Posted by: tootingtrumpet | August 5, 2020

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 4 August 2020

Ball One – Hampshire’s bowlers shrivel as Salt gets amongst them

Making a decent fist of it at the top of the England order are a couple of what you might call “Him again?” players. Rory Burns and Dominic Sibley built their cases for Test cricket by being there or thereabouts in the county game over a couple of years or more. Though not exactly swivel-pulling their first balls in Test cricket for four, both now look set for a decent run in the side.

Two cricketers who fall into the “Him again?” category delivered the first victory in the Bob Willis Trophy, Sussex getting home in less than three days at Hove. Phil Salt, who plays white ball cricket all over the world and red ball cricket in England with no diminution in facility, made 68 and 80, the two highest scores in the match, comprising more than 22% of the runs scored off the bat. Ollie Robinson’s 34.1 – 12 – 65 – 8 did the job with the ball, as Hampshire were dismissed twice for 150 or so.

Both men were called up for England’s extended early season training squad, but were released back to Sussex. If they continue to get mentions in dispatches, they should make sure that their phones are on over the next few weeks – they might be the next “Him again?” selections.

Ball Two – Essex have more than one way to win

Essex victory over Kent told us something that we all knew – no county wins more matches from dicey positions than the Chelmsford Massive. After Heino Kuhn’s 140 and a couple of wickets for Darren Stevens, senior pro, Ryan ten Doeschate, found himself at the crease with half his side back in the pavilion, 243 runs in arrears. With a bit of help from Adam Wheater and Simon Harmer, he kept the first innings deficit below 100 – and you can imagine the talk in this “winningest” of dressing rooms. Cue Jamie Porter and Sam Cook to knock the top off the Kent innings and Simon Harmer to clear up the tail – 202 required.

Sir Alastair Cook was looking for a partner and found one in debutant Feroze Khushi, another local lad, but they were both gone when Wheater had only Number 10, Sam Cook, for company with 31 still to get. They got them – of course, they got them.

Ball Three – Samit hits the sweet spot at Number 8, but result is a bitter pill

In common with most of his Nottinghamshire teammates, Samit Patel endured a miserable 2019, his form only returning with some late season runs and wickets on loan at Glamorgan. I can only imagine his reaction when his captain, Steve Mullaney, welcomed him home with the words, “Sam – you’re doing 8” – with 26 first class hundreds under his capacious belt, that’s enough to make anyone choke on their Mars Bar. But Samit did a “Stuart Broad” and channelled any feeling of rejection into motivation; quickfire knocks of 63 and 80 were just what the side needed when fragile confidence might have led to two under par innings totals.

But if Notts (the reverse Essex) learned anything during their nightmare 2019 season, it’s how to lose matches and Derbyshire fashioned their biggest ever run chase to get up to 365 with a ball to spare, Fynn Hudson-Prentice the hero with an undefeated 91. But, Oh Nottinghamshire!

Ball Four – Ackermann backs his men and delivers the win

With just five matches to play and the two top points scorers amongst group winners to progress to the final, victories matter more than ever this summer. We should see some positive cricket and that’s what long-suffering Leicestershire fans got from their captain.

Lancashire’s XI was as green as any who have turned out for the Red Rose, but they had clawed their way to a second innings total of 236 off 109 overs, leaving just 15 for Colin Ackermann’s men to muster the 150 runs needed for the win. The skipper led from the front with 73 off 41 (no white ball cricket restrictions remember) supported by 25 off 23 from first innings centurion, Ben Slater and a 33 off 18 blitz from Harry Dearden. Let’s hope that attitude is a sign of things to come.

Ball Five – Middlesex cash in as Surrey’s batting fades away

The London derby started with disappointment for Surrey fans who had their spam sandwiches already packed before the government pulled the plug on crowds at sports events. it finished in disappointment too, a  lame surrender of the last five wickets for four runs in seven overs sending the spoils across the Thames. Sure Surrey were under-strength, but seven visiting bowlers took wickets to ensure that Nick Gubbins 192 and 60 were not in vain.

Surrey have a lot of talented young players but, with opportunities presenting themselves with regular first teamers away with England squads, they’ll need to show that indefinable alchemy that converts such quality into the hard currencies of runs and wickets.

Mother Cricket finding the right tune

Ball Six – Well played, everyone, well played

In this summer like none other, we didn’t know if we would get domestic cricket at all and, if we did, what it would look like, and even if it would be a welcome distraction or an ill-judged sideshow. Cricket is bigger than that – even its socially distanced, one-man-and-a-dog version (a format that’s far more popular than the lazy stereotyping would have you believe). Thousands of people made an effort, real imagination provided a viable format and players, tyros and veterans, gave their all.

Mother Cricket looked upon her fearful and forsaken children, and she smiled.

 

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | July 29, 2020

England vs West Indies 2020 – The Report Cards

One for Jason and one for Shannon

England

Rory Burns (234 runs at 47; 1 catch) – Still all twitches, crazy pick-ups and rush of blood offside slashes, but concentrates like Magnus Carlsen and is as unflappable as his piratical face furniture is flamboyant. Never batted less than an hour, something the strokemakers down the order appreciate more than the viewers at home. Grade A-.

Dom Sibley (226 runs at 45) – His monumental 120 in the Second Test allowed Ben Stokes to play with freedom and proved critical in a critical win. Needs to present the full face early in his innings and find a way to make the angles that quick singles demand. Not quite Alastair Cook, but might grow into a handy replacement. Grade B+.

Joe Root (130 runs at 43; 4 catches) – Can appear burdened the way England captains do and will lose five years when regaining his boyish looks the moment he hands over the reins. His fields don’t always reflect the bowling resources at his disposal, especially when batsmen are feeling their way into an innings against a moving ball. The batting mojo showed its face again in a pressure-free charge to the Third Test declaration. Grade B-.

Zak Crawley (97 runs at 24) – A class act in his fluent First Test 76, but a lack of runs elsewhere made him the easy fall guy when England had to reshape the XI for the decider. At 22, one for the future. Grade C+.

Joe Denly (47 runs at 24) – As usual, he batted time, but never looked in because his talent is a notch below what’s required. He’s played 15 Tests, but probably won’t play a 16th. Grade C-.

Ben Stokes (363 runs at 91; 9 wickets at 16; 2 catches) – Apart from an annoying propensity to drop occasional slip catches, at the peak of his considerable game. Once the toss formalities were completed, looked like England’s best player in the First Test and the world’s best player in the Second, but couldn’t bowl in the Third and was done second-guessing a Roach bouncer when set for another big score. Grade A.

Ollie Pope (134 runs at 34; 2 catches) – Lit up a quiet series with a dazzling 91 in the last Test, out playing across the line on the second morning with a big century at his mercy. I expect he won’t make that mistake again. Grade B-.

Jos Buttler (151 runs at 30; 12 catches) – In tricky conditions for keepers, he delivered the minimum of outplaying his opposite number. A front foot adjustment helped him to a much need half-century in the final Test, but can still look static and unbalanced if he’s not lifting a ball bowled into the slot for six. Grade B-.

Chris Woakes (1 run at 1; 11 wickets at 17; 1 catch) – As he always does, used his textbook action and strong wrist to challenge batsmen consistently in English conditions and cashed in against some tired shots in the last afternoon. Needs to relax a little more into his batting. Grade B+.

Sam Curran (17 runs at 17; 3 wickets at 33) – Into the side, take a few wickets, win a home Test, out of the side. A clever bowler who swings, skids and cuts the ball off a fullish length and looks a classy Number 8. Another whose time will come, but possibly not on an Ashes Tour. Grade C+.

Dom Bess (83 runs at 83; 5 wickets at 42, 1 catch) – A smart cricketer, who bowled, batted and fielded situations with skills and judgement beyond his years. The nagging doubt remains that handy 20s and 30s and economical hauls of 2-80odd might not be quite enough to hold down the specialist spinner role. Can he take his game up a notch? Grade C+.

Jofra Archer (26 runs at 9; 4 wickets at 51; 1 catch) – When he played, he bowled a fast stock ball with a very fast variation, his ribcage ticklers and bouncers unpickable and very sharp indeed. Bowls as many unplayable balls per spell as any bowler in the world right now, but took his wickets in this series “at the other end” as some genuine quicks do having shaken the batsmen up. Grade C.

Stuart Broad (73 runs at 73; 16 wickets at 11; 1 catch) – Stung by being left out in Southampton, pitched up in Manchester and made his point by pitching it up. Whisper it, but he bowled like Glenn McGrath 2005 and batted like Stuart Broad 2009, the highlight his ascension to the 500 Club with a pitched up delivery that kept a little low. A masterclass in bowling to the conditions. Grade A+.

Mark Wood (7 runs at 4; 2 wickets at 55) – Bowled fast, but hampered by a high maintenance action and the ineluctable truth that he is not as good a bowler as his direct rival, Jofra Archer. Grade C-.

James Anderson (5 wickets at 30; 25 runs at 13; 2 catches) – If the one that’s angling into the top of off but just holds its line to take the edge doesn’t get you, the in-dipping, nip-backer through the gate will. At nearly 38, he looks like he could play until he’s 48. His figures don’t reflect it, but this was another high class series from the oldest swinger in town. Grade B.

West indies

Kraigg Brathwaite (176 runs at 29; 1 catch) – Limited, but gets in and doesn’t want to get out, which is a good attribute for an opener. His camping on the back foot style had England’s seamers licking their lips – not without cause, as he provided Broad’s 500th Test wicket just as he had Anderson’s, three years ago. Grade C.

John Campbell (84 runs at 17; 1 catch) – The Gordon Greenidge to his partner’s Larry Gomes, he drives and pulls with supreme confidence, but cameos don’t really cut it in the cauldron of Test match cricket. Grade D+.

Shai Hope (105 runs at 18; 3 catches) – The Hero of Headingley 2017 looks lost trying to locate a game that looks as foreign to him in red ball cricket as it is natural in white ball. He provided glimpses of his class on the drive, but is all at sea mentally and has become a walking wicket. Grade D.

Shamarh Brooks (195 runs at 33) – A late-blooming very classy strokemaker who conjures images of the Caribbean greats of the past, but needs some proper scores to back up the style. Grade B-.

Roston Chase (157 runs at 26; 10 wickets at 34) – Never let his captain down with bat, ball or in the field, but more of a 6 than a 5 and more a stock than strike bowler. Likes taking English wickets with the simple plan of being on the money when the mistake comes. Grade B.

Jermaine Blackwood (211 runs at 35; 1 catch)- The mercurial mini-masterblaster who played against type to deliver a brilliant chase in the First Test. But if he doesn’t learn to play the percentages better, he’s never going to realise a very considerable potential. Grade B.

Shane Dowrich (126 runs at 21; 7 catches) – Like many a visitor to the other Old Trafford in the Ferguson years, he seemed intimidated by the unique challenges of Manchester, the ball wobbling after passing the bat in often murky light, Hard to believe that the confidence that he exuded at the Ageas Bowl had deserted him so quickly, the short ball proving particularly problematic, with a literal as well as metaphorical smack in the mouth the reward for his troubles. Grade C-.

Jason Holder (114 runs at 29; 10 wickets at 30; 5 catches) – To his and his team’s immense credit, he left a safe home for an uncertain destination, lived weeks in a bubble, dealt with aches, pains, Broad and Anderson and was still in with a shout of retaining the Wisden Trophy on the last day. That commitment should not be forgotten when cricket’s financial cake is divided into slices and crumbs. He was brilliant in the First Test but, inevitably, tired later in the series and made some less than optimum decisions at the toss and in selecting bowlers. A popular and worthy successor to the long line of fine West Indian captains stretching back to Sir Frank Worrell. Grade B+.

Kemar Roach (15 runs at 5; 8 wickets at 37; 1 catch) – The old pro and mentor to the young bowlers on tour never slumped in the shoulders and smiled whether he’d had success or not. An admirable campaigner whose canny variations beat the bat continually. Grade B-.

Shannon Gabriel (4 runs at 2; 11 wickets at 32) – Just when you thought that he was immobile in the field and couldn’t possibly bowl, he charged in for another hostile spell, mixing attacks on the body with attacks on the stumps. Broken by the end though. Grade B.

Rakheem Cornwall (12 runs at 6; 0 wickets; 2 catches) – Parachuted into the Third Test with the very stiff brief to take wickets, he was outbowled by Roston Chase and was kept going in the declaration batting for want of alternatives. Bowled better than his 0-164 figures attest, but still very green. Grade C-.

Alzarri Joseph (59 runs at 20; 3 wickets at 61; 2 catches) – His slippery movement off the seam deserved more than his numbers suggest and, with both senior quicks in their 30s, likely to assume leadership of the attack soon. Grade C.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | July 21, 2020

The Final Over of the Second Test – England vs West Indies

Old Trafford’s builder

Ball One – Stokesing up the hype

There’s a time in every great sports star’s life when everything just bends to their will – indeed, it’s that time that characterises them as a great, and not merely a very good (as t’were). Ben Stokes may not yet have the numbers (maybe he never will in the traditional currencies) but he is building a portfolio of performances in which the game simply adhered to his requirements. Ball beat bat continually while he made 176 in tough conditions; his first innings NeilWagnering of the West Indies middle order looked in vain until it produced the crucial wicket of Kraigg Brathwaite; and his slash and burn second innings produced a near optimal result in the circumstances. Ben Stokes is a great player all right.

Ball Two – Broadly correct

A few years ago, I was commentating on Stuart Broad playing in the West Indies and I couldn’t understand why he was jogging in and stopping the speedgun at around 80mph as the ball floated down the wicket. We all knew he was a streaky bowler, but the magic looked a very long way off. He was hurt by his omission from the First Test (any player would be) but went public (few would do that) loading up the pressure to deliver. After 19 fruitless overs, he needed to back up his fighting talk with a knockout blow or two. Thence, he bowled 4-2-2-3 to torpedo the first innings and delivered 15-5-42-3 in the second. Leg pumpingly good!

Ball Three – Dam the Shannon door on Friday

Everyone loves a wholehearted cricketer and few fit that description better than the West Indies’ big quick, Shannon Gabriel. Though clearly running on empty, he kept coming in, bowling fast and making life uncomfortable for England’s batsmen. But, like an ageing heavyweight who knows the last thing that goes is his punch and that a puncher always has a chance, sometimes the best decisions are made in the corner. Whether he should have started this Test is one such – surely he won’t start the next.

Ball Four – Best foot forward

The last words I would have said to each batsman as they left the changing room would be “Get forward!” Stokes’ bouncer attack showed how much effort was required to get the ball even armpit high and very few deliveries leapt, though a few squatted. Maybe it’s still early season (two tension-filled Tests may have made us complacent about the rustiness of the sides), but, especially with captains’ inexplicable reluctance to post short legs, surely batsman must play forward and take LBW and bowled out of the bowlers’ weaponry. You might get hit, but you probably won’t.

Ball Five – Gloomy about Manchester

Old Trafford seems to have been under development for about as long as Donald Trump’s tax returns have been under audit – and the work-in-progress is about as ugly. The beautiful Atkinson Grimshawy old pavilion has been swamped by sightscreens and corporate box glass and the rest of the ground looks like the product of a Lego Movie fever dream. Where is the identity, the focus, the cricketness? The multi-purpose event venue may keep the beancounters happy and it may even be less ugly in real life, but on television, the ground of Laker’s 19, Viv’s 189 and Botham’s 118 is a mess.

Ball Six – Friday I’m in love

The cure for the lockdown blues proved to be a couple of tight Test matches with a decider set up for Friday. I’m always keen to praise the players for their efforts in entertaining us, but more than ever this time, with protocols to follow and (no doubt) some long hours in hotel rooms. And also to the backroom and venue staff and even the media. without whose commitment none of this would have happened. Most gratitude goes to Jason Holder, who could have led his team by staying home, but he didn’t. He put his Wisden Trophy on the line and it’s still there now. Pace Marlon Samuels, I salute you Sir.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | July 13, 2020

The Final Over of the First Test – England vs West Indies

Ball One – Jason Holder held the advantage

Ben Stokes wouldn’t be human if he didn’t wince a little as his shout at the toss proved correct and he faced the tricky choice of whether to bat or bowl. He’d selected two speedsters in Jofra Archer and Mark Wood (with his own thunderbolts up his sleeve), and could also call upon the world’s most prolific pacer with a containing off-spinner in hand to offer control. Skies were grey and the forecast wasn’t good. Jason Holder must have smiled when Stokes sent out one of England’s least experienced top orders ever to face the music. “Do what your opponent doesn’t want you to do” goes the cliché – it’s not wrong.

Ball Two – England gain an edge and lose wickets

Batsmen can be forgiven for being rusty – whether quite so many technical flaws should be excused is a different matter. Right through the order, English bats seem to close on striking the ball, the “working to leg” almost obsessively pursued even when Holder, no fool, packed the onside field having asked his bowlers to maintain a tight line. There’s a reason for bat width to be restricted to 108mm – why batsmen should knock a few extra cms off voluntarily and bring in the leading edge as a mode of dismissal, is beyond your correspondent’s ken.

Ball Three – “Top of off stump lads”

The West Indies attack bowled in the image of their captain – with great discipline, good plans and no little skill. Lines were tight, lengths fullish and most balls needed to be played. Even when England looked comfortable (Stokes and Zak Crawley on Day Four say), it lasted but a few minutes before the vice was reapplied. Such an approach can make the odd bad ball a dangerous weapon, as Rory Burns discovered in the second innings, slashing a rare Roston Chase long hop to a grateful John Campbell. One feels that the visitors will win more attritional sessions than they lose, something England’s captain appeared to recognise just before his second innings flurry of boundaries off Kemar Roach was choked off almost before it began. Naturally, his opposite number was the successful bowler.

Ball Four – The Buttler didn’t do it – again.

Joe Denly’s marshallow-soft second innings bunt to Holder off a nothing ball from Chase giving him an Denlyish 29 to go with a Denlyish 18 in the first dig, ushers Joe Root back for Old Trafford. A trickier decision concerns England’s white ball superman who increasingly treats the red ball as kryptonite. Jos Buttler’s first class average is closer to Sam Curran’s than it is to his potential replacement, Ben Foakes, so when he’s in a bad trot, it’s pretty bad. Worse still is a technique that is almost a caricature, the “stand still and poke or slog as the ball comes past” club cricketers have seen from a Number 7 who gets one blazing century a season to go with plenty of scores below 20. At nearly 30 years of age, patience with the man who has nine ODI centuries in 117 innings but just one Test ton in 75 knocks, is surely running out.

Ball Five – Jermaine makes his point

It’s seldom that the three outstanding performances in a Test will all be on the losing side, so West Indies probably won this Test more comfortably than the scores suggest. Stokes played well, Dom Bess and Crawley showed promise and Archer showed why his X Factor hostility puts him ahead of Wood in any discussion, but none matched the three leading West Indians. Holder’s first innings 6-42 set the match up (aided by his brilliant reviewing), Shannon Gabriel’s nine wickets pinned England back whenever the initiative hove into view and Jermaine Blackwood played an innings of unexpected forbearance to take his side from 27-3 to within a couple of blows of victory. In football terms, the margin was two clear goals

Ball Six – Raising a glass to Holder and Holding

After his extraordinarily personal and moving reflections on the life of a black man in cricket – the life of one of the greatest cricketers ever, lest we forget – Michael Holding enjoyed a remarkable Test match. Often in the past, and with good cause, his spirits would be dampened by the maladministration of West Indian cricket, by players too arrogant to learn the basics of the Test cricket and by a noble game’s inexorable slide into a form of garish entertainment. Not so in this match. His insights into technique and tactics, his stories of his own journey to greatness under the watchful eye of Andy Roberts and his commentary sessions in the company of Ebony Rainford-Brent (who also had a very good match) were a delight to hear. A chubby white boy in Liverpool saw Mikey bowl in 1976 and his life was changed. Thank you Sir.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | May 7, 2020

The Final Over of The Test: A New Era For Australia’s Team

“Steve. I want mean and moody. C’mon, it can’t be that hard. Just do what JL is doing.”

Ball One – A Square Cut?

David Lean remarked that films were made on the cutting room floor, and nowhere is that more true than in the “fly on the wall” genre. It happened and therefore it’s true, but the truth presented is the one created in the edit, in the selection of certain incidents and environments, in the exclusion of others. “Access All Areas” is for the filmmakers, not for us. The clue is in the show’s title.

Ball Two – Droning on

The photography is superb, drones in India, swooping Skycams for on-field shots, close up but non-intrusive work in dressing rooms. Perhaps the best work is done on one of the oldest disciplines in the art – light. From the blazing Australian sun, to the dusty haze of the UAE, to the Yorkshire gloom of Leeds, cricket’s visual variation has seldom been captured with such care, telling a tale in itself.

Ball Three – Coaching

There’s a lot of coaching in this series but the most influential coaching is done off-camera. The rigorous media training all players undergo these days is evident in the homogeneity of the talking heads interviews that break up and explain the contemporaneously shot footage. The personalities come through, but they’re monochrome compared to what we see when flying about or stuck to that metaphorical wall. Recent documentaries (Senna, Diego Maradona, Amy) have done away with such interventions entirely and are all the better for their absence.

Ball Four – The Coach

Justin Langer is the star of the show, whether apologetically replacing the contents of a litter bin kicked over as Nathan Lyon fumbled the run out that would have secured the Ashes a Test earlier or being photographed in a back alley after his appointment, not quite believing that it had actually happened. Though successful in his job, it’s hard to discern why from the evidence before us. There’s an almost constant refrain eulogising “The Group”, sometimes mediated through the peculiarly Australian concept of “mateship”, but almost no technical nor psychological input one would not expect from a clued up PE teacher. The leap in knowhow once Ricky Ponting appears and talks about batting is marked. Still, Langer delivered on his brief and we don’t know what’s on the cutting room floor.

Ball Five – Pleasures and Paine

Amongst the players, personalities emerge. Tim Paine is very good off the field and (I suspect) that avoids too much whispering about his work on it. Aaron Finch is self-effacing and clearly a decent man, horribly hung out to dry by his coach when he did the right thing by the team and refused an early DRS review when he thought he was probably out – he wasn’t, to Langer’s disgust. Nathan Lyon has zero affectations and an almost child-like wonder that he’s there at all. Patrick Cummins seems to be disguising a lurking sideways look at the camera as cautiously self-aware as Lyon is not. Marnus Labuschagne is endearingly eccentric, with the air of a kid who won a Make A Wish competition for all his abundant talent. And Steven Smith – strange, self-absorbed, damaged – but brilliant with bat in hand and, with an unshowy awkwardness in front of cameras that screams authenticity, much the most compelling character of the lot. There’s a fascinating film to be made just following him – no sound, no context, no exposition.

Ball Six – Highs and Lows

There’s much more awareness of mental health in cricket these days and that’s a good thing – indeed, Glenn Maxwell, one of the players featured, has been at the forefront of actively managing his MH. It’s shocking to see (and to see it repeated over and over again) the extremes of the reactions to victory and defeat (both of which are inevitable in the life of any sportsperson). That the highs are so high is to be expected, but the silence, the introspection, the despair of defeat stands in such contradiction that one wonders how such swings can be handled psychologically, sometimes within a few days of each other. We do see the steps taken (usually successfully) to rebuild morale and (see Ball One) we don’t know how representative the thousand yard stares into a silent changing room might be, but the humourless absence of perspective is troubling. Of course, the saying goes that “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser”, and there’s much in that, but knowing that so many cricketers appear to find the mental side of life a challenge, it’s not a good look. Well, not to a casual non-expert like me anyway.      

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | April 10, 2020

Being Boring

Dot…

A friend of mine remarked some 40 years ago, “I like watching cricket – it makes the rest of my life so much more interesting.”

That little jibe at our game has stuck with me because there’s more than a kernel of truth in its barb – cricket can be boring. But that, believe it or not, is a good thing.

My overwhelming memory of a largely happy childhood is boredom. School divided neatly into stuff that was too easy and stuff that was too hard (I mean, me – woodwork?) Both ends of the spectrum brought their own flavour of boredom.

Summer vacations were worse,- six weeks stretching into the distance with no alcohol, no girls, no television (Pebble Mill at One – really?). Pontins? Hated it. A week in a Lake District caravan? Hated it. Organised activities? Hated them. The egotism of the adolescent boy is truly boundless.

It wasn’t boring for all 60,480 minutes – though sometimes it felt like that – because there was cricket on the telly! Draw the curtains to keep out the light (though you still couldn’t see the ball very well – and that’s if the cameras picked it up at all) and there was a blazered Peter West or Tony Lewis welcoming us to Lord’s or Headingley, with England seven down and still 176 runs in arrears.

And it wasn’t just telly. There were trips to Old Trafford for Gillette Cup showdowns (Lancashire didn’t have mere matches back then), bus rides to Aigburth for the annual county championship match, or a train past the golf links, hare coursing fields and sandhills to Southport for the other fixture within easy reach. I saw a lot of cricket – and played a lot too, most Saturdays and Sundays and many Wednesday night 20 overs a side thrashes (that’ll never catch on).

And here’s the thing – a lot of that was boring too, even for a fan.

The Saturday of the Old Trafford Ashes Test of 1981 turned into an unforgettable day, but in the morning, Geoffrey Boycott and Chris Tavaré were completing a stand of 72 in ten minutes shy of three hours – I was there, so I know it was as dull as the leaden skies overhead.

John Player League matches would fill Sunday afternoons on BBC 2 during which the lugubrious tones of Jim Laker would inform us that “203 in 40 overs is going to take a bit of getting.” Peter “Dasher” Denning in the covers provided most of the fireworks.

In my mind’s eye, three day champo matches would always finish day one with a scoreboard that read something like “247-8 (innings closed), 25-1”. You might see a Ken McEwan, but you’d be more likely to see a Jim Foat.

On the field, as the junior opening bowler, I could be DNB with my side declared at 157-6, and then go for a few in my first three overs, spending the rest of the match doing midwicket, as a Saturday afternoon slides into a Saturday evening, the oppo finishing on 110-5 for another draw. That’s if you’re not stuck inside waiting for it to stop raining, listening to teammates discussing patios and golf handicaps.

Those teenage years spent looking across 80 yards of grass to see Bernard Reidy leave another outside off or watching Mick Malone sprawl across daytime television to the tune of 57-24-77-6 on a flat one at The Oval inoculated me against tedium.

All this proved to be invaluable experience however, because – and I hate to break it to you kids out there – you’re going to spend a lot of your life bored. In fact, unless you’re very lucky, you’re going to spend almost all of your working life bored (or about to be bored).

As for me? A three hour strategy planning meeting? Bring it on. 16 dissertations to mark in a day, all of which include the sentence, “The Sixties was a time of great social change”. No problem. Action planning a year long project from conception to evaluation? Lead me to it.

This capacity to resist boredom served me well in other spheres of life too.

The Scala Cinema at King’s Cross would show three hour Russian epics back to back, with tiny subtitles to squint at, and I’d just lap them up. To the National Theatre for rarely performed extended versions of Shakespeare? If you can do three hours of Hendrick you can do three hours of Hamlet. Four hours of Bryn Terfel at the Royal Opera House? C’mon – I loafed in the lounge while Mark Taylor and Geoff Marsh batted all day at Trent Bridge.

These are strange days indeed as we sit, confined to barracks, while a virus flits its fatal paths in the outside world. We may never have had more ways to distract ourselves, to hold back the boredom, to ease the passage of long days that we can’t quite fill. But it’s still tough, as March dragged into April and April slides on towards May.

But for some of us, it’s not so bad. And for that, Chris Tavaré, I salute you.

 

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | December 10, 2019

Three Memories of Cricket in 2019

Second Ashes Test – Archer to Smith (Aus 203-6)

It was one of the all-time great performances. 144 and 142 in his first Test back after the ban, his mastery of the art of batting complete: the contemptuous pushes and clips to rotate the strike; the boundaries striking a tattoo on the boundary boards as the acceleration towards a winning position inevitably came; the Bradmanesque stats stacking higher and higher. If you couldn’t admire the skill – some, unaccountably, still can’t – the will was undeniable. This is what greatness looks like.

It was all happening again at Lord’s, except that it wasn’t. Sure the numbers were clicking over, but England had a weapon, albeit one that was curiously subdued until…

…Jofra Archer started to bowl very fast at Steven Smith and, as every batsman in history has shown (even the man up on that lonely statistical summit), the world looks very different when a lump of leather and cork is released twenty yards away at 90mph+ with a licence to…

Nobody was quite sure what had happened, but we could all see the outcome. You didn’t need to look, you could hear the hush, sense the anxiety, feel your own heart beating too strongly. Smith wasn’t just down, he was head down in the dirt – and nobody chooses to be there. I had Isa Guha and Mitchell Johnson in my earpiece doing their jobs (brilliantly in the circumstances) but, for a long long time, since time really does stand still for onlookers, we waited.

Smith was standing up, the concern on the field and in the Media Centre eased and words came. Words like “concussion protocols” like “impact on the back of the head” and “he’ll have to go off, surely”.

And (though this might not sit well with some) once we knew we were back in the world of cricket and not the world of nightmares, there also came a warm glow too – after England had been roughed up on two successive tours Down Under, we had a little fire of our own.

The game has always demanded courage, sometimes to a reckless extent, and Steven Smith reminded us of that. And Jofra Archer reminded us that the bat should not, and would not, lord it over the ball all day, every day. They’ll got at it again soon – don’t miss it.

“In a minute, Skip.”

“Wait. Come one!”

Jack Leach had battled back from remodelling his action, had a Test match 92 in his locker and was playing for his country. But there’s something about a batsman in glasses, with the bald head shiny under the lid and essaying a homespun technique every club cricketer could recognise, that invites a patronising tone.

For all the quips, the giggles behind the hand and the readiness to press the “Oh well, it was good while it lasted” button, this was a man of substance, batting with a man for whom once in a lifetime innings arrived with bewildering frequency.

Ben Stokes had done the heavy lifting, his blitz of boundaries so tilting the world on its axis that everyone around him were making errors – that’s what pressure does, the other side of the carpe diem cliché. He wasn’t just walking the high-wire, he was turning somersaults – the only man who couldn’t see the drop.

But cricket’s one man shows need two men and there was Jack Leach, asking for a moment while he polished his glasses and got his heart rate down to, what, 200bpm? For an hour he had run hard, sometimes recklessly and blocked the straight ones and missed the wide ones. His 17th ball brought his one run, his notch in the scorebook, his pub quiz immortality as the scores were levelled.

Naturally, the next ball was pumped to the boundary and Stokes ensured that he would be on the front pages as well as the back for the second time in a few weeks and the Australians did themselves credit (as they always do in such circumstances) by acknowledging their vanquisher with the outstretched hand and words of congratulation.

1* doesn’t look like much – but it’s a lot more than 0. Ask Jack Leach. Or Ben Stokes.

The Torch passes

Dale Steyn was the pre-eminent fast bowler of the decade, genuinely quick, with the ability to move the ball in the air and off the seam and a ferocious sense of competition that drove him to 439 Test wickets and a case for being the most prolific RF or LF (as opposed to RFM or LFM) bowler of all-time. As the man who once dubbed him “The New Nantie Hayward”, that acknowledgement is somewhat overdue.

The great South African retired in August and left a gap in the argument for the decade to come. His fellow countryman, Kagiso Rabada, has stated his credentials, so too England’s Bajan trident, Jofra Archer. Patrick Cummins of Australia probably leads the pretenders for now and one is never far away from a 16 year-old sensation from Pakistan (22 yards away in Brisbane for Cummins), but perhaps the true heir to Steyn’s crown grew up in the unlikely surroundings of the bowlers’ graveyard, Ahmedabad. Equally unlikely, where Steyn’s eyes would blaze and his blood almost burst through his veins with his fastbowlerness, Jasprit Bumrah smiles his beatific smile and seems permanently surprised at his brilliance.

And brilliance it is. Figures of 5-7 against the West Indies in August sent me scrurrying to youtube and there was that dainty run before the explosively fast, unnaturally stiff armed delivery that no coach would ever teach (nor, these days, adjust), the delivery finished off with a whipcrack snap of the wrist. But there was something else too – the strange other-worldliness that the very best in sports, in any area of life really, can conjure. How do you play this ball? Or this one?  Or, especially, this one!

Fast bowling is a precarious profession, you’re never more than a stress fracture away from months out, a back strain away from a compromised action, so we should always treasure them while their lights burn brightest. And no light burns brighter than Jasprit Bumrah’s – or it will once he’s back from injury.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | December 5, 2019

Bob Willis 30 May 1949 – 4 December 2019

The “D” stood out. We soon learned that it stood for Dylan – after his beloved Bob and not The Magic Roundabout’s rabbit. But the big man with the big hair always had something of that rabbit about him – the “D” suited him well..

He could take time to rev himself up, but once all the cylinders were firing, that goose-stepping run would bring him to the crease on a crazy diagonal that was straightened as he got older, and the arm would come right over the top, the wrist perfectly vertical, the seam cleaving the air ready to jag a little this way, a little that. Mike Brearley – of course Mike Brearley – knew best how to stir the man, how best to find the words and deeds to provoke that look in the eyes that batsmen feared (and, I suspect, a few teammates too). Nobody was more clearly in “The Zone” – a zone that did not yet have its definite article.

Headingley 1981 was his monument, his charge from the field as iconic as the yorker that exploded the stumps. You wouldn’t – and it’s an important quality in a fast bowler – want to get in the way of him.

He was one of the last pure fast bowling captains, but it never quite seemed to sit well with him. He was an astute cricketer, but that same distance that transported him to the place where he found the mental and physical strength to do the hard, hard work of propelling the ball 20 yards at 90mph, always seemed like his own space, not one into which other players could easily be invited. His media duties too seemed to come from somewhere far from the banter and bonhomie enjoyed by a dressing room insider – but maybe it was just that stare and that drawl.

Later he became a commentator and summariser whose dark wit passed some by, who suffered fools on the field with a barely disguised contempt, who could never quite convey his love of the game to those of us on the other side of the screen. As cricket and its media changed, he was in danger of being left behind.

Remarkably, late in his media career, he found his television Brearley in Charles Colville, whose gentle teasing brought out the best of Big Bob, never more so than in The Verdict. Sky’s post-match punditry show was at its most compelling when England had had a bad day, and “Lord Justice Willis” would sit in judgement, egged on by Colville and clips of wide ones chased, arms shouldered, and bouncers bowled pointlessly short. Now the eye had a glint, the language a bite, but also a warmth too when deserved. The best tribute I can pay is that the show was often a better watch than the cricket that preceded it.

A few years ago after play had finished early at Lord’s, I chatted to the long man in the Media Centre, both of us watching the golf. I can’t remember much of the conversation beyond how easy it was – and the constant thought that I was talking to Bob Willis, a very rare English fast bowler. a hero of my youth.

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | November 28, 2019

On writing about cricket and theatre

I’m not the first of course – Sir Neville Cardus himself wrote about music and, coming at it from another angle, Michael Billington is an acute observer of the game. There are others.

For ten years now, I have had the good fortune to write about both art forms (you’ll allow me that little flattery of the greatest game won’t you?) so it’s as good a time as any to reflect on what I’ve learned.

The Senses

Theatre is an assault on the senses, demanding simultaneous processing of multiple stimuli in real time just to keep up. Pantomime, especially since the advent of video projection and holograms, has that same overwhelming characteristic that one can find watching T20. There’s colours (all bright if not exactly beautiful), there’s audience participation, there’s a whirligig of new characters moving on and off centre stage some heroes some villains, there’s an almost pathological need to hold on to the viewers’ attention and there’s a big closing number to send us all home happy (well, not Ben Stokes in 2016, but you know what I mean).

It’s not all “Behind you!” stuff though where this comparison holds. Grand opera and Test cricket assault the senses in a different manner altogether. Concentration is key to both, but so too the decision on where to pay one’s attention. Of course there’s the batsman and bowler, the soprano and tenor, but also the fielders, the chorus, the balance of attack and defence, the sets and lighting, the music and orchestra, the captaincy and coaching. And the techniques – those fragile, honed, wondrous techniques. It can be expensive in terms of time and money to learn how to take it all in – but the rewards are unparalleled in sport and culture

The Narrative

Sport is oft described as unscripted theatre, so an appreciation of narrative is integral to the understanding of both.

In cricket, narratives are embedded like Russian dolls, the match, the series, the careers of the players and coaching staff, the record of the clashes between the sides and, lest we forget, the complex history of colonial conquest and independence entwined inexorably with cricket’s place in the world. I always ponder when I hear that cricket matches “need context” (hence the World Test Championship and other initiatives): how could could they have less context for those with eyes to see?

Theatre also provides surface and subterranean narratives. There’s the play at hand of course, but, especially with the classics, there’s what the words mean today, how the actors and directors interpret the text, what parallels are drawn between now and then. A King Lear or Julius Caesar in the era of Brexit and Trump is a different proposition than it was even five years ago. The transfixing psychological insights of Anton Chekhov or Federico García Lorca pile on top of one another with each production one sees, like learning a new language, the more one understands, the more one discerns the extent of one’s own ignorance.

The Collective Experience

In a world of individualised choices, cricket and theatre can only be experienced collectively. You have to turn up on time, make compromises with respect to those enjoying the experience around you and pretty much sit still. Increasingly, these are old-fashioned demands.

Unlike cinema, which is a concurrent set of individual experiences or football which is a roiling sea of continual emotional reactions, cricket and theatre have breaks in which one can discuss the progress to date, indeed spaces are provided for exactly such relaxation and reflection. It’s commonplace to turn up early for both, the main event often the centrepiece of a whole day, rather than the end in and of itself. It’s remarkably easy to make friends (and maintain friendships) at the cricket and the theatre; such opportunities are being shrunk elsewhere by the efficiencies of management science or the financial imperative to sweat the assets. And the omnipresent glowing screen.

To have spent as long as I have over the last decade thinking and writing about cricket and theatre is a privilege beyond measure. My thanks to everyone in whom I have sat in judgement, who can rest assured that I have never forgotten the extent of their talents and the dedication required to have reached their position. I hope I have been fair.

“All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players”. “Merely”? Well, maybe, but I doubt it.
Gary Naylor writes on cricket for The Guardian and theatre for BroadwayWorld.

 

 

 

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 29, 2019

Five County Cricketers of the Year – 2019

Following 2017’s inaugural list and last year’s quintet, 99.94 recognises five county cricketers of the year – in the style of a publication that has done something similar for 120 years longer.

Dominic Sibley – Finding his feet

The transition from child star to well, adult, never mind star, is a difficult one in any walk of life. For every Michael Jackson, there’s an er… Michael Jackson I suppose, but you don’t need to see Britney in the barber’s or Miley on the wrecking ball to know that it can take a few years to work things out.

Dominic Sibley was a schoolboy when he scored a maiden century in his third first class match for Surrey, enough to make the most jaded of county cricket’s legion of denigrators to prick up their ears. He was branded “A Talent” (if not quite “An FEC”) a burden that seemed to grow heavy on his shoulders.

He struggled to find an identity at The Oval. I last saw him there bashing and biffing in the T20 before having a bit of a bowl, keen to contribute, but almost too keen, that “A Talent” label all but visible as it tarnished, Sibley trying to justify it almost minute-by-minute.

It was no real surprise when he set off up the M1 to Edgbaston, away from the eyes that had seen the debut double and wondered (consciously or subconsciously) why they hadn’t seen another.

In 2018, he made four centuries as Warwickshire gained promotion and has backed that form up in 2019, topping the Division One scoring charts by a distance with over 1300 including five centuries. And it wasn’t all about runs.

Sibley takes guard at the top of the order and then bats. And bats. And bats. For over 3000 balls, he did that in the Champo, with no other batsman facing more than 2005, scoring just the one six (this from  a man with the power to hit plenty). “A Talent” had arrived.

The brave new world of “No Fear” batting has put a World Cup on the ECB mantelpiece a mere 44 years after England hosted the first final, so job done. But that approach didn’t work in Tests for Jason Roy and now Jonny Bairstow has paid the price too. At 24, Sibley has passed through the kind of crisis of confidence and form that many teenage prodigies face and emerged as exactly the kind of batsman England need for 2020 and beyond. Whether he can continue that journey remains to be seen, but there’s plenty a bowler in the shires to attest to the width of his bat and the power of his concentration. Old fashioned virtues they may be, but Sibley’s timing may be as sweet as it was when compiling 242 against Yorkshire six long years ago.

Oh, the man who faced 2005 balls in Division One this season, second to Sibley? Sir Alastair Cook.

Darren Stevens – Him again?

I had people contacting me asking who this Darren Stevens was. “He can’t be a professional athlete – I’ve seen the photographs”.

I explained that he was indeed a professional athlete (and will be next year – at 44 – after Kent renewed his contract, like they had a choice). I continued, saying that he was a bits and pieces merchant all-rounder who knew his game and applied that nous mercilessly to score runs and take wickets. After 88 and 5-39 and 5-53 at Trent Bridge and 237 and 5-20 at Headingley in this month alone, a few records got the taverna treatment.

There’s more to it than that of course, Stevens being the kind of county pro you could find in any season since 1900 (maybe 1800 if we interpret county and pro liberally). Stevens just knows when and how to get into a game – as useful an instinct now as it was when the shepherds first bashed a few pieces of wood into Hampshire’s loamy soil.

Bowling, he’s there or thereabouts, a shorter, slower Glenn McGrath, but just about as demanding to face if there’s juice in the pitch, preying on batsmen whose concentration may need a little work after the biff-bash-bosh of T20. He keeps going too, fit enough to deal with the physical side, strong enough to deal with the mental side.

Batting, he blocks the good ones and hits the bad ones – hard. He senses when it’s his day too, and seeks to cash in, knowing the value (for the team and individually) of bowling with a few runs in the bank.

22 years on from his first appearance in county cricket, he appears to be improving – and anyone who is still getting better at anything, two decades or more since they started, is worthy of all the praise in the world.

Tom Abell – A season to remember

They say that England’s captains have a tough time because they don’t get experience in the domestic game. Perhaps Ed Smith should have a look at Somerset’s Tom Abell, who may not have the numbers to warrant a place as a batsman (or all-rounder) but, at 25, has delivered a season no Somerset fan will ever forget – in all three formats of the game.

His men got off to a lightning start in 2019, racing away in the County Championship and cruising to a win in the Royal London One Day Cup Final, the last at Lord’s, to put a trophy in the cabinet. Inevitably, a sticky patch would come and, after five wins and a draw, they ran into Jamie Porter, Aaron Beard, Peter Siddle and Simon Harmer, and were mugged in Chelmsford.

They won four of the next five, but fell short in the T20 Blast, before Kyle Abbott’s flood of wickets and September’s flood of rain scuppered their chance of an inaugural, romantic, hell I’ll say it, deserved(ish) pennant.

Abell played all 14 Champo matches, topping the batting averages and chipping in with 13 wickets as less than 25. And he played all the RLODC matches too, doing what he needed to do to get through the group stages and knockout matches. And he played all the Blast matches, second in the averages to Babar Azam, but scoring at a strike rate 28 higher than the Pakistani international. And he was captain in most of those matches, Lewis Gregory not available through England commitments and injury more than anyone might have anticipated.

Tom Abell is the kind of cricketer who might never play for England and, looking into the crystal ball, might never play for a franchise either, but should a player like that be squeezed to the margins of the game? The men with the Gantt charts and the powerpoints will make their case, but us cricket fans? We say no.

Ravi Bopara – Experience counts

When the Essex boy with the half-smile about the lips made three consecutive Test hundreds for England ten long years ago, his future looked assured. With Alastair Cook to mentor him, he’d bat at three for a decade and play plenty of white ball cricket too, his bustling liquorice allsorts with the ball a handy second string.

But the West Indies tourists were followed by the Australians and even that 2009 squad proved a different prospect for Ravi after the easy pickings of pummelling very cold Lionel Baker and co. In international cricket, he became a white ball specialist, but was culled after the World Cup 2015 debacle.

He had played 171 times in all for England and was soon playing lots of franchise cricket too, so why would he bother with Chelmsford’s, less say homely, environs? It seems the dinghy bijoux old ground has a pull that demands an escape velocity greater than Ravi can muster.

So the man who was born in East London found Essex to his tastes (as so many do) and at 34, he brought all that experience to bear, especially in limited overs cricket. He also wore that face that radiates calmness when he wins and complacency when he loses – in T20 this year, it was calmness.

In the run of five must-win games that Essex won to lift the trophy, Ravi made 219 runs off 125 balls, a strike rate of 175, always under pressure, for once out. He averaged nearly 40 in the Champo (second to Cook, natch) and chipped in 12 wickets in the Blast to go with an average 13 runs higher than any team-mate.

Ravi always looked like he felt the game came easy to him – remember those fielding lapses that spoke of a mind elsewhere? – but he’s now done the work and growing up to back up the insouciance with results. The man who would frustrate fans now delights us. Yes, it’s calmness not complacency for sure.

Dane Vilas – Barking out the orders

Another South African mercenary padding out his pension with a cruise round the Division Two grounds making two centuries and three fifties to average 34? What car did you say I would get?

When Lancashire asked their great Dane to bark out the orders in 2019, he’d already proved himself much more than that hackneyed cliché, but strong men have wilted when asked to lead out the Red Rose. With a (metaphorical – he wasn’t that good) glove on one hand and gauntlet on the other and a head full of welcome but tricky selection dilemmas, Vilas got almost every call right. (Okay, Liam Livingstone in the T20 vs Essex, I know).

If it was Lancashire’s riches with the ball that got them promoted, Vilas’s 1000+ runs at nearly 80 played a full part too. His daddy (and he likes a daddy) came at Colwyn Bay, where Glamorgan were marmalised for 266 en route to eight Lanky wins for the season, promotion secured by 66 points.

Vilas played 14 Champo matches, 12 Blast matches and 10 RLODC matches – sometimes those mercenaries earn their money.

This column concludes 99.94’s coverage of the 2019 county season. My thanks to readers who have stuck with the domestic game in tumultuous times on and off the field for English cricket and, especially, for those who take time to comment, their warmth and wisdom is much appreciated. And a huge h/t to Paul Campbell at The Guardian, who cheerfully bowls uphill into the wind, week after week, to bring these words to you.

 

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