Monday, December 30, 2013

A brief sad rant about the decline of Test cricket...

Follow the money. If you are a young talented cricketer you will go where the cash is. So off to one or more of the T20 competitions. If your country also wants you for the odd Limited Overs game as well all to the good. And the World Cups will help you promote your personal brand. But Test cricket which few outside England and (sometimes) Australia and India watch? Little reward. Takes too long. Bit of a bore really. T20 will kill Test cricket when it isn't just a lucrative pre retirement opportunity for aging stars but the game of choice for the bright young things. We are nearly there.....

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The three lions must be looking away in embarrassment

Victory, as they say, has many fathers whereas failure is an orphan. England’s comprehensive failure in The Ashes in Australia will have plenty of people ducking for cover. For the players there has been nowhere to hide and they should have our sympathy. I do not believe that skilled professionals would play as badly as they have without there being some seriously good reasons. Lets try and explore what they are.

First the whole idea of “Back-to-back” Ashes was a lemon. I don’t buy the “scheduling” reason given by ECB Cricket. Other options existed to avoid the Cricket World Cup fixture clash but Giles Clarke and Co. plumped for the one that they saw as bringing in the maximum short-term revenues. The Ashes is the Golden Goose and the laying of golden eggs for ten Test matches in a row in little more than half a year was just too tempting to ignore. The ECB needs money to keep the hugely overblown County system afloat (18 Counties – three times as many “top” domestic teams as any other Test country!). And Sky of course obliged, as they do, and paid up their fees. Bad money going after bad you might say.

Next England were not as good as the Media hype suggested and the Australians nowhere near as bad. This isn't hindsight. At the end of the Summer series I analysed the five matches session by session. My judgment was that Australia won 27 of the 62 sessions, England 26 and that nine were drawn. The Aussies could well have won at Nottingham, should have won at Manchester (the weather saved England) and might well have triumphed at Durham where an inspired spell of bowling by Stuart Broad was the only difference between the sides. They were blown away at Lord’s – though even there they had their moments. A fair result would have been a drawn series with England retaining The Ashes.

It was an irritable and often downright unpleasant summer Ashes and the players of both sides behaved badly at times. The DRS confusions, poor umpiring, sledging and even urinating on the pitch suggests that the “Spirit of Cricket” wasn't too high on the agenda! And I haven't even mentioned Warner and Root !

In the summer the ECB ran a hubristic promotional campaign that was at best counter-productive and at times downright sick-making. The whole “Rise for the Ashes” was an unnecessary bit of vulgar hype:

Jerusalem was sung every day (except at Lord’s where England seemed to manage OK without it). And the depths were plumbed in the First Test at lunch, with Australia 291-9 chasing 311, when singer Sean Ruane launched into "You Raise Me Up" followed by "Rule Britannia" and finally "Land of Hope and Glory". It was cringe-making and in the long run counter-productive.

Sean Ruane during the lunch interval final day Trent Bridge

All this hype had little effect on England’s performance (as Lord’s suggests) but it must have irritated the Australians beyond belief. So much so that when they got England back on Aussie soil the wounds of the summer were far from healed. They wanted revenge – and frankly who can blame them. Shane Warne summarised the mood  in a Tweet once it became clear that that revenge was near:



During the summer I felt that there was little between the sides and I said so. One or two fine bowling performers (Anderson at Trent Bridge, Broad at Durham, Swann at Lord’s) and some solid batting from Ian Bell covered up some pretty ordinary England cricket. Only Bell averaged over 40 and the bowling was at times unpenetrative. Four of the top six run scorers were Australian and three of the top six wicket-takers.

If there was little between the sides in the summer the difference was a bit of luck (always the twelfth man of course) and one or two moments of inspiration. Australia did not do themselves justice batting as a unit only reaching 300 or more in two innings (to England’s six). But they had their moments – and their bowling was pretty good, especially Harris and Siddle. Overall when they were good they were very good – but just a bit too often they were awful.

The rivalry between England and Australia at cricket doesn't need extra hype – certainly not the uber-hype that the ECB launched. The verbals on and off the field went over-the-top as well. So when the Aussies got back home I can imagine that there was some soul-searching. Whilst they could not believe they were robbed in the summer they were certainly hard done by. England on the other hand must have known that they rather got away with it and that they were certainly not 3-0 (nearly 4-0) better then their opponents.

The Ashes in Australia has been a triumph for the Aussies and they thoroughly deserve to have regained the urn. I have never seen an England side in any sport so deflated as they now seem. These are technically very good players whose minds are scrambled and who are like shell-shocked soldiers in the front line. They don't want to be there and when they go over the top the chances are that their bravado will be immediately punished by an Australian side with a great flair for attack and a solid sense of when to defend. The England players have not suddenly become donkeys led by donkeys, though the three lions on their chests must looking away in embarrassment a bit. A less leonine England I cannot recall. Its sad.    

Saturday, December 14, 2013

SPOTY - Inward-looking, often maudlin, sometimes downright embarrassing...

I'm not struggling to get my head around Andy Murray's decision to stay away from SPOTY at all, as an article by Giles Smith in today's Times newspaper suggested I would be. I do struggle with the idea that the award is, in the article writer's words, "a pinnacle" of anything. The beanfeest  is a bit of fun - worth watching on a cold winter's night if you've nothing better to do. But the outcomes are arbitrary - akin to asking the public to vote for Camembert versus Creme Brûlée versus Tripe and Onions. All worthy foods no doubt - but one better than the other? Nah!

Last year Bradley Wiggins was a worthy winner. But so would Mo Farah, or Jessica Ennis or a dozen others have been. For all of them their "pinnacle" was winning whatever they won. SPOTY more of a pinnacle than two Olympic Gold Medals? Are you having a laugh?

SPOTY is quintessentially British and there's nothing wrong with that. But if Mr Murray has better things to do that's his call - and frankly none of anybody's business. Like other uniquely British institutions - our Royal events and obsessions, Remembrance Sunday and the rest - there is a sense of obligation that we have to stand in line and salute. And there is an overwheening sentimentality underpinning them as well. We might shrug our shoulders and, anything for a quiet life, buy the bull for a day. Most of us do. But when somebody says "Stuff that for a game of soldiers" (or, as in Murray's case suggests by his absence that that might be his view) we have no right to criticise. 

SPOTY is a bit of fun for many. It's not the Nobel prize, or an Oscar. It's an inward-looking, often maudlin, sometimes downright embarrassing TV event. To take it uber-seriously as The Times article does is giving it a status way beyond anything it deserves. Nobody is obliged to watch it even less to revere it. Including Andy Murray. 

Monday, December 09, 2013

England has been beaten by hubris, and their scrambled minds.

A brilliant bowling performance, like Stuart Broad at Durham in the summer and Mitchell Johnson in the first innings at Adelaide can win a Test match. A remarkable innings can do the same. But these are the exceptions. In the main matches are won or lost because one team collectively gets it together better than the other. If you want to understand why England is 0-2 down in this Ashes series it's not Johnson's heroics you need to study. It's who has won the mind game. Take England's second innings in the second Test. Cook and Carberry both gifted their wickets with dreadful shots within twelve overs. They weren't defeated by better bowling - they were defeated by their own scrambled minds. The fact that later some others in the England innings batted well on a benign pitch shows how foolish those gifted wickets at the top of the order were.

Confidence is the key. The teams that keep on winning are those that believe they can. The teams that struggle are those that look as if they don't want to be on the Park at all. That's been England since they arrived in Australia. They know that they were lucky to win the summer series 3-0 (nearly 4-0). Cool analysis shows this series score to have been a travesty. England (just) deserved to retain The Ashes in the summer - but over the five matches they were only marginally the better team. The players on both sides know this and it is Australia who took confidence from it not England. The Aussie motivation was surely "Mates we were bloody unlucky in England. We know we're better than that. In front of our own fans let's show the Poms we are". Meanwhile the English must have felt, whether they spoke it or not, "We rather nicked that one whatever the series score says. Oz is only a bowler or a couple of big hundreds away from being better than us." And so it was.

This England team hasn't suddenly, qua innate ability, become no-hopers. This Aussie team hasn't suddenly been transformed into world beaters. What has happened is that the hidden factor of confidence combined with the driver of "who wants it more?" is overwhelmingly in the Australians' favour. Successive Ashes series losses finally got to Michael Clarke's Australians. They'd had enough and it hurt. And England? At  the moment they had Australia 132-6 on the first day of the series they must have thought "Here we go again - we can roll this lot over any time we want !" But pride came before the fall and from that moment on it has been Australian confidence and determination, combined with English hubris, which has blown England away. 

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The game is up for England–and it’s painful to watch


England hasn't suddenly become a team comprised of players without the skills for Test cricket. More than half the side is world class by any standards and have outstanding records - and the rest are more than competent. So you have to look at what is going on in their heads to find out what is going wrong. Mitchell Johnson hasn't been in a laboratory where a Dr Frankenstein has equipped him with magic arms. Physically he is the same bloke who couldn't even get in the Aussie squad only a few months ago. You have to look at what is going on in his head to find out what is going right.

Why would Andy Flower decide to pack it in with England? Not because he's not up for the fight - he is a man with huge personal courage and principles. We'll have to wait for his inevitable book to find out! But we can guess. I suspect that he thinks that too many of the England team have become prima donnas whose ambitions are mostly concerned with boosting their bank balances and shining their egos. They are good cricketers and they know it - and they assume that their talent will carry them through. Sometimes it does - and when luck goes their way as well they'll do alright. They were very lucky in the summer of 2013 and the 3-0 Ashes series win (nearly 4-0) was a travesty. The signs of decline were there for all to see. Indeed they’d been there for a while.

Winning and losing are both habit-forming. Self-belief will always beat self-doubt. In early 2012 England played three Test matches against Pakistan all of which they lost. In the three matches they averaged 191 runs per innings. It was woeful. Spineless. But then they got home and easily beat a poor West Indies side. Masters of the cricket universe again! Except that they weren’t - as a good South African side showed them immediately (2-0 series win for SA). 

England has at best been inconsistent over the past two years and at worst seriously in decline. Only when they are winning are they up for the fight. And they get it in their heads that a bowler is unplayable (Ajmal versus Pakistan, Johnson at the moment) so that bowler then becomes unplayable. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Is there a way back? Well there is no evidence except perhaps the straw that a year ago they came back from losing the first test in India to win the series 2-1. Can they do the same in Australia? I’d like to think so, but I don’t.

The game is up.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Cricket Australia needs to learn how to apologise

The art of issuing a graceful apology seems to have passed Cricket Australia by. This was their "apology" for their earlier crass tweet showing some Sikhs as teletubbies and calling on the real Monty Panasar to "stand up". It was a foolish, unfunny and dim-witted tweet and the Australians were rightly castigated for having done it.

The "apology" is almost a case study in how NOT to apologise. "Any offence caused" is the classic cop out. It suggests not, as was the case, that offence was definitely caused. It leaves room for doubt. The word "Any" implies that they believe it's possible that no offence was caused. 

"That was certainly not our intention" is equally facile. I doubt that anyone would accuse Australia's governing body of wanting intentionally to cause offence - so why state that it wasn't the intention to do this. Nobody is saying it was ! 

Cricket Australia is guilty of stupidity and they have compounded their foolishness with an ill-thought through "apology". What should they have said? Well they should not have suggested that there was doubt about the offence caused. And they should specifically have apologised to Monty Panasar. Like this (140 character limit applies):

CA apologises unreservedly for having caused offence with an inappropriate Tweet about Monty Panasar and have said sorry to him personally.