Posted by: tootingtrumpet | March 6, 2015

Three memories of Rory Hamilton-Brown

happier days

Happier days

He was once the future of Surrey, its youngest captain in more than a century, and, with a trophy in the cabinet and his fearless batting paying off against the new white ball, there were whispers about England too. But Rory Hamilton-Brown has swapped his brown cap for a bowler hat and now seeks his fortune in The City –  a wrist injury has forced him to retire aged just 27Here are three personal memories of his brief, turbulent career.

One.

I had thought that it was another cold-caller shilling PPI riches but it wasn’t. It was Surrey County Cricket Club asking if my son would like to be the mascot next Sunday with an individualised team shirt and six tickets thrown in. I waited for the sell – “A bargain at just £150 for the package – but the sell never came. Turnstile records had shown that Linus had been to every one-dayer that season, so the gig was a thank-you to him for his support. The club could not have been more solicitous and a Day To Remember was had by all.

Walking out to the middle for the toss, my boy and the Surrey captain shared blond hair, a stocky physique and an awkwardness in their roles – it jarred when I realised that, though not yet fifty, I was plenty old enough to be father to both of them. It was strange to see my son walking back to the boundary with just the players and the umpires in the vast greeness – like Viv had done in 1976 and KP in 2005. It was just as strange to see R H-B’s photograph framed on the wall of the Pavilion alongside Surrey captains like Hobbs, May, Surridge, Stewarts (AJ and MJ) and Hollioake. Coach and mentor Chris Adams seemed the only person whom this didn’t strike as very odd. Even R H-B’s wellwishers felt it might be too much too soon – and it probably was.

Two.

Fielding nine international cricketers, Surrey had been bowled out for 99 in 18.1 overs with Gloucestershire knocking them off in fewer than half their allotted twenty overs, all ten wickets in hand. The evening sun had barely dipped behind the OCS Stand; the boos rang out, fueled by the booze, but hardly unjustified after an abject display from some highly compensated players. Just look at it!

That brutal noise hurt all the players, but I suspect that it hurt the 22 years-old captain the most. He must have felt us thinking about the privileged upbringing, the pushy father, the Millfield School education, the seamless progression through representative age group cricket, the Chosen One status with Chris Adams, the voice and the looks of one of The Entitled, just a few days after this lot had assumed political power.

In the months that followed, we understood the man-child better. He led from the front (indeed, in that dreadful Gloucestershire drubbing, he opened and top-scored with 41 having watched Mark Ramprakash, Andrew Symonds and Younis Khan muster 4 runs between them at 3, 4 and 5). He often bowled at the death too – usually unsuccessfully, but he didn’t shy away. He was, like a fresh-faced officer on The Somme, too brave for his own good.

Despite the jibes still thrown at his club, he didn’t strut about and he would look to the intense Ramprakash and ruddy-faced Gareth Batty for advice that could appear rather more often than he would like at times. Both men may have failed as England cricketers, but they knew their way round the county circuit and they knew their way round a dressing room. What was said and done on and off the field, we’ll never know – what we do know was that R H-B was midway through one of life’s toughest propositions: he was growing up in public.

Three.

In the poky little room in the Lord’s Museum that hosts press conferences, Jade Dernbach looked punch-drunk after 24 hours that had seen him take a couple of wickets in an England ODI win over India, drive overnight from Cardiff to London and then deliver a Man of the Match performance as Surrey hammered Somerset to lift the C&G Trophy. Next to him, untattooed, happy and almost visibly recalling his media training, sat the man who had held the cup aloft, who had made 78 to guide his team home and who, after winning promotion to Division One of the County Championship, might have “I told you so’ed” for twenty minutes with complete justification. He didn’t. He enjoyed the moment and looked forward to the 2012 campaign that promised much for his team and himself.

Just a couple of months into that season, Tom Maynard died and R H-B was never the same man again.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | December 31, 2014

On Talking and Writing about Cricket

The all-seeing eye?

The all-seeing eye?

Elite sportsmen live lives like stud stallions – their every need is managed, their condition monitored, their bodies their fortune. For, when the time comes, they must perform – all that money riding on the outcome you see.

So when these men (the masculine pronoun is used throughout this piece as the exceptions are dismally rare) step from the field one last time and walk straight into the commentary box, where is the hinterland on which they can draw? Or, to put it another way, what do they know of cricket…

The already infamous “pizza” conversation on the fifth day of the Third Test between Australia and India plumbed new depths for many viewers and set me thinking about my own practice as a talker and writer about the game. I set these thoughts down below not as a template for success (one of the essential points to accept about cricket is that templates are as rare off the field as on it) but as a personal reflection to which you may add (or subtract).

Commentating is a collective enterprise

The listener / viewer experiences commentary as a single construct, words toppling over each other. They can differentiate between voices, get to know personalities and filter what interests them from what does not, but they hear a single narrative. Repetition grates whether from one voice or many as does an overly dogmatic mindset. Like a good conversation, good cricket commentary should comprise responses and set-ups, not argument winning statements (satisfying though these may be) nor subject shifting “Moving on…”.

Commentary is not mere description

Commentary combinations draw on individual strengths, but it takes imagination to make the most of them. Recently, when a Test went into the final session with all four results possible, it was my good fortune to be on the mic with Iain O’Brien, former New Zealand bowler, so I asked him about what it feels like in the dressing room and in the middle with the tension rising. What followed was a typically honest, forthright, personal account of such a scoreboard’s impact on mind and body. My job was to describe the action as swiftly as possible and then prompt Iain’s reflections – though it was hardly necessary with so generous an interlocutor. It was a spell that did not just describe the play, but explained what goes through players’ minds – I’m surprised that such thrilling commentary is so rare a pleasure. 

Work from the cricket out towards other subjects

The rhythm of a day of Test cricket is defined by tempos that can slow and quicken as the players draft their unscripted drama. There’s room, indeed a tradition and perhaps even an expectation, that subjects beyond the specific match at hand will suggest themselves for discussion. As far as possible (unless one is hosting a guest invited to talk on a subject) such digressions should begin with the cricket and meander outwards, the better to hold the attention of the listener and to speed a return to the match should a wicket fall. Shoehorning subjects into commentary (including sponsors’ messages) jars, as artifice so often does.

Interactivity must be genuine

If one opens the door to the listeners, one must show them due respect. Not only are they experienced observers of the game (and it’s long been my contention that the ex-players filling com boxes have not watched enough cricket, for watching and playing are very different activities), those at home have access to television playbacks, Cricinfo’s miraculous Statsguru and, yes, hinterlands of their own. Twitter may spend most of its time generating more heat than light, but it can do a lot more than massage egos with “Great show guys – keep it up” and “Happy Birthday to Jamie from Oldham”. If there’s a question that comes to mind when commentating, don’t go 50:50, ask the audience.

Writing must stand up as writing

I read the New Yorker’s theatre and restaurant reviews for years despite (still) never having visited the Big Apple – the writing alone was enough to warrant my attention. This happy eventuality isn’t always possible when acting as a journalist – you wouldn’t last long if you didn’t have plenty of quotes from MS Dhoni on his retirement and he would be breaking the habit of a lifetime if he said anything revelatory in a presser – but as soon as one has the opportunity, one should aim for the arresting metaphor, the amusing simile, the original perspective. The journalists writing to a brief have their job to do, but if you have a freer hand, be expansive. Readers have so many options online that those who appreciate your style will stay and those who don’t, won’t. The key, of course, is to have a style in the first place.

Write something new

Tougher and tougher this one. If requested, I could write 800 words on the retirement of MS Dhoni, but it’ll be done better (and worse) by hundreds of others, so I’ll keep stumm – for such is the blogger’s privilege.

So, in addition to finding one’s voice (which has always been  a necessary condition for writing), one should find one’s subject too. Sometimes that will be a new angle on a familiar issue; sometimes it might be something very personal that resonates with others (Jarrod Kimber’s memories of going to The “G” is as fine an example of this approach as I read in 2014); and sometimes, most often probably, it’ll be something a bit different to what’s already out there.

Like this piece – I hope.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | December 14, 2014

Cricket 2014 – Three Favourite Moments

DWThe Old and The New

The crowd rose as one to salute a majestic cricketer as Kumar Sangakkara returned to Lord’s majestic pavilion, 112 runs to his name, his team in a dominant position. The ball had been driven back past the bowler, whipped through midwicket and stroked through the covers, steely wrists directing it where he willed. He had been striking at over a run a ball, the silkiest shots killing us softly. I had seen his countryman, Aravinda de Silva, make the same score at the same venue in the same way 19 years earlier – each were masterpieces of classical one day batsmanship that I was privileged to witness and will never forget.

Three hours later, the game was well and truly up for England when Eoin Morgan was out leaving 190 runs to be scored in 21.4 overs with just five wickets in hand. Jos Buttler was the next lamb to the slaughter, at 23 just a few months off being the youngest man on either side, but, with 30-odd ODIs behind him and no century to his name, still with much to prove.

Suddenly, he proved himself and more. All the latent talent that England fans had seen only in glimpses burst forth in a torrent of shots bristling with power allied to timing. His first boundary broke a spell of almost 22 overs without one, and he was later to hurtle from 79 to his maiden ODI ton in just six deliveries. It wasn’t quite enough in the end, but a match that had been drifting towards an inevitable Sri Lankan win since early afternoon was still in the balance at the start of the day’s 100th over. England had, at last, found a batsman who could slot into the new generation of white ball cricketers – Buttler had shown the bat speed, imagination and fearlessness 21st century one day cricket demands.

The crowd went home marvelling at the skills displayed by two batsmen at either end of their careers, both utterly confident in their talents, both so very different in their execution. What a game this is!

Alastair Cook and The Crowd

In Shakespeare, The Crowd is only ever one “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” speech from transforming into The Mob, the baying, the vein-bulging, the screaming amorphous mass demanding “its right” with no thought for the consequences. Twitter and the “below-the-line” comments on articles have given more opportunities to that Shakespearean mob to vent its spleen – sometimes it can feel that everyone is nursing a resentment, that everyone is fully entitled to have their view carefully considered and individually approved or rebutted, that everyone is locked into a permanent plebiscite the results of which must be actioned Right Here, Right Now. It’s not a recipe for fine judgment nor strategic thought.

When Alastair Cook, with calls for his head emerging in the media after going one-nil down in the series, pulled Mohammed Shami for the two that took him to fifty and England to 82-1, the crowd’s reaction might have been muted, grudging, even aggressive. It was not. Applause rang round the Ageas Bowl as men, women and children got to their feet, their appreciation of a man doing his best in difficult circumstances without complaint plain for all to see. Its impact was all the greater, as nobody quite expected so unequivocal a show of support, least of all its recipient who appeared visibly moved in the close of play interviews.

Cook, buoyed by such support, eventually left the crease (to another ovation) with 95 to his name, his team on 213-1, and the series turning, irrevocably, England’s way.

David Warner’s hand

David Warner’s right hand has seen a bit of history. In 2013, it had thumped Joe Root in a nightclub and led to his missing the start of the 2013 Ashes series, an incident that grows in importance with hindsight. It had held the hand of fiancee Candice Falzon, the relationship credited with providing the stability off the field that has led to such an astonishing productivity on the field. And it is the hand that held his stricken mate Phillip Hughes in his terrible last journey to hospital.

Just two weeks later, that hand was punching the air as Warner saluted a brilliant, emotional and, ultimately, Test winning century, when Australia and India resumed hostilities at the Adelaide Oval. It was a celebration that started with such signature exuberance and concluded with his captain providing a shoulder to cry on, as the immense cricketer was transformed into a grieving child by the measure of his accomplishment.

The story of David Warner’s right hand has been the story of Australian cricket these last 18 months – and it will write more history in 2015.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 27, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 28 September 2014

JGBall One – Lancashire down, but fans can look forward to thrills and spills in 2015

Oh Lanky, Lanky… Given a lifeline by both captains (Chris Rogers choosing to bat in tricky conditions; Glen Chapple forced to bat in trickier conditions, his 9 runs in the 110th over sealing an all-important bonus point), Lancashire could not dislodge Middlesex’s late order, in which Toby Roland-Jones and James Harris showed again what resourceful cricketers they are. So, as we kind of knew all summer long, Old Trafford will see Division Two cricket again next season. That will disappoint the legions of fans who follow Lancashire online (your writer included), but another rollercoaster season beckons and that’s plenty compensation. It’s only the weather that’s dull in Manchester.

Ball Two – Middlesex’s travails a sign of county cricket’s strength

How did Middlesex find their Division One status imperilled right up until the last afternoon of the season? Even with England calls, they can field XIs with plenty of experience and no little skill, big runs and twenty wickets looking likely rather than unlikely. Perhaps the reason for Middlesex’s difficulties is a simple one – there are six counties able to field better XIs across the season. And that augurs well for the quality of English county cricket, a product that really ought to trumpet its attractions more loudly.

Ball Three – Hampshire and Worcestershire seal promotion – in that order

In Division Two, the long time top pair went up, but Hampshire leapfrogged Worcestershire to earn the prizemoney after steamrollering Glamorgan, while Worcestershire took a comparable beating at the hands of Essex, whose charge came just a little too late. Many will feel that justice is served by Hampshire’s overhauling of Worcestershire, but Daryl Mitchell’s team’s achievement should not be diminished, even if Saeed Ajmal is currently undergoing remedial work on his action. They’ll need him back next season though.

Ball Four – The Final Over’s favourite batsman

Not best. That would be Adam Lyth, going in against the new ball and getting the Champions off to a solid start match after match; or Ed Joyce, the old stylist stroking runs at Sussex. My favourite batsmen this season is Daryl Mitchell, whose form only dropped off once promotion was pretty much secured. He’s a local boy, captain and opening bat whose average at the start of the season put him firmly in the journeyman category – in other words, he represents the bedrock of the county game. Five centuries and four fifties not only delivered the runs behind which Saeed Ajmal wove his spells, but in the vital first match without their Pakistani talisman, he lifted the team by winning the toss and carrying his bat for 167 runs to set up a crushing 8 wickets victory over Gloucestershire. That is how to lead from the front.

Ball Five – The Final Over’s favourite bowler

Though one cannot help but smile at the 100 wickets shared by Darren Stevens and Jesse Ryder – really, Division Two batsmen, you should know better – my favourite bowler this season is Yorkshire’s Jack Brooks. A late starter in the First Class game (and it shows a bit) his second season at Headingley saw him play all 16 matches, chugging in for more than 500 overs, taking 68 wickets and never letting his captain down. 30 now, he might never play international cricket, but he’s a throwback to what’s becoming an endangered species – the seamer who bowls and bowls and bowls until he gets his man out. We should treasure them while we still have them.

Ball Six – The Final Over’s favourite coach

In 2005, Jason Gillespie was subjected to something more than the pantomime booing that was Ricky Ponting’s fate in 2009, made all the more unpleasant by the fact that his bowling was disintegrating (he was dropped after three Tests of that series and played only two more, including his extraordinary farewell in Chittagong). Dizzy was plainly a fine bowler (rather more than that when unburdened by injuries on his first Ashes tour in 1997) and is now a fine coach, building a successful and happy team at Yorkshire. He has taken his club from Division Two to the summit of Division One without ever being anything other than himself, an endearingly straightforward and amusing bloke. “My daughter was born in Yorkshire, my son is getting the accent, so I’m stuck. We live in Leeds, we’ve bought a house, our kids are settled. This is our home.” Even this Lancashire fan is proud to have you Sir.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 21, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 21 September 2014

Chris Rogers gives his reaction to the close of play score on Day Two

Chris Rogers catches sight of the scoreboard at the close of Day Two

Ball One – Rogers, Morgan and Roland-Jones ease Middlesex’s relegation worries

Not so long ago, Australians would claim that county cricket is soft – a bloated, eighteen club anachronism, full of players coasting to their benefits – contrasting it with their lean, mean six state Sheffield Shield. One wonders what Chris Rogers would say to that proposition now. Having conceded 523 to Somerset, with ex-Future Of English Batting, James Hildreth, leading the way with 182, Middlesex finished the second day 64-7 with this week’s final fixture vs Lancashire sliding from “awkward” to “desperate” status. But Eoin Morgan eventually found a partner in Number 9 Toby Roland-Jones and Somerset’s bowlers were kept in the field for an extra (and crucial) 50 overs. Following on, Rogers did the thing he does best – he dug in for a seven hour double hundred and the game was saved, the five points for the draw taking the Londoners 19 points clear of the second relegation slot. It’ll take the spirit of 2011, some unlikely Autumn Manchester weather, and a remarkable performance if Lancashire are to overturn that deficit with an Old Trafford win over Middlesex.

Ball Tw0 – Chris Nash shows the value of an old retainer

One of those players whom one might accuse of playing county cricket without ever aspiring to international honours, is Sussex’s Chris Nash – but he’s exactly the sort of resourceful cricketer that I, and many fans of the domestic game, enjoy. The opener hasn’t had the best of seasons – not that anyone has noticed, with Ed Joyce and Luke Wright churning out the runs – so it was good to see him make 178 and 85 to set up the win over a Nottinghamshire side that had the wind knocked out of its sails with last week’s defeat by Yorkshire. Nash is a local lad, a product of Loughborough University who bats a bit and bowls a bit – the game will be diminished if the likes of him are squeezed out.

Ball Three – Hampshire cling on for a draw, as they cling on to a promotion place

While Lancashire and Middlesex duel to avoid the drop, their coveted place in the top flight will be disputed by Essex (home to promoted Worcestershire) and Hampshire (away at Glamorgan). Hampshire, long-time occupants of the second promotion slot, were indebted to Will Smith, who batted out the rain-affected fourth day to ensure that Sean Ervine’s first innings century and James Tomlinson’s two hours undefeated at the crease at Number 11, were not wasted. With just ten points in hand, Hampshire’s players will have two opponents this week at Sophia Gardens: the Welsh county’s players and the Welsh county’s weather.

Ball Four – Essex swat aside Leicestershire to heap the pressure on Hampshire

Essex’s expected (at least by me) charge for the season’s finishing line continued with a fourth consecutive win, this time over a predictably pathetic Leicestershire, a club that appears to be falling apart. Falling apart is certainly an apt description for their batting, twice dismissed in fewer than 76 overs, Jesse Ryder taking 8-90 with his dibbly-dobblers. It’s hard to know what lies in store for the Midlanders, without a win in two seasons and without many players for 2015. Something – anything – needs to be done.

Ball Five – Rushworth bags 15 as Northamptonshire go down to defeat yet again

Leicestershire’s counterparts in Division One, Northamptonshire, have shown much more fight, but their spirit finally snapped in the twelfth defeat of a winless season. Though that summary may not do sufficient credit to Durham’s bald seamer, Chris Rushworth, whose 9-52 and 6-43 returns will be the statistical highlight of the season. Rushworth must have had a tough paper round, as he looks much more than his 28 years, but he’s been a solid performer for a while now, holding the seam up and getting it there or thereabouts – never a bad tactic early and late in the English season.

Ball Six – Durham cruise (probably) to victory in the first Royal London One Day Cup Final

I recall reading that Time Passing was something philosophically different to Time Passed. I’m not sure what that means, but the statement came back to me watching the Royal London One Day Cup Final at Lord’s. Looking back on the match (and this view is supported by Duckworth-Lewis, the formula “calling the match” for Durham all through the second innings), it looks a fairly routine win, in which Durham made the most of the toss and some injudicious batting by Warwickshire to clinch the trophy. Yet, at the ground and in the comments made in immediate aftermath of the finish, it felt a much closer match, that could have gone either way until Ben Stokes and Gareth Breese had a bit of luck in their 36 run stand for the eighth wicket. That said, it was a slow burner that never really caught fire.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 15, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 14 September 2014

Jack Shantry. I mean, Jack Shantry....

Jack Shantry. I mean, Jack Shantry….

Ball One – The Yorkshire squad win the Pennant with a match to spare

The County Championship may not be the marathon it once was, but 16 matches is plenty enough to prove the identity of the best team in the country – so congratulations Yorkshire, Champions with a match to spare. The win that got them over the line (over closest rivals, Nottinghamshire) followed the template for so many this season. Big runs up top for Adam Lyth and Alex Lees with good contributions from the middle order (90s for England men present and past, Gary Ballance and Tim Bresnan) backed up by wickets shared by a bowling unit who deliver more wicket-taking deliveries than most, veteran Ryan Sidebottom leading the way with nine in this match. Yorkshire have nine batsmen who have played at least five matches and average more than 40 and the top wicket-taker in Division One in the unsung Jack Brooks. Remarkably, with a qualification of five wickets and 100 runs, Yorkshire have five players whose averages are “the right way round” led by Adil Rashid (566 runs at 44 and 40 wickets at 26) and a wicketkeeper (Jonny Bairstow) who averages almost 50 at a strike rate of over 60. The impressive Jason Gillespie has done what so few coaches manage – he has made sure that every player contributes over a full season – and his reward is a first title since another impressive Aussie was the driving force – Darren Lehmann. I wonder where he is these days?

Ball Two – Jonathan Trott – back in the groove

Warwickshire leapfrogged Nottinghamshire into second place, inflicting another crushing defeat on Northamptonshire, for whom young Ben Duckett impressed again with a pair of fifties in a hopeless cause. While another teenager, Sam Hain, caught the eye again with a double century, at the other end, Jonathan Trott compiled 164 in over seven hours as young and old put on 360 for the fourth wicket. Trott, despite only playing seven Championship matches in his rehabilitation season, has over 500 runs at 43. At 33 years of age, it’s hard to see a route back into the England set-up, but he might have five more years at least in the domestic game – and plenty of well-wishers on every county ground.

Ball Three – Dubliner, Ed Joyce, blooms late in his career

At the other end of the table, Lancashire twice crossed 300 at Hove, but ran into Sussex skipper Ed Joyce, who backed up his first innings 137 with a run a ball 79, as his team got up with 12 overs to spare. Joyce is having a magnificent season, despite turning 36 later this month – but he’s destined to be one of those unfortunate players (many of whom are Australian) who never quite built a convincing case for Test selection, though certainly far too good to be deemed a mere county journeyman (team-mate Luke Wright may prove another). Of course, had Ireland been granted Test status, things may have been different for the Dubliner. Meanwhile, a fairly ordinary West Indies team are hammering Bangladesh in the Caribbean Tests. And Lancashire need snookers to survive.

Ball Four – Borthwick completes his transition from bowler to batsman

Another Ireland player, Tim Murtagh, took ten wickets for Middlesex, but Durham had plenty in hand as they secured Division One status for next season with a comfortable win. Scott Borthwick anchored the first innings, seeing the score advance by 366 runs while he was at the crease for 100 overs making 176 runs. Borthwick is just 19 runs shy of a thousand in the Championship with two matches still to play, but, perhaps understandably, his bowling has collapsed, with just 13 wickets at well over 50. Unlike Joyce and Murtagh, Borthwick is a Test cricketer, getting his cap at Sydney in the last knockings of the disastrous Ashes Tour last winter. At 24, he has plenty of time to come again, but if selected, it will be as a middle-order batsman and not as, just eight months ago, a specialist spinner.

Ball Five – It’s a funny old game, though Surrey aren’t laughing

After more than 30 long, long years, have England finally found the next Ian Botham? Well, sort of. Surrey, gunning for Worcestershire’s long held promotion slot, had their opponents under the pump, restricting their lead to just 37 with seven second innings wickets down and Jack Shantry walking to the crease to join fellow journeyman seamer, Joe Leach. Both had got a few in the first dig and Shantry had picked up a six wicket bag with the ball too, but the odds of a home win must have been edging towards 500-1. Like Botham and Dilley at Headingley in ’81, they prodded around a bit before opening up and,  and, and… Two hours later, Shantry had a maiden first class century and Surrey had a distinctly awkward looking last day target of 217. By now everyone knew the script of course and, despite a valiant near five hour 64 from Zafar Ansari, when he was last man out, Worcestershire had the win and the place in Division One. Shantry, with four second innings wickets, became the first man ever to score a century from 9 or lower and take ten wickets in a match. The “New Botham” had his place in history and a slot in many an end of season cricket club quiz of the future. (Paul Edwards’ reports on each day’s play make for a superb read – click here and enjoy Shantry’s Match).

Ball Six – Alex Gidman signs off with a record

In a week in which the solid county pro has shone, Gloucestershire’s Alex Gidman hit the highest score of the season (264) against hapless Leicestershire. It’s a fine leaving present for the county, as Gidman is making the short journey to Worcestershire for Division One cricket in 2015. Though he and fellow centurion Gareth Roderick will remember the match, not least because their stand of 392 was a record for the county removing another of Wally Hammond’s from the history books, few others will. That, of course, is not the point. The point is that county cricket was played – maybe not by the very best cricketers in the world – but played and enjoyed by the hundreds of thousands who follow the game and who, when a future Gloucestershire pair raise 393, will look on a database and wonder who Roderick and Gidman were so long ago. County cricket is what happens in England during the summer – not inconsequential, but not overly important either. And what’s life for if not for such things?

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 7, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 7 September 2014

Ben Stokes - maybe

Ben Stokes – maybe

Ball One – Rashid rules the roost at Roses showdown

With the visitors going for the Title and the hosts fighting to avoid relegation, it was bound to be tense at Old Trafford. Too tense, in seems, for Yorkshire skipper, Andrew Gale, who will miss the rest of the season due to a ban after an altercation with Ashwell Prince – Gale’s second offence of the season in a Roses match and, at 30 years of age in his fifth season as captain, not good enough. Good enough – and then some – described his team’s performance as they cruised to an innings victory on the back of Adam Lyth’s 251 and Adil Rashid’s 159*, backed up by another solid effort from the bowling unit. Rashid, having batted for 78 overs, bowled for 40 to add a fivefer to his ton. Has any player in recent history done more, at 26, to win more First Class matches (especially at the sharp end of the season) than the all-rounder and still not played a Test match for England? (Indeed, he has only ten white ball appearances, the last nearly five years ago). Graeme Swann was three years older than Rashid when he made his Test debut – something England’s selectors may wish to bear in mind.

Ball Tw0 – Peter Chase runs through Nottinghamshire on debut

Notts vs Durham was another top vs bottom clash, but the result was very different, as the Northerners, not without some worries provoked by Notts’ last two wickets cobbling together 79 runs, got home by 54. While credit goes to grizzled old pros Paul Collingwood and Chris Rushworth, who added a vital 84 runs for the ninth wicket to take Chris Read’s target up to an intimidating 375, the key man turned out to be 20 year-old Irish debutant Peter Chase, who snared the in-form Riki Wessels en route to 5-64 – not bad from fourth change. Gary Keedy, in a rare appearance for Notts, will be able to tell the young man that, should he play another 223 matches, it won’t always go like that. Durham aren’t yet safe, but the win’s 21 points took them 12 points clear of the drop with a game in hand.

Ball Three – Worcestershire hanging on at the top of Division Two

In Division Two, Worcestershire’s match with Derbyshire ran along similar lines to their season, as a strong start gave way to a poor finish, Darryl Mitchell’s men collapsing to the unfancied spin of Will Durston. Of course it was never going to be easy to replace the wickets nor the presence of Saeed Ajmal, who had done so much to put his team in pole position for promotion before going on international duty and it’ll still take an unlikely set of circumstances to allow Surrey to bridge the 39 points gap, but Mitchell knows that he’ll need his Pakistani wizard back and firing on all cylinders, doosra and all, if his team are to prosper one level up in 2015.

Ball Four – Whither Leicestershire whose competitiveness is withering away

Hampshire, second and 32 points to the good of Surrey, look scarcely less likely to be caught for the other promotion slot having smashed hapless Leicestershire all round the Ageas Bowl. Six bowlers shared the wickets, but the lion’s share of the runs were scored by openers Michael Carberry (110) and Jimmy Adams (231), who added 253 in the equivalent of two sessions’ cricket before they were parted. With no win in the Championship for nearly two years, Leicestershire really are merely making up the numbers and, with their bright young prospect Shiv Thakor set to move to Derbyshire next season, any improvement looks some way off.

Ball Five – Billings unaccountably down at Number Eight

In front of just 3000 spectators rattling around Edgbaston (only a tenner to get in, but so soon after the ODI and Twenty20 Finals Day at the same venue and just as the kids are returning to school made the timing awkward) Warwickshire, with fifties from Varun Chopra, Jonathan Trott and Tim Ambrose, cruised to Lord’s after Kent simply could not get going. That stop-start innings was at least partly due to Sam Billings being held back at Number Eight, making his entrance at 152-6 in the 38th over. He still top-scored with 40* giving him 458 runs in the tournament, 129 more than any of the seven men who walked to the crease ahead of him, at the handy average of 115 and handier still strike rate of 154. Maybe he didn’t pay his subs in the quarter-final.

Ball Six – Ben Stokes following the Flintoff path to glory?

Ben Stokes, a feast or famine cricketer (at least in this stage of his development), smashed 164 from 113 balls to set Notts a mountainous 354 to reach Lord’s, a task that proved beyond them by 83 runs as Durham booked their place in the Royal London One Day Cup Final. In a season disrupted by injury and switches between formats and levels of cricket, prior to that Man of the Match knock, Stokes had passed 50 just three times in 32 innings and taken more than three wickets in an innings just once (a typically wrecking ball effort of 7-67 in a huge 309 runs Durham win over Sussex). However, one should not forget that he is just 23 years old and, at the same age, Andrew Flintoff (the player whom he most resembles in more ways than one) had not scored a Test 50, nor taken more than two wickets in Test innings and completed the corresponding First Class season passing 50 just three times in 23 innings with a best bowling of 3-36. Flintoff was 25 before he came of age as a Test player – Stokes, may not be a regular for England, but he is well ahead of that curve just now.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 1, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 31 August 2014

Still punching above his weight

Still punching above his weight

Ball One – James Taylor may be a good fit for England’s faltering middle order

In a week in which England’s white ball cricket looked as unconvincing as it has for years, James Taylor did his cause no harm at all making 146* to guide his Notts team to 313 off their fifty overs – which predictably proved far too much for Derbyshire. In List A matches, Taylor’s averages over a season have been truly remarkable – from 2009, the record reads: 46; 55; 64; 70, 78; and this season 67. If those kind of numbers do not earn a chance to add to his two ODI caps, what will?

Ball Two – Paul Collingwood still as dogged as ever with the ball

Who’s that chipping in with figures of 10-0-29-2 to help defend 237 against Yorkshire’s super-strong batting line-up? It’s the wily old fox, Paul Collingwood, now 38 but as smart as smart gets when the strangle is on. He bowled 850-odd overs in ODI cricket, seldom being collared, finishing with a career economy rate under 5. This season, in List A cricket, he’s bowled more 60 overs going at well under 4. There’s plenty who derided Colly as a bits and pieces man when he broke into England squads, but he’s always been a lot more than that. How many more county cricketers are being held back by that “Bits and Pieces” label, a term that’s flung around without much examination of the facts nor of what’s needed to balance a limited overs cricket side.

Ball Three – The mysteries of the Essex batting order

I don’t much care for theorising about batting orders. I’ve always felt that batsmen are top three, middle order, Number Eight or lower order and that’s about as precise as one can be. But Essex, set 272 to reach the semi-finals by Treble chasing Warwickshire (aka the Birmingham Bears, if you will) surely got theirs wrong though not crucially, as they went down by 67 runs. Jesse Ryder, who made a brilliant 90, was in at five when surely he should have opened (as he has done so often before) thereby giving himself the opportunity to face the maximum number of balls. Ryan ten Doeschate put himself down at seven, meaning that he came to the crease when his team were already well behind the rate, with his ability to influence matters circumscribed. The explosive Graham Napier was at eight, and the finisher Ravi Bopara was at three – there may well be a case for their positions to have been reversed, especially batting second. Perhaps one reason why Napier was so low in the order was lack of practice – in List A matches in the last five seasons he has bowled over 300 overs, but batted just 27 times. Though Essex often field eight or nine players with claims to being at least handy batsmen, Napier’s second string does seem to have been somewhat neglected.

Ball Four – Fabian Cowdrey may lack his grandfather’s precocious skills, but has inherited his father’s ability to chip in with bat and ball

The fourth quarter-final saw Kent take the crucial Gloucestershire wicket, Will Gidman, in the 39th over and then cruise home. While Sam Billings gave another reminder of his extraordinary season in fifty over cricket, another, very familiar, name caught the eye. With England captains for both father and grandfather, Fabian Cowdrey, were he equine, would have cost a lot in the nursery sales – but cricket doesn’t work like that. But it’s probably true to say that if the name opens doors, it also raises expectations and, at just 21, Fabian is already delivering. This season, he has batted in the top four and hit 295 runs at an average of 42 and a strike rate of 80. His left arm darts have gone at under five and a half an over and included the odd wicket (Gloucestershire’s captain, Alex Gidman, was one in this match). FK Cowdrey has a long way to go before emulating CS Cowdrey never mind MC Cowdrey, but he has made a good start.

Ball Five – The Royal London One Day Cup Final on 20 September is too late in the calendar

Though much diminished from the annual showpiece occasion it was in the 70s when the Gillette Cup was cricket’s FA Cup, and definitely behind Twenty20 Finals Day in terms of its impact these days, the Royal London One Day Cup does not help itself by delaying its final until Saturday September 20? That’s deep into Autumn, cold and likely to favour the side bowling first at Lord’s at 10.30am, not long after the morning mist has cleared. Surely two semi-finals and one final do not need over three weeks to organise? I wonder what the crowd will number – and how much they’ll be asked to pay for a ticket? I hope it’ll be 20,000 at £20, but I suspect it’ll be more like 10,000 at £40, though I’d love to be proved wrong.

Ball Six – County cricket (almost) falls off the radar

One of the reasons I started writing this column three years ago was to address the feeling that there was a lot of county cricket that was passing me by, absent from mainstream media and lost a little in the avalanche of information online. It certainly did that, an hour or so every summer Sunday dedicated to looking back at the rich variety (and thrilling matches) of the English domestic season, stretching from the chilly greentops of April through to the worn wickets of September. Almost without exception, I have, like Jade Dernbach about to start a new over, had more options than balls available, the six talking points drawn from plenty more at hand. Except this week. For reasons unknown, there was (not for the first time in recent years) no domestic cricket at all to make a welcome alternative to the Bank Holiday drive to Ikea and, come the weekdays, only the four Royal London Cup quarter-finals. I know that Sky makes its demands and that some players needed a rest, but the last week of the school holidays was surely an option to let the kids in for free and build a bit of goodwill for next season? Not to mention giving the poor old county cricket supporter a last chance to sit with a cold beer rather than a warming thermos.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | August 24, 2014

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 24 August 2014

Ebony and Ivory - sorry Charlie

Ebony and Ivory Charlie, together in perfect harmony

Ball One – Tim Bresnan – valuable for Yorkshire if not for England

After its break, red ball cricket returned with seven positive results from the eight matches played – another little marker of what a magnificent season has been served up to followers of the County Championship. Yorkshire’s win over Sussex kept their noses in front at the top of Division One and, as usual, it was a fine team effort. Unlike the selectors (to whom he seems forgotten) Tim Bresnan caught my eye with one of his trademark unobtrusive but vital contributions. Joining Kane Williamson six down and 76 in arrears, he left the crease with his team 81 to the good, the vital seventh wicket having tilted the balance of the match as it so often does. He then chipped in with three wickets in the crucial third seamer role, as the Yorkies secured the victory. His season averages of 27 with the bat and 30 with the ball are useful rather than outstanding, but with Bresnan it’s always been about the timing of his contributions – as last week showed.

Ball Two – It’s raining runs for England bound Hales

Just six points behind the Tykes, Nottinghamshire are still in with a shout after their win over rock bottom Northamptonshire. Chris Read’s men were made to work hard for the points after 21 year-old wicket-keeper / batsman Adam Rossington top scored in both Northants’ innings, backing up his ton in the first dig with a fighting 80, as James Middlebrook’s batsmen managed to give his bowlers something to bowl at in the fourth innings. Unfortunately, that something turned out to be England’s big new hope at the top of the order – Alex Hales – who signed off before joining the ODI squad with an unbeaten century that proved plenty enough to see Notts over the line.

Ball Three – Kerrigan and Smith hammer out a warning to Durham and Middlesex in the drop zone

The Championship’s two divisions format’s strengths were underlined again in a pulsating match at Old Trafford that had listeners to the BBC’s web coverage and those following scoreboard updates on tenterhooks as Lancashire and Durham fought like two cats in a bag to avoid the second relegation slot. Set just 107 to win after Simon Kerrigan’s second four wicket haul of the match had left Paul Collingwood high and dry on 45, Lancashire were soon in big trouble at 36-5. Stand-in keeper, Alex Davies, got something going with the admirable Tom Smith to lift his team within 30 runs of the victory, before Ben Stokes muscled in to reduce Lancashire to 90-9. Kerrigan, now with bat in hand, joined Smith as the overs ran out and the tension mounted. Somehow they blocked, nudged and nurdled their way to the target over half an hour of the kind of nail-biting cricket that Lancashire seem to specialise in. Tom Smith is having the season of his life and Simon Kerrigan has shown, not for the first time, that he has ticker to spare, despite that nervous Test debut last year. Lancashire, though still favourites for the drop, won’t give up just yet. (As a footnote, a surely disappointed Ben Stokes was nevertheless able to tweet his pleasure at being involved in a great match – well played again Sir).

Ball Four – Hampshire’s bowling unit under pressure to deliver as promotion beckons

Hampshire’s batting consistency (of the 15 times in the match that batsmen surrendered their wickets, ten times they had 30 or more to their names) was enough to see off Kent’s spirited but under-powered challenge and keep them nestled nicely in second place behind long-time leaders Worcestershire who suffered a first defeat of the season at home to Gloucestershire. Hampshire’s batting unit’s engine room, comprising James Vince, Jimmy Adams and Will Smith, have churned out the runs all season long, but come the sharp end, it’s those twenty wickets that turn five point draws into 16 point wins that really count. Time for Matt Coles and Danny Briggs – two cricketers who seem to have been promising for years – to step up and support old pro James Tomlinson.

Ball Five – Monty Panesar aiming to douse rivals’ hopes of promotion

With Surrey unable to break winless Leicestershire’s seventh wicket pair, Essex now look the most likely to challenge Hampshire for promotion after their third win in their last four matches, this time over a Glamorgan side that really only showed stomach for the fight once the game was up. While Saj Mahmood was predictably underused, James Foster gave his other ex-England bowler plenty of work and was rewarded handsomely – Monty Panesar delivering match figures of 78-25-168-11. Though one might argue that Monty, in Division Two, is operating at least one level below that justified by his skills, Essex fans won’t care about that. And it seems from that quantum of work he put in, neither does Monty.

Ball Six – Twenty20 Finals Day another excellent advert for cricket

I love everything about Twenty20 Finals Day: the morning ’til night cricket; the mascot race; even the scrabbling around for copies of the playing conditions once the baleful gaze of Messrs Duckworth and Lewis arrives with the inevitable showers. But, for the second year running, I couldn’t make it to Birmingham and relied on BBC Five Live Sports Extra for commentary. And what a splendid show it was. The standouts in an ensemble cast were: Charlie Dagnall, whose technical knowledge is lightly worn behind a cloak of genuinely winning bonhomie; Ebony Rainford-Brent, who has the voice and sense of humour needed for a long day’s company; Jason Gillespie, as decent a bloke as everyone says and proving to be as good a coach as anyone on the circuit; and, to my surprise, Luke Wright, who had some lovely tales to tell and explained the thinking behind one-day batting as well as anyone. In their differing ways for differing media, Sky and the BBC serve the day perfectly – what a shame more of the public can’t enjoy it too.

 

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?

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