers bowled to more than one slip, sweepers were optional. It was never formulaic cricket.

I'm not suggesting a revival of the format, but of it's spirit. For example the 60 overs that encompassed a Natwest innings (the first World Cup was actually 65 a side) is not only too long, for the players in particular, but unnecessary. Test match scoring rates have increased almost as much as over rates have fallen. 50 overs would be plenty. The 60 over competition also had minimal fielding restrictions: 4 men inside the circle, a maximum of six on the leg side. I would remove every single non Test match playing condition bar one - leg side wides, but even these could be granted a more liberal interpretation than we currently see. By doing so creativity and original thinking would be encouraged rather than stifled. In essence it could do for the mental side of Test cricket what T20 has done for the physical.

We already see such creativity from captains like Michael Clarke and MS Dhoni. Without the shackles of the playing conditions, the possiblities are endless.  Undoubtedly the first few games would draw out some anomalies as teams grapple with this new found freedom but so what?  Nine, ten fielders on the boundary? Maybe, but six twos is still twelve an over. Eight on the leg side? Don't get your line wrong... 

I ask you, what would Shane Warne have come up with given such licence?