Monday, November 25, 2013

Ashes fatigue floored poor Jonathan Trott - but who in the England dressing-room is not suffering from it ?

Everyone will feel sad about Jonathan Trott's illness and wish him well for a speedy recovery. But you must wonder if  there been an Omertà against speaking about Trotty's problems as there was for Trescothick ? Remember those absurd press conferences when we were supposed to believe that Marcus's problems were physical not mental - denial piled on denial. The ECB did not cover themselves in glory then. 

Has it only just emerged that Trott is suffering from a depression-related illness? That in itself raises questions about the quality of the medical assessments the players have. All too many cricketers have had mental health issues over the years as Trott's colleague in the Squad Jonny Bairstow knows, tragically, only too well. Perhaps Trott covered up his difficulties but from what I hear and have seen I doubt it. There has always been a touch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder behaviour about Trott at the crease. If I can see that from beyond the boundary surely the ECB wallahs could see it from close up ? 

The ECB's greedy and foolish decision to have back-to-back Ashes series is coming back to haunt them. England were truly awful in Brisbane. Having got Australia 132-6 in the host's first innings they then lost the plot so comprehensively that by halfway through the second day they were out of the game. The atmosphere in the dressing room must have been dreadful, nobody could do a bloody thing right, Trott was cowering in the corner and the Aussies pounced. After just four days of cricket there really does seem no way back for England whatever they may, with phoney bravado, say for public consumption. This summer the same players got very lucky and there were some fine match winning sessions from the likes of Broad and Ian Bell's late-flowering coming of age to carry them through to frankly not always deserved victories. I doubt that the Aussies will give them that chance again.

Jonathan Trott's tour, and perhaps his international career with it, is over. Meanwhile a group of demoralised players who give every sign of having Ashes fatigue trudge off to Adelaide knowing that only a win there will put them on track. A loss, with Perth to follow, could mean it's all over before Melbourne as it was for Freddie's lot in 2006/7. And though no doubt Giles Clarke and his accountants at the ECB will still be banking the dollars with glee England's cricketers will have gone from heroes to zero without even passing go. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Time to Yellow Card the abusive sledgers - enough is enough

The idea of "Mental disintegration", a fancy term presumably meant to give sledging in cricket a thin veneer of respectability, originated with Steve Waugh. Waugh of course did not originate verbal abuse in the game - it probably goes back as far as the game itself. But Waugh's Aussie team used it as a deliberate part of their tactics - mostly by fielders to unsettle batsmen. If we needed more evidence of the fatuousness of the "Spirit if Cricket", the nonsensical notion beloved of men of a certain age and class especially in the higher echelons of the Marylebone Cricket Club, then the ubiquity of sledging in the professional game would be it. Deliberate, calculated, foul-mouthed abuse of batsmen by fielders is cheating - pure and simple. I'm not talking about the occasional funny or even mildly rude remark. Nobody wants the cricket pitch even in a Test match to be solemn and silent. I'm referring to the sort of vulgar, constant sledging that England's batsman were subjected to at Brisbane. That is cheating pure and simple.

If the Laws of Cricket included a specific reference to verbal abuse on the pitch instead of their paean to the phoney "Spirit of Cricket" it would be far more useful. It's not difficult. You place the responsibility with the Umpires. If in their judgment a fielder offends then give the Umpires the right to show that fielder a Yellow card (off for an hour) or a red card (off for a full session). Obviously you would need to give the Umpires some guidelines - but you leave it to their judgment. Why not? It happens in other sports to counter unfair play.

Cricket is a great game but it is sullied by vulgar fools who think it is smart to abuse their opponents. It isn't  - it has no part in the game. Of course cricket is played in the mind and unsettling a batsman with short-pitched bowling or the placing of fielders near to the bat (etc,) within the Laws is and always has been part of it. But abuse is mindless, demeaning and damaging to the sport's reputation. Enough is enough.


The news of Jonathan Trott's illness and his return home is further food for thought. The Steve Waugh type of calculated sledging will work best on those players who are already mentally fragile. It's water off a ducks back to the toughies (like Steve himself) but more effective with those who are mentally vulnerable. Marcus Trescothick, who should know, has described the Australians as "... experts in the theory and practice of doing your head in". I am not saying that Clarke and his team targeted Jonathan Trott specifically in this way or that they knew that his problems were more than a bit of nerves. But I wonder whether they would see Trott's personal mental disintegration and return home as a bit of a "result". Lets hope not.


The signs pointing to Australia's resurgence were there across the summer Ashes series.

Australia's comprehensive win in the first Ashes Test Match at Brisbane was underpinned by their losing, according to my analysis, only two of the 14 sessions that were played over the four days. These were the afternoon session on the first day when in their first innings they fell from 71-2 to 153-6 and the first session of the final day when England scored 74 runs for just one wicket. That second “lost” session didn't really matter (and Australia did get Pietersen’s wicket in it) and the first lost session was followed by the Haddin/Johnson partnership which, as it turned out, set up Australia's winning chance – which they grabbed with both hands! So the final score in this Test match was Australia 6 sessions, England 2 with three being drawn.

England's eclipse will have come as a surprise to many but analysis of the summer series in England shows that it was actually far closer than the 3-0 (nearly 4-0) match score result suggests. My own session by session analysis of the 62 sessions played actually gives 27 to Australia, 26 to England with 9 drawn. Clearly if this is right England must have had some stellar match-winning sessions – which they did. But the idea that England was dominant through the summer is wrong.

Australia were within 15 runs of winning the First summer Test and they won  6 of the 14 sessions to England’s 4. They were blown away in the Second Test at Lord’s but still won 3 of the 12 sessions to England's 9. Australia absolutely dominated the Third test winning the sessions 9-2 (two draws) and were only denied a win by the Manchester weather. The Fourth test was also close on a session basis (6-5 to England with one drawn) and only Stuart Broad’s brilliant bowling at the end won for England a game Australia could well have taken. And the Fifth test at The Oval was also tight (England 5 Australia 4 – two drawn) but Australia bossed most of the match until the generous declaration which almost gifted England the match.

So England’s 3-0 Test series win in 2013 was something of a travesty of a result. It could, and probably should, have been a much closer. England did mostly win the big sessions but over the five Tests they were far from outplayed.

The dominance of Australia at Brisbane and England’s dreadful performance in scoring just 315 runs across two completed innings was a surprise but that Australia won was not. The pointers were there in the summer.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

England flatters to deceive at Twickenham - again

What a weird match. The sober around me at half time predicted a bit of a rout in the 2nd Half (the drunks didn't care). England weren't brilliant in the First Half, but they were good enough. Argentina looked half a class behind. Instead Argentina very nearly WON the second half and only lost it by one point.

What the hell happened at half time in the England dressing room? How could they manage instead of putting the foot on the accelerator to put it on the brake. Then break the gearbox. And look for a time as if they were trying to find a way of letting the Argentinians get level. It was awful.

The England of the first half today and the second half last week v Australia might just give the All Blacks a game. The England of the second half today, and the first half last well will get slaughtered.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Book Review: “Gentlemen & Players–the death of amateurism in cricket”


Charles Williams was a First Class cricketer and after retiring from the game in 1959 he had a distinguished career in business and public service. He became Baron Williams of Elvel in 1985 and a Privy Councillor in 2013.

“Gentlemen & Players, The death of amateurism in cricket”  is a concise (just 200 pages) but thorough record of the extraordinary story of the attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to end the divide between amateurs and professionals in cricket which had endured for over 100 years. It is written with style and panache and with a real sense of Lord Williams leaning over to us and whispering “You're not going to believe this but…” ! It is a story of the English class system, of privilege, of Victorian cricket administrators still alive and well in the post war era and doing harm by neglect and ignorance. It is a story of hypocrisy and mendacity, of meetings behind closed doors, of the establishment looking after its own and of deceit. And yet, as Williams generously says at the end of the book, the guilty men (my description!) were really “…honest men doing what they honestly believed to be in the best interests of cricket”.  Well maybe so but these were the same “honest men” who connived to try and keep England's planned tour to Apartheid South Africa in 1968 alive – the D’Oliveira Affair – and who fought tooth and nail against Kerry Packer in 1977.  And that particular brand of conservatism is still alive today in that same MCC Committee whose predecessors feature in Williams story.

That in the second decade of the 21st Century England’s finest cricket ground, Lord’s, is owned by a private members club and that this Club, the MCC of course, is still responsible for the “Laws of Cricket” may seem absurd. But back in the early 1960s this same club actually ran English cricket and a fair proportion of world cricket as well. The distinction between amateurs and professionals only existed to any significant extent in the English First Class game because MCC wanted it to - and by the mid 1950s (if not earlier) it was obvious to many others that it was an anachronism. It was hugely offensive. The amateurs were “Gentlemen” but the professionals were not - they were “Players” and paid for their labour. The amateurs were the Officer Class, the players the other ranks. The amateurs had been to Public School and University (usually Oxbridge) – the professionals had not. And so on. This was about class and the venal presumption that our leaders had to be the “right sort of chap” – especially those who could deal with the serfs. The top amateurs were mostly batsmen whose cover drives were sublime Raman Subba Row, MJK Smith, “Lord” Ted Dexter, Denis Silk, Tony Lewis, Colin Cowdrey, Roger Prideaux were some of the leading amateur batsmen in 1960. In the same year the bowling averages were dominated by professionals –Statham, Moss, Trueman, Larter, Illingworth, Shackleton, Higgs, Titmus… On the scorecards the amateurs had their initials before their names “M.C.Cowdrey”. The professionals had their initials after their names “Statham, J.B.” And the Captains were mostly amateur but in 1952 the Yorkshire professional Len Hutton had been appointed Captain of England, a role he preformed with conspicuous success. His county continued to appoint amateurs though – as did most of the others.  

The offensiveness of the amateur/professional divide in the post-war era seems self evident to us from today’s standpoint and it was offensive to some at the time as well. Hypocrisy abounded. The amateurs in many cases weren't true amateurs anyway, Some has sinecures at the Counties as “Secretary” or “Assistant Secretary” – roles which involved them in not doing very much at all and being paid for it. So long as they turned out and played for the County for the season of course! And on tours these  “shamateurs” received compensation for loss of earnings and often made considerably more money than the professionals who were honestly paid! It was these anomalies and the surrounding complexities of trying to maintain a system which was plainly unworkable which was finally to lead to the end of the amateur/professional divide in 1962 when all cricketers became just that – “cricketers”. But before this happened there were years of bungle and confusion with an MCC committee actually being charged with pronouncing whether specific individuals were really amateur or not.

This book, as well as telling the story of the end of amateurism in First Class cricket, also includes some wonderful pen portraits of players of the era. Williams knew them all and he quite rarely describes individuals pretty honestly warts and all. I found his descriptions of, for example, Colin Cowdrey and Peter May particularly revealing.

This is a book about change and a record of how when a necessary change involves the removal of privilege and a challenge to established conventions in Britain it is likely to take a very long time to happen! It is not really a story of “Heroes and Villains” – there were good men on both sides of the debate. But in the 1960s, as it is sadly still so today, the life of the progressive, the people who point to the absurdities of part of our system, is likely to be made uncomfortable by the men in the better suits.