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


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.


Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 27, 2019

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 27 September 2019

You’d be smiling too

Ball One – They dreamed a dream

It wasn’t just the weather that was miserable at Taunton – or was it? Somerset failed again in the quest to raise the pennnant over the pavilion, too much time lost to rain, too many wickets to get, too much history hanging in the dank air. But (though I can’t speak for them) I suspect fans – and, I hope, players – do consider second place to be that joyless descriptor “first loser”, but second winner. Maybe it’s the length of the matches, maybe it’s the season starting in Spring and not concluding until England looks very different, glorious in its Autumnal beauty, but finishing second after a season fought long, hard and true is worth – and here comes an old-fashioned word – honouring.

Ball Two – Make enough runs + take enough wickets quickly = Champions

To the victors, the spoils. Essex, the best county side in 2017 and again in 2019 and making a pitch to be called the best this century, won the head-to-head at Chelmsford in midsummer and benefited from Kyle Abbott’s record-breaking turn for Hampshire against Somerset in September, but there was more, much more, to it than that. No batsman was truly outstanding in the Championship, but the six regular specialists all made centuries, usually when others had not, timing as ever critical in sport. But cricket matches are won by bowlers taking wickets and Simon Harmer (83), Jamie Porter (48), Peter Siddle (34), Sam Cook (32) and Aaron Beard (17) did that all summer long. They paid paltry sums for them too (Porter, at 26, the most spendthrift) and they were never far away from a breakthrough, their strike rates all in the 40s. The core of that bowling unit looks likely to be around for a while longer too – so Essex will continue to win a lot of cricket matches.

Ball Three – For Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire, Division One may prove a challenge

The weather won out in Division Two too, Northamptonshire, having taken the champagne off ice last week, up in all but name, joined by Gloucestershire as Division One goes up to ten teams for 2020. It’s hard to guess anything about how next season will go in county and er… franchise cricket and who knows what effect Nottinghamshire disastrous 2019 campaign will have on coaches and players contemplating close season moves, but both promoted counties might have to do some recruitment if they’re to compete regularly at the higher level. That said, it’ll be fascinating to see how Gloucestershire’s Ryan Higgins goes (he’s very much this column’s type of player) and also the highly rated James Bracey. For Northamptonshire, keeper-batsman-captain, Adam Rossington, will have a plate as full as Mike Gatting’s at a Lord’s buffet and the admirable Ben Sanderson and Brett Hutton are going to need a lot more support with the ball to get the twenty wickets wins demand.

Ball Four – Finals Day not carmen down just yet

Twenty20 Finals Day strikes me as being a little like grand opera. If you analyse it too much, all you get is a set of discrete elements each of which is absurd – some very absurd indeed. But if you sit back and accept the big picture and avoid too much of the whys and wherefores, there’s nothing quite like it. The spectacle, the scale, the skills rolled up, stuffed into a barrel called Edgbaston and cast down the mountainside with us inside the bouncing along. Like grand opera, Finals Day has its detractors, but it’s like nothing else, having taken a few years to find its unique smorgasbord of thrills and spills. Wholly unique occasions like Finals Day do not emerge fully formed from the heads of marketing men.

Ball Five – Moeen no moaner

In a world in which decency is becoming as rare as a cricket fan claiming that the one thing the game needs is another format, a decent man had a fine match in the T20 semi-final. It may have been an unforgettable summer for English cricket, but Moeen will be one of the few who will look back on 2019 without much affection, his international future now in some doubt. He could have sulked, he could have taken a break, he could have been playing for The Blitzin’ Buttkickers or whoever in a franchise league somewhere, but he was captaining Worcestershire. He was player of the match in the semi-final, making 21 off 9 balls, then keeping his team in with a shout with 1-13 off his four overs and ultimately making the right calls as Nottinghamshire failed to realise 11 off the last two overs, eight wickets in hand.

Ball Six – Harmer’s armour of confidence sees Essex home in a thriller

But Worcestershire were not destined to retain their title – though what a magnificent defence they put up. It was those greedy boys from up the A12 who grabbed it, the first of a double in a decent week for the Chelmsford posse. Down to the last two overs again, this time the numbers very much with Worcestershire, who were defending 22 and were getting into the bowlers who bat. But Ravi Bopara has the coldest blood in any chase and Simon Harmer? Well, he’s Simon Harmer, and he went 4, 1, 1, 2, 2, 4, 4 to win it off the last ball. Essex’s trophy, Essex’s year, Harmer’s year.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 20, 2019

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 20 September 2019

Darren Stevens pictured last week

Ball One – Wild West (Country) showdown looms

As in an old Western, the two gunslingers will ride into town for the shootout in the last reel – as we have known they would for months now. Somerset (for most people wearing the white stetson) will “welcome” Essex to Taunton and a pitch that might just make Rock Ridge’s dusty old Main Street look like the M1, given the host’s need for the 16 points that comes with a win. But let’s hope Jack Leach (cleared by the ECB to turn out for Somerset – if selected) is only cleaning his glasses of condensation and not rain, and leave any arguments about the pitch – and there will be arguments no matter how green, how dry, how slow, how fast – for another day. For now, let’s just let the grand old County Championship have its week in the sun – God knows, enough people have tried to lock it away under the stairs for long enough.

Ball Two – Seam + Centuries + Harmer = win

Essex ride into town on the back of an innings win over last season’s runaway champions, Surrey, whose defence of the pennant has been a little embarrassing, even with the mitigation of international calls and injuries. Seam did the job first time round for Essex at Chelmsford, Jamie Porter and Sam Cook bagging a fivefer each, before Simon Harmer (whose head-to-head with Leach next week will be fascinating) did the Simon Harmer thing with 7-58. In between, Essex just needed a couple of batsmen to get in and go on, and this week they were Dan Lawrence and Ryan ten Doeschate, whose 250 runs aggregate was only 97 fewer than all ten Surrey batsmen managed twice over. The 2017 Champions will hope that old formula works one last time in 2019.

Ball Three – Abbott illuminates records manuscript

Somerset picked a bad time to run into Kyle Abbott in record-breaking form, his 9-40 and 8-46 blowing away the opposition both on the field and off, every bowler who has turned their arm over in first class cricket since Tony Lock got one wicket in the Old Trafford Test of 1956 bested. Hat well and truly tipped, but the win needed more than just the spirit of Roy Castle to acclaim such dedication, because amidst the backslapping and jug buying, runs were still required to win the match and centuries from England’s somewhat forgotten men, Liam Dawson and James Vince, ensured that the match was more than just a statistical oddity, no matter how oddly that statistic stands out. (And if you get close to figures such as FW Lillywhite’s 18-? and FP Fenner’s 17-?, you know you’ve strayed into a very strange land).

Ball Four – DI Stevens solves cricket (the sequel)

Incredibly, Abbott’s was not the deepest push into cricket’s arcane records last week. Darren Stevens (about whom this column must have written more words than anyone else since its inception seven years ago), made the mere matter of 237 runs, as he and Sam Billings (whose twin centuries were consigned to a footnote) rescued Kent from 39-5. The grizzled old pro sealed his spot in posterity (and a coveted mention in Andrew Samson’s Twitter feed) with his fifth second innings wicket, as Yorkshire, who must have been feeling quite chipper on the first morning, went down by 433 runs. 433 runs! Stevens (at 57) became the oldest man since Dr W.G. Grace to score a double century and take a fiverfer in a first class match. [Stevens is 43 years and 142 days old, but he looks older than me, so I’m claiming that he’s 57 and he’ll have to prove otherwise].

Ball Five – Northamptonshire almost up

In a good week for seamers who nag away there or thereabouts, Ben Sanderson and Brett Hutton shared 15 wickets to kill off Durham’s late bid for promotion and all but secure Division One cricket at Wantage Road come 2020. The match was a microcosm of Northants’ season, with no real standout performances (not compared to some this week anyway) but solid contributions with bat and ball accumulating the runs required to allow the bowlers to take the 20 wickets that forms line one of their collective job description. Wicketkeeper-batsman-captain, Adam Rossington, extended his season’s run aggregate to a club leading 787 with twin half-centuries, but no batsman averages over 50 from six innings or more, and Hutton and Sanderson have, more or less, carried the bowling between them. They might need reinforcements over the winter, but, for now, (barring freak results) it’s time to reflect on a job well done.

Ball Six – G-Men Fear Blizzard Interventions

Glamorgan and Gloucestershire both won last week to set up a fight between the near neighbours for the third promotion slot. With a 16 points advantage and Northamptonshire having to resist packing their flip-flops for the trip to Bristol, Gloucestershire are favourites to go up, but the weather might have a part to play and, capricious though it might be, it’s unlikely to be the same for both sides, Glamorgan heading just south of the Arctic Circle to Chester-le-Street. It’ll be a shame if John Kettley and co are continually sending the umpires out to inspect the pitch (well, the outfield usually) and everyone is looking at Jackson Pollocky pictures of satellite projections on their phones instead of the middle, but cricket has always been in thrall to the weather. Which is why they should play more Champo matches in the summer.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 16, 2019

The Ashes 2019 – Australia Report Card

Tim Paine (180 runs at 20; 20 catches) – Grade C

Didn’t bat particularly well, didn’t keep particularly well, reviewed particularly badly, but he got his team off the floor between Headingley and Old Trafford to become the first Australian captain to take The Ashes home since Stephen Waugh in 2001. So who’s laughing now? How long Australia can afford to trade off his lack of output for his leadership remains to be seen, but fixing something that isn’t broken – or, rather, is not broken enough – is seldom a smart move.

David Warner (95 at 10) – Grade D-

And speaking of things that are partly broken… Stuart Broad had David Warner in his pocket all series long, the pugnacious left-hander mesmerised into chasing the ball that angled in from round the wicket and seamed away – Flintoff to Gilchrist style. After a year out of Test cricket, he seems to have lost the location of his off stump and needs to find it pretty quickly if the likes of Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns are not to take his spot.

Cameron Bancroft (44 at 11) – Grade D

Faced plenty of deliveries, but seemed to look less and less “in” as they ticked by, he was pulled and replaced by a man who looked no more in than he did – but spent fewer deliveries doing so

Marcus Harris (58 at 10) – Grade D-

That man was Harris, who came with a growing reputation, but looked somewhat lost against the Duke ball in English conditions. None of the pitches were particularly capricious, but all England’s grounds require an opener to play for his off stump, leaving plenty and driving few – at least for an hour or so.

Usman Khawaja (122 at 21) – Grade C-

Three scratchy Test matches and he was dropped despite the credit built up over 44 Tests and the fact that it wasn’t exactly Stuart Law waiting in the wings. You can’t help thinking that was all a little premature and that a little more belief from the selectors might have engendered a little more belief in the man himself.

Marnus Labuschagne (353 at 50; 1 wicket at 56) – Grade B+

A concussion substitute after Smith had fallen, stricken, at Lord’s, he immediately looked like a man in form and scoring runs – which is what he was, having plundered plenty for Glamorgan in Division Two of the County Championship. His technique is reassuringly orthodox, punching and driving, cutting and pulling and never getting out of shape trying to hit the ball too hard. A top score of 80 suggests he needs to work on converting good scores into those that shape matches.

Steven Smith (774 at 111) – Grade A+

The kind of scores Steven Smith made pretty much every time he took guard. I made up my mind a couple of years ago as to where he stands in cricket history and since then, he’s only got better. That’s the technical side, with the tics more and more pronounced between deliveries, but the head, hands and feet in harmony as ball meets bat. No batsman in history can ever have got off strike with a nudge into the leg side quite as often as Smith does and surely none has handled the expectations attendant on a comeback with such insouciant brilliance. Jofra Archer’s adrenaline charged helmet rattling spell at Lord’s aside, Smith seemed to be playing against history as much as the opposition, but none of those 774 runs were cheap and without them, even this hotchpotch of an England side would have won the series.

Matthew Wade (333 at 37) – Grade B

Some might say I’m being churlish, but both his centuries, though plenty busy and aggressive, were made in second innings when the shape of the match had been (largely) determined. He batted like the wicketkeeper he once was and was just about as mouthy, which might not be a good idea when Archer is bowling as it merely advances his speedometer.

Travis Head (191 at 27) – Grade C-

Lost his place to Mitchell Marsh at The Oval when Paine fancied the idea of a little more bowling in a back-to-back Test. Started with a solid Test at Edgbaston, but fell away and the change was an obvious one to make. He can come back a better player in 2023.

Mitchell Marsh (41 at 21; 7 at 12) – Grade B+

Always seems to have to prove himself whenever he dons the Baggy Green and he did that this time round with as fine a spell of swing bowling as we saw throughout the series. He didn’t quite nail his batting, which is the more obvious route into the XI, but he looks a fine addition to the squad of pacers.

Patrick Cummins (71 at 10; 29 at 20) – Grade A

Would have been a worthy player of the series were Steven Smith not on another plane altogether. A captain’s dream, he charged in day after day, the hostility never dialled back as much as a single notch. World Number One, he justified that ranking with some jaffas that might even have got Steven Smith out, but it was his stamina that stood out, working hard for every wicket and getting his just deserts across all five Tests.

James Pattinson (69 at 23; 5 at 33) – Grade B-

Quick and reliable, it was a surprise to see him turn out just twice in the series, particularly in the light of his extensive experience in England and his near all-rounder level batting. That said, a captain might wonder what he offers that differs from Cummins (quicker) and Hazlewood (who moves it more). Good to see an old pro back in the saddle after so many injuries.

Peter Siddle (72 at 24; 7 at 42) – Grade C

Was it really him? Given a holding brief, he nevertheless went at three an over, but made a critical contribution in the tone-setting First Test, getting Aus out of the depths of 122-8 to 210-9 in the company of – well, you know who. Siddle had found a way to make a difference.

Nathan Lyon (79 at 20; 20 at 33) – Grade B

A great start looked like it would set up another fine series for the man they call The Goat, but he was strangely anonymous, his rhythm slightly off key, his output below his standards. He’ll point to 20 wickets as a decent return, but this was not the metronome that England feared.

Josh Hazlewood (9 at n/a; 20 at 22) – Grade A-

Sat out the First Test but bowled beautifully from then on, rather like an old-fashioned English seamer, but 5mph quicker and from a 5 inches higher release point. He moved the Duke ball no matter its age and had the splice-slamming heavy ball to keep the batsmen honest. Doesn’t have the snarl of a Cummins or the regular 90mph thunderbolts of Starc, but causes the best batsmen problems whether they’re on 2 or 102.

Mitchell Starc (57 at n/a; 4 at 32) – Grade B

There’s no better indicator of the strength of the Australian pace phalanx than the fact that he played just one Test in which he went for a few, knocked over a few in a sensational spell and biffed a few off tiring bowlers. He may have fallen out of favour with his own selectors, but I’m pretty sure other countries’ would bite his hand off.


Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 16, 2019

The Ashes 2019 – England Report Card

Joe Root (325 runs at 33; 3 wickets at 41) – Grade C

A shadow of the bustling batsman and dressing room joker of not so long ago. No century in the series, and not much fun either. He won’t ever say that he’s had enough of cricket, but it sure looks like that now – and who can blame him? His captaincy attracted a lot of criticism, but when you have only one batsman average more than 40, you’re going to spend a lot of time playing catch-up, never a good look for a skipper. Out-reviewed his opposite number comfortably. Bowled well in the rush for the line at The Oval – amazing what the release of pressure does.

Rory Burns (390 at 39) – Grade B

Started with a century that deserved more than to be somewhat forgotten in a 250+ runs Steven Smith dominated defeat, but was sorted out by the short ball subsequently. Having worked on his game, that flaw is still there but much diminished – so he’s a quick learner. His acrobatic catching in the cordon is a bonus – he might be better employed at first slip. He’s probably be a couple of centuries off being penned in as next captain, a particularly seductive proposition as he’s a red ball specialist.

Jason Roy (110 at 14) – Grade E

Removed from the firing line when his “stand still and slash at it” technique that works in white ball cricket was horribly exposed in Test matches.

Joe Denly (312 at 31) – Grade B-

The James Vince question persists – do the lovely cover drives outweigh the windy wafts? Benefited from the unfounded assertion that “There’s nobody pushing for a place”, but looks more like a sixth bowler option on the subcontinent who can score a fifty or two than a regular Test opener. He deserves his chance to prove me wrong.

Ben Stokes (441 at 55; 8 at 45) – Grade A

That it is not “Stokes’s Ashes” is hardly his fault, his epic innings to win the Headingley Test one for the ages. Now a batsman who bowls, he is following the path trodden by Jacques Kallis – a top order bat who can break partnerships or capitalise further if it’s his day. Like some of his team-mates, looked exhausted by the demands of a summer that cannot – and should not – be repeated.

Jonny Bairstow (214 at 24; 20 catches, 2 stumpings) – Grade C

Regressing to some of his technical problems of the past, hands pushing hard at the ball, the gate an inviting target for a bowler prepared to home in on the stumps. A run of low scores improved (if that’s the word) to a run of starts that he failed to convert. Given the fact that he’s not the best keeper in the country, maybe not the best in the team, that’s a disappointing return. England’s policy of playing two keepers looks like it might have run its course.

Jos Buttler (247 at 25) – Grade B-

No batsman is deliberately given the role of batting with the tail, but such was Buttler’s lot for much of the series and it undoubtedly impacted on his numbers. Like Jason Roy, his one day virtue is something of a five day vice, the firm base and arms-free approach inevitably making him vulnerable to the moving ball, as even straight ones are not lined up properly. He’ll almost certainly retain his spot, but he has to start scoring centuries soon if he is to warrant a top six slot.

Moeen Ali (4 at 2; 3 at 57) – Grade E

A feast or famine player who was definitely in famine mode before he was hooked after the Edgbaston defeat. Too gifted to be written off already, but how patient selectors can be with a bowler who gives away so many boundaries and a batsman who so often rolls the dice, remains to be seen.

Chris Woakes (120 at 20; 10 at 33) – Grade C+

A strangely anonymous series for the English conditions specialist whose bit part status was as much the result of Joe Root’s reluctance to bowl him as it was of his own inability to take wickets in bursts. Perhaps it’s perception as much as anything, the captain’s new all-action man toy, with its 90mph arrows, looking a lot shinier than his old reliable, slightly vanilla, ex-favourite.

Sam Curran (32 at 16; 3 at 23) – Grade B-

Added variety and no little skill with his left arm bustlers ducking in and holding their line out. Promoted to Number 7, he batted like a Number 9, his skittishness unworthy of a man who has plenty enough ability to make 50s on a regular basis. Like so many in this England squad, his role is not clearly defined – which can’t be fair to a 21 year-old.

Craig Overton (26 at 13; 2 at 54) – Grade C-

Batted with great heart, but looked rather pedestrian in a series dominated by speedsters and seamers. Might need a similar number of injuries to pacers to get another gig in Test cricket – but, with the schedules as they are, expect to see him trundling in again some time soon.

Jofra Archer (48 at 7; 22 at 20) – Grade A

An effortless fast bowler, an effortless star player, we really do believe the hype. Wasn’t at full tilt all the time, but when he was, he could knock over anyone, metaphorically and literally. Like another Yorkshire Ashes captain with a Sussex quick (Ray Illingworth and John Snow) Joe Root knew how valuable Archer’s pace was and went to the well a little too often for the Bajan’s own good. A superstar is born – however you look at it.

Jack Leach (54 at 14; 12 at 26) – Grade B

Decent bowler, competent late order batsman, handy fielder – a perfect example of how analysis can rather miss the story. Leach was the sung as much as unsung hero of Headingley, with his 1* an essential component of an extraordinary win. he’s much more than a turn though, his ability to hold an end in the first innings while attacking in the second, a brief that’s far easier to say than to deliver. Plenty of courage – moral and physical.

Stuart Broad (61 at 12; 23 at 27) – Grade A-

Lost his old mucker almost before the series started, but shouldered the responsibility of leading the attack with real gusto, charging in for spell after spell and spell, many of them excellent, few (if any) poor. At 33, he got through more overs than anyone except Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon, and almost all were at full gas. Had David Warner on toast, but his seam movement troubled all the Aussie bats (yes, even “him”).

James Anderson – Grade N/A



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