Friday, 3 October 2014

Column 31, 2014 – Fantasy XIs: TMS vs Sky

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 103, Friday October 3, 2014.
[Full text below]

As this is the last Cricket Paper of the year, I thought a bit of end of term fun would be in order. You know, like when they used to let you bring games in on the last day.

A popular game among cricketers and cricket fans, is fantasy elevens. There are many variations. You can have All Time XIs (Ashes are a favourite, of course), Now vs Then (21st vs 20th century), or for the seriously advanced, Alphabetical XIs. You get the idea. Current and all time World XIs are a good place to start.

You can do it with club cricket too. What if all our local villages were merged into a superclub, with A, B, C & D teams. What would that look like? Which one would I get into?! Or make an XI out of your league, taking the one really good player most teams have and making a side out of them. What a team that’d be. What league would THEY play in?

Anyway. Way back when sitting around in the pub garden talking cricket drivel was what I did every Saturday evening, (ie a few weeks ago, before the end of the season,) we fell to discussing, not for the last time I’m sure, the relative merits of BBC TMS, and Sky TV. I think it’s fair to say that we have rarely been better served in terms of technical and first hand knowledge in our comm boxes. Certainly the character and rich texture of non-ex-international contributors is sorely lacking (the likes of Arlott, Jonners and CMJ are simply yet to be replaced; it is currently a fort held solely by Blowers) but in terms of know-how, there’s no shortage.

So Fantasy XIs, who would win? That would be two pretty decent sides, wouldn’t it?

Lets start with the top order. TMS has Boycott, Vaughan (c) and Ed Smith. Not to be sniffed at. Sky has an embarrassment of riches: Hussain, Atherton, Gower, Nick Knight, and recently Strauss, as well. Who are they going to drop?!

They also have Bumble and Ian Ward down the order, and of course Beefy, who’s opening the bowling with either Holding or Willis, with Paul Allott second change, and not a bad spin option in the shape of a certain Shane Warne (c).

The TMS spin department is not too shabby either, with Swanny, Tuffers and Vic Marks all vying for a spot. The pace attack is less contested. Harmison’s in as a frequent contributor. Simon Hughes is there, but Gus Fraser is too busy selecting to help Aggers out with the new ball, so Isa Guha steps in with some solid medium pace.

What TMS have in that middle order though, is the guv’nor. Alec Stewart (wk). Ah! There it is, the ace up the sleeve, Sky are doomed – they haven’t got a keeper! Who’s gonna keep to Holding having never done it before?!

See you next term.

- ends 488 words -

Friday, 26 September 2014

Column 30, 2014 – Top bants

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 102, Friday September 26, 2014.
[Full text below]

The Andrew Gale racism accusation has thrust player banter once again into the spotlight. The OED defines banter as ‘the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks’. The word had its time in the sun a few decades ago, but is now among the most irritating in the language, along with its own abbreviated form ‘bants’, largely due to its adoption by teenagers to mean ‘hijinks’, or any kind of boisterous schadenfreude they deem ‘top bants’.

Banter has a lot to answer for, and cricket is sorely afflicted. Sledging, some say, is part of the game. This I am prepared to accept on the condition – and it’s a non-negotiable condition – that it is funny.

South African batsman Daryl Cullinan is perhaps best remembered as Shane Warne’s bunny. He once arrived at the crease to Warne gloating that he’d been waiting two years for another chance to humiliate him, to which Cullinan deliciously shot back: “Looks like you spent them eating.”

Portliness is often at the heart of a good sledge. My brother-in-law once shouted from square-leg as I walked out to bat, “He’s wearing a stomach pad!” which had the whole field in stitches, including me. He was later delighted when I admitted that trying to think up a suitable riposte was consuming most of my concentration when I spooned one up in the air, so his sledge was directly responsible for my dismissal.

This kind of sledging seems to have gone out of fashion these days, in favour of brainless abuse.

“Get ready for a broken f***ing arm,” was Michael Clarke’s welcome to Jimmy Anderson last winter. Top bants, Michael. An army of ICC lawyers proved unable to determine what Jimmy himself said to Ravi Jadeja this summer, but we can be fairly confident it wasn’t a playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks.

We once played a much higher league side in a knockout cup, where they spent our whole innings telling each of our batsmen in turn what effing c-words we were. We found it rather baffling. Seven leagues above us, yet the manifest superiority of their cricket was apparently insufficient.

If you strip the Andrew Gale / Ashwell Prince exchange of anything that might be considered racist (ie where they were telling each other to go) it amounts simply to this: Prince: “F*** off.” Gale: “You f*** off, you f***er.” Top bants indeed. Devastating repartee. Like having Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain out there.

It’s not racist, it’s just abuse. It’s pathetic, the kind of playground name-calling that gets 15-year-olds detention. It’s embarrassing not because it’s racist but because it’s just so base, so charmless, so utterly devoid of wit or imagination.

In my view the ECB is wrong to pursue Gale for racism. But if its intention is to draw attention to and stamp out such indefensible, boorish, sub-prison-yard ‘banter’, then for once the ECB has my full-throated support.

- ends 484 words -

Friday, 19 September 2014

Column 29, 2014 – Chucked out

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 101, Friday September 19, 2014.
[Full text below]

NOTE: The Paper prints 'per cent'. This is wrong: it's degrees.
It's right in the full text below.

On 26 August 1862 at The Oval, Edgar Willsher was no-balled for an illegal bowling action. In the ensuing hoo-ha, WG Grace said he could see no alternative than to change the laws to accommodate Willsher’s action. The game must adapt, change was inevitable. What was Willsher’s controversial new action? He bowled overarm.

The rules, clearly, did indeed change to allow overarm bowling. As a footnote, following the infamous Chappel brothers incident in 1981, they changed again to outlaw underam bowling.

The point is, the game evolves. And that evolution is driven by those who play it at the highest level.

Last week Saeed Ajmal, the number one bowler in the world, was banned by the ICC for an illegal action.

Today’s Law 24.3 states that: “…once the bowler’s arm has reached the level of the shoulder in the delivery swing, the elbow joint is not straightened partially or completely from that point until the ball has left the hand…”

That Law is useless. Extensive research around the turn of the last century suggested that over 99% of all bowlers, amateur and professional, contravene Law 24.3 with every ball they bowl. The vast majority of people are physically incapable of bowling without straightening their arm.

The ICC playing conditions (why not the actual Laws?) were changed in 2000 to allow a straightening of 5° for spinners, 7.5° for medium pacers and 10° for fast bowlers. This proved unenforceable. In 2004 a panel of former Test players and biomechanical experts recommended a flat rate of 15° tolerable ‘elbow extension’ be used to define the difference between bowling and throwing. It is still in use today.

Indulge this apparent non-sequitur for a moment. I remember a real lightbulb moment whilst learning to read and write music. It’s so long ago that it seems like somebody else’s memory, but it was a realisation that instantly inverted what I was struggling with, and all its daunting complexity suddenly made sense: music theory exists because of music, not the other way around. Imagine! Its purpose is not to confuse and infuriate music students, as I was hitherto convinced, but a valiant and inevitably flawed attempt to describe something indescribable.

Is there something similar going on with the illegal action conundrum? Are we allowing the theorists to get in the way of the virtuosos? 15° is an arbitrary figure applied by rule makers – theorists. It is only definitive because they say it is.

Saeed Ajmal is one of the most watchable cricketers in the world game. He makes it more thrilling and less predictable, and consistently tests the skill of the best batsman in the world.

Ajmal’s average elbow flex when tested was completely unacceptable under the current rules. But whether it’s a change in the rules, a change in Ajmal, or some sort of compromise, I can’t escape the conviction that the game must accommodate him somehow. It is poorer for his exclusion.

- ends 488 words -

Friday, 12 September 2014

Column 28, 2014 – Knocking in

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 100, Friday September 12, 2014.
[Full text below]

A month ago I trudged back from the middle and slumped down with my teammates, who wasted no time in telling me, pretty much as one, that my bat didn’t sound right.

Now I get quite attached to my bats. But it turns out I’m pretty fickle – I clearly didn’t like it as much as the idea of getting a new one, and very quickly I decided to accept their pronouncement as gospel, and embrace it as a perfect excuse to get a new bat.

I love new bats. There’s something deeply seductive about the unknown promise of classy runs from a pristine blade. It’s an illusion, of course. No bat will never boost your ability. Though it may boost your confidence, and that is a priceless commodity.

Knocking in a bat is a strange chore. There’s something arcane and ritualistic about it, like some mysterious rights-of-passage ceremony. It’s one of those things you can simultaneously both relish and wish you didn’t have to bother with.

You are supposed to knock a bat in for a minimum of two hours, which is quite an ask unless you live on your own with no neighbours. Get your bat mallet out in front of the telly, see how well that goes down. Or when the kids are in bed.

The repeated knocks with the rounded mallet produce little indentations on the blade, tiny petals of trauma on the surface, like a beaten steel drum.

It’s like deliberately scuffing a new pair of shoes, distressing them for both functional and aesthetic purposes. Broken-in bats have a comfort and fit-for-purpose feel about them like worn-in shoes. Part of that is the knowledge that they’ve done it before, it’s just another day, there’s nothing to worry about. Whereas new shoes and new bats can both split on you without warning.

This new one doesn’t have the clear plastic anti-scuff sheet (or ‘bat condom’ as a teammate called it) that is the norm these days. The business part of the blade is naked wood, which absorbs the blows of the mallet, the thin coats of linseed oil, and the red cherries as you graduate to old balls. Already it has character.

‘Pay close attention to the edges and the toe’, say the clipped nineteenth century instructions. Yes all right, thank you. Have they seen me bat? It reads like a snarky criticism of technique.

Has it helped? Maybe. Who knows? I like it. It feels nice. And the runs are coming, if steadily. Sunday I was cruising along nicely, just beginning to think, “you know what, a fifty about now would be a perfect way to finish off a column about a new bat,” when Pauly ran me out – again! – on 37. But on reflection, that’s probably a more realistic way to finish it anyway. It’s certainly a realistic way to finish me.

- ends 477 words -

Friday, 5 September 2014

Column 27, 2014 – Howling empty void

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 99, Friday September 5, 2014.
[Full text below]

You can sit back from the edge of your seats, we stayed up. We did it the hard way: lost, but got the points. So next year we will remain in Regional Division One of what is generally thought to be the largest of its kind in the world, The Hampshire Cricket League (HCL).

I guess that kind of thing is hard to measure, and it sort of depends where you stop counting. There were, as far as I can tell, 342 men’s cricket teams competing in the HCL this year. Weather permitting that’s 3762 blokes playing league cricket throughout Hampshire every summer Saturday.

That’s not counting kids, colts, women and girls, a thriving disabled programme, or the 40 Southern Premier sides. Or of course the countless groundsmen, umpires, coaches, scorers, treasurers, tea-makers, secretaries and supporters. The point is, there’s a lot of us. All over the country there are many many thousands of people whose leisure time and social life revolve around recreational cricket.

Then all of a sudden, at the end of August, it just stops.

It’s an abrupt and cruel cessation. One minute you’re playing Saturday and Wednesday league and seeing if you can get away with the odd Sunday as well, the next minute there’s nothing but a couple of September friendlies, a few chilly net sessions and the occasional indoor game between you and a howling empty void, eight long months stretching ahead of you like a term in solitary confinement.

Usually, there is at least a winter Test tour or two to keep us going. But the England Test team now has a similar layoff to your average English club side. Eight cricket-free months with only the scraps off the table to be going on with.

By scraps off the table, I mean of course one dayers. After India we’re off to Sri Lanka, then there’s a tri-series in Australia before the World Cup. Because the World Cup is absolutely what this dearth is all about. It’s the sole reason for last year’s back-to-back Ashes, and why this year’s decks have been cleared.

No one else is having a Test detox. All the other Test nations play the long game right up to the World Cup. But I guess if we’re ever going to take ODIs seriously, we do need a run at it. As someone on twitter said recently, England still treat them like short Tests, while everyone else treats them like long T20s. We have until February to figure that out.

Next spring the Test drought is followed instantly by a flood. When the dam finally breaks, England play a faintly crazy 17 Tests in 10 months. In the meantime it’s either a strict diet of maximum-bosh-wallop, or watching the rest of the world play Tests. Until the first Saturday in May 2015 when the league starts up again, those are our choices. (Hint: Pakistan vs Australia starts next month.)

- ends 488 words -

Friday, 29 August 2014

Column 26, 2014 – Cryptic point scoring

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 98, Friday August 29, 2014.
[Full text below]

The methods of scoring cricket in leagues are arcane and esoteric, and appear to have been specifically designed so that even people who’ve been doing it for decades have to look it up to make sure.

In the County Championship, you get 16 points for a win, eight for a tie and five for a draw. Then there’s a bonus batting point available at 250 runs, then another for every 50 up to a maximum of five at 400. You also get a bonus bowling point for taking three wickets, another for taking six, then a final one for the ninth, but only in the first 110 overs of the first innings, regardless of who wins.

Got that? Good now pay attention, I’m just getting started.

The Hampshire Cricket League is similar but different (of course it is). You get 12 for a win, six for a tie. Batting bonus points start at 50 runs, and then every 25 up to 200, to a possible maximum of seven. Bonus bowling points come every two wickets. Both have 24 point maximum wins, which may or may not be coincidence, who knows.

There are plenty of instances where maximum points are denied the victor, mostly by the weather. For instance, if your opponents batting first are all out cheaply, there are further points available for wickets in hand, but not in rain-reduced matches. I suppose that’s about right, as the game’s least fair factor has always been rain.

Hampshire Cricket Leagues are at least calculated on points average – total points divided by completed matches – so sides are less likely to be penalised for being rained off.

But I’ve never really understood why we bother with bonus points at all for the winners. If you win, well that’s it – you’ve won. You can’t really do any better than winning, so forget bonus points. For my money, if you win you should get maximum points. The loser can pick up bonus batting and bowling points, as, well – consolation prizes. Doesn’t that make sense? Doesn’t it put more of a premium on winning?

Anyway I digress: this is the time of year when people start paying attention to the scoring system, because promotion and relegation are suddenly looming.

Having gone up last year, our sole aim this year was to stay up.

Tomorrow (Saturday 30th) is our last league game of 2014. We are 13th. 17 and 18 are already down, and the last relegation spot could go to anyone from 12 to 16. Without relying on the misfortune of others, we need nine points to guarantee our safety. As you can see from the system above, getting nine points and not winning is actually quite tricky to pull off, so realistically, we need to win our last game.

Alternatively, we need cricket’s least fair factor to come to our rescue. Is it cowardly to pray for rain? If we’re rained off, we’re safe.

- ends 489 words -

Friday, 22 August 2014

Column 25, 2014 – The Big Mo

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 97, Friday August 22, 2014.
[Full text below]

The ‘Big Mo’ is a massive advantage in cricket. No, not England’s new off-spinning all-rounder: momentum.

It’s really just a physics metaphor. Instead of mass times velocity, in sport you can break it down as success times confidence.

Many argue that the notion of momentum in sport is an illusion, and that in fact nothing has changed – the abilities and opportunities of players and teams remain the same, regardless of perception.

But this is to deny psychology. It makes a huge difference, even if it’s 100% in your head. Here’s an example I’ve used before: A side is 9 down chasing 40 to win. If 10 minutes ago they needed 40 to win and hadn’t yet lost a wicket, it’s fair to say they have surrendered the initiative. If, on the other hand, an hour ago they were 9 down chasing 200, it could reasonably be argued that the Big Mo has swung in their favour.

On Saturday we made 207-6. At drinks we’d been 74-0. At the halfway stage in the opposition’s reply, they were 77-6. Nothing in it in terms of runs, but six wickets is a massive difference. While it certainly wasn’t all over at that point, the momentum was all ours, and confidence in the field was such that it felt like a question of when we’d win, not if.

There comes a point in an innings, a game, a series or even a season, when it seems it’s gone so far one way that to pull it back again is just too big an ask. As in physics: a bolder rolling downhill is not easily stopped.

After Lord’s the India series looked in the balance, could easily have gone either way. At Southampton England gained the initiative, in Manchester they gathered momentum, and by the time they had India 36-5 on the first morning at The Oval, they had all the soul-crushing impetus of a runaway steamroller.

The experts will tell you that a good batsman should ignore what’s happened previously and concentrate on ‘staying in the moment’. This ball. Now. That’s all very well, and a laudable enough aim perhaps, but it also involves him ignoring his own experience – a large part of what makes him a good batsman in the first place.

In practice, you must always be aware of your situation, and very few of us are good enough at compartmentalising not to be affected by it. If you’re Joe Root batting with consummate ease in a side riding the crest of a wave, the situation could hardly be more helpful. If you’re Gautam Gambir and you’ve just played and missed at two overs in a row, the force of momentum seems so enormous, the outcome so inevitable, that to be run out the ball before a rain break is almost a blessing.

- ends 471 words -

Friday, 15 August 2014

Column 24, 2014 – ooncuvered peaches

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 96, Friday August 15, 2014.
[Full text below]

Cricket can ruin your weekend. For some people, getting out takes a whole week to get over. Despite my rich and varied catalogue of options for getting out, I’ve never really suffered from this.

No, what really makes me throw-stuff-across-the-changing-room angry, is being rained off on a lovely day.

If it’s sheeting down all day, then obviously you’re not going to play. But heavy rain the night before or morning of a match, when come 2pm it’s warm and sunny? Nothing is more likely to induce a weekend-long sulk in me.

The only answer is covers. The snag with which is that covers cost about four and a half thousand pounds. Unless…

A few years ago we ‘invested’ in an ancient set of steel cricket cover frames. I’m sure you can sense the sarcasm in those inverted commas.

The frames were so big that they had to be cut in half and transported to our ground in the bucket of Dave’s massive tractor, and then welded back together again.

Marky H is a welder, and brought a portable MIG kit to the ground for several consecutive weekends, joining the bits back together and replacing lost or broken elements with new box-section steel.

We sourced some old lorry curtain-sides and fashioned them into the right size coverings, tensioned underneath with ropes. Experiments showed that even under tension, water would collect in the gaps, so to prevent sagging, Joel, H and I spent hours covering the frames in ‘pig wire’ fencing, donated by sportsfield chairman Rob.

Our groundsman Derek spent days with the garage trying to refurbish the wheels, which under the weight of the frames would deflate or burst. Mark fashioned brackets for makeshift gutters. More welding. More wire. More inner tubes. More 25mm fish pond hose.

Goodness knows how many hundreds of volunteer man-hours went into trying to make those cursed things work. I’ve never really understood the expression “throwing good money after bad” (there was nothing bad about the initial money) but that’s definitely what we did.

They never worked. The uneven sides would leak all over the pitch, the wheels were perpetually flat, the gutters would collapse when moved. They were so heavy they needed four of us to shift each one. Even when they were deployable, more often than not they added to the problems rather than solving them.

Now they rust beyond the boundary, quietly mocking our lack of four and a half grand.

The other Saturday morning we had a crazy amount of rain in a very short time. An hour before the game was due to start, the carcasses of the failed covers looked on sarcastically as large puddles formed on the cut strip, the white lines of the crease washed away along with all hopes of playing.

Two hours later we were up at a local rival’s watching them play in glorious sunshine.

And I had a right sulk on.

- ends 487 words -

Friday, 8 August 2014

Column 23, 2014 – Mixing with politics

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 95, Friday August 8, 2014.
[Full text below]

On the second day of the third Test at Southampton, Moeen Ali wore two wristbands. One said “Save Gaza”, the other said “Free Palestine”.

I happened to be at The Ageas Bowl that day, and at one point Mo was fielding not 10 yards from us. You would never have noticed the wristbands. But the cameras did.

The ECB defended his right to wear them, saying his stance was “humanitarian, not political.” This seems reasonable. Ali is Muslim, but not Palestinian. Born in Birmingham, he’s of Pakistani descent.

The ICC saw it differently. Its code prohibits players from “conveying messages which relate to political, religious or racial activities or causes”, and Ali was warned by match referee David Boon (yes, he of the 52 beers on the plane, now in a rather more sober capacity,) not to wear them again. He is free to express his views on such causes away from cricket, but is not permitted to do so on the field of play. Again this seems reasonable.

Then the very next day, the England team – including Moeen – wore Help for Heroes logos on their shirts to commemorate of the 100th anniversary of WW1. Help for Heroes does terrific work, raising a great deal of money and awareness to help wounded British veterans of recent and current conflicts. But surely no one would pretend it isn’t political. Anything involving the human fallout of nations in armed conflict is by definition political.

Twitter got very aerated. The media’s punchier elements latched on to the apparent hypocrisy. The old arguments about how “sport and politics should never mix” came trundling out.

Sport and politics have always mixed, whether or not they should. In cricket, the Basil D’Oliveira affair played no small part in bringing apartheid to world-wide public attention, and lit the touch paper for South Africa’s exile from international sport that helped end the regime.

More recently, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga risked their lives and guaranteed their own exile from their homeland, wearing black armbands mourning “The death of democracy” in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe during the opening match of the 2003 Cricket World Cup.

Would these incidents have been allowed under today’s rules?

But with hindsight, would anyone rather they hadn’t happened?

Sport at all levels is a great arena for doing good. If you play cricket, chances are you’ll have played in your fair share of charity matches.

In the international game, the McGrath Foundation Pink Test in Sydney, fighting breast cancer in memory of Glenn’s late wife Jane, has in a short time become a cricketing institution. The Lord’s Taveners, A Chance to Shine: it’s everywhere.

Cricket must continue to do its bit to support and draw attention to worthy causes, but there will always be fine lines to be drawn. I do not envy those who must draw them, but the key to doing so must surely be consistency.

- ends 482 words -

Friday, 1 August 2014

Column 22, 2014 – Over Cooked?

NOT Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 94, Friday August 1, 2014.
[Full text below]

The column I wrote this week was on Alastair Cook. It was entirely an opinion piece about Cook and the England captaincy, and my conviction that he shouldn't have it. This was fairly controversial, coming as it did in the wake of perhaps his finest win as captain, in a Test in which he didn't put a foot wrong, either as batsman or skipper. 

The editor decided that there were too many opinion pieces on Cook in this week's paper, (David Hayter, Aakash Chopra, Paul Nixon, Ashley Giles,) and one more solely on the England captain from a columnist whose brief is the amateur/fan's perspective on the game was one too many. He elected, as is his inalienable right  his job, in fact  not to run it. 

Ironically, the only one not to run took me by far the longest to write. It's a complicated and involved subject, and was whittled down from an initial brain-splurge of nearly two and a half thousand words. Though I remain sure of the convictions in it, I was not as surprised as I thought I'd be that it didn't run. If that makes any sense.

Here it is. (The paper writes the headlines, which is why it doesn't have one.)

The column will return to the paper next week. If selected, of course.

2014 column 22

Here’s a contentious premise: Alastair Cook’s Rose Bowl runs were bad for England.

Cook made 95 dogged, hard-fought runs in the first innings, and it would take a hard heart indeed not to feel happy for him, or rise with the crowd and the ovation that clapped him off the field. There’s a lot of goodwill for Cook, and rightly so.

But I honestly don’t think it did him or England any favours. The likelihood is that runs for batsman Cook will mean a stay of execution for captain Cook – wrongheaded, but almost certain to be the case.

Had he continued his run drought, sooner rather than later the powers that be would surely have been forced to relieve him of the captaincy. For the wrong reasons, but that’s how this works.

I am an Alastair Cook fan. I remember his debut in Nagpur in the winter of 2006. Trescothic went home with depression, Vaughan’s knee flared up, and Cook was flown in at the last minute. It was a dramatic, daring rescue, a fresh faced public school choirboy whisked off the plane and straight out to open the batting for England. It was like a Boy’s Own fantasy adventure.

He instantly belonged, scoring a half century in the first innings, and a full one in the second. He has never looked back. Eight years and 25 centuries later, he’s never been dropped. There was a period in 2010 when he was out of form and there was some talk of dropping him, but that was swiftly forgotten after a magical Ashes tour with 766 runs at over 125.

He is a fantastic batsman.

Remember that guy? I want that guy back. The guy who averaged 125 opening the batting against Australia.

Remember him? He’s only 29. He could still be opening the batting for England in the next Ashes, and the one after that. And the one after that.

Will he though? If he continues to also be saddled with a job he is so clearly not very good at, and which is so evidently stressing him out?

He is not a good captain.

The nascent young England team (six of this side have single figure Test caps; the seventh is Joe Root) needs to coalesce as a unit, and they need to do it under a strong captain who can take them forward. I don’t believe Cook is that captain, I don’t know anyone who believes Cook is that captain, and I can’t help wondering if the only people who do are those with a vested political interest. And him.

Cook making runs in Southampton will not miraculously make him a good captain. All it will do is delay the inevitable – either he goes as a captain or he goes altogether. And for my money, as a fan of both, that delay is bad for Alastair Cook, and it is bad for England.

- ends 485 words -

Friday, 25 July 2014

Column 21, 2014 – The science of catching

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 93, Friday July 25, 2014.
[Full text below]

Wednesday night I was under a massive skied top edge which went so far up that air traffic control got involved. I had what seemed a good minute while it flirted with the upper atmosphere to debate the relative merits of the English way (fingers pointing down) or the Australian way (fingers pointing up).

Exactly what goes on when we catch a ball is a question that has taxed brighter minds than mine for generations.

The first actions on a flying ball are how and where it is hit: force, direction, elevation. Then there’s gravity, which, all things being equal, should mean it describes a perfect parabola before returning to earth. But things are never equal. Next is air resistance or friction, which will vary greatly depending on the rate and direction of spin, the condition of the ball and the turbulence in the boundary layer around it created by this combination, then wind speed, temperature, altitude and barometric pressure.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: “When a man catches a ball he behaves as if he had solved a set of differential equations predicting its trajectory. At some subconscious level, something functionally equivalent to the mathematical calculation is going on.”

The mathematical theories have grand names: ‘Trajectory Projection’, ‘Linear Optical Trajectory’ and ‘Optical Acceleration Cancellation’. Combining most of them to a greater or lesser extent is something called the gaze heuristic. A heuristic is an experience-based problem solving technique – learning by trial and error: we know roughly how a cricket ball will behave in the air because we’ve seen it before. We keep it central in our field of vision using our three-dimensional depth perception to manage relative position: forwards, backwards, left and right, to keep the ball in our crosshairs until we intercept it.

Researchers at EPFL, Switzerland’s federal institute of technology, are using a version of the gaze heuristic to teach a robotic arm to catch objects in under five-hundredths of a second. Real time calculation takes far too long, so the arm uses information gathered from previous similar trajectories, matched to motion-capture studies of the way humans move their hands and fingers to catch. Rather than real time trajectory computation it relies on data from previous experiments. Which is another way of saying experience. The arm is still in development but currently has a catching success rate of nearly 70%.

I’d take that any day. Especially under a skier.

I elected in the end to eschew both English and Australian methods, and tried a third way, known technically as ‘the crocodile’, or colloquially as “a complete hash of it.” Still smoking from atmospheric re-entry, the ball ricocheted off the heel of my hand into my eye, leaving me with a splendid shiner with which to advertise my heuristic ineptitude for the next week or so.

All of which, in case it’s unclear, means I dropped a sitter.

- ends 480 words -

Friday, 18 July 2014

Column 20, 2014 – The Spirit of Cricket

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 92, Friday July 18, 2014.
[Full text below]

The spirit of cricket usually only gets dusted off when people behave badly or contentiously. This happens roughly once a year, to conveniently remind us that a) there is a spirit of cricket, and b) no one is entirely sure what it is.

This year we’ve had the Butler-Mankad brouhaha. Last summer, there was the startlingly hypocritical Broad-not-walking commotion. And the last time India were over, we had the Bell run-out-and-reinstatement kerfuffle.

Since 2000 the spirit of cricket is enshrined in MCC’s Laws as a ‘preamble’. This in itself is controversial, many believing that to attempt to pin it down is to miss the point. I’ve just re-read it, and if the preamble is the best we can do, I am inclined to agree.

Golf has an unofficial code of conduct which is both memorable and followable: “Play the course as you find it and the ball as it lies. If you can’t do either, do what’s fair.” Isn’t that splendidly concise? There’s a lot of ground covered there.

Maybe cricket would benefit from something similarly pithy. But cricket generally prefers to be ambiguous and waffley, which ultimately perhaps is part of its charm.

Usually the spirit of cricket is only brought up when called into question. Rarely is it arbitrarily celebrated. Well, I seem to have inadvertently spent the weekend doing just that.

In our Saturday league game I had a hugely enjoyable duel with a left arm over quick bowling with a 7-2 offside field and a packed slip cordon. Very infrequently he over-pitched and I drove him straight, but mostly he had the better of the exchange.

Eventually I drove at one that wasn’t quite there and snicked a textbook edge to second slip. The bowler ran up as I trudged off, grinning from ear to ear, put an arm round my shoulders and said “Batted mate! You and I could have done that all day, eh? That was great fun!” Grinning back despite myself, I had to agree.

And there, I thought, is the spirit of cricket.

What an excellent attitude. That’s what we’re doing here. When the ball is live, we are enemies. When the ball is dead, we are comrades, united by a shared obsession.

This was my one weekend a year when I was given special spousal dispensation to play both days. Sunday, a friend’s schoolmates, Old Purleians CC, came down the M3. One of cricket’s great strengths is that it is just as pleasurable as a process as it is as a contest. In friendly matches, winning comes a distant second to a good close game. Brilliantly, the game was tied, after which we sat in the pub garden, drank beer and swapped cricket stories until the sun went down.

In conclusion I am happy to report that, contrary to reports of its demise, the spirit of cricket is alive and well and living in the country.

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Friday, 11 July 2014

Column 19, 2014 – Local derby

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 91, Friday July 11, 2014.
[Full text below]

There are several village teams near us who all play in Hampshire Cricket League Regional Division One. A couple of them we get on well with, and share players for nets, friendlies, Wednesday night cricket, and indoor winter leagues.

When the Saturday league fixtures are published in January, it’s these you check first, warming your feet by the crackling fire in the pub, daydreaming of long summer days, and even longer winter bragging rights.

Saturday was Damerham v Godshill. It’s a big one. My good friend and drinking buddy Clive plays for Godshill. As does his eldest, Ross, while his younger one, Ben, plays for us. Several other Godzillas have become mates off the field too.

On the field it’s all so intertwined that there was only one guy in the side we played against on Saturday that has not been a team mate of mine at some point in a Wednesday, indoor or friendly game.

Of course this lends the Saturday league derby a level of expectation that can only possibly result in disappointment. And this it duly delivered. In spades.

Ben had a post-A-level blowout with his mates, Joel had a dirty weekend, Al had a broken thumb, Andy had an anniversary, Pards had to work, Mark’s nipper had a football tournament. It went on. We did scrape 11 together eventually, Crispin valiantly hobbling out of retirement, and Gary roping in two fireman colleagues to rescue us, but it’s fair to say that it wasn’t our strongest side.

Speaking of strong sides, the other ‘Big Game’ on Saturday was the MCC vs ROW match celebrating 200 years of cricket at Lord’s. Few games this year can have had more hype and publicity, and the line up of legends was indeed impressive. Though I was at a loss to understand why it was laced with current internationals. Is there really a shortage of ex-players? Anyone knock on Sky’s door? Or were they worried the legends wouldn’t manage 50 overs without assistance?

They promised very different games, Lord’s and Godshill, but both were pretty much guaranteed to be a let down, for almost entirely opposite reasons.

The Lord’s game was needlessly overstaffed, and no one gave a monkey’s who won. The Godshill game was catastrophically understaffed, and we probably cared a little bit too much about who won.

The Lord’s game was ruined by Saeed Ajmal, the best ODI bowler in the world, with an inconvenient spell of 4-5, and Aaron Finch, one of the international game’s hottest young batsman, smashing 181*.

Ours was ruined by a complete and total absence of Saeed Ajmal for us, and imperious knocks of 159* and 90* from Coops and Chris for Godshill.

But in our game at least, no one broke anyone’s hand with a beamer, and no one called a former team mate an effing c-word. That kind of stuff is best left to the pros.

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