Friday, 28 March 2014

Column 4, 2014 - An extra little zing

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 76, Friday March 28, 2014. [Full text below]

Every other week it seems, some new thing is introduced to cricket to tweak it just a little bit, primp it or rejig it in some way. The game is constantly changing by tiny increments. We just can’t leave it alone.

Sometimes this is bad, sometimes it’s good.

Helmets changed the game, probably for the better. Enormous bats are changing the game. I’m not sure that is better. Having two new balls has changed ODIs. I’m pretty sure that isn’t better.

Hawk-Eye, Hot Spot, DRS and all that, well, I remain unconvinced. What I am convinced about though, is that umpires calling for TV reviews on every single run out, and us watching half a dozen slow-motion replays of batsmen out by a yard from four different angles, has definitely not enhanced cricket as a spectacle.

What has? Well, I don’t know when it was that boundaries started creeping in from the hoardings, but it was definitely a good thing. The kind of fully committed athletic boundary fielding now common in all forms of the game wouldn’t be possible without it. And those squishy Toblerone-like advertising ‘boundary sponges’ provide a similar satisfaction to knocking over walls made of colourful toy bricks. They’re not only safer to slide into, they look great while you’re doing it. They have, I would say, improved cricket as a spectacle.

Which brings me to my favourite innovation of recent times, and one I’m delighted to see making its ICC debut at the World T20 – the crazy light-up bails.

First seen, by me at any rate, during the 2012 Aussie domestic T20 tournament The Big Bash, the bails are called Zings. They have movement sensors in the spigots which detect when they’re dislodged, and trigger the LEDs.

They look fantastic. They add drama and a sort of kitsch glamour to stumpings and run outs, and a spectacular firework quality to being bowled. I don’t see a downside at all. They look great, and they might occasionally be helpful in tight decisions.

Obviously, I needed some.

After a bit of digging I wrote to the Australian company ( that makes them, asking if they were planning to make them commercially available. The ones on the telly send a signal to the stumps within 1/1000th of a second, which then light up as well, and cost $40k a set. Obviously that’s slightly over the top for village cricket, but how about just the movement-sensitive bails, without the radio tech?

The postage took a month and was almost as much as the bails, and they got stopped by customs on the way in and slapped with VAT and a handling charge, but I don’t care.

Murky midweek games at Damerham this summer will be lit up by the bright flashing lights of what might be (I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised) the first set of Zings in England. Roll on the gloomy evenings.

- ends 486 words -

Friday, 21 March 2014

Column 3, 2014 - Mental disintegration

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 75, Friday March 21, 2014. [Full text below]

Michael Vaughan, writing in The Telegraph in the UK and The Age in Australia this week, thinks he’s been taken for a ride. Trescothic (‘depression’) was ill, whereas Trott (‘burn-out’) “did a runner”.

Vaughan says he feels “conned”. Trott’s was not a mental problem, he declares, but a cricketing one. “We were allowed to believe he was struggling with a serious mental health issue and treated him with sensitivity and sympathy.” Which Michael clearly feels he doesn’t deserve.

Andy Flower, a man always notable for his careful choice of words, referred to the reason for Jonathon Trott’s premature departure from Australia as a “stress related condition”.

That is deliberately vague. It’s a term that could encompass irritable bowels, a Reggie Perrin style midlife crisis, or full-on manic episodes. It could even, I think, be successfully argued that Ben Stokes’ wrist, which he broke punching a locker in frustration, is a stress related condition.

I’m not being flippant. I’m trying to illustrate that these are very blurry lines in a very large, very grey area. I for one am not at all sure of the distinction between stress, nerves, anxiety, burn-out and depression. Though as I understand it, burn-out is by definition related to stress, whereas depression is often completely unconnected to it.

All of them seem more prevalent in contemporary society, though figures are very hard to come by, skewed by a diagnosis rate that’s gone through the roof. It’s certainly become an important industry for Big Pharma, which cynics might suggest is not necessarily above persuading people that ordinary and understandable lows are chemical imbalances which need treating with drugs. Valium and Prozac did not become household names by accident.

Theories for the increase include too little and too much exercise, too little and too much free time, heavy metal toxicity, and the inexorable rise of consumerism and junk food.

I’ve no idea what causes it. But I know it’s real. In the last few years several of my close family and friends have suffered from one form or another of “stress related condition”.

Some were treated with drugs, some with psychiatrists, some simply with time, all with sensitivity and sympathy. Every single one of the episodes was scary and disorienting for the people around them, and completely overwhelming for the people concerned. Normally buoyant, energetic people, crippled by feelings beyond their control.

Cricket is a game with a significant mental aspect. Much of what is done tactically is designed to deliberately deceive, unsettle and destabilise an opponent; to sew doubt in their mind. Especially at the very highest level. Steve Waugh famously rechristened sledging ‘mental disintegration’.

Can it be surprising if people occasionally fall victim to these plans? And if they do, are they just losers? Undeserving of our understanding, or even a backward glance?

I don’t know what went on in Jonathon Trott’s head, but whatever it was I believe it was genuine, beyond his control, and absolutely deserving of sensitivity and sympathy.

- ends 496 words -

Friday, 14 March 2014

Column 2, 2014 - Sucking the joy

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 74, Friday March 14, 2014. [Full text below]

Cricket is supposed to be fun. Professional sport, lest those who run it forget, is entertainment. They’re in showbiz.

Of course, entertainment is often more fun when you take it seriously. But there’s taking it seriously and there’s treating it like mergers and acquisitions. If you forget or ignore why people like it, all you’re left with is suits and corporate lingo.

Recently cricket has been subsumed by the language of the boardroom, a sort of ‘smartest guys in the room’ mentality apparently designed to suck the joy out of it, and get as far away as possible from the fact that they’re talking about grown men hitting a leather ball with a wooden bat.

Opaque media releases designed to say nothing of value, obfuscation and misdirection, bland party-line press conferences full of platitudes and positives disguising the iron fist of ruthless commercial decision making.

Take the ICC’s recent coup, or ‘board meeting’ as they prefer to call it, in which the ‘Big Three’ of England, India and Australia effectively assumed control of the world game. There was a sinister Orwellian insistence that agreement to the proposals was unanimous. To channel Douglas Adams for a moment, this was obviously some strange usage of the word “unanimous” that I wasn’t previously aware of.

Bangladesh were threatened that India would pull out of the Asia Cup and World T20, South Africa simply that they’d be stranded with no one to play. In this way, the other members it seems were effectively bullied into acquiescence, press-ganged into a new world order with the kind of behaviour you might have hoped would be left in the playground: my ball, my bat, if you want to play, do as I say. Unanimous.

And it’s not just the global power struggles. Look at the clinical excision of Kevin Pietersen, and the absolute information vacuum surrounding it, again packaged as “unanimous”. This is not the behaviour of people who wear tracksuits to work. It’s the behaviour of people who wear thousand pound suits to work.

Cricket has embraced the politician’s skill of answering the question you want to answer, rather than the one you’re asked. It doesn’t matter who’s right – certainly not who’s best at cricket – the winners are the ones who are best at arguing. The ones with the best lawyers.

On the eve of the World T20, let’s remember that all sport at its core is a meritocracy: money, class, race and status bow to talent, ability, and Lady Luck. Cricket especially is full of stories confirming the if-you’re-good-enough-you’re-in principle. Afghanistan is an inspiring recent example of sport showing politics what success looks like.

The World T20 is the youngest and most exuberant of ICC events. I hope, I really hope, that for three weeks in Bangladesh cricket leaves the lawyers at home and remembers how thrilling it can be, how valuable it is, how much joy it can bring. I hope it remembers to have fun.

- ends 492 words -

Friday, 7 March 2014

Column 1, 2014 - The McCullum column

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 73, Friday March 7, 2014. [Full text below]

I’ve been lucky enough to be in New Zealand for the last month. (Yeah, it was amazing, thanks. You should SO go. You’d love it.)

When the trip was first mooted, over a year ago, India had a three Test tour of NZ scheduled for February, and it looked like I’d get to the Basin Reserve. I’ve always wanted to go there. It’s a proper old school Test ground, with those grassy banks purpose built for indolent lounging.

But by the end of last summer The ODI junkies at the BCCI had swapped the third Test for a few more one-dayers, and the new schedule meant we’d be down in the South Island by the time the Test got to ‘Welly’.

So India’s insatiable ODI habit denied me my foreign Test fix before I’d set foot in NZ.

I’m not bitter, but the Wellington Test the BCCI made me miss was one of the greats of the modern age, breaking record after record and churning out an endless stream of stats. ‘The highest sixth wicket partnership in Test history’ is probably the pick of the records, and my favourite of the stats is Ishant Sharma recording his career best figures of 6-51 and his worst of 0-164 in the same match.

And, like all great matches, even as the geeks salivated over the stats, they all agreed they did not tell the whole story. Because the story was Brendan McCullum.

McCullum is a likeable cricketer. An unorthodox, attacking captain, his media persona is excessively polite and softly spoken, but he looks like a tattooed working class hardman whose pint you would go out of your way not to spill. He usually bats with the casual backstreet brutality his looks suggest, but not this time. This time he batted with the measured, thoughtful determination his voice suggests.

I was 500 miles south of Wellington in a café in Te Anau when, visibly exhausted but still running threes, with an injured back, knee and shoulder, after two days and ten minutes at the crease, he became the 24th player – and the very first Kiwi – to bring up a Test triple century. There was an extended Indian family watching it on the TV in the café, shaking their heads with the wearied resignation of England fans watching Amla.

He had come in to bat with his side three down and 200 behind. Now they were 400 ahead, and offering a defiantly raised mid-digit to the misguided notion of a two-tiered Test system.

Cricket in New Zealand plays a distant second fiddle to the national obsession of rugby, (even the Basin Reserve is on Rugby Street) much as it does to football in England. So it was great to see McCullum and his team dominating both front and back pages of the NZ press for all the right reasons the following day, under chest-thumping headlines like CAPTAIN FANTASTIC.

As it so often does from such epic draws, cricket emerged victorious.

- ends 496 words -