Posted by: tootingtrumpet | August 20, 2014

Entertainment, Competition and “Match-fixing”

My turn to breathe a little fire

My turn to breathe a little fire

What is the purpose of sport? No – let’s refine that question. What is the purpose of professional sport? One purpose (some would say the main purpose) is to entertain – after all, the fans pay the TV subscriptions and the ticket prices not merely to witness the processes that lead to league tables being re-arranged, rankings reshuffled, stats amended, but to be thrilled by superhuman skills, close finishes and the prospect of their heroes emerging triumphant, our modern day gladiators, our champions whose deeds will live forever This is sport as great unscripted drama, a visceral rush that exists above and beyond the confections of Hollywood and the PS4 – a bounded, separate, fulfilling part of our lives. But this exceptionalism is beginning to be diluted, perhaps fatally.

In a development that sits uneasily with most people over thirty, but for those younger seems entirely natural, scripted reality shows and sports entertainment formats have become hugely popular. The Only Way Is Essex and its imitators gain big audiences and sustain a whole industry of spin-offs in TV, print and online formats. WWE megashows make superstars of their “competitors” and succeed in media’s Holy Land – the Pay Per View market. No punter, having paid their $19.99 or whatever, believes that they are watching some distant cousin of The Olympics: they know they are watching some not so distant cousin of a Jason Statham movie. And they like it that way.

At Wrestlemania XXXIV (or whichever bombastic name it has now), the Show trumps the Result and always has. Slowly, mainstream sport is beginning to realise that this order may hold more widely than is comfortable for those who believe that the Result trumps the Show (ie that achieving the Result is the purpose of the Show).

With the Tour de France unable to name credible winners for many of the last twenty editions, hundreds of thousands of Brits turned out to cheer the riders through Yorkshire and London, the spectacle sufficient to attract the largest crowd in British history for a single sporting event. By no means starting with The London Olympics, but given a momentum then that now appears unstoppable, the presentation of sports in Britain has focused on the emotional impact of the event, not just on the competitors, but on friends, family and supporters. The Royal Box and the Players Box at Wimbledon getting more close-ups than the actual players themselves, as the camera noses into the fist pumps and the tears.

In American sports, the draft system loads the dice in favour of lower-ranking teams to strengthen them for the upcoming season. In football, Financial Fair Play regulations tilt the balance (albeit only a little) away from the externally bankrolled clubs towards those whose football pays its way. Sports administrators chip away at the purity of man0-a-mano competition to protect “the product” more and more every year.

To cricket. Anything that compromises the sifting of the best from the also-rans in international cricket and the long-established domestic competitions should, of course, attract the opprobrium justifiably heaped on the match-fixers who occupy cricket’s Hall of Shame. But what of the new, history-free, franchise-based T20 leagues that have popped up around the world in the last ten years? Are they more like the WWE than the LVCC? Entertainment is surely their primary (maybe their sole) purpose and its enhancement lies at the heart of their promotion, their presentation and their personnel. Few will be able to recite the list of winners going back through time (as schoolboys once could about the FA Cup), but most will be able to find a youtube package of “Ten Biggest Maximums” or “Five Crazy Run Outs”. The result is less important than the spectacle – isn’t it?

So should we be surprised if the trajectory of a T20 season proves to have been manipulated to “get the Final everyone wanted” or bring a struggling franchise the revenue and publicity of knockout stage matches it needs to remain solvent or to revive a flagging match with a bit of quasi-declaration bowling in order to make the last five overs interesting? Who would be surprised if evidence existed of such deals? I know I wouldn’t be.

But there’s a more interesting question – who would care? Not the fans of the media products I speak of above, happy with a great night’s viewing no matter its construction; not those whose interest in sport is about the emotions attendant on victory and defeat, rather than the result, loving those close-ups; not those who sit with a remote control in hand who might just as easily flick across to a Britain’s Got Talent segment with a heartrending backstory. The T20 leagues are for them more than me aren’t they? Why should they “eat their broccoli” if they don’t want to?

Should franchise T20 cricket be judged as entertainment and not as sport? Should it be regulated and administered as entertainment and not sport? Are we all just a bit too precious about it?

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | August 19, 2014

Cricket’s evolutionary dead ends

And some say keepers are eccentric...

And some say keepers are eccentric…

Fads fade – as they should – but why do some of cricket’s dizzying array of techniques, quirks and idiosyncrasies lead nowhere, despite their success?

Nobody has bowled – before or since – like SF Barnes, the man I would most like to have seen play in cricket’s history. Though many cricketers have been as bolshie (well, maybe not quite as bolshie) no bowler gets anywhere near his extraordinary figures sprawled over decades – sure they were different days, but why didn’t his contemporaries deliver those numbers too? Those who did see him describe Barnes as many bowlers in one – a quick, a seamer, a swinger and (this appears to be his most unique quality) a fast-medium spinner capable of ripping it both ways. With all the talk of Moeen Ali finding that bit of zip at 56mph that makes all the difference, has nobody – not even Jade Dernbach – attempted to rip the ball at 75 – 80mph (rolling won’t do)? Perhaps if Shahid Afridi had greater respect for his frightening physical attributes, he might have properly developed that kind of delivery as a stock ball, but I can think of no other bowler in my time who would even consider the option. SF Barnes leaves behind a remarkable record, but no legacy.

We have more empirical evidence of Jeff Thomson’s bowling action. Innocuous at first, just a hair-bouncing jog to the crease before unleashing – with a straight arm – something akin to a baseball pitcher’s fast ball, his right hand touching the turf as his body arched back, before the ball was rocketed at the batsman (and, occasionally, at the stumps). Of course, the action stressed the body – fast bowling does – but it did not break it and Thommo enjoyed a long career, albeit without that literally shocking pace of his 1974-75 breakthrough series. Perhaps the bowler who most resembles the terror of the Poms is fellow Australian, Shaun Tait, who has something of Thommo’s slingshot pace, but little of his brutal accuracy. Tait isn’t quite the real deal though – Thommo stood up as he released the ball, resisting the easier option of squatting a little and rolling away off the pitch, making his deliveries lift horribly off a length. Maybe today’s biomechanics boffins would not like such extreme contortions at the point of delivery, but maybe they would help too. Perhaps someone needs to find a few old youtube clips and have a go at emulating the man often credited with being the world’s fastest ever bowler.

Mike Procter would have joined the great all-rounders of the 70s and 80s were it not for South Africa’s isolation – he had it in him to mirror Jacques Kallis’s figures, his bowling (just) outshining his batting. And no kid who grew up watching the BBC’s coverage of Gillette Cup cricket could ever forget the blond whirlwind who would hurtle into the crease before hurling the ball at the stumps. The action had something of Picasso’s cubism about it – routinely described as chest on and off the wrong foot, Procter appeared to give a 360 degree moving image to spectators, presenting his whole body at that moment of release. Add the billowing shirt and baying crowd and the poor batsman can barely have located the ball before it detonated the base of his stumps. There have been a few chest-on quicks since (Sylvester Clarke probably the sharpest) and a few wrong-foot merchants too (Chris Harris is probably still doing his thing in New Zealand even now) but no bowler has got near Procter’s “windmill in a hurricane” blur.

That there aren’t as many genuine quicks in the game these days is said so often that we don’t need the evidence of the speedgun showing new ball bowlers at 82 – 85 mph. Even an all-time great like Dale Steyn has to portion out his efforts on the international treadmill, seldom getting close these days to the 90mph that Allan Donald would reach routinely. So why don’t more opening batsmen adopt Matthew Hayden’s guard, a stride (sometimes more) down the wicket? Hayden’s method was rooted in his desire to intimidate bowlers (reversing the age old descriptor of “the bowling attack” into a “batting attack”) but it was also the product of his need to limit the effect of the ball swinging back into the left-hander’s pads, allowing him to plant that heavy front foot and bludgeon the ball. The option was only possible due to the body armour that protected Hayden from head to toe, making batting infinitely less physically perilous than a generation earlier. You do see batsmen taking guard outside their crease these days, but not often and seldom as part of a systematic plan to defeat the bowler.

Graham Gooch, notably, and one or two other batsmen in the 80s would “take guard” with their bat raised behind them, not quite baseball-style, more frozen in time part way through an orthodox stroke. Which was, of course, the idea, as it saved the time spent lifting the bat as the bowler released the ball, a distinct advantage when facing the quicks. Standing with bat cocked also ensured that the pick-up was straight, as there was no time for the bat to be pointed towards the slips on the way up (just watch early career Hashim Amla for an extreme example of that foible and then look at his numbers once he corrected it). Few batsmen stand at the crease in the full Gooch these days, with some talk that the stance limits scoring options or reduces power responsible for the technique dying out. I find that a little hard to believe as the bat, no matter when it is picked up, must reach a stationary point before it comes down to meet the ball – so why not identify that point in the stance?

As wicketkeeper Jack Russell’s famous hat became something like Trigger’s brush as his career entered its glorious Gloucestershire Indian summer, he would stand up in white ball cricket from first over until last. This tactic would pin the batsmen to the crease in powerplay overs, open up the stumping as a dismissal option and, most importantly, disconcert the man on strike who would feel his physical space diminished by Russell’s hyperactivity in and around the crease and his mental space compromised by the keeper’s constant chatter – not quite sledging, but not exactly designed to promote concentrating on the next ball. Keepers do stand up to pacemen these days, but usually as a result of a tactical ploy, seldom as an innings long strategy, a strategy that went some way to Gloucestershire’s winning five one day trophies from the six available in 1999 and 2000. With white ball cricket increasingly dominated by slow and medium pace bowling, why do keepers ever stand back?

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | August 18, 2014

England vs India – Series Report Cards

MS Dhoni leaves Lord's one-up in the series

MS Dhoni on his way to The Ageas Bowl one-up in the series

Alastair Cook (298 runs at 50; 1 wicket at 6) – The captain-batsman who won the Ashes and the Pataudi Trophy before turning thirty finally turned up to silence the doubters and cement his place in both roles for the foreseeable future. Or did he? Once the Lord’s debacle was done, there was more energy in the field, more evidence of planning, more of the showy side of leadership that impresses impressionable fans and gives journalists something to write about. But there were also the extraordinary ovations that rolled round The Ageas Bowl, a spontaneous demonstration of England supporters’ respect, even love, for a man they felt unfairly maligned. It affected him: it affected me and I was behind glass in the Media Centre, insulated and distant. From that moment, the downward trajectory of his captaincy was arrested and he looked, once more, a leader of men – indeed, he looked like the leader his men wanted, which is 90% of Test captaincy right there. His batting isn’t quite back, but he has worked hard on getting forward, transferring the weight and playing positively and the runs (aided by a combination of luck and dismal Indian slipping) have begun to flow. He will have learned much from this summer: the same goes for his hasty critics.

Sam Robson (165 runs at 24) – Does he know where his off stump is? Not now he doesn’t, otherwise he would not have had so painful a series, nicking off and being bowled. But it’s hard for a new Test batsman to get out of a rut in today’s absurdly compressed schedules with no room to drop a notch to the county game and work through a problem. Since he doesn’t play international white ball cricket, Robson should seek out as much red ball cricket as he can get anywhere in the world this winter and bat and bat and bat. It’s weight of runs that got him into the side and it’s weight of runs that will keep him in the side. I’d take him to the Caribbean in April, but he must perform there or it’s time to look at Alex Hales.

Gary Ballance (503 runs at 72) – At Number Three, it’s all about output and the left-handed shuffler delivers plenty (and it would have been even more had he a little more fortune with the series long erratic umpiring). Traditionalists say that batting is about watching the ball, playing it late and attacking the good ones while defending the bad ones – so far so good for Ballance. But those same batting gurus do not advocate a trigger movement that is almost a walk and feet so deep that a forward defensive is played from barely over the crease. But batting cannot be reduced to diagrams or algorithms – methods are gloriously individual (are Shiv Chanderpaul and Mark Waugh even of the same species?) If the technique holds up against the hostility and craft that lie in wait in the ranks of Australia, South Africa and Pakistan (and New Zealand’s bowlers are no mugs), England’s Number Three slot is locked down for a decade, as the temperament and attitude (and catching) are exemplary.

Ian Bell (297 runs at 42) – Apart from a crucial knock in the innings at The Ageas Bowl that turned the series England’s way, a quiet series from the man who lit up Summer 2013. Still doing his old trick of batting like a dream until you look up and find him walking off just when you think his bat is all middle with no edge at all. Hardly needed as the youngsters flayed the runs that led to three huge victories, but there will be tougher days to come in which a five hour occupation will be worth infinitely more than a diverting cameo.

Joe Root (518 runs at 104, 1 wicket at 33) – Got in and cashed in, England’s Golden Boy back in the saddle with the Mitchell Johnson nightmare fading into the distance. His key strength is his appreciation of the requirements of an innings: he can build partnerships, he can dig in and he can accelerate, each moment of a Test’s potential 30+ hours instinctively understood (which bodes well for his eventual captaincy claims). Unlike fellow Yorkie Gary Ballance (whose technique is the same from first ball to last), Root’s hanging back in the crease early in his innings is more a flaw, since, once in, his foot movement becomes much more deliberate and his security improves as a result. If he can play his first hour at the crease as he plays his second, he will score big runs against all attacks.

Moeen Ali (124 runs at 21; 19 wickets at 23) – A failure at Number 6, but a magnificent unexpected success as front line spinner. The batting was much like Ian Bell’s (without Bell’s big ton) – lovely to look at then suddenly gone, too often as a result of a short ball attack that will have been spotted by Mitchell Johnson and Morne Morkel. The batting may come good in Tests, though whether he is a deluxe Number 8 rather than a genuine Number 6 remains to be seen. But the bowling! Who saw that coming? Learning quickly (yes, an England player learning quickly!) he found the slightly quicker pace that limits batsmen’s options while still allowing the ball to dip, turn and bounce. Moreover, as is vital for a spinner, he has a bit of character about him, a crowd favourite posing for selfies after a win and handling the wristband controversy with shoulder-shrugging dignity. Still bowls a few four balls – but only Glenn McGrath and Joel Garner didn’t.

Jos Buttler (200 runs at 67; 11 catches) – He’ll have tougher assignments in the future and pay higher prices for the occasional untidiness behind the stumps, but what a start the batsman-keeper has made. The crack of the bat hitting the balll reminds me of Adam Gilchrist and the unclouded mind recalls Virender Sehwag’s famous “See Ball. Hit Ball” mantra that should be given to every Number 7 in the game.  The keeping has room for improvement, but it’s not bad, and the likes of Matt Prior and Alec Stewart have shown that hard work with the gloves pays off, especially for such a natural athlete. But that ball striking – wow!

Chris Woakes (33 runs at 33; 5 wickets at 43) – Earned his place with consistency and pace as a new ball bowler at Warwickshire, but has been asked to play the third seamer role for England – and is yet to convince. His pace allayed any doubts about lack of nip, indeed he often looked the quickest option available, if not the most hostile, being a “pitch it up” rather than a “bang it in” man. Joins a roster of back-up bowlers for England’s Big Two and can expect to be in and out of the side as conditions and rotation demands. No opportunity to show off his classy batting.

Chris Jordan (33 runs at 17; 10 wickets at 22) – A legacy of an injury-blighted development in the game, his bowling looks like he learned it phonetically, but when he gets it right, he can take wickets with pace, swing and seam. There will be days – spells – when it’s not synching and a captain has to recognise that and withdraw him, with the assurance that he’ll be back. Another good option for the back-up seamer squad, but probably needs to play in a five man attack.

Stuart Broad (108 runs at 27; 19 wickets at 23) – Like his new ball partner, he started the series looking a little jaded, hoping for something to happen rather than making something happen, possibly distracted by too flat a pitch at Trent Bridge and too green a pitch at Lord’s. Once it clicked, he found the line and length that troubles all batsmen in England, seeking the outside edge for the slip cordon and the inside edge for the bowled and bat-pad. His partnership with Jimmy Anderson is a fine example of cricket rewarding complementary skills – as evidenced by England’s bowling records slowly being  overhauled.

Jimmy Anderson (112 runs at 22; 25 wickets at 21) – After two relatively low key Tests (excepting that extraordinary 81 at Trent Bridge), the talk was of workloads, burn out, the hangover from The Ashes thrashing. Three Tests later, the talk is of Ian Botham’s Test wickets record, nonpareil skills with the ball and Man of the Series Awards. Swing is always a capricious partner, but once it returned (with, it must be said, an energy in the delivery stride that cannot be unrelated to anger at the mid-series disciplinary hearing and, one hopes, a new willingness to let the ball do the talking) there was no answer to movement either way provoked by undetectable finger pressure at the point of release. Batsmen who had spent April and May on the greentops of Haslingden and Accrington playing Lancashire League cricket would have struggled against such craft: those who spent April and May playing in the Indian Premier League at Kolkata and Delhi had no chance.

Matt Prior (40 runs at 13; 12 catches) – Brad Haddin came back, but it seems unlikely that Matt Prior will do the same, regardless of the result of his operation. He could easily play at least five more seasons for Sussex and will be guaranteed of a warm reception everywhere, as fans recall his years of service, unsoured by his last 18 months of struggle. I hope he does.

Ben Stokes (0 runs at 0; 7 wickets at 33) – Literally couldn’t buy a run, but showed promise bowling with something of Andrew Flintoff’s strong arm pace, if not yet his swing. Another useful addition as a seam bowling option, but probably never going to be one of the best six batsmen available to England, so might have a future at 8 or as an alternative to Moeen Ali at 6 if five seamers looks like the right composition for the bowling unit.

Liam Plunkett (69 runs at 69; 7 wickets at 41) – Hit the pitch hard and was especially hostile round the wicket to right-handers, he will be useful option (one hopes alongside Steven Finn) when fire needs to be met with fire.

 

(Rather than assess each individual Indian player – which might be unduly cruel  and repetitive – each component of the game is assessed below).

Batting -

If India intend (rather than hope) to win Tests outside the subcontinent with anything like the regularity that their resources would suggest, Indian batsmanship will have to change, maybe even be re-invented. Playing through the line, following the ball or going with hard hands simply will not work, notwithstanding the talent of the man doing so. The willingness to bat for sessions at a time, when every ball is a challenge, by adhering to the old nostrums of leaving balls on a fifth stump line, defending with a straight bat and earning the right to hit boundaries, must return to the heart of the batting unit’s play.

If MS Dhoni showed fight in raging against the scoreboard’s sorry tales and Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane the technique to succeed in less than ideal batting conditions, it’s a sad indictment that two bowlers (Ravichandran Ashwin and Bhuvneswar Kumar) looked the most likely to make runs purely because they were the most orthodox batsmen. England bowled well, but not as well as India’s batting suggested – and if you don’t make the opposition work hard for your wicket, you really shouldn’t be in the side.

Bowling -

Bhuvi Kumar was excellent, bowling lovely lines with a craftsman’s control of swing and seam, but at 24 with only six Tests behind him at the start of the series, Ishant Sharma’s injury demanded too much of him and he faded as his team subsided. Beyond those two pacers, it’s almost impossible to believe that India could come up with nothing better than Varun Aaron’s potential, Ravi Ashwin’s inexplicably underused spin and other bowlers who would be lucky to get a gig in county cricket. Is Pragyan Ojha, experienced in English conditions, really not good enough for this squad?

Captaincy and fielding -

MS Dhoni will retire as a great of Indian cricket, a player of enormous self-belief and resilience, a man who did what was asked of him. But the ideas and the concentration demanded of a captain, seemed to be exhausted once the tide turned at The Ageas Bowl. Did he lead the fielding effort as a wicket-keeper must? Did he have the right bowlers on at the right times? Did he balance attack and defence correctly as England’s innings progressed? Well, history is written by the winners and not many series-losing captains could answer those questions in the affirmative, so maybe that’s a little unfair.

The harsher indictment of Dhoni’s captaincy is that he let India drift into a shambles, fulfilling an old description once (notoriously incorrectly) given to an England Ashes squad – “Can’t bat. Can’t bowl. Can’t field.” With a drawn series still a possibility at The Oval, India barely provided opposition worthy of the name, denying millions of fans a team of which they could at least say, “Our lads gave it everything – but it wasn’t enough.” Dhoni has earned the right to stay on to defend the World Cup he played such a key role in winning, but surely he will go after that, leaving a huge job for his successor – at least in the five day format, especially overseas.

 

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | August 17, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 17 August 2014

Wee James Taylor

Wee James Taylor

Ball One – Lyth and Lees keep rolling along

Yorkshire secured their quarter-final slot in the Royal London One Day Cup with an emphatic ten wicket win over Derbyshire. Adam Lyth and Alex Lees knocked off the 152 needed for qualification in fewer than 30 overs to promote their claims for international recognition. Lyth averages 56 in the Championship and 45 in 50 overs cricket, while his younger partner, Lees, averages 41 and 43. Those numbers up top get innings off to the kind of starts that make life easier for the middle-order strokemakers and for the bowlers who like nothing more than runs on the board. Yorkshire have six important weeks to come as they tilt at trophies.

Ball Two – Essex essay shots at three goals

The Tykes didn’t have it all their own way last week, going down to Essex at Scarborough failing to defend 290. The chase was built on Tom Westley’s ton (another in a fine white ball season with bat and ball) and a Ryan Ten Doeschate pyrotechnic display, six sixes amongst his fifteen boundaries. Essex are impossible to work out this season – again. In white ball cricket especially, they have experience and options to burn with bat and ball, yet they seem to find ways to lose matches they really ought to win. That said, like Yorkshire, they have the sharpest of sharp ends to the season coming up, still alive in both one day competitions and with promotion still an outside possibility in the Championship. Delivery of all three objectives might be too much to expect, but don’t be surprised if there’s celebrations of some kind at Chelmsford.

Ball Three – Rain comes at the right time for Gloucestershire

Gloucestershire are also through to a quarter-final after a Duckworth-Lewis win over Worcestershire. When the rain came for a a second time, Michael Klinger’s men were 14/3 with much to do to secure victory. Of course, the dressing room talk in such circumstances is always of “Still being in with a shout”, “Someone needs to stand up and make a ton”, “We can do this”, but hope, rather than expectation, underpins the cliches. Maybe not in the case of Ian Cockbain though, who fell two short of the desired ton, while the Gidman brothers combined for 72 runs from 69 balls as Gloucestershire cruised home. Will Gidman, who is taking his Kallis-lite numbers to Notts next season, will want to bow out with a trophy for Gloucestershire.

Ball Four – Kent deliver from 1 to 11.

Kent are the other team sure of a Royal London Cup quarter-final berth having seen off Sussex at Canterbury. While Sam Billings has deservedly hit the headlines in 50 overs cricket (average 169, strike rate 175!), Kent have seven other batsmen who strike at more than 80 – so they just keep coming. Back up those stats with the eight bowlers who have turned their arms over with none going at more than Dougie Bollinger’s 6.7, and you have a tight unit that will win many more matches than it loses.

Ball Five – Notts smash it round St John’s Wood

Notts field four internationals at the top of their order and they all cashed in at Lord’s, compiling 368-2 in 45 overs to flatten Middlesex. While one might expect musclemen biffers like Alex Hales and Michael Lumb to get in and get going at better than a run-a-ball, they were outscored by wee James Taylor (100* off 55 balls) and roundish all-rounder Samit Patel (37* off 15). Power-hitters catch the eye in the one-day game, but there’s room for one and all – even today.

Ball Six – A move for Azeem

Azeem Rafiq, at 23, is looking for a new county having decided to leave Yorkshire. It’s the kind of news that brings mixed feelings: on the one hand, one feels for Yorkshire who have nurtured his talent for years; on the other, if the all-rounder is to make the most of his undoubted talents, he needs to be regularly playing more than just T20 cricket. Expect to see him at one of the promoted teams next season., batting at 8 and bowling plenty of overs in all three formats.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | August 10, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 10 August 2014

It's okay Doug - no hotspot in domestic cricket.

It’s okay Doug – no hotspot in domestic cricket.

Ball One – Tykes top the table despite England’s demands

Despite England calling up Joe Root, Gary Ballance, Liam Plunkett and Jonny Bairstow (and the unavailability of Kane Williamson’s bowling) Yorkshire cruised to three easy wins this week to go top of the Royal London Cup Group A table. The impressive 21 year-old, Alex Lees, has led the batting effort, scoring at around a run a ball (very much the target rate in 50 overs cricket) while none of the Yorkie bowlers have gone for more than five an over. Old hands, Tim Bresnan and Adil Rashid, are the standouts using their experience and guile to block an end and take wickets. The former is the more likely to return to international colours for 2015’s World Cup, but wouldn’t it be fantastic to see Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid bowling together for England in Australia and slotting in at 6 and 7 in the order?

Ball Two – The bald truth is that Kent’s ageing bowlers are the key to their success

In Group B, Kent lead. They are the only unbeaten side in the country, their success built on a phalanx of old stagers chugging in with the ball. Darren Stevens (38); James Tredwell (32); Mitch Claydon (31); and Doug Bollinger (33) may collectively lack a bit upstairs when it comes to hair, but not when it comes to keeping your head in a harum-scarum run chase. That quartet have delivered three quarters of Kent’s overs and, if they carry on like this, they’ll have plenty more to deliver before September is out. I trust Kent’s physio has no annual leave booked.

Ball Three – Billings the wicket-keeper cashes in with the bat

But it’s a much younger Kent player who is catching the eye amongst this season’s batsmen. Sam Billings boasts a batting index of 329, topping the sixes hit table and sitting third on the runs scored ladder. The local lad is yet another smiter whose primary role as wicket-keeper gives him licence to attack the bowling when he swaps gauntlets for gloves. The kids who grew up watching Adam Gilchrist and being inspired to emulate the great Australian, are coming through in numbers.

Ball Four – Cosker keeps coming back for more.

On August 11 1996, Dean Cosker snared his first wickets in white ball cricket, Leicestrashire’s internationals Phil Simmons and Aftab Habib. 18 years on, he’s still at it, this season’s haul so far totting up to nine at an economy rate well below four per over. There’s many would point to the likes of Cosker and say that he’s made a decent living from the game without ever showing skills to play international cricket (the purpose of county cricket being assumed as primarily a development ground for potential England players). I’d rather point to a solid pro approaching his 600th match for his only county. The game is better off for the presence of the likes of Dean Cosker – the kind of player to whom local fans warm.

Ball Five – Kent and Surrey go hell for leather for 100 overs.

I’d love to be writing the obituary of 50 overs cricket and, consequently, open up a bit of space in cricket’s congested calendar, but then a match like Tuesday’s at The Oval turns up and I wonder what can have possessed me. Arriving at the start of Surrey’s chase of Kent’s excellent 314, the match twisted and turned before swinging this way and that in the final over, eventually coming to rest as a tie. Both sides made plenty of mistakes, both sides played some exhilarating cricket, both sides were fully committed to trying to win – it was tremendous sport. Fifty overs cricket can still thrill a crowd.

Ball Six – The best place to be in London last week was The Oval

For two consecutive evenings, the setting sun slanted into The Oval, illuminating its pavilion, bathing all in the weak watery orange light that annually washes over London as Summer begins to herald Autumn. It’s often forgotten just how aesthetically pleasing an experience watching cricket can be, particularly at its urban grounds, with their expanses of green, their moments of, if not silence, then certainly quiet, and their big, big skies. While South London hurtled towards its future outside, inside The Oval its oasis promoted a sense of calm. Not for the first time there, I felt that the cricket was incidental to the pleasure of simply being there.

You can tweet me @garynaylor999

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | August 4, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 3 August 2014

Jordan Clark with county cricket 2014 most popular haircut

Jordan Clark with county cricket 2014’s most popular hair style

Ball One – First class cricket is robust enough to take a break

As competitive a County Championship as I can recall (with ding-dong battles for the title itself, avoiding the second relegation slot and for the Division Two promotion slots all proving compelling) takes a three week sabbatical to make space for fifty overs cricket, the least loved format of the game. Does it matter? Well, it might to cricket’s die-hard traditionalists for whom the County Championship is the gold standard, but even they would concede that one of red ball cricket’s joys is its ability to accommodate slow passages of play, breaks in a season, disruption to its schedule. “Talking about something else while the cricket is on”, is one of the game’s greatest pleasures – I just wish the thing we are talking about isn’t the tired “Twenty20 + 30 overs of pushing it around” formula that many fifty overs matches adopt.

Ball Two – Jordan Clark turns the tide for Lancashire

At Old Trafford, it took two days to bowl 40 overs – and it needed all 40 to split the home side and Glamorgan, for whom Jacques Rudolph and Andrew Salter could muster only 13 of the 15 runs needed from the final over. Lancashire’s hero was tall bits and pieces man, Jordan Clark, who hit the stumps three times in five deliveries, a spell that turned the match. “You miss – I hit” has been around for a while – but it’s still a good tactic.

Ball Three – Roy reigns at the top of the order

In front of a decent Saturday afternoon crowd at The Oval, Jason Roy teed off to post another personal fifty before miscuing one to leave Surrey needing a comfortable 75 runs from 14.2 overs with 8 wickets in hand. From there, only a couple of twenty-odds at about a run a ball are needed to chase down a middling target like the 142 set by Worcestershire. Pinch-hitter is a demeaning name for a role that demands confidence, power and good shot selection, with Jason Roy’s eight half-centuries in 14 matches the key to Surrey’s advancing to Finals Day making him the best pinch hitter around just now. Can he do it for England? He might, but only if he avoids attracting the knockers’ sneers and snipes if it goes wrong.

Ball Four – Chopra and Clark ensure that Finals Day has local interest

Even the dangerous Ryan Ten Doeschate (possibly batting a notch or two too low at Five) couldn’t get Essex up to Warwickshire’s Birmingham’s 197. That was a biggish score – even on a small ground like Chelmsford – and was thanks largely to Varun Chopra and Rikki Clarke, who scored ten boundaries each in their unbroken third wicket stand of 134. Neither man averages 30 in red ball cricket this season, but both have been outstanding in the Bears’ run to a home ground party on Finals day. Would they swap their red ball form for their white ball form? Would the fans?

Ball Five – Vince convincing in victory

The last of the four quarter-finals saw James Vince lead from the front, as Hampshire’s captain slammed 93* to overhaul Nottinghamshire’s impressive 197-2 with an over to spare. It was a welcome return to form for Vince whose star has faded a little after a fine start to the season. Still only 23, he might not be in the selectors’ immediate thoughts for full recognition (though his place in the England Lions squad is encouraging,) but, at 23 with a batting index of 160 across 78 T20 matches, he’s building a strong case. More pyrotechnics on Finals Day will do his cause no harm at all.

Ball Six – Finals Day could be cricket’s biggest advert for years

T20 Finals Day is biggest in the domestic cricket calendar and, if the weather does its bit, you’re guaranteed a wonderful carnival of cricket if you can get a ticket for Edgbaston or watch on Sky. This column is not vehemently against the ECB’s deal with Sky for a variety of reasons, but I do wish some arrangement could be made to show Finals Day on Pick TV, Sky’s free-to-air channel. Premier League football will already be in its second weekend of swamping sports coverage, with the World Cup barely completed – so why not give the casual follower of cricket a glimpse of the fun to be had with a day of free publicity that surely hurts nobody. It’s not too late to do this is it?

You can tweet me @garynaylor999

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | July 27, 2014

Summer The First Time – Outgrounds

AigburthMy mum had made me plenty of pork luncheon meat sandwiches (Mother’s Pride bread of course) and I may have had a flask of tea – but I had no hat, no rehydrating bottle of water and no sunblock as I walked to Seaforth Sands to get the unfamiliar green corpy (that is, corporation) 61 bus from the start of its route to its terminus at Aigburth. My dad had taken me to the first day’s play on the Saturday, but he was at work for the second (on the Monday) and I was 12 now and perfectly capable of a day out on my own. The sun was up and there was nowhere, absolutely nowhere else I wanted to be.

A half-fare in 1975 was probably 4p and I doubt that I had more than a few two pence pieces for the phonebox and maybe 75p for entry, a bottle of pop and some wine gums on the way home. The whole day’s provisioning was stored in a tupperware container and in a Kwik Save carrier bag. It’s how things were not so very long ago.

But some things haven’t changed. Aigburth comes up on you unexpectedly, with no pylons to house floodlights giving away its location, no little signs pointing the way to the car parks, no tacky stands selling club favours. Once in, I sat on the grass, hoping, hoping, hoping to get a touch of the ball, as it sped over the so so smooth field, my feet occasionally, rakishly, rebelliously, resting over the rope to show just how cool I was.

You could get right up close to the players – but you had to scatter on the rare occasion that a fielder would chase a ball all the way to the rope and its wall of kids. Two years on from that first visit, I recall a gazelle-like, beautiful human being floating about in the covers, a man with the balance and grace of a ballet dancer – he was an as yet unknown David Gower, still a season away from swivelling pulling his first ball in Test cricket for four.

Back to 1975 again, my 20p or so on the gate bought me witness to a century from Barry Richards, supported by 60 from Gordon Greenidge and, on the Tuesday (of course, I went back the next day), a dazzling century from Clive Lloyd, as Lancashire failed to resist the extreme pace of Andy Roberts. Is it any wonder that the game had me hooked?

I played once at Aigburth (in 1981 on the same pitch bowling from the same end that Richard Hadlee had used to take 7-25 for Champions Notts – I got half that: the “for 25″ half), but I played quite a few times at Southport, scene of another great day on an outground.

In 1981, Charles was marrying Diana on a glorious July morn and we all had a day off to watch it on the telly – except for the thousands who preferred Lancashire vs Middlesex at Trafalgar Road. At 9.00am, the queue stretched hundreds of yards – many didn’t get in and those who did drank the bar dry at 2.00pm. Big Clive was the big star again, blasting 91 to delight the (let’s be honest) 100% male crowd. Fewer were in the next day (though I was) to see Graham Barlow reply with 177 before Wayne Daniel’s five wickets delivered the points for the Londoners.

Neither of those two knocks were as good as Ken McEwan’s 128 for Essex three years earlier. The South African scored 99 of them before lunch on the first day – remarkable in itself, but more so when you know that only one other batsman crossed 50 in the match. McEwan oozed class at the crease and made 90 centuries, none for his country, his career coinciding with isolation. He was a mini-hero of mine.

To the end of the Metropolitan Line and Uxbridge station, the very heart of sweet suburbia. I’d braved that expedition to see the same teams I had seen at Southport ten years previously on Royal Wedding day, delightfully despatched to another outground. I had gone primarily to see Wasim Akram, who did not disappoint, taking 11 wickets in the match and scoring 78 runs for once out. I walked round the ground slowly (bumping into Phil Tufnell nervously pacing about with a fag on) as I tried to get the best angle to see the fabled fast arm. At no more than sixty paces distance, it was a blur from any vantage point on the boundary – I suspect things were hardly different at twenty yards distance.

I’ve seen a young Andrew Flintoff chatting amiably at Crosby, while I pushed my elder boy round in a buggy half-watching Lancashire IIs on another ground on which I had played (when I was Flintoff’s age). I’ve seen Jason Roy hit the very first ball of the match clean out of Whitgift’s little ground in Croydon and spent a couple of hours talking to Pat Pocock at the same venue during a four day game. I’ve even seen an ageing, ruddy-faced Darren Gough get into a row with a spectator at Guildford at the end of a Sunday match, the traffic roaring by oblivious just beyond the railings, Goughie being led away by teammates having given his all as usual with the ball.

When I can give up the day job and get a pensioner’s pass for the buses and trains, I  shall seek out any remaining outground cricket and travel to watch this unique form of the greatest of games. I know of at least one fellow traveller who will join me – but we will be legion! That is, so long as the authorities haven’t consolidated, rationalised and – well, take your pick from the beancounters’ lexicon – I’ll use destroyed one of the English summer’s greatest joys. Long live North Marine Road and your little cousins scattered all over this land!

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | July 27, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 27 July 2014

Middlesex - back in London

Middlesex – back in London

Ball One – Yorkshire’s classically balanced team win in the classical way

Yorkshire went back to the top of Division One having constructed a textbook win at North Marine Drive. Against Middlesex’s excellent seam quartet, enough Yorkies batted around in-form centurion, Adam Lyth, to get them up to 253, before handing over to veteran Ryan Sidebottom, whose seven wickets secured a first innings lead. When Lyth missed out in the second dig, skipper Andrew Gale’s century anchored a fine all-round batting display, allowing him to set Middlesex 422 in a day. Sidebottom missed out with the ball, but his fellow seamers kept chipping away before Adil Rashid’s wrist spin saw off any tailend heroics, the last five wickets despatched in ten overs, for a margin of victory 220 runs. Four day cricket demands contributions across all cricket’s skills and Yorkshire, with a blend of youth and experience, right and left hand batmen and seamers and Rashid to spin the ball both ways, look ideally equipped for the Championship run-in. White Rose fans can count themselves fortunate that only Jonny Bairstow will be distracted by England Lions duty in August – some of his colleagues can expect call-ups over the winter.

Ball Two – Chris Jordan and James Tredwell face down the Bears’ charge

Warwickshire missed the chance to register a hat-trick of wins and put pressure on Yorkshire’s lead, having run into two ex-England men with something to prove. On the annual excursion to Horsham, the home side were always ahead in the game, but knew that setting the visitors 326 in just over two sessions did put all four results on the table. 19 balls from Chris Jordan was enough to reduce those possibilities to two, as he bowled fast taking three wickets including first innings centurion, Jonathan Trott. James Tredwell, who often looks like an old-fashioned cricketer, then delivered the old-fashioned figures of 12.4-8-7-4 and the match was done. Having seemed to have forgotten how to take wickets for Kent, Tredwell has six in his last 17 overs for Sussex, a return to form that will please many followers of the domestic game.

Ball Three – Daryl Mitchell shrugs off the loss of Saeed Ajmal

In Division Two, Worcestershire reacted to the loss of talisman Saeed Ajmal by hammering Gloucestershire to extend their lead over third placed Hampshire to a yawning 45 points. All the bowlers got involved to cover the prolific Pakistani’s absence, but they were given the confidence boost they may have needed by captain, Daryl Mitchell, who carried his bat for 167 giving his bowlers nearly 400 runs with which to work. The local boy is enjoying the season of a lifetime, his 1222 runs at 81 topping the charts for both divisions. He’s a early contender for one of the Five Wisden Cricketers of the Year and would make a very popular choice.

Ball Four – Darren Stevens the hero for Kent

Surrey’s recent revival hit the buffers despite returning paceman Stuart Meaker’s eleven wickets against Kent. Robert Key had much to thank one of this column’s favourite cricketers for the victory – step forward, yet again, Darren Stevens. The 38 year-old warhorse had opened the bowling in both innings and was into his 41st over of the match before he snared danger man Tillakaratne Dilshan for 68. No matter – he just kept going, bowling what turned into a 15 over spell, getting a personal fivefer and the win for his county. Now that is what you want from your senior pro!

Ball Five – Tom Westley and Ateeq Javid fly the flag for the youngsters in T20 cricket

The NatWest t20 Blast finished its Group Stage with four teams from each division heading for the this week’s quarter-finals. Adding players’ batting averages to their strike rates revealed that only four batsman breached the 200 mark – Luke Wright, Tom Westley, Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate. Westley’s is the surprise name there, a player who has never quite fulfilled his early potential, but, at 25, may just be finding his niche. Amongst the bowlers, it takes wise old heads like Scott Styris, Rikki Clarke and Jeetan Patel to go for less than a run-a-ball over 20+ overs: but again, there’s a surprise name in the elite. Warwickshire’s 22 year-old Ateeq Javid is a bits and pieces man, but his 30 overs went for less than five and a half runs each, the kind of bowling that built the pressure that squeezed the Bears into the last qualifying slot..

Ball Six – Eoin Morgan has a point

There will be a few cricket clubs on tour just now and a week spent playing in Scarborough, London, Taunton and Cardiff, drinking some local ales to cool off and sleeping on the minibus as the motorway miles are ticked off sounds like it could be fun. Whether professional cricketers, obliged collectively and individually to play to the very best of their abilities, should be subjected to that schedule is debatable – especially as the week comprised four day, 50 overs and 20 overs formats. When highly paid sports stars complain about their workloads, it’s natural to  look on them living the dreams of millions and say “Suck it up!” Eoin Morgan didn’t like Middlesex’s week (for the itinerary described above was theirs) and I agree with him.

You can tweet me at @garynaylor999

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | July 20, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 20 July 2014

Sam Hain - no respect for records

Sam Hain – chopping through the eligibility admin

Ball One – Read constructs a thriller to send Nottinghamshire top

In 2011, Lancashire’s four wins from the six matches held at Aigburth played no small part in delivering the pennant to Old Trafford for the first time in 77 years. The lovely old ground that looks out on the Mersey and beyond to the Wirral Peninsula and on to the mountains of Wales may have hosted another Championship deciding match – the beneficiaries this time being Nottinghamshire, who went top with a nail-biting one wicket win. If Harry Gurney held his nerve to hit his one ball for the one run that got Notts up, skipper Chris Read was the hero. He arrived to join Riki Wessels at 79-5, with 91 still needed and only the tail to come – and he was still there at the end. Read has served his county for over 16 years now and will be 36 next month. Though his international career failed to take off, it’s hard to think of a cricketer who has done more for his county since the turn of the millennium. His club is now 11 points clear at the top on the table – is a third Championship coming his way?

Ball Two – Somerset’s turn to go second as Northamptonshire lose again

The shuffling of the top five places that has characterised the season since April, continued with Somerset eventually overcoming a spirited, but surely relegated, Northamptonshire. When Kyle Coetzer was dismissed (one of Luke Gregory’s 11 victims in the match), it looked another procession for Wantage Road’s visitors, with the home side 211 runs behind with only three wickets in hand. But Northants have batted deep for years, and half-centuries from Adam Rossington, Andrew Hall and David Willey got them within 53 runs of a remarkable win, before Craig Overton ran in to settle Somerset nerves and seal the 23 points haul. Willey had also made a fifty in the first innings, one spot up at 9, but that’s surely too deep for a man of his talents, especially if he’s batting and bowling in Division Two next season.

Ball Three – Talk of Australia and Hong Kong just phooey for England destined Hain

Durham welcomed back Graham Onions for the first time in two months, but were diced and sliced by a Warwickshire side who racked up 472 then dismissed them twice for well under 200. Sam Hain again caught the eye, the batsman enjoying a day off for his 19th birthday as the match was concluded in just three days. Hain is another one of these very 21st century men that can get Aussie journalists hot under the collar – he has roots in Hong Kong and Australia, but is eligible (and committed) to England through both his parents. With two tons and two half centuries in his last four Championship matches, England will be asking him to make that commitment official sooner rather than later.

Ball Four – Saeed Ajmal signs off with another seven wickets and a victory for Worcestershire

Worcestershire bade farewell to Saeed Ajmal with a convincing win over Leicestershire to go 27 points clear of third place Surrey with a game in hand. They might need all of that promotion cushion though, as the doosra delivering Pakistani’s replacement, Kiwi whirlwind Mitchell McClenaghan, is unlikely to take an average of seven wickets every match (though he may register a few retired hurts). Pears skipper, Daryl Mitchell, has enjoyed a tremendous season so far, but his mettle will be tested in the run in, as Worcestershire seek to bring Division One cricket back to New Road.

Ball Five – Mahmood resurrects the good old days at the end of a thriller

Gladiatorial combat – well metaphorically so – at Colchester, as Essex scraped home by two wickets against a Hampshire team now looking over their shoulders at their vanquishers and Surrey both of whom are building a case for the second promotion slot. When the eight wicket fell in the final day chase, Essex were still 25 short with just Monty Panesar left in the pavilion, but with Ravi Bopara still in the middle. It called for an old head, a reliable pro, a man confident in his role in the side – what Essex go was Saj Mahmood. Still only 32, but playing his first match of the season for the Essex First XI after doing nothing to suggest he was ready for top flight cricket in the Seconds, he hadn’t been one of the six bowlers called upon by James Foster in the Hampshire second innings. The ex-England man kept Ravi company to get his side within two blows of the win and then struck successive fours off Liam Dawson to deliver it. It probably won’t matter much to Saj’s future in the game, but one could only smile at a rare moment of glory for the big speedster.

Ball Six – Wright may still be the right man for England.

Michael Carberry has been in and around the England team for four years, but has only been selected 13 times in that period. Luke Wright has been in and out for England for nearly seven years, racking up over 100 appearances in white ball cricket, but always playing for his place – or so it seemed. The rivals for an England opening slot provided fireworks at the Rose Bowl, Carberry smashing 87 off 63 balls, with Wright replying with 116 off 66 – but Sussex’s feeble support meant that his superb effort was in vain. Wright probably has the better case for England selection in the upcoming ODIs and T20Is, his four scores over 50 in 13 T20 matches this season struck at almost 150, showing the kind of firepower England cannot afford to ignore in limited overs cricket.

Gary Naylor will be speaking at Words and Wickets at Wormsley on 25 July

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | July 13, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 13 July 2014

Big and bigger

Big and bigger

Ball One – The County Championship structure proves itself again.

With five games to play, Yorkshire sit a fragile five points ahead of Nottinghamshire after bossing a match against Durham that eventually petered out. That was a credit to Paul Collingwood’s men for whom the five points awarded for the draw were welcomed for altogether different reasons, as they seek to avoid the drop. Before the County Championship adopted its two divisions structure in 2000, a county in seventh place following on in a match against a county going for the pennant, might have had their minds on the next one-dayer – not any more.

Ball Two – Chris Rogers plays a cautious hand at Uxbridge

Middlesex and Somerset were nestled just outside the top two at the start of the week and stayed there, a draw helping neither cause. The match was played at Uxbridge, an outground that offers spectators a close-up experience, but one that can offer boundaries once the in-field is beaten. Perhaps that prospect played a little too much on Chris Rogers’ mind, as he delayed the declaration until he could ask Somerset to make 390 in 72 overs. He might have felt he was in with a sniff when Toby Roland-Jones snared a couple of wickets and Somerset were 61-3, but a positive James Hildreth and a solid Nick Compton did enough to prompt early handshakes and shared spoils. Was Rogers too cautious? He could have set Marcus Trescothick’s men 300 in 85 overs – the kind of target worth chasing even when 61-3. If Championships are to be won, brave decisions need to be taken.

Ball Three – Time and runs running out on Northamptonshire

Sussex arrested their slide towards the relegation slots with a overwhelming victory over surely doomed Northants, who are now 78 points adrift from safety having not won all season. After Luke Wright’s 158 had powered the home team to 405, Aussie veteran Steve Magoffin got to work, taking five wickets for just 12 runs to induce the follow-on, then picking up three more in the second innings to complete the win. Northants had ten batsmen with batting averages above 18, but none with an average above 36. If no batsman can make a ton, then you don’t get the runs and it’s hard to win matches.

Ball Four – Ansari might one day be an answer for England

Surrey won again to charge into the second promotion slot (for one day, before Hampshire’s bonus points reclaimed it) after a batting line-up that had sleepwalked through the first half of the season delivered again. Zafar Ansari anchored the innings, batting almost seven hours as the Londoners posted 589-8 declared spoiling Glamorgan’s annual awayday at Colwyn Bay. Ansari has had a disjointed start to his Surrey career, batting up and down the order and bowling his slow left-arm as a useful change option. But, in his first season without the distraction of Cambridge studies, he has played all 12 County Championship matches, amassing 718 runs at 65 at the old-fashioned opener’s strike rate of 36, also chipping in with 20 wickets at 32. Ansari has a long way to go before attracting the attention of the England selectors, but, still just 22, he has time on his side.

Ball Five – Sam Northeast’s knock points to a happier future

Performance of the week in Division Two came from another young player who seems to have been around for a very long time. Sam Northeast made his debut for Kent as a 17 year-old in 2007, but has never quite kicked on as they hoped at Canterbury – the instability at the club in recent years can hardly have helped him. His first century this season – an unbeaten 112 – got Kent up to 306-4, enough to defeat a Leicestershire side whose second innings of 388 had made them favourites for the win. Northeast will hope that will give him a run in four day cricket, Kent having six matches to mount a late, unlikely run for promotion.

Ball Six – Flintoff puts on a show, but he’s more than a mere showman

I met Freddie “Andrew” Flintoff in the departure lounge at McCarron Airport a few years ago (I recognised his voice when he went off for a crafty fag outside). He was still a little merry after a big night in Vegas and was en route to Canada for another stunt for one of his TV vehicles. He couldn’t have been nicer, was great with my kids and charmed my mother like few have over the years – a big, bluff Northern lad. He could play a bit though – and he still can as his three wickets in Lancashire’s NatWest t20 Blast win over Leicestershire showed. Far from the embarrassing gimmick some feared, he is putting bums on seats and delivering for his team. If Lancashire, already in the quarters, make Finals Day, the big man will do something, won’t he?

Gary Naylor will be speaking at Words and Wickets at Wormsley on 25 July

 

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