This is one of the more self-indulgent pieces I’ve written but a massive treat to be able to write about the Seahawks for a real publication – the game day programme for the recent Detroit-Atlanta NFL match at Wembley.

The 12th Man

It all started in the late ‘80s when a school friend who liked the Chicago Bears suggested I pick an NFL team for the forthcoming season. I chose Seattle Seahawks. I’m not sure why. It might have been the blue and silver colours. I’d never been there or indeed anywhere in America. And I didn’t know anything about the NFL. But they were my team and they have remained my team ever since. American football, with its endless intricacies, strategies and stats, appealed to my inner nerd, much like cricket.

And the curious thing is that of the various sporting teams I follow (West Ham football, Middlesex cricket, England cricket, football etc) the Seahawks is the one that I care about the most – my palms are even sweating as I write this. It may be because until very recently NFL is a sport that has not crossed my professional path. Winning helps, of course, and on Sunday the Seahawks will attempt to win the Super Bowl for the first time in their relatively brief history: they were formed in 1976 when they were one of two new teams, along with Tampa Bay Buccaneers, introduced to the NFL.

The Seahawks have been to the Super Bowl once before, in 2006 when they lost without any great drama to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This year feels different, partly because they unquestionably deserve to be there but also because of the emotional energy I’ve invested in following this season.

Last time they were in the Super Bowl I had an inconvenient magazine deadline that meant that staying up half the night was really not practical if I wanted to function properly on the Monday. So I only watched some of it and listened to other bits of it. I don’t feel I really experienced it. This time it’ll be different. I even have a meeting on Monday that has been put back to the afternoon for my benefit, thanks to the immense Phil Walker, editor of All Out Cricket.

I’ve watched every play of the Seahawks’ 18 games so far this season, most of them via the miracle of the NFL Game Pass subscription service. You can even watch the games in condensed form, each play one after the other bang, bang, bang. No time-outs, ad breaks etc. And for those who are troubled by how long NFL games last (normally three and a bit hours), the abridged version takes about 40 minutes.

But there was nothing condensed about watching the Seahawks’ victory over San Francisco that got them to the Super Bowl. I watched every agonising moment and was still utterly wired at 3am when it finished. I even got to write about it for Gridiron magazine – my NFL reporting debut and a career highlight. As the game was still in the balance with 22 seconds left I felt like I was a cub reporter all over again at Hayters agency, 20-odd years ago covering Millwall v Charlton. That evening the lead changed hands five minutes from time and penning six measly paragraphs for the Daily Star felt like being asked to write a Times leader column about the Suez crisis with 30 seconds notice.

I can’t recall who it was who said of the 2005 Ashes that it was the first time that cricket had felt like something other than a private perversion. My Seahawks obsession feels like that. The NFL is enjoying its greatest surge of interest since the 1980s novelty wore off but my interest still feels like a desperately niche market. I don’t know any other Seahawks fans personally and until this past week they’ve been so far under the radar as to be almost invisible. That’s probably part of the attraction.

It’s pretty much 25 years since I first actively remember following them. I’d quickly got into Touchdown magazine and the First Down newspaper and I found out about American Armed Forces radio where you could listen to games in old-school, crackly glory. Exotic doesn’t even begin to describe it.

In the last game of the 1988 season the Seahawks beat the Raiders (still in LA then) 43-37 to qualify for the play-offs. I was beside myself. They lost in the play-offs to the Cincinnati Bengals who went on to lose a thrilling Super Bowl 20-16 to San Francisco. I loved that Super Bowl. I’d seen the previous two and they’d both been tediously one-sided. I always compare the rhythm of American football to one-day cricket. Each play is a self-contained piece of action, like a single delivery in a cricket match and a one-sided match is a painfully boring slow death. A close one, on the other hand, is a gripping, excruciatingly drawn-out human drama, just like the best sport should be.

Super Bowl XXIII was an epic. The Bengals’ Stanford Jennings returned the second-half kick-off for a touchdown and Joe Montana led the 49ers down the length of the field for a game-winning drive. But what I really loved about that game, what I still really love remembering about it, were the player introductions. I may be wrong but I don’t think they do it any more but back then they introduced the starting line-ups to the crowd individually like the start of a boxing fight. I can still remember the exquisitely-balanced cadences of the stadium announcer with the 49ers star names: “At wide receiver … out of Miss-iss-ippi Valley State … number 80 … Jerrrrry Riiiiiice.” And finally: “And at quarterback … out of Notre (pronounced know-tre of course) Dame … two-time Super Bowl MVP … number 16 … Joe Montaaaaana.” And Montana jogged insouciantly out, smiling politely and acknowledging sheepishly the manic high-fives of his delirious, pumped-up team-mates who formed an on-field tunnel of hype and hoopla. There was no better illustration of the pick ‘n’ mix nature of an NFL squad. Big men, small men, fast men, fat men, and then  the quarterback where heart and head have to meet in a perfect combination of brain and brawn. Part cricket captain, part brain surgeon.

Most people I know who don’t like NFL say it’s boring. Most of those who say that also like cricket, which I find an amusing paradox. Most people who don’t like cricket say it’s boring. And, like cricket, American football does reward patience and some intellectual investment. I have to confess – and this is an admission (another one) of super-geekery – that the way I really came to understand the NFL was through the Madden video game. All the various formations and the hundreds of plays on offense and defence there for you to experiment with and try to understand.

I  lost interest a bit through the ‘90s. TV coverage was on Sky now, which I didn’t have, the internet hadn’t quite become second-nature and the Seahawks were also a bit rubbish.

In 1998 I was a freelance cricket writer wondering what to do with my winter, I decided it was time finally to go and watch my Seattle Seahawks. Since it was a private perversion I was ready to go on my own but I happened to mention my plan to Andy Wilson, cricket and rugby league writer and generally top bloke. Because his chosen sports both had summer seasons, his autumn was also free. He had a passing interest in NFL and a certain affinity with it because of its similarities in concept with rugby league.

We flew to Seattle for the weekend. We left on a Friday lunchtime and arrived at pretty much the same time of day because of the time difference. On Saturday we drank as much as craft beer as we could stomach (well, more than in fact) and watched Fun Lovin’ Criminals in a tiny downtown club. I’d never heard of them but this, it seems, was Andy’s part of the cultural exchange. They were bloody great. On Sunday morning, hungover, we switched on the TV and it was wall-to-wall football. Being on the west coast with its three-hour time difference meant that there was live football on TV from 10 in the morning. Brilliant. Then we went to see the Seahawks beat the Chargers at their old indoor stadium, the Kingdome. While it was magnificent to see them up close there was something wrong with the sanitised combination of artificial turf and a domed stadium, like going to the theatre or cinema rather than a sporting event.

The Seahawks have since moved to an outdoor stadium where they have created this cult of the ‘12th Man’ (no player ever wears the No.12 jersey) and feed off a crowd noise so loud that it breaks records, apparently, and damages opponents’ ability to communicate with each other to such an extent that the Seahawks have lost at home only once in two years. Sadly I’ve yet to yet to visit CenturyLink Field. Andy and I do wistfully yearn for a reprisal of our Legless in Seattle trip.

I’ve seen the Seahawks on one other occasion, away at the Oakland Raiders where I was advised in advance not to wear any team colours. I laughed off this advice since the received wisdom was that our own football-style rivalries of hateful abuse just didn’t exist in the NFL. Not entirely true as it turned out. I didn’t wear any colours and was glad of it when I went to the gents and heard a variety of anti-Seahawks chants. It wasn’t exactly West Ham-Millwall but still.

The digital age makes the NFL more accessible than ever. The Wembley games are amazing events but I have to say I’m not keen on a franchise in London. Part of the attraction of the NFL and the Seahawks is this sense of exoticism. OK, it’s not the Amazon rainforest but it’s still out there, another world, both literally and figuratively. All the hype, bluster and nonsense that goes with it is broadly the same hype, bluster and nonsense that goes on the Premier League. Just with a few more smiles, a bit more gusto and cheerleaders. I love it and I’d like it stay (except for the occasional visit) over there.

Go ‘Hawks!

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.

***

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.

I’m an unapologetic media junkie. Five Live’s always on, newspapers (or their websites) are scoured daily and plenty else besides is consumed with relish, though I draw the line at Sky Sports News (except for transfer deadline day of course).

And I understand what makes news and why those stories don’t always mutate into the most logical, balanced, rounded expressions of understanding.

But I found myself becoming increasingly infuriated about the Sepp Blatter story last week. Blatter is a wrong ‘un. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt about that. And his comments about racism were ugly, clumsy and utterly foolish for someone who has been in a top job for so many years. Does Blatter hold racist views? I don’t know and I don’t really care. That isn’t the point.

Is John Terry racist? Or Luis Suarez? Who knows? And what precisely constitutes being a racist? Using derogatory, offensive language? Or crossing to the other side of the road when you see a group of young black men? Or the almost non-existence of black football managers in England? Or TV programmes like BBC1’s feeble detective show Death in Paradise in which every Caribbean stereotype is trotted out in the interests of comedy drama?

When Robbie Savage is lecturing us about codes of behaviour, you know that the plot has been truly mislaid. In Friday’s Daily Telegraph John Barnes spoke with exceptional frankness and intelligence about this issue. “We are all racist to a certain extent,” he said. “We all make presumptions about other people based on their colour, culture or ethnicity in variable degrees. We judge people even on their accents.”

Prejudice exists within all of us. It is an unpalatable part of human nature and and it is the job of a civilised progressive society to fight prejudice of all kinds and promote tolerance and greater understanding.

Blatter’s comments exposed him as ignorant and arrogant but I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt that  with regard to the Terry/Suarez issues he was attempting to put those in some sort of context. Though, by belittling those specific issues he belittled the wider problem.

In situations like this players are role models but frankly they are but drops in the ocean of greater prejudice in football. The game promotes bigotry by its very nature. The tribalism that is re-heated to boiling point week after week spawns all manner of unpleasantness: racism, homophobia, you name it.

To obsess about what multimillionaire footballer said to another is to miss the point about a much wider, international problem. Not that I’d expect Blatter to understand that either.

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.

For all the rottenness of Fifa, its unwillingness to entertain political interference among its constituent members is a sound policy and one which cricket’s global authority happily chooses to ignore.

The escalation of the poppy-wearing row to the point at which the Prime Minister and a member of the Royal Family are badgering world football’s governing body seems a colossal over-reaction, not to mention surely precisely the sort of political interference which Fifa rightly does not tolerate.

The wearing of poppies ought to be a solemn, subtle and personal gesture. It is supposed to be about remembering the fallen, about the futility of war and the price of human life. It is not supposed to become an act of hysterical national ostentation encouraging anyone with half a brain to air their dubious nationalistic sentiments.

The zeal with which the FA and then the government sought to brand a high-profile international sporting confrontation with a label synonymous with war is insensitive and arrogant. Fifa’s point about political and religious symbolism is entirely valid and even one argues that the poppy is not remotely political, which I think is a dubious claim, then you can forgive Fifa their pedantry.

What if Serbia wore some sort of badge to remember their dead in the Balkan wars of the 1990s? Would the English FA happily acknowledge this is simply a gesture of remembrance or would they see it as a grotesque celebration of mass genocide? This is an extreme example and I am not seriously comparing Britain with Serbia but my point is that there are different viewpoints. Yet the FA set their case with such bombastic certainty you can just see the rest of footballing world’s collective eyes rolling.

And surely this is such an unnecessary argument. What does it matter whether the England team wear poppies or not? Does it make them more or less aware of the point of Remembrance Sunday? All that has happened is yet again the England football team has been turned into some sort of weird circus. The tasty prospect of match at a sold-out Wembley against the best team in the world has been soured by a week of idiotic politicking.