Friday, 31 July 2015

Column 25, 2015 – You'll never walk alone

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 128, Friday July 31, 2015.
[Full text below]

        (Not all that delighted with how I was subbed this week.
        Suggest you read the original text, below the pic.)

I got myself into another ‘walking debate’ on twitter again the other day.

A columnist (not a cricket specialist; a political commentator writing about cricket) expressed the opinion that Jos Buttler walking in the second Ashes Test at Lord’s was refreshing, and caused him to reflect once more on what a shame it is that cricket is no longer on free-to-air telly, as that’s exactly the sort of honourable conduct he thought impressionable youngsters should witness from sporting heroes.

A little dewy-eyed perhaps, but fundamentally I agree. (Somewhat surprisingly, as I disagree with most of what he says.)

A cricket writer expressed derision for this bleeding heart sentiment. I enquired after the nature of the contempt. Another writer joined in. Here, in essence, is their stance.

Walking is not a thing, said one. It doesn’t matter if you do it or not, we shouldn’t focus on it. All it does is fuel the ‘spirit of cricket’ pomposity which blights the game. Exactly, said the other. The spirit of cricket is baloney. [I’m paraphrasing.] In fact, I’ll go further: it does matter, walking is selfish, no professional cricketer should ever walk as it’s never in their team’s best interests.

I understand this attitude, especially in the professional game with professional umpires. But I disagree with it. Which is fine, of course. Other opinions are available.

In their view, the issue is whether the umpire thinks you hit it. In mine, the issue is whether you think you hit it.

You hit it, they catch it, you’re out. That’s cricket. I don’t mean that’s ‘the spirit of cricket’, I mean that’s cricket. That’s the game.

Their version seems to be “don’t-get-caught-getting-caught”. Which, as well as less fair, to me also seems a lot less interesting than cricket.

Saturday was the last of our league derbies, against Hyde. We know them well, share nets and players for friendlies, midweek and indoor leagues. This always lends Saturday derbies spice.

I turn my head to see the ball hit the keeper’s gloves and the slips go up. I didn’t hit it. I’m sure I didn’t hit it. If I thought I had, I’d be walking.

The cordon’s clearly convinced, but only one opinion matters. I turn back to see it delivered via an unequivocally raised index finger as the appeals turn to celebrations. I feel that momentary flash of indignation at being given out, usually reserved for LBWs. That’s life. No one said it was fair. Head down, I turn for the pavilion.

I’m not even halfway there when a second, rather larger indignation creeps over me. This one is much more complicated and subtle. These people I play cricket with, teammates on other days, are going to assume I did that on purpose. They’ll think I hit it and deliberately stood my ground. That’s what it’ll look like: like I’m playing “don’t-get-caught-getting-caught” instead of cricket.

Talk about not fair.

- ends 485 words -

Friday, 24 July 2015

Column 24, 2015 – Four day endurance test

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 127, Friday July 24, 2015.
[Full text below]

Every club cricketer harbours daydreams of playing a full, first-class-style-two-innings match. If I’ve had this conversation once, I’ve had it a dozen times. “11am start. Lunch and tea. No bowling restrictions, no over restrictions, just bat till you’re out. Twice. Amazing – we should so do that!”

They usually happen at either end of the season, these conversations, when enthusiasm is high, or the prospect of the long cricketless months is looming large again. Or in the depths of January, when the winter tours are in full swing and we’re up into the early hours watching England toil in equatorial sunshine.

The conversations invariably conclude with the doubtless accurate assertion that it would either result in a very long game with very low scores, or it’d be all over inside a day. These are village cricketers we’re talking about, after all. Besides, 22 blokes off work and domestic duty for three extra cricket days? The organisation alone is surely beyond us. It’ll never happen.

I like to delude myself that my batting lends itself to a longer game. You know the sort of thing: patience, defend the good balls, leave anything off-line, punish the bad balls. Brigadier Block. The Wall. I indulge this delusion, despite a convincing pile of evidence to the contrary.

The latest neatly provided by England’s attempts to staunchly bat out the draw for a day and a half at Lord’s, crushed in 37 overs. TMS had a telling stat: batting five sessions to save a Test has only ever happened five times.

But that doesn’t stop us weekend warriors wanting a crack at it.

The other factor is fitness. If I bat for 30 overs, I know about it all week. If I bowl 10 overs of gentle leggies, my shoulder aches for days. Bat all day? Bowl 25 overs? Three days on the trot? Not sure I’d make it.

Doing the fixtures this winter, a next-best-thing opportunity presented itself. Old Wimbledonians, a big London club, were touring the New Forest and had one fixture left to fill – did we fancy a game on the Monday?

With a league game on Saturday, and a friendly scheduled for the Sunday, this could be the closest I ever get to the full game. Not one three day game, admittedly, but three consecutive days. To top it off, I’d be at Lord’s for the Test on Friday. I’ve been looking forward to it all year. Would I survive this four day endurance test!?

The answer, somewhat predictably, was deeply disappointing. Saturday we got almost as soundly thrashed as England at Lord’s. I was one of several ducks, clean bowled through the Delusional Brigadier Block Wall. I’ve had more tiring bowel movements. Sunday the opposition couldn’t raise a side so I spent the day being dad-taxi, and Monday I was out for 8 in two overs and took 1 for 8 in two overs, comprehensively cancelling myself out.

My four day endurance test turned out to be basically a weekend off.

- ends 500 words -

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Column 23, 2015 – Useless tosser

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 126, Friday July 17, 2015.
[Full text below]

An old friend of mine, who’s also a psychologist, a statistician and a game-theory geek, almost convinced me once that there is no such thing as luck.

Chance, Tom says, yes of course. But one’s propensity to succeed in matters of chance is merely an illusion of our own devising. “A quantifiable parameter of a statistical distribution”, luck is a convenient way to talk about how chance is apportioned, nothing more.

That makes sense. Though it’s hard to buy it completely.

What is lucky? Lucky socks or similar are clearly a ludicrous construct, worthy of the snorts of derision usually reserved for astrology. But it remains hard to resist the notion that there’s some element of luck in the toss of a coin. And the toss is the only aspect in all forms of cricket that is entirely down to chance.

Napoleon famously said that he’d rather have lucky generals than good ones. Our captain Henry is a fine all round cricketer, but frankly a useless tosser. If you see what I mean.

Of the ten Saturday tosses this season, he’s lost eight. That’s actually quite unlikely in itself. Each in isolation is a 50/50 chance, and of course the coin cares nothing for history. But if you take them as a sequence of 50% chances, it’s tempting to see the likelihood of repeating the result halving each time. So in a five Test series like the Ashes for example, if Cook won the first four, he’d have a 96.875% probability of losing the last one. (At the Oval. Now, is that wise?)

Total nonsense, of course. If you toss a coin 10,000 times, you’ll get roughly 5,000 heads and 5,000 tails. Five is too small a sample to be statistically relevant. And each time it happens it’s still a 50/50 chance.

A more important question might be: do you want to win the toss?

There’s always much discussion about it on Saturdays, but the truth is, in good weather, it comes down to whether you as a team prefer setting or chasing a target. Test cricket is different. Ask Nasser Hussain about Brisbane 2002, or Ricky Ponting about Edgbaston 2005 – Michael Vaughan has gone so far as to say that Ponting’s decision to bowl first that game cost him the Ashes.

Statistically this year, we are more likely to win when we bat first (five out of seven) but only when we’re put in. Of H’s two successful tosses, he batted once and bowled once. We lost both.

Which has led him to pose an interesting question: if you win the toss, can you still defer the decision to your opponent?

The laws don’t help answer this question. Law 12.4 states: “The captains shall toss for the choice of innings…” but it doesn’t say that the winner must decide. So how about: “My decision is: you decide”?

Or he could just keep doing what he’s doing. Stay lucky mate: lose the toss.

- ends 493 words -

Friday, 10 July 2015

Column 22, 2015 – The best catch ever

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 125, Friday July 10, 2015.
[Full text below]

Ben is a first-year uni student, back for the summer seemingly twice the size and twice the player. Under a high one at deep square leg last week, he was composed enough to take his eye off the ball and note that his heels were just inside the rope – any step back would mean six. As it happened, he pouched it cleanly without moving.

I think it was probably Adam Voges, Australia’s late blooming Test batsman, (who may or may not have made his Ashes debut by the time you read this,) [he did] who raised the bar for the boundary catch, as recently as 2009.

Every aspect of cricket has changed at a dizzying rate these last few years.

If you were to draw a graph for the pace of change in human history, it would be a more-or-less horizontal line for tens of thousands of years, curve sharply from the start of the industrial revolution, and in the latter part of the twentieth century, go more-or-less straight up.

A compressed version of this graph has happened in cricket in the last few short years, with the IPL standing in for the industrial revolution.

KP’s reverse-slog-sweep six off Murali ushered in the ‘switch hit’ paradigm shift. A few years later Voges was, I think, the first to pull off the type of spectacular solo relay catch that has yet to be satisfactorily christened.

He caught the ball right on the line, realised he was going to overbalance, tossed it up before he did so, then scrambled back inside the rope to complete the dismissal, in the process redefining the boundaries of the phrase ‘good catch’.

Ridiculously, this kind of audacious athleticism has become commonplace.

When Boult and Southee combined with slick precision in a full pelt duet version at the Oval last month, it only just made the highlights package.

Wednesday evening we were away at a picturesque little club in the grounds of a private estate. The boundary was an indistinct fluffy strip where the cut grass merged into meadow. Under one at long on, mindful of Ben’s check, I set myself inside the last definitely mown bit, knowing that any backward step would probably mean conceding the benefit of the doubt to the batsman.

The ball was going over me, so my only option was to blindly stick one arm out behind me and hope.

I reckon I could try it 100 times, and the next 99 the ball would land with a disappointing thud in the long grass. This time though, that fizzing angry-hornet sound a well-struck cricket ball makes stopped abruptly behind my head in my outstretched hand, making me look like the nonchalant catching genius I’m definitely not.

Amongst the exuberant high-fives, Ben declared it to be the best catch he’d ever seen. Hardly. But 2009 is an aeon ago to a teenager, so coming from Ben, I’ll take it.

- ends 485 words -

Friday, 3 July 2015

Column 21, 2015 – When bad is better than good

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 124, Friday July 3, 2015.
[Full text below]

Part of cricket’s unusual dynamic is that you can have a bad game personally and win, and a brilliant game personally and lose.

In the spirit of anticipation, here’s two Ashes examples.

Adelaide 2006, England threw away a virtually certain draw, destroyed almost singlehandedly by the relentless will of Warne. The indomitable Paul Collingwood made a double century in the first innings and carried his bat in the second. A personal career high point, in a game no England fan wants to remember.

Edgbaston 2005, a game every England fan remembers: The Greatest Test; one of our most famous victories over the old foe. Ian Bell scored 6 and 21. In one of the all time great games, our greatest stylist just never got in.

Getting in is everything. Batting gets easier as your innings goes on. The more you’re there, the more you get used to the pitch, the light, the weather, the bowlers – swing, seam, turn. You become attuned to this particular task, not just batting in general: batting here, today, now. You pick the right shots. Your timing is crisp.

Different players take more or less time to get in. Old-school Test openers in bowling-friendly conditions may not allow themselves an aggressive shot until well into the afternoon session. 40/50 overs – a whole game’s worth getting your eye in.

Chris Gayle, for all his ferocious hitting, invariably plays himself in, even in t20. He doesn’t take long about it, but he has a look. His jaw-dropping 151 off 62 balls for Somerset a month ago (in a losing cause, incidentally) included 10 fours and 15 sixes. It also included at least one dot ball from every Kent bowler: their first to him. Even in full bludgeon mode, Gayle allows himself time. Imagine if he was in a hurry.

It may happen sooner, but for most of us less gifted mortals, half a dozen overs is usually enough to get yourself in.

Saturday I batted for half our innings and didn’t get in at all. Instead of getting easier, it seemed to get harder as it went on. I’ve no idea why. The pitch was a bit sticky, but it’s not like we’re not used to that. I didn’t time a single ball off the front foot, only the odd pull finding the general vicinity of the middle. It was a desperate, scratchy knock. I tried everything: batting two yards outside the crease, hanging right back, charging down. Nothing really worked. Just one of those days. The 39 runs look fine in the book, but I’ve had ducks that felt better. It was ghastly.

And yet we won comfortably. A maximum 24-pointer, finally sealed by their tenth wicket with just three balls to spare. An excellent all round team performance, in which I was personally horrible.

Still, better that way round. In this area at least, it’s better to do an Ian Bell than a Paul Collingwood.

- ends 489 words -