Archives for category: Cricket

I wrote this in the January 2012 issue of The Cricketer as part of a review/preview package about England’s year:

England’s year ahead: what does it hold?

It will be fascinating to see how Andrew Strauss assimilates back into the Test side in January, having been absent for effectively four months. He looked weary before The Oval Test against India in August. As he walked – no, trudged – off the field after practice two days before the Test, a spectator (Monty Desai, the coach of Rajasthan Royals, as it happens) said to him: “Hard work isn’t it?” Strauss replied with a wry smile: “It never ends.” Does he still have the appetite? To maintain, or improve, his own form as much as anything else. The other question is whether Graeme Swann has jumped the shark. Will there be lasting damage from his disparaging comments in his book about Kevin Pietersen’s captaincy? Is there any sense of Swann fatigue?

I once took a phone call, while I was editing The Wisden Cricketer, from a youth cricket coach in the west of England.

He had, he said, written on more than one occasion to the ECB to ask for its blessing to teach his young spinners to bowl like Murali. He had never received a reply, at least not one to his satisfaction, and he was alerting me to his dissatisfaction and insinuating that their dissembling, as he saw it, was indicative of the conspiracy of silence about dubious bowling actions.

He might have had a point. But my point to him, when he asked whether he should just go ahead with his plan, was that if he really could coach a kid to bowl like Murali then please phone me back quicker than you can say 15-degree extension.

I never heard from him again. You can’t coach someone to bowl like Murali anymore than you can coach someone to play football like Lionel Messi. One of the many aspects about the chucking debate that gets under my skin is the idea that the very fact of bowling with a bent arm gains you a competitive advantage. As if it’s short-circuiting the whole bowling process and reducing it to a baseball pitch. Which is clearly not the case. Why does Graham Gooch use his canine ball-chucker if throwing the ball is enough to deceive a batsman. And the only person who fell for Alex Loudon’s doosra was Pippa Middleton and even she worked it pretty quickly.

Bob Willis claiming Saeed Ajmal bowls illegal deliveries is one thing but the whole long-sleeve conspiracy is just embarrassing. It has also dragged the England team into a row they shouldn’t be involved in. Matt Prior’s comments were skilfully put – they hadn’t seen anything they weren’t expecting.

Geoff Boycott’s point on Five Live this morning was that if Murali takes 800 Test wickets then we can’t start jumping up and down when Ajmal takes wickets against England now.

Ajmal’s bowling was a thing of wonder, just like Murali’s was. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I was an England batsman whose reputation was on the line. But the bigger picture for England is dealing with spin bowling effectively not the legality of their opponents’ actions.

Nasser Hussain made the point in today’s Daily Mail that Asian cricketers seem to have a greater propensity to copy their heroes. So Ajmal, for example, is a carbon copy of Saqlain Mushtaq. This might be a cultural nuance or more likely that imitation fills a vacuum that would be filled by formal coaching would be in England or Australia.

Maurice Holmes, the young Warwickshire spinner, was suspended from bowling last year, a ban that was later lifted, because his doosra was considered illegal. Would a player of his age and level of experience in Asia be similarly treated. Probably not. The only serious, objective policing of bowling actions comes once players hit the international age-group radar.

Does any of this matter? As I say, if chucking it from 22 yards was so effective then wouldn’t that be net practice sorted forever more?

Banning guys like Ajmal takes something from the game and it takes a huge amount from bowlers. The batsmen have enough in their favour.

 

I went to interview Peter Moores this week. He seemed more relaxed than when he was with England which is hardly surprising since he’s the coach of the county champions and it was late November when the only results that matter in the bleep tests.

But even so he seemed a fraction less intense than I remember him, though no less enthusiastic. I had to wait a while for him to finish a net session (the 2012 season is five months away) and he was scampering around doing, chivvying, fixing, suggesting like the battery-powered PE teacher he’s always been.

Most counties, from what I gather, focus on fitness in post/pre-season until the new new year when the bats and balls come out and everyone breaths or wheezes a sigh of relief. But Lancashire, or those that were there, were practising their cricket skills and had been for several hours by the time I got to Old Trafford in early afternoon.

You’ll be able to read more about this in a forthcoming issue of The Cricketer but he interestingly and impressively self-critical about his 20-month period as England coach that ended in the night of the long emails in January 2009.

He reckons he dived in too hard and too fast with England. He was given the mandate by the ECB to make some fundamental changes, mostly to do with physical preparation and conditioning. And of course the England side of Andy Flower (appointed by Moores) is the fittest, hardest-working group ever to wear the three lions. But at the time, with some still basking in the diminishing glow of 2005, not everyone was as receptive as they might have been.

There is a fine line between instruction and inspiration and one can read between the lines of comments of various senior England players about how they appreciate “being treated like adults” in the current regime.

One has to hope that Flower is sufficiently detached to recognise when “being treated like adults” slips into laziness or complacency as happened in the last days of Duncan Fletcher and happened in Australia as the great empire crumbled.

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Mostly this blog will be about cricket, or sport at least. But I can’t let this Clarkson business go. I happened to be watching The One Show (rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle etc) when he was on and his comments were so searingly, blindingly, categorically obviously not meant to be taken seriously.

Even if you despise him for all he appears to stand for and can’t help but be roused into anger, the best thing you can do is sigh and ignore. All that the teeth-grindingly, po-faced, grandstanding responses from union leaders and some panellists on Question Time is alienate the vast swathes of Middle Britain who aren’t card-carrying union members but sympathise with the cause of the strikers (and also like watching Top Gear).

And on top of that you elevate Jeremy Clarkson into an even more ludicrous celebrity cult whose utterances, however nonsensical or outrageous, are somehow to be taken seriously and pored over. And on that bombshell …

 

The only thing, said David Morgan, that everyone could agree on about the structure of domestic cricket in England was that it wasn’t right.

The former chairman of ECB canvassed in the region of 100 interested parties about how the county game should change before delivering his interim report to the board today.

The major problem, he says, is that no one knows when games are on. There might be a four-day starting in Worcester on a Tuesday, one in Hove on a Wednesday etc. Every cricket fan recognises that ongoing frustration. Is that likely to change after his recommendations? It’d be nice to think so but I doubt it.

The underlying cause of the bloated mess of a fixture list is the TV deal with Sky in which there is a contractual obligation to provide county cricket available to be televised on pretty much any day there isn’t an international.

So, if you’re happy simply to switch on Sky and watch whichever 22 flannel led fools are put in front of you then it’s fine. If you like to have a bit of context, a bit of definition, a bit of light and shade and even a bit of, yes, downtime, when there isn’t any cricket on, then you’re stuffed.

But within these undesirable parameters, here is how I would tweak the county game. My ideal scenario would be have all three competitions (four-day, T20 and 40 or 50 over) laid out in three identical regional groups (like the old B&H groups) with play-offs and a final.

This is effectively an American sports model where there are certain rival teams who you play every season but then your other opponents come from the other divisions and are selected on a rotational basis so, for example, Kent don’t go for years without playing Yorkshire.

This also allows you to adjust the number of fixtures to suit. We’re too hidebound by our traditional UK sports model of all-play-all so if you have a league of 10 that means you’ve got 18 fixtures whether you like not or not.

With three groups of six, you could play your divisional opponents home and away or maybe just once if that was preferable and make up your desired number of fixtures from playing teams in the other divisions.

I think this is perfect for the limited-overs competitions where results are guaranteed and promotion and relegation does not feature. For the county championship there is the issue of weather ruining play-off matches. But the over-riding thing is that championship works just fine as it is. It has flaws of course but overall it is the one aspect of the county game that everyone agrees works well.

So leave it alone and make the adjustments elsewhere.

 

 

Mickey Arthur is the latest in a long line of South Africans to have struck gold on Australia’s west coast. They came in their tens of thousands in the 1980s, escaping their homeland either for anti-apartheid principle or lifestyle-orientated expedient.

Arthur went to Perth under different circumstances in 2010, though there was an element of escape too. He had ridden the inevitable waves of political interference but felt his position becoming unstable and jumped before he was pushed.

He is a canny operator. He’s smart, personable and very media-friendly though I can imagine there’s an iron fist lurking in there somewhere. He knows that a cricket coach’s most important relationship is with his captain and his bond with Graeme Smith was the cornerstone of his five years with South Africa.

He will have to strike up the same rapport with Michael Clarke which may be easier said than done given Australia’s general suspicion of the role of the coach. But that was a distortion caused by the relentless success of the team through the 1990s and early 2000s and the power that the players had to marginalise the coach. Don’t forget what the axis of Allan Border and Bob Simpson achieved in the mid-80s.

Arthur is not a egotist but nor will he shrink into the background. It’s a good time to be taking over because the only way is up and many of the hard decisions have been taken. There are plenty left to make though with questions over the continued selection of senior players, most pertinently Ricky Ponting.

As a selector Arthur has been given the sort of power and responsibility that was not afforded to his immediate predecessors.

There are plenty of people reserving judgement on the appointment, partly because he’s Australia’s first non-Australian coach and Australian cricket has been an exporter, rather than importer, of knowledge and talent in the past. There are also questions about whether he is all he’s cracked up to be. South Africa’s win in Australia in 2008-09 was a freakish result and they appeared to have taken their eyes off the ball when they hosted Australia in the return series. But there was plenty of excellent progress and results before that: the victories over India, Pakistan and in England.

Cricket coaches cannot be judged like football managers who have a clear role, defined over time with obvious accountability. So it is easy to overplay their influence and that is why Arthur’s relationship with Clarke, and the other selectors (remember Rod Marsh fell out massively with Duncan Fletcher when the former was an England selector) is so important.

Arthur loves coming to England, follows Arsenal (aren’t they French?), but he’s also been pretty adept at getting under England’s skin on the cricket field. Now that he’s Aussie coach, that’s not likely to change.

When The Wisden Cricketer launched in 2003 Peter Roebuck was one of our associate editors. The marketing conceit was to select a first XI of writers and contributors who could be touted to readers or potential readers. Roebuck was one of the first names on the team sheet.

His relationship with the magazine didn’t last long, or at least the formal element of it didn’t. He remained very civil and engaging when we met in a press box somewhere in the world.

It took me a while to remember that he was ever formally connected to the magazine because I think he only wrote one piece: on Graeme Smith for the first issue after Smith’s brutishly brilliant series against England.

Even though the magazine had an international reputation and covered the game all over the world, we were a UK publication and for Roebuck that was a no-no. His antipathy towards Britain after his conviction for assault in 2001 had consumed him to a point where he wanted to have no formal connections. He no longer contributed to British newspapers and seemed to spend little time here.

I think he resigned as an associated editor out of the blue. I tried to dissuade him but didn’t hear back. So I just left his name on the masthead and hoped that he would contribute again when the mood took him. At some point he contacted me to ask why his name was still on the masthead. So it was removed and that was that. It was all very polite and businesslike.

I was laughing with Sambit Bal, the editor of Cricinfo, last night about Roebuck’s chaotic manner of email communication: short, unpunctuated statements or thoughts, sometimes barely intelligible. It was, Sambit reckoned, because his career had begun in the pre-electronic era of dictation to copy-takers. It was as if the keyboard was his copy-taker and it was up to the machine to make sense of his words.

I wrote alongside him when he was still working for the Sunday Times and he was always an engaging and interesting colleague though Greg Baum’s acute observation in the Sydney Morning Herald about him “not indulging in such fripperies as deodorant” rang true.

So did Daily Mail cricket correspondent Paul Newman’s frank experience from his time on the Sunday Telegraph, that he was “the rudest, most prickly and unhelpful colleague I have ever experienced”. Not that I experienced that side of him but I always got the impression he didn’t have much time for the editors and sub-editors back in the office, certainly when he was working for UK newspapers.

Steve Waugh called him the “premier journalist” but he’s wrong really. Not that Peter doesn’t deserve the accolade but that he wasn’t a journalist. He was a commentator, an opinionator, a campaigner even but not a journalist in the conventional sense. Not that he had much time for convention in his life, as has been painfully apparent.

But that made him all the more important. His separateness and his individuality created a unique voice, one that had real value in Australia and the wider cricketing world. Cricketwithballs supremo Jrod observes that he was the only dissenting during his youth when no one questioned the all-conquering Aussie side.

Roebuck’s obituary and Derek Pringle’s tribute to him made the front page of the Daily Telegraph yesterday which I found a bit bewildering. I suppose it’s in part due to the horrific and untimely nature of his death, the whiff of scandal but also the regard in which his writing and commentating was held by the cricket-loving public as well as those in the media who obsess about these things.

I am sure someone somewhere is contemplating the publication of a Roebuck anthology. It’ll be a mighty good read.

“Are you on an earner?” asked a former England captain of a current England player in the Lord’s media centre this summer. The player was off-duty in the sense that he wasn’t playing in the game but he was on-duty in the sense that he was wearing the badge of a sponsor doing some glad-handing with competition winners and generally doing what brand ambassadors in these uber-corporate times.

The question made me wince. Not because I have some puritanical objection to players endorsing brands to supplement their earnings. It was the casual cynicism that got me.

Of the many strands of awfulness that cricket’s fortnight in the dock has exposed, the naked greed of the individuals involved is in many ways the most worrying and the hardest to police. It is a universal vice and manifests itself in many forms.

A few years ago friend of mine used to work on Manchester United’s official club magazine. One of the leading players of the time returned my friends call regarding a pre-arranged interview. The player then insisted that my friend phoned him back again so that he didn’t have to bear the cost of the call. This was a senior, very well-known Premier League footballer who would have been earning tens of thousands of pounds a week.

You can still be corrupt even if you’ve never thought of throwing a match. Agents can still be vile and dodgy even if they don’t lean on their clients to bowl a pre-arranged no-ball.

Sportsmen of all kinds love a punt. Some have even been known to bet on themselves, perish the thought. Legal gambling doesn’t stop it being a highly corruptible influence. “It matters more when there’s money on it,” was Skybet’s advertising slogan for a while. Interpret the double, triple meanings as you see fit.

The ECB recently hooked with a betting partner to add to their portfolio of official endorsements. It feels like they’re on potentially dodgy ground but then they know all about that. Regardless of what was later to become of Allen Stanford the biggest stain on Giles Clarke’s chairmanship of ECB is the entire lack of acceptance that the Stanford episode in any way sold whatever remained of the game’s soul. Once money becomes the sole point of the arrangement of sporting fixtures then the game is up.

It is the administrative greed that creates the fertile ground for corruption. It seems to be taken entirely for read these days by governing bodies that generating income is their primary or even only raison d’être.

And all the anti-corruption units in the world will not solve that fundamentally corrupt mindset.

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