Friday, 25 April 2014

Column 8, 2014 – New era?

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 80, Friday April 25, 2014. [Full text below]

As a member of the cricketing public – someone with no more access to inside information than anyone else on the outside – my impression of England cricket management is of an entrenched, old school, jobs-for-the-boys club where the most important qualification is the right tie. It has one eye on the purse-strings, one eye on an early G&T, and its back to the future.

I’d dearly like this impression to be wrong, but the announcement that Peter ‘Moorsey’ Moores will have a second crack at the England head coach job does little to dispel it.

Through Flower’s retirement, Pietersen’s exile and Cook’s cementing as the one solid foundation block for The New England to be built upon, there was much talk of starting afresh, a new era, a clean break.

The impression this gave was an exciting one. A shiny new set-up, sparkling with innovative approaches and contemporary ideas; a modern-era powerhouse, fizzing with energy, bursting with untapped potential.

Moores represents the precise opposite of a new era – namely the old era. Last time he had the job, Moores was Flower’s boss. They come from the same school of analytical, stat driven, attritional cricket. Laptops, spreadsheets, gyms, and quinoa.

They are similarly in thrall to corporate flummery. Moores is a past master of being on the same page, singing from the same hymn sheet, cultures, consultants, advisors and support staff. Team England is a brand to be honed by values and soundbites. They want their cricketers to ‘execute their skillsets’ and ‘express themselves on the field’.

And crucially they share an attitude to the elephant in the room. Moores famously fell out with Pietersen before it was quite so fashionable to do so, in the process of losing this job the first time around. Though he maintains “I never fell out with Kevin, Kevin fell out with me,” his return effectively guarantees that KP will not get one.

Cook says Flower will have no influence on the rebuilding of the national team, though he has been using him as an advisor on captaincy since he retired, and will continue to do so. Moores also says he’ll use Flower as a sounding board.

Well pardon my pedantry, but that sounds a teensy bit like a position of influence to me.

From the shortlist they were working from, Moores may have been the best option. (Though Downton’s objection to Giles’ lack of experience is eyebrow-raising, from a man with such depth of experience in running the national side that six months ago he was a stockbroker.)

I just think they were working from the wrong shortlist.

I have nothing against Peter Moores. I’m sure he’s a lovely chap who is kind to children and animals. I’m also sure his intentions are honourable, and as an England cricket fan I wish him all the luck and success in the world.

But the ‘clean break’ and ‘fresh start’ and ‘new era’ we were promised, he very definitely is not.

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Friday, 18 April 2014

Column 7, 2014 – Leggie theory

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 79, Friday April 18, 2014. [Full text below]

I was never quick enough, even as a kid, to bowl seam effectively. I needed to do something with it, and my fingers just won’t do the offy thing. So I became a leggie.

It’s not the most sensible decision. Legspin is often described as cricket’s most difficult art. Sometimes I think maybe I do it so I’ll have an excuse when it all goes horribly wrong.

Attempting to flick the ball with your wrist, roughly perpendicular to the direction of travel, means accuracy in both line and length is, let’s be honest, rather less than guaranteed.

The googly – one of my favourite words as well as one of my favourite things – flips the ball out of the back of the hand. So really not that much more likely to be accurate.

Get it right of course, and it’s tremendous. There are few things more satisfying than a batsman propping forward to defend a ball on a good length and it spitting past his outside edge. Or backing away to cut an innocuous looking wide leg break, only for it to turn the other way and bowl him through the gate.

The bane of the leggie can be summed up in two words: Shane Warne. He was so ridiculously good, so unreasonably accurate, that whenever anyone now comes across a leggie, even in village cricket, they’re disappointed if you don’t drift it a foot, land it on a sixpence and then rip it two feet back. “Leggies can turn it on anything, can’t they?” That guy has a lot to answer for.

But recently, we’ve seen a mini leggie resurgence.

The West Indian Samuel Badree is a leggie of such chutzpah, that he opens the bowling and bowls through in T20s. This is a high risk strategy, but he excels at it. If the opening bowler’s job in T20 is to not let the big hitters hit big, he was the best opening bowler in the WT20 by a country mile.

Also at the WT20, India’s Amit Mishra was a joy. He is not afraid to float the ball up, and occasionally he mixes all four of the magic ingredients – flight, drift, turn and bounce – to dramatic and always watchable effect. It will be fascinating to see how he gets on in English conditions this summer.

Scott Borthwick is an interesting prospect for England, front of the queue after Swann’s departure. It remains to be seen if he keeps that place at the start of the summer, against some of the least helpful conditions and best players of spin in the world.

And some might be worried to see the potential successor to Warne emerge in the confident and self-assured shape of the 20 year old James Muirhead, who’s not afraid to toss it up and rips it almost sideways.

But to me this is far from worrying. As a lover of cricket’s dark art, they are all welcome prospects, wherever they’re from.

- ends 493 words -

Monday, 14 April 2014

Column 6, 2014 – Embracing the inner Eeyore

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 78, Friday April 11, 2014. [Full text below]

The general demeanour of the English cricket fan is one of weary pessimism.

Our default setting is put-upon gloom. Struggling through, staggering on regardless, stoically accepting our lot.

Much of this, for anyone past their mid-twenties, is due to just how spectacularly depressing England were to follow for most of the latter part of the twentieth century.

Whether we were being routinely humbled in the Ashes, or almost literally murdered by the West Indies in their pomp, the English cricket fan knew what to expect, and came to accept it. Almost to enjoy it.

There is a certain I-told-you-so satisfaction to be had in keeping desperate vigil over yet another spineless collapse. We became a nation of cricketing Eeyores, wallowing in our own self perpetuating misery.

A lot of it is also down to the weather. The home of cricket (by which I mean England, though by dint of being in it, Lord’s is far from immune) is cursed with such dreadful conditions for the game, that it’s only sensible to expect the worst.

For devotees of a pursuit that becomes miserable in light mizzle, and impossible in anything heavier, it’s only self defence to be predisposed to pessimism in a climate which excels at both.

The first day of the 2014 first class season last weekend took place under slate grey skies and persistent drizzle. At Trent Bridge play got underway under lights, and at Hove under both lights and umbrellas. It was delayed for rain at The Oval, and just down the road from me at The Rose Bowl, Hampshire abandoned the morning for an early lunch, before abandoning the day mid afternoon at 30-3.

Recently, 30-3 has been another cause for pessimism.

The scoreline became a recurring theme through last summer’s home Ashes series, and many of us embraced our inner Eeyore despite the flattering 3-1 win, resigned to the early signs of a return to the status quo.

Because in recent years, England have been really rather good. Winning more often than losing, and even occasionally clinging on for unlikely draws.

But were we ever really comfortable with it? It’s often said that English teams – all sport, not just cricket – don’t like being favourites. We prefer scrapping from a position of weakness, ideally one of our own making. Much though in these T20 days we may rail against it, we are not a naturally brash people, given to the strutting arrogance of the sure winner. The plucky underdog is much more us.

So in many ways England’s return to their bad old ways over this winter of discontent feels like a kind of homecoming.

The most surprising thing about being pummelled by the Dutch as a parting gift after crashing out of a World Cup at the earliest opportunity was just how few of us found it the least bit surprising. We were, once again, pessimistic enough to expect it.

How’ve you been, Eeyore? We missed you.

- ends 491 words -

Friday, 4 April 2014

Column 5, 2014 - They need to talk about Kevin

Printed in The Cricket Paper issue 77, Friday April 4, 2014. [Full text below]

So then. Is now a good time to talk about Kevin?

As an England cricket fan, I’m still annoyed about the whole Kevin Pietersen saga.

I’m surmising – which is all anyone can do with the almost total absence of facts – that the ECB has decided to put all its eggs in Cook’s basket, and Cook has decided that KP is too risky to have around all those delicate eggs.

Is it personal? Do they just not like each other? What exactly is the ‘disruption’ KP is accused of? What is it he does (sorry: did) that the massed ranks of blue tracksuited doctors, psychologists, mentors, coaches and managers cannot contain?

I’d love to know. I think we all would.

Judging by the burnt bridges and acrimonious dressing rooms strewn in his wake, he’s clearly not an easy guy to get on with.

Text-Gate was perhaps unforgivable, but forgiven he was. And let’s not forget that it was Cook, in taking over from Strauss (who you sense would not have had him back, and perhaps even walked prematurely to facilitate his return), who was instrumental in his ‘reintegration’.

To volte-face and give up now and have everyone sign confidentiality agreements like squabbling Hollywood divorcees just seems ridiculous.

Ridiculous or not, they’re sticking to it. “English supporters must move on. There isn’t going to be any going back, that’s for sure,” says ECB chairman Giles Clarke.

Helpful. So what about the new coach? It’s rumoured that top candidate Gary Kirsten turned the job down flat because Pietersen (The £880k captain of the IPL side Kirsten coaches) would be off limits. What if Cook doesn’t regain form with the bat and is himself replaced? Is KP still banned? What about the captain after that? The coach after that?

It’s a bizarre situation.

Cards on the table: I’ve never been a fan of KP the bloke. He does not top my ‘cricketers-I’d-love-to-have-a-beer-and-a-chat-with’ list. But when he lets his bat do the talking, few can match him.

His destruction of Dale Steyn at Headingly, on the brink of the Text-Gate scandal in 2012, is a perfect illustration.

Steyn was the number one fast bowler in the world, and that afternoon Pietersen made him look like a third change medium pacer in a Sunday friendly. He flayed him over cover, ambled casually down the track and biffed him back over his head, and slogged him through cow corner like an impish schoolboy ignoring his coach’s instructions to play straight. But the moment he owned that exchange was the shot that followed, an exaggerated forward defensive with that characteristic big stride, which seemed to say to Steyn: “I could have hit that anywhere I wanted. I chose not to.” It was the most sarcastic cricket shot I’ve ever seen. Patronising and supremely arrogant, it was the very definition of letting your bat do the talking.

There is no one else in English cricket whose bat has that breadth of vocabulary, and I for one will miss it.

And I think we deserve to know why.

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