Sunday, December 23, 2007

"Head On" by Ian Botham

The updated tale of Sir Ian Botham OBE, England's beefiest ever cricketer, is a good read - an open, revealing and well written "autobiography". Unlike Botham's previous foray into the genre, "Don't tell Kath", no ghost is credited - the publishers say only that Botham had "editorial assistance"- but it is difficult to believe that there was one skilled writer who had a firmly guiding hand on the text. Whoever that was has done an excellent job.
In 1983 Botham was having a lean spell and some in the media were calling for him to be dropped. At a press conference England captain Bob Willis responded to these calls by asking "Which two players do you gentlemen suggest we should bring in to replace him?" This sums up the unique feature of Botham's game - he was one of the few international cricketers who could have been chosen either as a specialist batsman or as a specialist bowler - but as an all-rounder he was irreplaceable. His fame and his devil-may-care personality always made Botham a target and anyone who thinks that the "feral media" is a modern phenomenon should turn to Both's accounts of how he was first pursued by them more than twenty years ago. True he brought some of the problems on himself - a fact that he honestly acknowledges - but he was certainly hounded and shabbily treated at times.
Writing about his long stint as a Sky commentator Sir Ian says "I'm simply stating things as I see them" - and that neatly describes the whole book. There are heroes (Viv Richards, John Arlott and his long-suffering wife Kath...) and villains (Ian Chappell, Imran Khan, Ted Dexter, Peter Roebuck...) and Both is not a forgiving man when aggrieved. But he is passionately loyal to his friends and his work for Leukaemia research reveals that deep down his heart is perhaps his beefiest organ of all.
Botham is perceptive on some of the ills of modern cricket - and especially England cricket. Here he is on England in Australia for example:
"We looked like schoolboys playing against the world's best, never more so than on that last morning in Adelaide. What was going on in that dressing room? What on earth had been said, so that when the English batsmen came out they scored just 30-odd runs in the whole of the thirty-over morning session? What were they thinking? But it wasn't just in Adelaide. Every single pressure session was lost right through the series. Whenever the pressure was on, the Australians came to the party and the England players stayed at home. I can't think of a single crucial passage of play where we came out ahead. Many of the same players were on the winning side against Australia sixteen months previously, but Australia learned lessons from that and England did not."
Spot on! And it's difficult to disagree with Botham's diagnosis of (one) of the causes of the problems either:
"I counted twenty-five people wearing England shirts out in the middle before the start of one Test - who the hell were they all? As well as the players, the coach and the physio, England had a batting coach, a bowling coach, security men, flunkeys of one sort and another, a dietician to tell them what to eat and even a team psych¬ologist to motivate them. Since when did you need a psychologist to play cricket? I never took any notice of those idiots - how many overs have they ever bowled? From the results the team achieved, the psychologist obviously did a great job."
Both is no fool, but like Shane Warne who in some ways he resembles, he can sometimes be a fool to himself. When truly great cricketers like Warne or Botham speak the current crop of players and administrators would do well to listen. But will they? Don't hold your breath!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Andrew Flintoff's challenge

The conspiracy of silence didn’t help Fred

It’s only a little more than two years ago but it might as well be seen on archive film in flickering black and white so distant does it seem. The six summer weeks when England regained The Ashes – that glorious carnival of cricket when we fought back from the pain of humiliation at Lord’s to out-play and out-think the invincible Aussies over the next four Tests. And it all began at Edgbaston when Ricky Ponting, thinking that after Lord’s we were on the run and that a series whitewash was on the cards, put us in after winning the toss. And we scored 407 runs on the first day at 5 runs an over and Freddie hit a glorious 68 with six fours and five sixes and then hit 73 in the second innings and took 3/52 in the Australian First Innings and 4/79 – including one of the finest overs ever bowled in any form of the game to Ponting (caught behind for a duck). Fred’s finest hour – an all-round performance perhaps unequalled in Test cricket history. And he added unselfconsciously to his stature by his spontaneous action at the moment of victory when he consoled the forlorn Brett Lee – the “image of the summer” Richie Benaud called it. When the series was over, and The Ashes had been won, Andrew Flintoff had 402 runs and 24 wickets to his name and was a national hero and even in Australia, where the bashing of any Pom is a badge of honour, Fred was held in the highest esteem. He was even offered honorary Australian citizenship at the high profile “Lindsay Hassett Club” lunch in October 2005 where he shared the speaking honours with Shane Warne.

Peter Roebuck, the curmudgeonly Anglo-Australian writer on cricket, once said that “Cricket is a game played in the mind. Give a man confidence and he will walk among kings. Drag him down and he will scurry among crabs.” For a couple of glorious months Freddie Flintoff had walked among the kings - so was it inevitable that from these heights the only way was down? Maybe it was because, despite his hulking frame, Fred is fragile at the edges. Fragile from his proneness to physical injury and fragile from, not to put it too unkindly, his love of a drink. At that same Melbourne lunch Shane Warne said that Fred “was a better drinker than anybody in the Australian team. He used to come in and say 'you want a beer?' straight away after the game. He'd sit next to you and have a beer and if you couldn't find an opener he'd open it with his teeth. He'd have five beers to our one." No wonder he was offered Aussie nationality!

The sight of an unsteady Freddie Flintoff at The Ashes victory celebration in London only reinforced his status as a folk hero in the minds of his devoted fans. But boozing in celebration is one thing – boozing to drown your sorrows is quite another. Duncan Fletcher, Fred’s England coach, has copped some stick for revealing just how much of a problem Flintoff’s drinking was during the Australian Ashes tour in 2006/07. But at the time his irresponsible behaviour went unreported in the media. In “The Spectator” at the end of the tour Peter Oborne wrote “It is impossible to overstate the shame and ghastliness of England's winter tour of Australia. Our cricketers were a disgrace to their sport, to their country and to themselves…some of our players have morally collapsed as a result….” Even Oborne, who is not part of the cricket writers cabal, pulled his punches and did not name Flintoff as one of those who had “morally collapsed”. The rest of the media followers, who had lived close to the Tour party for months, followed a self-imposed conspiracy of silence about Fred and his antics. It was only when the problems resurfaced in the West Indies during the Cricket World Cup in the infamous “Fredalo” incident that at last the press started to write a bit more openly about Flintoff’s boozing.

It is all too easy to talk down from the moral highground about the dysfunctional behaviour of some modern sportsmen and those of us who occasionally do this can expect abuse from the macho brigade which makes up so many of the sports fans of England. “Crack on big fella, you deserve to enjoy yourself and getting drunk is better than a lot of the alternatives which other celebs constantly indulge in. Have fun and live life to the full” wrote Keith a typical blogger on the BBC website. And no doubt the failure to report the “Getting Freddied” stories from Australia was in part a reflection of the same point of view – and of the fact that everyone in the media party loves Fred and many of them drink with him.

Cricket series are often a tale of two captains. Michael Vaughan cleaned up Ricky Ponting in England in 2005 but Ponting’s revenge was not on the absent Vaughan but on the very different and much more vulnerable Andrew Flintoff. And remember that Punter Ponting has been there – done that. Back in 1999 he was given a suspended $5,000 fine and banned for three matches as punishment for his part in a brawl in a Sydney nightclub. After the incident Ponting admitted that he had a drinking problem and sought counselling and it was reported that the Australian Cricket Board only suspended the fine on condition that Ponting underwent alcohol rehabilitation. All this was openly reported at the time and Ponting’s subsequent move to the Australian captaincy, and his status right at the top of world cricket, can be in no small measure attributable to the shock therapy he had received.

All of us who love England cricket, and who have huge affection and respect for Andrew Flintoff, will hope that he will use the coming months of enforced absence from the game to do more than just getting his body in order. At times we all go into denial about the problems we have - and there is usually somebody around to make you forget these problems over a glass or seven. But right now Fred needs these mates like a hole in the head. Perhaps he should pick up the ‘phone to Ricky Ponting and have a heart to heart with a man who has conquered similar demons. Nobody wants Freddie to be scurrying with the crabs – the next few months will be crucial to ensure that this does not happen to him.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Not so sweet Adelaide

From "Yes, No Sorry" Volume 6 Issue 1

Not so sweet Adelaide

The Brisbane Test had, from an England perspective, been a bit less of a debacle than it might have been. True we were thumped and we had allowed Punter to score a modest 256 runs in the match for once out and (even more annoyingly) the oracle McGrath had taken seven wickets. True we had batted like plonkers in our first innings and Steve Harmison had bowled the first ball of the series directly to second slip. But after Ponting’s curious decision not to enforce the follow on we did bat quite well in our second go – and there was a brief moment when it seemed that rain might let us off the hook and that would mean that the rabid Aussie press would turn on their Captain for not finishing the match in three days – as he probably could have done. But in the end it faded away, KP and Colly just missed tons that had fought hard for and the enemy went to Adelaide one up.

They’re a holy lot in South Australia’s capital (or judging by the number of churches they once were) and the cathedral provides a lovely backdrop to this splendid cricket ground. The cricketing globetrotter in me had always wanted to come to the Adelaide Oval and this time I was to be there. Over the years I have been lucky enough to see England win in some unlikely places- the MCG, Karachi, Sharjah, Colombo, Port of Spain, Cape Town and most recently Bombay - so I was optimistic that I might have a talismanic effect on the team. Whilst the lads were hardly on a roll at least they had turned humiliation into some respectability at the Gabba with Kev and Paul’s gutsy partnership. My private hope was that the second Test would be a respectable draw and that we could go on to Perth where our quicks could then get them in trouble on a fast pitch and force a win. Yep I had decided to settle for that. Not to mention a few days in the sun and a few evenings sampling the wonderful products of the Barrossa and McLaren Vale. Need to win the toss and bat though…

The toss was won and although we muffed it a bit at the start (45-2 in the twentieth over) and then Belly played an adrenalin driven vertical hook (after two consecutive boundaries) to be caught and bowled by Lee (158-3) things were in good shape by the close of the first day. 266-3 was respectable and Colly and KP were going well again. Would Colly (98* overnight) get his ton? Wouldn’t he just, and another as well! And Pietermaritzburg Piet got one too and we declared and Fred whipped out Langer before the close. We might nick this one – we really might and even if not at least the draw is secure!

Could it get better – you bet it could! Hoggy was on fire at the beginning of day three first Hayden and then Martyn – Aus in trouble at 65-3 and the Hogster wanted more. He was to get them, too – but not for a while. Punter scratched around a bit and then mis-hooked Hoggard to deep square leg when on 35. I can see that ball now a speeding parabola in the sky only fifty or so yards from where I was watching. It hovered a bit and there was dependable old Gilo under it – but he had to leap a bit to make sure and his leap never really left the ground… and it was gone. And so, as it turned out, were the Ashes.

By the end of the third day (Aus 312-5) there was still a fair bit of optimism in the Barmy Army camp. Punter was gone and the irritating Hussey as well. Get Clarke or Gilchrist out and we could be through the rest and a lead of 150 or so. KP and the lovely Jessica were on the next table to Mrs B and me in an Italian restaurant that night. Mrs B likes KP and I thought Ms Taylor looked rather tasty as well – although she left most of her lasagne (KP wolfed his down). Nice couple we thought and so lovey-dovey too. Kev stuck to the diet Coke and played footsie with Jess under the table in his flip-flops (which had little Flags of St George on them). Bless!

Day Four and the papers were saying that the pudding of a pitch was a disgrace and that the curator should be sacked and Geoff Boycott said that his Granny could score a hundred on it and Michael Clarke did. Then Aus collapsed from 502-6 to 513 all out and Hoggy had seven wickets! Young Cook was out before the close but Strauss and Belly looked OK and there would be a chance for some nice runs tomorrow - easy picking on the pudding.

We took our seats square of the wicket halfway up the Chappells stand (named after two of the brothers, the underarm bowling third one isn’t mentioned) and looked forward to the day. I plugged in my radio to listen to the pre-start chat. “Funny”, said Jim Maxwell, “I just saw the England boys getting off their bus and they looked really edgy”. “Oh dear,” said Aggers, “don’t like the sound of that”. “And Flintoff was limping a bit too” says Jim just to cheer us up. But they all think that a draw is just about certain as do all the know-all hacks in the Aussie press. Play begins and I watch Warney through my binoculars – he looks a bit manic. “Shit that turned a lot” says a gentleman in an MCC blazer behind me. “It does seem to be gripping a bit” I reply. And it was.

Ten overs or so into the day Strauss gets a shocking decision from umpire Bucknor. He and Bell have put on ten runs today at a rate of one per over. Well at least they aren’t taking any risks with quick runs! They leave that to Bell and Colly who contrive a run out. Well at least they weren’t playing any foolish shots. They leave that to KP who plays an ill-judged sweep to a ripping Warne leg break. Warney loved that one! Brett Lee looks a bit off the pace – until Freddie helps him by flashing a catch to the keeper. 77-5 in the 38th over. Looking dodgy. But Colly and GoJo hang on to lunch and beyond and if they can keep going the Aussies might just run out of time. No silly shots though Geraint – nice four, and another to a wide ball. Best leave those alone I think. Ah, there’s another wide one – straight into Hayden’s hands in the gully. 94-6. “Jones you’re a tosser” cries an apoplectic Pom in a Barmy Army shirt. It’s not quite a procession and Colly hangs on and even Jimmy A does his bit to survive for ten overs at the end. But the rest is history.

So how did England lose? Hindsight is great but first they declared too early in their first Innings. Then there was Gilo’s drop of Ponting. And finally, and crucially, there was the rabbit in the headlights batting on the final day. Warne bowled really well and had good support - but it was the same pitch on which he had laboured to 1-167 in the first innings. “Has Warne got special hands to do that?” asked a young boy sitting near me as the screen replayed the ball which got KP. “No son “said his Dad, “He’s got a special head.”. And so it was. The genius of Warne is to link his brain, his hands and his mouth in such a way that the batsman is afeared. It was genius at work – and in truth England never had a prayer.