Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Where I was when we won The Ashes

I’d been to the first three days of the match glued to my seat and not missing a ball. England had been pretty dominant but, as always, and especially against the Aussies nothing could be taken for granted. Australia, chasing 546, were 80 without loss overnight and if they batted for two days they would win. At Cardiff they’d batted us out of the park: 674 - 6 declared in 181 overs with four (nearly five) century makers. These boys could bat and the pessimist in me said that all records are made to be broken. But for me, whatever happened, this wasn’t to be an “I was there” moment. Every year we have a week in the Lake District and Sunday was to be the first day of that week – the day that we drove north for five hours or so to our timeshare near Keswick. There was no choice – we would have to miss the day’s play and rely on Test Match Special.

Now I am a good spectator when I am actually at an England match but a very bad watcher on television or listener to the radio when the match really matters. And nothing matters more than The Ashes especially when we have a chance of regaining the Urn. I’d watched much of the final day at The Oval in 2005 from behind a settee and I wasn’t likely to be a nerveless listener in the car this year either. We are somewhere on the M25 as play begins and Aggers is off. Katich and Watson seem to be coping alright in the first couple of overs. Then huge noise from the car speakers - LBW appeal from Swanney “Looked plumb to me” I cry – it was! Aus 86-1. Three balls later Broad traps Watson – I flash my lights at oncoming cars to let them know that the Aussies are two down! But then Ponting and Hussey dig in to some effect. I try turning off the radio and listening to Puccini to try and induce a wicket but they are still there at lunch. 170-2.

We’re making good progress and are somewhere near Stoke. I’ll turn TMS back on after “Nessun Dorma” in Act3 - "Nobody shall sleep...” sings Pavarotti – “well I bet they aren’t sleeping in Kennington” I quip nervously. On goes the radio – thirteen post-lunch overs bowled and still no wicket then pandemonium in the ether – Fred has run out Ponting! Follow that! Strauss does and Clarke goes for a duck and the car veers dangerously towards the hard shoulder, 220-4 and England are surely now on their way. And so of course it proves. We arrive in Keswick just in time for the last rites, Harmy’s two in two balls, the celebrations and Strauss’s well-urned moment in the sun. Time for Pavarotti again I think –“Vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!”

Tall tales from Table Mountain

The debacle of the Fourth Test Match at The Wanderers, when England capitulated in a shameful fashion, rather clouds what up until that event had been a good tour in South Africa. Not one player, Collingwood as ever excepted, came away from Johannesburg with any credit at all. The surprise for me was that from what I saw at Newlands England had the momentum after a second great escape to add to their fine win at Kingsmead. The South African squad, officials and supporters were on the floor after Graham Onions played out that final over to save the third Test - but to their credit the Proteas came out fighting in the final Test and thoroughly deserved to tie the series.

With the great and the good

At Newlands I saw much of the match from the comfort of the Presidents’ Suite. Now before my loyal readers think that I have gone over to the other side and joined the free-loading cricket establishment let me explain. André Odendaal, the CEO of Western Province, is a cricket administrator of principle – a man who as a young student in Stellenbosch in the 1970s wrote a precocious and brilliant analysis of the venal consequences of apartheid on the game of cricket in South Africa. This was essential source material for me when I was writing my biography of John Shepherd who was the first black man to play first-class cricket in the Republic in that decade. André read the first draft of the relevant chapter and has subsequently been very supportive of the book. My wife and I were his guest at Newlands and this allowed me to rub shoulders with the “great and the good” of English and South African cricket. These are my impressions.

The ECB leadership was at Newlands en masse including the triumvirate of Giles Clarke, David Collier and Dennis Amiss. They sat together for some of the match prompting the thought "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" as they fiddled with their Blackberries whilst England’s bowlers burned and toiled under the ferocious third day sun. By lunch on the fourth day South Africa were 397/4 and gearing up for a declaration which they undoubtedly thought would give them ample time to bowl England out and win the match. This was the moment when Giles Clarke had to thank his hosts - which he did graciously whilst adding that he confidently expected England to bat until stumps on the fifth day and draw. There was a nervous laugh in the suite from those of us who thought that this was, to say the least, highly improbable - but Clarke added to his many talents that of prescient seer when England remarkably and courageously did exactly what he said they would. At the moment of triumph, as Onions survived the final ball of the match, Clarke stood and embraced Dennis Amiss – rather unconvincingly it has to be said, I don’t think that the two of them had had many “kissy, kissy” moments before.

Our Saffers and their Saffers

The company in the suite was hospitable, cosmopolitan and very interesting. At one point when Trott and Pietersen were (briefly) batting together I turned to another English guest and said “Well Robin it’s our Saffers against their Saffers again!” This prompted an elderly and genial Afrikaner sitting behind me to ask whether I knew where the England team stays when they are in South Africa. The answer, of course, is “with their parents!” – a good joke. The South-Africanisation of English cricket at County and International level was inevitably a subject for debate in Cape Town. Four of the England side were born in the Republic and have one South African parent – Strauss, Prior, Pietersen and Trott - and all could well have played for the Proteas if they had chosen to do so. The same applies to the talented wicket-keeper Craig Kieswetter who is half Scottish and is qualifying for England. It was the Kieswetter case I was keen to discuss and I had the opportunity to do this over lunch one day with the former Proteas vice-captain Craig Matthews who is now a South African selector. He told me that a firm approach was made by Cricket South Africa last year to Kieswetter to try and persuade him to choose the country of his birth and nationality rather than England – especially as Mark Boucher is reaching the end of his career and an opening is around the corner. But the young keeper has plumped for England and there is no doubt that one of the reasons is Cricket South Africa’s affirmative action policy. As Matthews put it if a decent non-white wicket-keeper emerges on the scene he would almost certainly get the nod ahead of Kieswetter. South Africa’s rule is that there must be at least four non-whites in every Proteas team. Matthews supports this affirmative action policy and thinks it is all too easy to blame this policy for the loss of cricketers like Pietersen and Trott to England. I agree with him and whilst there is an inevitable distortion to free selection consequent on the policy it is certain that without it fine players like Amla, Duminy and Prince might have struggled to get their chances. But as there is only one wicket-keeper in any side you can see why Kieswetter would rather take his chances in England - and who would blame him?

Divine intervention?

There was a distinctly ecclesiastical feel to the Presidents box at times during the Test with not just the local Rector an ever-present but a phalanx of bishops and even the Archbishop of Cape Town as well! But sadly I missed the most distinguished man of the cloth of all – the great Desmond Tutu was only there on the first day when I was with the hoi-polloi in the stands! The rector explained to me that cricket and the church are closely interlinked because both require enormous acts of faith from the congregation/spectators. As those final excruciating moments of the Test were underway I noticed that the Bishops were unusually quiet and asked them if they were interceding with the almighty to grant South Africa a wicket. I thought it inappropriate to remind them of the foolishness of this task because as we all know God is an Englishman!

Magnificent support

Andrew Strauss rightly paid tribute to the England supporters after the match and the Barmy Army and the rest were indeed magnificent. The attendance at Newlands was an all-time record for a Test match – bolstered by the thousands of England fans who had made the trip. Who says that Test cricket is dead? The leader of the Army Vic Flowers (aka Jimmy Saville) was as colourful as ever and even agreed to be photographed with Mrs B – a proud moment for her (see picture). The Waterfront was heaving every night and the Barmies had commandeered one of the pubs for their revels which were good-humoured and must have inflated the hostelry’s takings exponentially. I have seen the Army all around the cricket world, even in Karachi a couple of times, and they are a unique and valuable asset to England cricket. They need to be treated in a more grateful way by the ticket-issuing authorities in England – not least at Lord’s which could do with being a bit less stuffy!

And now for the rest of the cricket year…

England are still work in progress. But they have a good coach and an intelligent captain and, Jo’Burg notwithstanding, they have a good team ethic. England are within an ace or two of being a side that has a decent chance of defending “The Ashes” in Australia. Swann has been a revelation but a genuine fast bowler is needed to augment the swing and precision of Anderson, Broad, Onions and Sidebottom. And they still need to find a number 3 – Trott, Bell, and Collingwood are all good but middle order batsmen and Pietersen is a natural number 4. Perhaps Cooke or Strauss should drop down to three and we should bring in another, and preferably right-handed, opener? KP needs to find his form, of course, but after the year he has had I wouldn’t blame him for his less than sparkling tour of South Africa – although I wish he would eschew the IPL – some chance! But the core of a very good team is there and it is right for us to be optimistic.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why Bill Frindall is turning in his grave

Cricket lovers around the world have always eagerly awaited the appearance of “The Wisden Book of Test Cricket” which records in detail the facts and figures of every Test match played and all the associated statistics. It was in many ways the doyen of cricket statisticians Bill Frindall’s greatest achievement. Bill sadly died a little over a year ago and the latest volume of the book’s, dealing with Test matches played in the first decade of the 21st Century, has been edited by Steven Lynch. In his brief preface Lynch makes an appropriate acknowledgment of Bill Frindall and says that the new volume is “…decided to his memory” and he hopes that “…I have managed to produce a book of which he would approve” – a forlorn hope I’m afraid Mr Lynch.

Bill Frindall would be turning in his grave if he spied page 259 of the book on which the so-called “Super Test” between Australia and an “ICC World XI” is recorded as if it was a proper Test match – which Bill Frindall and all others who really care about cricket statistics and records know that it was not. Bill summarised his views unequivocally in the 2006 Playfair annual which he edited “…simple logic dictates that “international” records should be exactly that – “contests between nations”” – as the International Cricket Council’s regulations had properly stated for decades. Wisden’s rationale for including the match is that it accepts the “…governing body’s right to rule on its status”. This is arrant nonsense of course – if those who are experts on cricket statistics, Bill Frindall and all other respectable cricket historians included, know and can prove that the match wasn’t a proper Test match then that is the end of the matter – whatever the ignorant apparatchiks of the ICC might say!

The ICC should simply admit a mistake and remove Test status from this match which was “…a game bordering on the farcical.” (Frindall again). There is a precedent – the games in the 1970 international five match series between England and a “Rest of the World” side were deemed as authentic Test matches at the time but the ICC swiftly revised its view and in 1972 declared that the matches were unofficial – i.e. that the performances would not count in official Test match records. They subsequently confirmed that only matches between the national representative teams of countries which have "Test status" can be official Test matches. There was no equivocation on this ruling – Test matches are only played between countries (including the West Indies as a surrogate country for cricket purposes). One collateral effect of the ruling was that Test cricket records had to expunge the Rest of the World 1970 series – the principal casualty of this ruling was the Glamorgan batsman Alan Jones who played for England in one of the matches but now lost his status as a Test player. Another was Derek Underwood who would have taken 304 rather than 297 Test wickets if the 1970 matches had been deemed official. Geoff Boycott would have scored 23 not 22 Test centuries and Garry Sobers would have had 588 more Test runs (and two more centuries) to his name.

Alan Jones has understandably always regretted losing his Test match, and Underwood is disappointed that he is not a member of the 300+ Test wickets club, but one suspects that even they would reluctantly accept the logic of the ICC’s then ruling. If the 2005 “Super Test” is similarly retrospectively declared not to have Test match status the implications for the records of the participants are not so severe. Shane Warne would still have 700 Test wickets (just – he would go from 708 to exactly 700!) and Matt Hayden would have to be satisfied with 29 not 30 Test centuries. Those who argue that the participants in the “Super Test” thought that they were playing in an official Test match – for so it had been billed – have a point. But the participants in the 1970 series thought the same – it was also billed and marketed as Test cricket.

Test cricket is, according to some pessimistic observers, under threat from the burgeoning of Twenty20 around the cricket world. But one thing that Test cricket has which any other from of the game lacks is historical resonance. Between March 1877 and August 2009 no less than 1931 proper inter-national Test matches were played - as Wisden’s newly updated Test match records books splendidly record in easily readable detail. By any logic the “Super Test” has no right to be accorded the same status as these 1931 real Test matches and it shouldn’t be there. Time for the ICC to act.