Sunday, December 28, 2014

Happy times, and happy memories at White Hart Lane for the visit of Manchester United

Encouraging  performance by Spurs today on the back of three wins against modest sides this was a proper test. Manchester United were unlucky not to be at least one up at the interval. Lloris showed his value again - one fingertip save from Young, a curling shot heading for the top corner, was outstanding. 

Alan Sugar pessimistically tweeted that he expected United to score early in the second half. They didn't and although they came close once or twice it was Spurs who looked the more likely. It was end-to-end stuff at times - reminiscent of those great clashes in the 1960s when we saw Greaves, Smith, Blanchflower, Charlton, Law and the sublime George Best strut their stuff! In those days the Lane was a quagmire after rain but players of their quality seemed to dance their way through it. The shirts today were the traditional White for Tottenham and Red for United, exactly the same as fifty years ago. I do wish we could return to the rule that a side only changes its shirt if there is a clear colour clash! Teams should not have "Away" shirts but "Change" shirts which they only wear if away and if there is a colour clash with the home team's kit.

The crowd was noisily and mostly politely behind the Team. The large Man Utd support (many of whom had, of course, only a short journey to get to N17!) were vocal and enthusiastic as well. It was a truly delightful early afternoon and a fair result. I've cheered for Manchester United once or twice in my life - notably at the European Cup Final at Wembley in 1968, but not today of course. Spurs have now gone five PL games without losing to the Red Devils and that is a decent run. Long may it continue. And long may these two great clubs continue to deliver attacking and exciting football as they did today. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cook will keep his job, to save the face of the suits and becausethere's no-one else

Alastair Cook will be confirmed as England Captain for the upcoming Cricket World Cup today for two reasons - neither of them convincing. Firstly Cook is the basket in which the ECB placed all their eggs when they sacked Kevin Pietersen. A modicum of sanity among the suits would have seen that there was never a "Cook or Pietersen" moment - it was not "either/or" - and careful handling could have made it "both". But they contrived to create one when they said that KP had to go in order for all to get behind Cook - as if Cook could only lead if Pietersen wasn't there. Not true. Second Cook will hang on because there is no obvious successor. Morgan is smart and articulate and a terrific batsman, but horrendously out of form and cannot really be sure of holding his place in the ODI side let alone leading it. Joe Root simply isn't ready yet and it would be daft to cloud the head of this outstanding player by burdening him with the captaincy.

The days when if Peter May was injured Colin Cowdrey or Ted Dexter or Tom Graveney could slip into the captaincy of England are long gone. The drift into insignificance of the County system and the fact that the players in England's international squads play little part in it means that to be County captain has little import  - Vaughan, Strauss and Cook  hardly ever captained any team other than England. 

It is said that Australia choose eleven players and then from among them they choose the Captain. I'm not sure that was ever entirely true, but the principle is a sound one. So choose an England ODI side - does Alastair Cook get in it? Nah! So what's he doing as Captain then (see Para one above). 

Limited Overs internationals, whether of the 50 Over or the 20 Over variety, are good fun - or should be. Players should enjoy playing in them as much as spectators enjoy watching them. They should be joyful occasions and not too solemn - especially the World Cup. Cooky is a decent chap but a bit of an introvert and hardly inspirational. The World Cup won't be won by cerebral thinking and in Peter Moores and Cook England is led by two people who seem to me to think too much. Darren Lehmann and Michael Clarke have restored Australia's fortunes not by analysis but by leadership. Do we have the people to do the same? It's hard to spot them. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Can good come from the Hughes tragedy? Oh yes, and the Kiwis areshowing the way

When I was at Dulwich College in the 1950s a boy around my age was killed playing rugby. Later, when I was at school in Cambridge in the early 1960s, a fourteen-year-old was killed crossing the Trumpington Road. Apart from the effect they had on me these two happenings were, of course, unconnected. Both were freak events devastating to those involved. And both were utterly avoidable. The rugby death came when the player hit his head against a post. In those days it was not required, nor customary, to clad the base of rugby posts with soft protective material. If it had been this boy, not then in his teens, would not have died. The boy at The Leys might also not have died if there had been a pedestrian crossing at that part of the road. There now is, and has been for decades.

Life and sport can kill. But over the past fifty years or so societies have reduced random dangers through legislation. "Health and Safety" laws are easy targets for those who see them as being an infringement of our freedoms. How often have you heard the phrase "Health and Safety gone mad"? The fact that countless lives have seen saved is often forgotten.

Health and Safety in sport has improved beyond recognition. At my time at school not only were rugby posts unpadded but cricket helmets were unknown. And at the professional sport level it was no better, not least in Motorsport. I have always enjoyed Formula one but for too long it was a lethal sport with protection for drivers and spectators alike unknown. Gradually circuits and cars have improved and today F1 tends not to kill people. But it is still dangerous - as we have seen this year with the crippling and near fatal injury to Marussia driver Jules Bianchi. Some sports are inherently dangerous and in modern times safety has rightly been a priority. Over the years serious injury or fatalities were rare in cricket, not least because batsmen learned to avoid the short balls that came up around their heads. But helmets came in to reduce the risk if the batsman's technique failed him or if the bowling was exceptionally threatening. 

The death of Phillip Hughes was a freak event. The blow hit him not on the head but on the neck. The helmet did not fail - it did not come into play. The bowling was not especially intimidating and the ball which felled him was a standard bouncer. It was one of those random events in life which are as unpredictable as they are unavoidable. A one in many millions chance event that occurs sometimes - but is as inexplicable as it is awful. And random. This does not mean, however, that cricket should not take a long hard look at itself.

Aggressive bowling is as old as the game itself and from time to time it gets out of hand. In the "Bodyline" series of 1932/3 England's bowlers targeted the batsman physically - the Laws of cricket had later to be changed to outlaw the "leg theory" that was Bodyline. Forty or so years later the West Indies bowlers, especially Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding, had a viciousness in their attack that was uniquely intimidating. Even the met competent batsmen had to duck for their lives as the Caribbean crowds chanted, “Kill them! Kill them”! 

More recently truly intimidating bowling has become more of a rarity but verbal intimidation has almost become the norm. I believe intimidation has gone too far. Verbal abuse combined with over-aggressive fast bowling targeted at the batsman himself. Mitchell Johnson boasted about aiming at Jonathan Trott's helmet grill which when combined with sledging was designed to take Trott out The Ashes. It worked.

"It was ever thus" say the apologists for aggression and violence, citing Bodyline. True. With one crucial difference . Today every ball is covered from twenty angles and the verbal abuse is often reported as well. Children see this and assume cricket is a game where these things are the norm. But cricket is not a Martial Art and violence does not have to be part of it at all. "The Spirit of Cricket" is arrant nonsense and a grotesque failure as well. It is time to take verbal and physical abuse out of the game for good. The game will be all the better for it. 

The best legacy to perpetuate the memory of Phillip Hughes would be not some knee jerk prohibition on bouncers or any attempt to change the Laws of the game to make it safer. I repeat - Hughes was killed by a freakish accident not by over aggressive bowling. But there is aggression around in cricket and it demeans the game. I like Jimmy Anderson, he's a lovely guy. But in recent times he has behaved very badly, at times, on the field of play. He's far from alone in that, of course.

Bill Shankly famously said "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." When cricket has been shown quite literally to be "a matter of life and death' it's worth thinking of Shankly's words. Yes cricket for those of us who love it is important. And for many it is their life. And there you have the solution. Jimmy Anderson and Mitchell Johnson are both decent guys. But the transformation of them from the nice Mr Jekyll into the nasty Mr Hyde is demeaning and vulgar. It's an act, and a pretty vile one frankly.

After Jimmy Anderson's Jadeja spat last summer England Captain Alastair Cook said this:

"In my eyes, he has never gone over the top on the field," he said. "He's an aggressive bowler who uses a bit of verbal to get him going and to make batting as uncomfortable as possible.
Not to put too fine a point on it this is a disingenuous lie. Cook knew that Anderson's "bit of verbal" was aggressive foul-mouthed abuse. Over the top? Of course, by any standards of civilised behaviour. Anderson and Johnson and the other practitioners of verbal abuse need to clean up their act. Play hard, you need to do that in any sport. But play fair. The task is no more to intimidate the batsmen unfairly and to rely only on your cricketing talents to win you games. The New Zealanders showed the way in the recent post-Hughes Test match (see above). Good for them. I'm not suggesting the outlawing of the short-pitched ball - the bouncer. But I am suggesting an end to the tactic of deliberately threatening the batsman and I certainly want an end to the verbal abuse. Unfair behaviour did not kill Phillip Hughes. But it probably did send Jonathan Trott home early and force fear into the minds of the England team in Australia. Sport should be bigger than that and Cricket needs to regain some moral integrity. Because for the last few years it just hasn't been "cricket" has it ?

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The attacks on Jonathan Agnew, which have driven him from Twitter, arecontemptible

The above are just two of the abusive Tweets from Piers Morgan which, understandably, contributed to Jonathan Agnew leaving Twitter yesterday. Those who know Aggers will not recognise the description of him as an "ECB stooge" or a "horrible man" - he is neither.

I have been listening to ball-to-ball commentaries on cricket on radio most of my life - 1953 was, I think, the first series I heard. I would place Agnew comfortably in the top four commentators - with Arlott, Johnston and Martin-Jenkins. Like them he has a lovely broadcasting voice, a deep love and knowledge of the game and great integrity. He is himself. That "himself" is someone with a hinterland - his "specialist subject" might be cricket. But when he interviews people as diverse as, say, Lily Allen or Ed Miliband he does his research and finds a way to build a connection between their world and the world of cricket. And Jonathan's ego is rarely on show either (if it exists). It's never about him.

As a fan of "Test Match Specisl" I usually listen to its commentaries when I am at the ground. There are one or two current commentators I can take or leave (no names, no pack drill) but I always listen to Aggers. He has the skill of going "off piste" in classic TMS style without it sounding contrived - not something, Henry Blofeld aside, the rest of the current team can manage. These wanderings, in the duller moments of the action or when it's raining, often suggest the Aggers hinterland without revealing it too much! In truth I think that he is quite a private person who, his international travels over more than two decades not excepted, is happiest with his wife and dogs in a pub in the Vale of Belvoir his home. Aggers various memoirs reveal almost nothing of the man within!

I once had a mild spat with Jonathan over his, and TMS's, choice of the champagne moment at one Test Match. He was hurt not because I criticised him personally (I didn't) but because I thought that the choice - of MS Dhoni at Trent Bridge in 2010 - reeked of political correctness and was a "Spirit of Cricket" driven aberration! We agreed to differ on this - a reasonably aimiable dispute and the sort that only cricket tragics would indulge in ! On this occasion Aggers was perhaps in "Establishment" mode but  to suggest, as Morgan and some others do, that he is an "ECB stooge" is ignorant and wrong. He has been a strong critic of the ECB frequently and his deep love of the game, as well as his duty as BBC Cricket Correspondent, means that if he believes they are wrong (they so often are, of course) he will say so. What he doesn't do is personal abuse - which doesn't mean that he doesn't sometimes receive it, and not just from Piers Morgan.

Aggers is often a target on Twitter - that comes, sadly, with the job. He is well known in the world of cricket and this leads to ignorant abuse - most often from the sub continent. You can block these abusers but there are always another hundred or so waiting their chance. Even more depressing is the occasional abuse from hacks who should know better. Like Brian Moore and others Aggers has been traduced in public by the likes of Charlie Sale in the Daily Mail. These personalised and offensive pieces should have no place in journalism, but tell a tabloid editor that and he'll laugh in your face!

Jonathan Agnew is more likely to know the "truth" about Kevin Pietersen (etc.) than most cricket commentators. This does not mean that he, therefore, has to take sides on this or any other contentious issue. I suspect that despite his insider status Aggers would struggle to find out what the "truth" is anyway. He is not Piers Morgan's opposite, anti KP where Morgan is pro. That sort of polarised position taking is foreign to his nature. He undoubtedly despairs when he sees the likes of Morgan try and kill the thing he loves, cricket, but his natural instinct is more to flee than fight vitriol with vitriol. Which is not to say that he won't defend his corner - you don't survive endless encounters with Geoffrey Boycott without developing a thickish skin!

This has been a terrible year or more for English cricket. Throughout it, in my view, Jonathan Agnew has retained his balance despite despair not being far away in his voice. He is not a conscienceless bruiser like Piers Morgan and he doesn't use the ubiquity of his media access to peddle bias as some have charged. This is not the first time Aggers' resilience has been put to the test. It's all quite unnecessary and unkind to a decent man, and a consummate professional. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Start well in an ODI, but then build!

The idea of building a solid platform on which to build a team innings in a One Day International has a credible logic to it - though it does only seem to be England that obsessively believes this - certainly when batting first. As England keeps losing these matches it does suggest that the tactic is flawed!

At Trent Bridge yesterday England reached 82 before, in the eighteenth over, they lost their first wicket. At that moment the run rate was 4.55 per over. The run rate then subsided and only a brief late assault by James Tredwell restored it to where it had been by the close of the innings.  Chasing a modest total of 228 India reached an identical score to England in their eighteenth over - but then they were chasing and the case for pacing the innings was clear. India knew that only the loss of wickets could lead to an improbable defeat - and they weren't going to let that happen!

Coincidentally at Cardiff India, batting first, was also 82 in the eighteenth over - though for the loss of two rather than one wicket. At Cardiff India had that platform and unlike England at Trent Bridge they used it. 4.50 became just of over 6.00 by the end of the 50 overs. That said it was only in the last fifteen overs that India really charged along moving from 156-4 (4.45) after 35 to 304 after 50.

The point of this is that a platform is only handy if you use it, it is not an end in itself. And also that if your plan, batting first, is to score 300 runs it doesn't really matter how you do it. And up to a point wickets don't matter either. If you are all out for 300 off the final ball that is just as good as being 300-2. So you might as well (a) pace your innings over the 50 overs and (b) not matter too much if you regularly lose wickets. One of the great truisms of cricket is that it "doesn't matter how the runs come, so long as they come". Which brings me to opening batsmen.

In a Test match an opening batsman can bat for ever - and you hope he does. If one of them scores 150 in a day and a half and the players at the other end chip in decent scores rather more quickly you're likely to be knocking on 400 by lunch on the second day - which is fine especially if you haven't lost too many wickets.  One Day games are different. Alastair Cook had a strike rate of 67 when he was out - OK, but no cigar. Even the exuberant Alex Hales took 55 balls over his 42.  Over the innings as a whole not one England player, Tredwell aside, had a strike rate of over 80. Bar Dhawan  all of India's batsmen achieved this. And that is the point. Pacing the innings means pacing it over the full allocation of overs.

In the recent ODI between Australia and South Africa in Harare in which South Africa chased down 328 to win the scores after eighteen overs were Australia, batting first, 92-0 and South Africa chasing 106-2. The Proteas had lost a couple of wickets but they had 14 more runs – not crucial but a signal that they were on for the chase and the loss of wickets could be accommodated.

At Trent Bridge England had a platform at 82-1 and a confident Captain would have said right let’s up the pace a bit and have brought in Jos Buttler or Eoin Morgan at that point. But no - the predetermined batting order couldn't be changed and Ian Bell (ODI strike rate 76.02) came in and predictably batted stodgily for 38 balls scoring 28 without a boundary. Sport is often about symbolism – and about showing your confidence. Would Buttler or Morgan have succeeded up the order – who knows? But it would have showed we meant business and given India something to think about.

The best ODI teams capitalise on good starts and recover form poor ones. They play eleven-man cricket and never assume that the job is done – or lost. Remember that great achievement by India at Lord’s in 2002 when they chased down 326 having been 146-5 at the fall of Tendulkar’s wicket in the 24th over?

The argument here is not not to try and get a decent start – which England had yesterday – but if you do get it to use it! If you are 82-1 after eighteen the opposition will be a bit on the back foot and that is the time not to “consolidate” but to capitalise. That requires confidence and the ability to be flexible – especially in respect of your batting order. Cook was at the crease when Hales was out yesterday. Against Raina (27 ODI wickets in 193 matches) and the novice Rayudu he had the chance to assert himself, but he did the opposite and then got out. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Franchises are coming to T20 cricket

The “Birmingham Bears” won England’s domestic T20 competition yesterday. However if you read some in the Media you wouldn't know. True cricket writers like Scyld Berry in the Telegraph reported the match but he referred throughout in his report to the team as “Warwickshire”. In a way both he and those who used the “Birmingham Bears” descriptor are right. “Birmingham Bears” is a brand owned by Warwickshire County Cricket Club. So ultimately it was the county wot won it. But Warwickshire had chosen to create a “City brand” for their T20 team and it is rather arrogant of those in the media to ignore this – pretty contemptuously in some cases.

What is going on? Are we seeing a bit of raging against the dying of the light going on? I think that we are. That light is, of course, the County system beloved of the cricket establishment – at least insofar as T20 is concerned.

 The Counties

Counties are an historic element in Englishness but for years they have been declining in significance – in part a reflection of the growth of the mega cities like London (of course), Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and the rest. The old counties (48 of them) are referred to as “ceremonial counties” and some have little or no administrative responsibilities. I live in a “county”, Middlesex, which is little more than a postal region – oh, and of course, a Cricket Club!
In cricket there are eighteen “First Class” counties and a further twenty “Minor Counties” – so 38 historic county clubs covering most of the country. Cricket is the only sport which has professional and semi-professional sport based on counties. Other major team sports such as Rugby (both codes) and of course Football have town or city teams. This is in part a reflection of growing urbanisation and partly a fact of commercial realties. The big teams tend to be in the big cities, build stadia in them and relate especially to the population conurbation of that city. With football, of course, most of the big cities have more than one big team – there is the demand and the financing to sustain this.
Warwickshire County Cricket Club have jumped the gun a bit in creating a city brand for their T20 team but I think they have been prescient. That is because I think that it is inevitable that franchises will come to domestic T20. There is a variety of models which could be considered for this – my preferred one would be something like this:

The Invitation to tender

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) invites tenders for a new T20 competition to involve eight teams and to be played during an allocated time period in the summer and with a Final at Lord’s. The tender would cover an initial period of three years. The eight teams would be divided into two groups of four and within each group each team would play the other on a home and away basis. That’s a total of 12 Group stage matches in each group (24 in all) to be followed by  by Semi-Finals – winners of First Group play Runners Up of second Group and so on. That would be 27 matches, each of them significant. The competition could be fitted into a maximum of three weeks during which there would be no other cricket. Interest and attendances would be high throughout.

Who could tender?

In theory any commercial entity could tender. They would have to submit a financial bid, confirm which stadium they would hold the home matches at and the broad details of their operation. The open tender would not be confined to existing County cricket clubs although many would no doubt wish to bid. Warwickshire, for example, could propose the team (the “Birmingham Bears”), the venue (“Edgbaston”) etc. Another bid might be from Manchester United Football Club which would propose a  team a venue (“Old Trafford cricket ground”) and would have formed a commercial partnership with Lancashire County Cricket Club to make this possible. The power of that brand (the “Manchester Red Devils” perhaps?) would be considerable! Similarly in London Chelsea FC might bid jointly with Surrey bringing their brand (the “Chelsea Blues” ?) and financial clout together with Surrey’s ownership of The Oval. Another more out of left field possibility would be West Ham making a bid to use the Olympic Stadium as a venue as well as the home of the team (The “London Lions” perhaps). The venues would not have to be existing cricket grounds, providing the pitch dimensions (etc.) met the necessary standards.
One would expect that England and Wales’s major cities would all have teams, though as we have seen not necessarily based at existing County cricket grounds. The long list locations would probably be London (2), Birmingham, Bradford/Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester/Liverpool, Newcastle/Durham, Nottingham, Bristol and Southampton. The eight chosen would be mainly those that could offer the ECB the highest income.


If a County bid one would expect its T20 player squad to be comprised mainly of its contracted  players. Where the bidder was not a County then the squad would comprise players signed on a short term contract for the duration of the tournament – or IPL style bidding could be used. Overseas players  could be included up to (say) four in any squad and three in any match team. The attraction to overseas stars would be considerable as the matches would be held in the English summer, and for a limited duration, with few if any clashes with other cricketing commitments. The tournament could expect to include the world’s best T20 players adding to its inherent appeal. An appeal that would extend, of course, beyond British spectators and viewers to overseas media, sponsors etc.

What about the Counties?

The counties would benefit in three ways. Firstly as the owner of a franchise team – if they chose to bid. Secondly as the owner of a venue for which they would charge the franchisee. Thirdly as the recipient of income streams from the ECB – if that is what the ECB chooses to do with the income generated from the tournament. It is crucial to emphasise that this event is not a County tournament and is not part of the Counties’ programme. It is quite separate, with different teams and uniquely different brands. As I said at the beginning Warwickshire could be the innovators of this change – and I rather suspect that deep down they know this!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why did nobody tell Jimmy Anderson that you can be competitive without indulging in extreme, foul-mouthed verbal abuse?

There is a good article on Cricinfo today on Jimmy Anderson by Sidharth Monga. In it Mr Monga quotes Burnley Cricket Club Chairman Michael Brown:

"Brown thinks it is also a bit of a northern thing to be so competitive on the field and normal off it."

In my view it is not "competitive" verbally to abuse your opponents, it is cheating. Nor is it "Northern". Mr Brown seems to like regional stereotypes but the idea that Anderson's unacceptable on-field behaviour is a function of his Burnley roots is pretty offensive. But that's by the by. What we should be condemning in the strongest of terms is the obsessive and demeaning sledging that Anderson delivers. Let's be clear. This is not a bit of banter on the pitch. This is not a bit of humorous "chirping". This is foul-mouthed, threatening abuse. 

That James Anderson decided to incorporate verbal abuse into his game is regrettable. That nobody stopped him doing this much more so. Presumably coaches - Fletcher, Moores, Flower knew what was going on. Presumably Captains - Vaughan, Strauss, Cook could hear it from close to. Presumably Umpires could as well. And yet none of them had the courage and the decency to stop it. 

The "Spirit of Cricket" is, in the view of this long-standing cricket fan, a load of hokum. But the fact is that it is written into the Laws of the game. Anderson has clearly transgressed against this spirit by a country mile. He is a folk hero, a rich man and a role model. He is a wonderfully talented, hard-working, determined, aggressive cricketer. England's best. But he has a fault in his character that makes him cheat on the pitch. Monga says:

"There is unconfirmed talk that one of the ECB's behaviour tests might have revealed that Anderson the bowler is at his best when he is grumpy and fired up. Alastair Cook has more or less said as much, without alluding to the test."

Verbal abuse is not an automatic consequence of being "grumpy and fired up". You can be competitive without breaking the rules. I want England to win, and I want James Anderson to continue to be successful. But not at any price. I want Jimmy to be remembered and honoured for the right things. Not for being a foul-mouthed cheat.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Not what County cricket is for, Michael !

On Test Match Special yesterday Michael Vaughan was discussing the tribulations of the Indian batsman Virat Kohli. He said that one of the reasons that Kohli, prolific on Indian wickets, had struggled badly in this series was that he was unfamiliar with English conditions and English wickets. This is surely true, but Vaughan's solution ought to have caused some furrowed brows at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Vaughan suggested that Kohli should come and play a season in County Cricket. He was not, I think, joking - it was a perfectly serious suggestion. There then followed a discussion with fellow commentator Ed Smith on the subject with the latter saying how much a young Rahul Dravid felt that his game had benefited from his one year with Kent in 2000!

Now County Cricket has a long tradition of welcoming overseas players into its ranks. Indeed my biography subject the Bajan John Shepherd was one of the earlier examples with Kent and Gloucestershire in the 1970s and 1980s. Stars like Shep, Viv Richards, Richard Hadlee, Garry Sobers, Asif Iqbal and many others enriched our game. There was mutual benefit. But In those days there was loyalty as well. It was customary for an overseas player to commit himself to a County for many seasons. Mike Procter was so much part of Gloucestershire that they renamed the county "Proctershire"! 

What Rahul Dravid did, and what Vaughan is suggesting Kohli should do, is quite different from these examples from long ago. He is suggesting that Kohli should have a season (no more) at a "Northern County" to teach himself about the English game. There would be some mutual benefit, no doubt, if he learned quickly and scored well for (say) Yorkshire. But Vaughan was not arguing the case from Yorkshire's perspective but from the Indian batsman's. Is that what the County system is for? To help struggling foreign batsmen improve their game?

Every match that a Virat Kohli appeared for Yorkshire he would be taking a place from an England qualified player. Would Joe Root or Gary Ballance or other young English players have progressed if they had had a place in the Yorkshire batting order blocked by a Kohli? 

Finally it's worth pointing out how the employment of Virat Kohli by a County would be financed. None of the Counties has a viable business model without the substantial subsidy it  receives from the ECB. Cricket fans pay for these subsidies via the highest International match ticket prices in the world and via our Sky subscriptions - mandatory, and expensive - if we want to see live cricket on television. So in effect we England fans would be paying for Virat Kohli to improve his game so that he can perform better against us next time India tour! As Fred Trueman would have put it "World's gone mad"! 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Time for Cook to stand down from England's One Day captaincy

Part of the rationale for the sacking of Pietersen was the imperative to build the England team around Cook. This lacked logic on the back of an Ashes tour during which his poor batting, uninspired captaincy and woeful general leadership were major factors in the debacle. Since then I have seen little to change my mind that Cook is far from an automatic choice as a batsman and, at best, no more than the least worst of the Test captaincy options. I do, however, think that he should continue in this role until one of the younger players, probably Root, is ready to take over. Maybe on the South African tour 2015/16? 

As far as the One Day side is concerned change can and should happen now. Cook's One Day batting record is decent, but the likes of Hales, Lyth and Roy deserve their chances in the run up to the World Cup. And Eoin Morgan is the type of Captain who could just break England's long run of dismal failure in the 50 Over tournaments. Cook should stand down from the One Day captaincy in his favour. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Moeen Ali–an extraordinary prospect for England


The genuine allrounder in cricket is worth his weight in gold. He offers at least a player and a half to the team but only takes up one place in the XI ! They are mostly “Bowling allrounders” – that is they are worth their place in the side for their bowling alone but they are also invaluable batsmen as well – usually at or around Number 6. In modern times we think of Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Shaun Pollock, Mike Procter. Batting allrounders are much rarer, Jaques Kallis certainly and Garry Sobers, Ravi Shastri, Tony Greig. But what about the player who would make the side as a batsman, even if he couldn't bowl, and as a bowler even if he couldn't bat. Of the above I would say only Imran, Kallis and Sobers make that cut. Which brings me to Moeen Ali!

Moeen was I think picked for his first test as a batsman who could also perform decently as an off-spinner. In six matches he has scored 272 runs at 34.00 and taken 22 wickets at 28.04. His batting has been, perhaps, a slight disappointment. Just one score over 50 in nine innings – but that innings was a quite outstanding 108* off 281 balls in a rear-guard action at Headingley. That was a marvellous innings and though he may have failed, comparatively, in his other Test knocks to date that one innings at Leeds shows that he is potentially a Test class batsman. Work in progress for sure and vulnerable to the bouncer. But I am sure that he will work at that and my guess is that as a Test cricketer he should average at least 40, maybe quite a bit higher. Which brings me to his bowling.

Initially it seemed that Moeen was far short of Test standard as a bowler. Too expensive, bowling a bit too slowly and a bit short too often and with no real control. Well in the last two tests he has disproved that completely. I watched from an excellent position at Old Trafford and thought he bowled very well indeed. His 4/39 in 13 overs did not flatter him at all.And in the previous match at the Rose Bowl he took 2/62 and 6/67. These are quality performances of which Graeme Swann would have been proud. And his Captain clearly has confidence in him as well.

It’s early days of course but if he works as hard on his batting as he apparently has on his bowling then he will not only be worth his place as an allrounder. He could join that very small group who could get in a Test side either for batting or for bowling. And that really would be something wouldn't it?

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Anderson's behaviour is wrong, but the England coach's endorsement of it is the real scandal.

As a long time supporter of England, and commentator on cricket I deplore Jimmy Anderson's approach to the game - his bowling, batting, fielding and commitment aside of course! But there is no place for verbal abuse in sport, and indeed cricket is the only sport which continues to tolerate it. The so-called "Spirit of Cricket" is pious nonsense ignored by 99% of professional players.

Whatever Anderson may have done at Trent Bridge is not now the main issue. That is such statements as "Jimmy plays it hard on the pitch, I think that is what international sport is” from Peter Moores in response to the ICC decision The England coach clearly equates "playing hard" with sledging it seems. The Laws of the game preclude unsporting behaviour. And England's coach endorses someone who ignores these Laws. That's the real scandal here. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wko killed England Cricket?

Who killed England Cricket?
I, said the Aussie Quick,
with my fearsome pace,
I killed England Cricket.

Who saw him die?
I, said the Barmy,
with my little eye,
I saw him die.

Who gave up his Ashes?
I, said the Cook,
with my doleful look
I gave up The Ashes.

Who'll make the shroud?
I, said the Media,
with my caustic words,
I'll make the shroud.

Who'll dig his grave?
I, said the Public,
when I stay away,
I'll dig his grave.

Who'll be the parson?
I, said Sir Geoffrey,
with my rhubarb stick,
I'll be the parson.

Who'll be the Clarke?
I, said the Giles,
if it's not my fault,
I'll be the Clarke.

Who'll carry the can?
You will dear KP,
It was all your fault 
So you'll carry the can.

Who'll be chief mourner?
We will, said us all,
Mourning for our past
We'll be chief mourner.

Who'll carry the coffin?
I will, said the bag man,
through the lonely night,
I'll carry the coffin.

Who'll bear the pall?
We, said the Fans,
A forgotten tribe,
We'll bear the pall.

Who'll sing a psalm?
I, said the Tenor,
as did his feet..,
He'll sing a psalm.

Who'll toll the Bell?
I said little Ian,
I'll cut out the  pull,
I'll toll the Bell.

All the birds of the air
fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
when they heard the bell toll
for poor England Cricket.

Friday, July 25, 2014

It's not Kevin Pietersen who changed....a look back to 2005

Back in April 2005, just before that glorious cricketing summer when Kevin Pietersen made his Test debut and helped England regain The Ashes, "The Cricketer" magazine ran a profile of KP by Emma John. I have returned to it nine years on and, in the light of Pietersen's career and a few months after his precipitate sacking by the apparatchiks of the ECB, it makes interesting reading. 

In early 2005 KP made his debut as an England cricketer in One Day Internationals in a tour of South Africa. He played six innings scoring 454 runs with three centuries and one fifty. Richard Hobson described his performances as revealing that he “thrives on a challenge” – in this early case the boos and stares from the players and supporters of South Africa who felt, understandably, that Pietersen had abandoned them. This was a view by many in or close to the world of cricket. Peter Oborne, biographer of Basil D’Oliveira and a journalist who always speaks his mind, summed up a commonly held view: “Pietersen ought to be a proud member of the post-Apartheid South African team and helping the country of his birth. Instead he’s barged into an England team where he doesn’t belong” he wrote at that time in the London “Evening Standard”.

Emma John met with Pietersen and found, unsurprisingly, that he was no shy retiring violet! “I’m a good-looking lad,” he told her, “I can pull anything off, Eh?” He was referring to his highlighted hair but he could have been talking about his personality – perhaps he was! In the interview it is clear that KP and his agent Adam Wheatley were very consciously building the Pietersen brand. It’s about the hairstyle, the clothes and the media exposure. He was not the first cricketer to do this, but to do it from the start and before he had even played a Test match was certainly new! 

At the ODI in Johannesburg Pietersen had shepherded England to a Duckworth/Lewis victory. He said this about it “I think that innings [of 22 not out] was one of the biggest I’ll probably play in International cricket. It just helped me settle down…35,000 people are booing you, every single person wants you out, every single person hates you.” This was a revealing insight into KP’s character. He found the opposition motivating not the reverse. He was, even then in those early days, determined to beat the system. And if there are some casualties along the way he’s not going to be too bothered. Tanya Aldred, writing in The Guardian, had said that Pietersen “…has a record of pissing people off. Jason Gallian, his captain at Nottinghamshire, threw his kit bag out of the window. His team-mates did not shed many tears when he left to go to Hampshire for the forthcoming season.” 

Emma John asked KP to explain his method, which was unusual for an English player developed as it had been in South African conditions. He said “In one-day cricket you have to be able to hit a ball into three different areas at once…I open up the off-side, I go down the ground, I open up the leg-side and I try to make sure I get a run a ball… My style doesn’t change” He said, however, that in Test cricket “…I won’t have to hit the ball through the leg-side all the time. There’ll be more scoring options all over”. Amazing confidence from someone who was yet to play a Test match!

This confidence Emma John describes thus “Listening to him, you cannot avoid the force of his self-confidence, as a fly cannot avoid a windscreen…He reminds me of a teenager, keen to appear grown-up and savvy but unable to hide his excitement” She asks KP whether he has any doubts “He looks almost surprised to hear the word… “I think cricket is a big-time confidence game and I don’t think I’ve got any doubts at the minute…” he says” 

Emma John wrote that Kevin Pietersen’s “…self assurance, along with the accent, is probably one of the most un-British things about him”. This is a view which in the light of recent events and especially in the context of England’s current struggles is very revealing. Over KP’s England career we became used to his extraordinary bravado. Sometimes it let him down of course. But so often it led to his playing an extraordinary innings which helped lead England to victory.” In 2005 Simon Briggs wrote this “[Pietersen] is a very independent character, as anyone who ups sticks and moves to the other side of the world is always likely to be”. England’s selectors must have known what they were doing when they picked him, warts and all, for his first Test match at Lord’s in that Ashes summer. He scored 57 and 64* and followed that with 71 in the first innings at Edgbaston… the rest is history. 

Kevin Pietersen’s “…cricket is a big-time confidence game” was a precociously accurate remark. England’s recent sad decline is not because they don’t have talented cricketers any more - it is because the experienced cricketers have lost their confidence. Look at how the batsmen new to Test cricket, Sam Robson, Gary Balance, Joe Root and Moeen Ali have all scored centuries recently whilst the established stars, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Matt Prior (etc.) have struggled. And some. And look how Cook’s pedestrian and cautious captaincy has all too often failed. Maybe like Kevin Pietersen back in 2005 the tyros don’t know how difficult Test cricket is! The air of gloom around the England camp during The 2013/14 Ashes and subsequently is palpable. I suspect that on tour KP tried to relieve the gloom in his own cocky way – and as a result fell foul of the Flower/Cook axis. They chose to see his behaviour as arrogance or disinterest. But the evidence from back in the spring of 2005 is that Pietersen, the Voortrekker made Pom, was never going to be the introspective English public-schoolboy that the England and Wales Cricket Board now sees as proper leadership material. And good captains, especially Michael Vaughan in 2005, knew that KP was a bit wayward and could be a trial sometimes. In the same way that Mike Brearley got the best out of Ian Botham back in 1981 so Vaughan got the best out of Kevin Pietersen in 2005. By 2013 KP was a highly experienced as well as a talented cricketer. If there was some falling off in his performance surely that could be seen as temporary. And if he was sometimes a pain in the arse on that Ashes tour – well it wouldn’t have been the first time! 

How odd and revealing it was that when the most significant thing that was missing from England’s performances on tour and in the run up to the 2014 season was confidence that the ECB chose to dispense with the services of England’s most confident player! All the signs of Pietersen’s character were there back in 2005 and you have to say he didn’t really change much over time. What changed was the willingness on the part of the cricket authorities to cope with this unusual talent. Shame on them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cook should go - but it's the head of the rotten fish that is England cricket that is really responsible for failure.

"I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body" so said Richard Milhouse Nixon in his resignation speech. He had held on to the bitter end and it wasn't pretty to watch. Alastair Cook's attempt to hang on to offce as England's cricket captain is in the same vein. Not quite as portentous, perhaps, but equally distressing. Nixon was a shit. Cook self-evidently is not. And therein lies the rub. Most of us - the unpleasant Piers Morgan aside - like Cook and want him to succeed. But he isn't succeeding either as a batsman or as a captain. Only his stubbornness and the embarrassment of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) could combine to keep him in office any longer.

The ECB nailed their pro Cook colours to the mast in no uncertain terms at the time of the sacking of Kevin Pietersen:

"... the England team needs to rebuild after the whitewash in Australia. To do that we must invest in our captain Alastair Cook and we must support him in creating a culture in which we can be confident he will have the full support of all players, with everyone pulling in the same direction and able to trust each other."

This was I think an unparalleled statement in the history of sport. It effectively said that the failure in Australia was not due to poor performances and leadership but to the absence of a supporting culture in the dressing room. Those of us watching from a distance saw only the lousy batting, the dreadful bowling, the shaky fielding and the scramble-minded leadership. We saw a senior player, Graeme Swann, walk away from the tour halfway through when he saw his poor form likely leading to his being dropped. He didn't stay on to encourage the squad, which he easily could have, but did a runner. We saw another senior player, Trott, also leave the tour when the stress became too much for him. And so on. The leaders of that tour, the hapless Andy Flower and the introspectively inadequate Alastair Cook, were not blamed for the debacle. True Flower left having tried to hang on to his job, but he was kicked upstairs into a specially created and no doubt well paid sinecure at the ECB.

The "villain" of the piece post Ashes was Kevin Pietersen. England's leading batsman on the tour (not saying much, but true nevertheless) was the scapegoat for the failure. Here is not the place to revisit the Pietersen saga but it is right to point out that subsequent to Pietersen's dismissal, at home, and against much weaker opposition, England has performed almost as badly without him as they did in Australia with him. Clear evidence that it was not Kevin that was the problem, awkward sod that he sometimes was ! No, the problem is leadership.

In his seminal work "The Art of Captaincy" Mike Brearley said "... A leader or manager in any field, including sport, has to be able and willing to take in and think about the anxiety of those who work in the team."  The principal cause for anxiety in sport is failure, or expected failure. Trott and Swann reacted to anxiety by leaving the Ashes tour. Kevin Pietersen, allegedly, by behaving rather immaturely. And Flower and Cook ( no doubt aided and abetted by Graham Gooch and others) by mouthing platitudes about hard work. In a team sport there is double anxiety. Worry about individual performance and worry about the team. And when you are captain this is compounded. Anxiety for the captain in cricket comes because he is responsible, more than in any other sport, for the team's performance. And not just on the field. On the final day of the Lord's Test against India England in the shape of Joe Root and Moeen Ali batted responsibly for two hours, though Ali fell to the final ball of the morning. After lunch England batted like headless chickens and were rolled over playing dreadful shots. What happened in the lunch break? Did the captain tell the remaining players to ignore the Root/Ali approach and attack the bowling as if it was a T20 run chase?  Or did he say nothing at all and leave it to the batsmen to "express themselves"? Who knows?

After England's defeat in the fourth Ashes Test at Melbourne last December Alastair Cook was questioned by the media about his position as captain. This is a typical report after that press conference:

Cook made it clear he is no quitter, but understands judgments about his future as captain - little more than a year into his tenure - may yet be taken out of his hands. "I'm 100 per cent wanting to carry on. If someone makes that decision, and says 'we think there's a better man' or 'you're not good enough to do it' then I have to take that on the chin - because as a captain, you're responsible for the team."
That report is I think interesting in hindsight. Was it a cry for help from Cook in which, like Nixon, he said that he wasn't a quitter but that, also like Nixon, the decision was out of his hands? Public pressure and the threat of impeachment eventually dragged Nixon, kicking and screaming, from the Oval Office. Was Alastair Cook at Melbourne revealing that deep down he knew the game was up. That he expected to be sacked after the tour? And that deep down he probably thought that it would be right if it happened? If so the failure of leadership is not, subsequently, his failure but that of his masters in the ECB. If so Cook whilst sticking to the "I'm not a quitter" meme,  would probably have understood it if he had been sacked - and would probably been relieved that it had happened. The ECB had the chance to relieve Cook of a job for which he was unsuited and at the same time let him concentrate on his role as an opening batsman for which he most certainly was suited - and at which he had a proven track record.

The guilty party in this saga is the England and Wales Cricket Board. Their Chief Executive, David Collier, has recently resigned - the reasons for this are unclear and whether it is a reaction to recent failure I don't know - probably not. Mike Brearley in his great book tells the story of how he received a letter which said "There is an old Italian proverb: if you want to know that a fish is bad, look at its head". Well the head of the ECB is not David Collier, a capable apparatchik, but the Chairman Giles Clarke. The man who brought you Stanford. The man who took all live cricket off free-to-air television. The man who brought you £100+ Test Match tickets at Lord's, and plenty more. He's the head of the rotten fish that is English cricket - the man who takes all the decisions. (And the man who has conspired with the Board of a Control of a Cricket in India to take charge of world cricket - but that's another, and disreputable, story).

The non-quitting Alastair Cook stumbles on with personal and team failure compounding with every match. And the ECB is largely powerless to do anything about it because of their preposterous statement about "investing" in him and about "culture". "Loss of face" is not just something just from the East but alive and well at Lord's. As cricket fans we have no voice. We all like Cooky, but we all think that the time for him to go as captain is long overdue. Giles Clarke is in a corner but he's been there so often in the past that he'll escape. And English cricket will again suffer from his mountainous ego.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sledging is "unfair play" - the umpires must stop it.

Sledging is an admission of failure. It says that we can't win within the laws of the game of cricket or by our own skills and effort. So we'll play "mind games" and try and get the batsman out by abusing and mocking him. I don't care that sledging is as old as the game. It is wrong. I don't care that some see it just as "banter" and a legitimate tactic or that it is part of the fanciful nonsense that is "mental disintegration". It is still wrong. In no other sport is it acceptable personally to abuse an opponent. And cricket is the sport that congratulates itself about its "Spirit" - abject nonsense.

So if Jimmy Anderson is a serial Sledger that reduces him in my mind as a cricketer and a man. And if this led to the altercation with Ravindran Jadeja at Trent Bridge then it is most regrettable. Jimmy is a fine bowler - and as we saw at Trent Bridge no mean batsman either. He is a brilliant fielder in any position. When fit, which he mostly is, he has to be the first name on any England team sheet. He doesn't need to sledge and it's about time he stopped it. And he shouldn't put fuel on the smouldering fire which is England/India team relations. Play hard, but play fair - and verbally abusing your opponents just ain't fair. 

It's not that sledging offends the "Spirit of Cricket" that we should oppose it. The "Spirit" has long since been the fictional fantasy of men in blazers of a certain age. They preen and posture and often hide behind a concept which is largely ignored by players and administrators alike. The Laws of Cricket have long been sufficiently clear that unfair play is unlawful. Let's agree that unfair play indisputably includes sledging. And let's give the Umpire Yellow and Red cards to use when a player, in their sole judgment, offends. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Our domestic cricket system doesn't produce quality Off-break bowlers any more. Why?

It used to be only wrist spinners we couldn't produce, but now we can't produce any spinners at all it seems. A couple of slow left armers - one (Monty) who is putting himself out of contention and another, Kerrigan, whose form is patchy and who couldn't hack it at all when given a chance last year. 

We once had a decent Off-break bowling tradition. Laker, Mortimer, Allen, Titmus, Illingworth..... Most counties had at least one decent Offie. Now? Some bloke from Kent who isn't ready but has replaced another bloke from Kent who they no longer pick. Let's do some maths. There are 20 or so Counties and University sides each with a player catchment zone of say 50 players (Squad, 2nd XI, Youth, top clubs). That's 1000 players. Add in the Minor Counties and you have what - another few hundred? And all this hasn't produced even one credible successor to Graeme Swann! Why? And which heads should role? 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Alastair Cook could learn from Mike Denness

Sport can be brutally cruel at times. It is the flip side of the joy of the winner - the grief of the loser. The penalty miss in the shoot out. The broken gearbox in a Grand Prix. And the depression of the batsman when he gets out - again - for a low score in a Test match. For cricket is so exposed. The long walk to the crease and the even longer walk back. In front of 15,000 people with the dressing room full of your mates who will look down when you enter and avoid eye contact because they are embarrassed for you. And that is where Alastair Cook is, and has been for what seems a long time.

Cook failed again at Trent Bridge. On a flat batter's wicket he contrived to find another way to get out, bowled off his thigh pad. When a sportsman of quality loses form we tend to grab at the cliché that "Form is temporary, Class is permanent" - and of course that is true. But that doesn't explain the loss of form - it just acknowledges the hope that it won't last. Well sometimes it can last a very long time! Take the Tottenham Hotspur and Spain striker Roberto Soldado. At top Spanish Club Valencia over three seasons he scored a goal in 50% of his games. At Tottenham last season he made 28 appearances and scored only six times - solid from the penalty spot, hopeless from open play. The number of times he got the ball in a scoring position and blasted it over the bar became almost comical (not if you're a fan it didn't of course!). 

As fans we don't want sportsman to fail, and in that, I think, lies part of the problem. When Cook came out to bat yesterday there was not one England fan at Trent Bridge who wished him anything but well - and therein lies the rub. We were tense, it was tangible, and it must have communicated itself to Cook. And he was tense. He knew the truth - he was only opening for England in this Test match because he was captain. Any other player in his sort of trough of performance would have been dropped - ask Nick Compton about that! It's an unforgiving world. 

Beyond the fact that he is captain Alastair Cook is the shining white hope for the recovery of England cricket from the disaster of The Ashes. When the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) decided to sack Kevin Pietersen this s what they said:

"The England team needs to rebuild after the whitewash in Australia. To do that we must invest in our captain Alastair Cook and we must support him in creating a culture in which we can be confident he will have the full support of all players, with everyone pulling in the same direction and able to trust each other."

This is not an equivocal statement. Cook was to be the hero, and KP the discarded villain. The ECB was choosing to "invest" in Alastair Cook who would create a "culture" of support. It doesn't actually mention winning matches, just being a jolly bunch. It is presumed, I assume, that winning will result if the team is happy. Well England has now gone nine Test matches without a win (including the one underway which will be at best a draw). This is some way behind the woeful 18 matches under Mike Gatting from January 1987 to August 1988 but it's halfway there. The discarding of Pietersen may have improved dressing room morale (has it?) but we are yet to see that in results, though it's early days in the new era to be fair.

Another sporting cliché that is being aired at the moment is that winning is addictive. Winning teams are more likely to win their next match than losing teams. If you think you will win you probably will. The reverse also applies - at team level but absolutely at the level of the individual. Soldado must have felt that his goal scoring touch had deserted him last season. And he expected not to score. So he didn't. Even when a one-legged striker would have. Alastair Cook won't admit it, he's too proud too, but he expects to fail. So he does. In calendar year 2014 he has played seven Test innings scoring 97 runs at an average of 13.8. His confidence is shot. You can see it in his body language. And what sort of "culture" does the captain's continued failure create in the dressing room. Supportive, no doubt, but I don't think rallying round a failing batsmen who continues to fail was what the ECB had in mind.

Back in 1974/5 the estimable Mike Denness dropped himself for one match after a short run of failed performances when captain of England. He returned and scored a match-winning 188 in his comeback match. It was a gutsy thing to do and a classic, and rewarded, action by that most decent of men. Cook is a decent man as well but my guess is that the ECB hierarchy would do everything in their considerable power to stop him from taking a break. Not because he is not the best man to open for England at the moment (he self-evidently isn't) but because they have openly "invested" in him as the main thrust of their strategy for the future. And because they (the ECB suits) would lose so much face if Cook walked away - even temporarily.

Sport is cruel and Alastair Cook is suffering at the moment. It is sad to watch. Maybe all will come right in England's second innings at Trent Bridge. But if it doesn't there is a strong case for Cook immediately to take a breather from international cricket. He IS a classy player - his overall record is beyond dispute. But he needs time away from the spotlight to recover his self-confidence and his form. Mike Denness showed him the way.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The unusual use of the Passive Voice in Luis Suarez's statement.

This is Luis Suarez's apology. The key phrase is:

"..,the truth is that my colleague (sic) Giorgio Chiellini suffered the physical result of a bite in the collision he suffered with me."

The technical term for this type of phrasing is the Passive Voice. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is neither a do-er or a be-er, but is acted upon by some other agent or by something unnamed. The subject (Chiellini) "suffered...a bite". Had Suarez used the Active Voice he would have said something like "I bit Chiellini". 

Obviously even the use of the Passive Vpice is an admission of responsibility because if Chiellini was bitten, and Suarez says he was, there is only one person who could have done it!

The Passive Voice is often used in apologies. So we hear "I'm sorry if anyone was offended"  rather than the Active "I'm sorry if I offended anyone". It's a sort of watered down apology. The use here is rather bizarre - maybe it happened in the translation. The "I deeply regret what occurred" is also a bit less powerful in that it regrets the incident rather regretting that he caused it. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A lifetime ban on Luis Suárez is the only penalty

Those of us who follow sport closely are rarely surprised by dysfunctional sporting behaviour. There is hardly a sport, certainly a professional one, where cheating, abuse, gamesmanship and other excesses don't rear their heads from time to time. And some sportsmen (its usually men) seem particularly prone to misbehaviour. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare with the Uruguay and Liverpool striker Luis Alberto Suárez Díaz .

On the pitch Suárez is part genius and part villain. Not a warm and cuddly villain either – the flawed genius who sometimes misbehaves. This is a man who does things that even the worst offenders over the years would never have done. When he dives (and he dives!) it is with a cheat’s insouciance . When he fouls another player it is the same. Yellow and Red cards galore. Other players do this of course but not many also indulge in racial abuse of another player (as Suárez did with Patrice Evra for which he was banned for eight games). And none has been banned (for ten games) for biting an opponent as Suárez was after he attacked the Chelsea player Branislav Ivanovic. Astonishingly Suárez had previous as a biter – when he was with the Dutch team Ajax he bit PSV's Otman Bakkal on the shoulder an offence for which he was banned for seven games. And now he's done it again. The bite on Giorgio Chiellini of Italy was blatant assault. No excuses can be made – certainly not by or for a man who has twice been banned for similar offences. That is was perpetrated on the large stage of the Football World Cup means that there is nobody in the world of football can now doubt (if they did before) that Luis Suárez , talented footballer though he is, has no place in the game. A lifetime ban is the only penalty that can be applied – and if the Brazilian authorities charge Suárez with assault as well that would only be justice and what he deserves.


Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Thoughts on the mind games of cricket and the "Mankad"

Cricket is a funny old game! Like most sports at the top of the professional game it can be a metaphor for life. The battles. The ambition to succeed. The tricks. The highs. The lows. The scope for individual triumph. The benefits of teamwork. The moments of glory. The moments of pain, and so on. I have been pondering the reasons why cricketers seem uniquely vulnerable and susceptible to mental illness and I think that I may have worked it out. Every top player is minutely under the spotlight and his failure at any one moment is difficult to recover. Other sports have this to some extent of course - the missed penalty, the missed putt - but cricket has it potentially for every ball. The batsman, say, gets out first ball to a dreadful shot. He has to endure the long, lonely walk back to the Pavilion -  if he's lucky in silence if not to jeers. The bowler bowls the first ball of a crucial Test match to second slip! Or has a debut of such abject quality that he never gets picked again. The dropped catch. The sloppy fielding moment. The failure to come to terms with an opponent's sledging. 

Steve Waugh called the process of breaking an opponent down "mental disintegration":
'In international competition everyone is talented and fit and has natural ability, but the one who wins is the one who can focus on the job at hand and play the mind game the best.'
That is true of cricket but much less so in other sports. At least in so far as to "play the mind game" means not just building your own confidence but breaking that of the members of the opposing team. Jonathan Trott was seen as being vulnerable and was targeted by the Australians  in the recent Ashes tour and we all know what that led to. Can you imagine a professional golfer in a play-off for a "Major" verbally abusing his opponent? But that is what happens in cricket all the time. It was a crucial element of Waugh's career and of course of that of Shane Warne. 
The preposterous "Spirit of Cricket" doesn't help at all and in fact it adds another unnecessary layer of pressure. I have argued consistently that the whole concept is pretentious flimflam - beloved though it is by men in suits of a certain age for whom Lord's is home. So the recent " Mankad" of Jos Buttler by Sachithra Senanayake, though a perfectly legitimate dismissal under the rules of the game, launches an avalanche of criticism. For some slightly obscure reason while the running out or stumping of a batsman who strays from or doesn't make the crease is wholly uncontentious if that happens at the bowling end in the "Mankad" circumstances it is seen as not quite the right thing to do. Very odd! Either it is within the Laws or it is not (it is by the way). In which case why put it into some grey area of doubt? The bowler in this recent instance "warned" the batsman earlier. He only did this because he knew that this type of dismissal would be seen as not quite proper. Would a wicket-keeper warn a batsman who strayed from his crease when batting? Of course not.
Cricket is not uniquely honourable over and above other sports - indeed in many ways, as with sledging, it is uniquely dishonourable. There should be no grey areas. Either a "Mankad" is a legitimate dismissal or it is not. If it is then to effect it should be applauded in the same way as we applaud a good catch, or a good runout or a good ball which smashes the stumps. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Downton blows it early doors - the ECB won't like that !

Writing in the Daily Telegraph today Nick Hoult says "As  a man who spent many years working in the corporate world in the city it is a surprise Downton has landed himself in trouble with lawyers."

Not really - in my experience. Most people in the Financial sector are not involved in making public statements about anything. A small minority work in PR or have to front up in public because of the seniority of their positions at the top of firms but I don't think that Downton fell into either category. His error was a communications error. He said the wrong thing. It was naivety in a media interview that caused the problem. 

The surprising thing is that the ECB is notorious for its control freakery! The reason that most statements and interviews are so bland and predictable is that coaches, captains and players are told  what to say. The ECB always controls the message. Downton has had ample time to go through the Board's extensive media training programme with its mock interviews and its copious instruction on how not to answer a question! Indeed it is arguable that Media Relations is one of the key requirements of the job Downton was appointed to.

Most of us assumed that Downton's more open response to Jonathan Agnew's questions about Pietersen was a deliberate policy on the part of the ECB to say more about the affair in response to criticism. It seems not and that he was winging it! Messrs Clarke and Collier won't like that one bit! Not least because of all the jobs in the ECB  hierarchy this job was the one most concerned with media relations. First up Downton, I'm afraid, has blown it.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A very odd season for Tottenham!

Even for the most long-standing and “seen it all” Spurs supporter this has been, to put it mildly, an odd season! Statistics don't tell the whole story of course but there are some odd stats which tell a lot. Spurs should finish sixth providing they avoid defeat in the final match versus Aston Villa on Sunday. This means that five teams – Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton will finish above Tottenham. Spurs results against these five tell a story:

Played: 10

Won: 1

Drawn: 2

Lost: 7

Goals For: 2

Goals Against: 27

Points gained: 5

Points conceded: 28

So of Spurs 67 or 69 points only 5 will have been gained against the top teams. But it is when you look at the other 28 matches that another reason for Spurs underperformance in 2013/2014 becomes clear. A top team should generally beat those teams below them at Home and avoid defeat Away. In the main this was achieved with some notable exceptions:

Home losses to Newcastle and West Ham. Away losses to Norwich and West Ham again. And draws with WBA (at home) and Hull and West Brom away. These were mostly careless results caused by defensive frailties or poor finishing. Of the 20 teams in the league Spurs scored fewer goals than seven of them and let in more than ten. This suggests a failure to score and a tendency to concede that was inconsistent with a top club.

It wasn't a disastrous seaosn – there were ten or eleven home wins to celebrate and ten away – no other team won more away games in the entire league! But what all of the above points to is still pretty depressing:

  • An almost complete failure against rival top clubs (One point against Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool combined and one goal scored to 25 conceded!). 
  • Some sloppy results against teams we should have beaten comfortably.

Despite this gloom I think that there is a basis of a very good team trying hard to get out! But then I always think that!




“A Half-Forgotten triumph, The Story of Kent’s County Championship Title of 1913”

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To Kent fans of a certain age, like me, the "Golden Age" of Kent cricket means the glorious 1970s when the County Championship was won three times and there were no fewer than seven trophies in the various limited overs competitions. But earlier in the century, when the County Championship was the only game in town, Kent won it four times in eight years - 1906, 1909, 1901 and 1913. This book tells the story of the last of these triumphs - what was, as it turned out, to be Kent's last win in any competition for fifty-four years.

In 2014 we are looking back a hundred years to the start of the Great War and as we do so we will also be telling the story of 1913 - a year that was the end of an epoch in more ways than just at Kent cricket. The Edwardian era ended not with the death of Edward VII in 1910 but with the outbreak of the War in July 1914. Few among the thousands who cheered Kent's Championship win could have had any premonition that life for all was to change irrevocably less than a year later. Of those who played for or against Kent in 1913 twenty were to perish in the Great War - including Colin Blythe, one of the main architects of the victory, at Passchendaele in 1917. 1913 was, as Florian Illies called it in his extraordinary best-seller the "year before the Storm" and it is surely with this in the back of our minds that we read Moseling and Quarrington's excellent book.

The format of "A Half-Forgotten Triumph" is to take Kent's games chronologically - match by match. The research is comprehensive and there are copious quotes from contemporary reports - all of which are meticulously referenced. Along the way there are a few digressions which add colour to the text and are interesting in their own right. For example the (eventually) sad story of Albert Trott an umpire in Kent's match against the MCC, and one of the five cricketers to play Test cricket for both England and Australia in the nineteenth century, is told in a long footnote.

Just how important County cricket was at the time shines through almost every page. There were no tourists in 1913 so not only was public attention only on the County game but all of the star players took part in every match if they were fit to do so. Frank Woolley played 28 matches for Kent that season and Colin Blythe 31 - bowling 1043.1 overs and taking 160 wickets at 15.48. The opening Day ("Ladies Day") of the match versus Nottinghamshire in Canterbury Week had an attendance of over 13,000 at the St Lawrence Ground. And there were stars on view as well. Percy Fender, JWHT Douglas, Wilfred Rhodes, Gilbert Jessop, Jack Hobbs, Sydney Barnes, Herbert Strudwick, Plum Warner, Patsy Hendren... Oh for a time machine to go and see some of these in their prime! On the boundary edge there were a few great cricketing names as well - Lord Harris, the formidable Chairman of Kent's Committee, Arthur Conan Doyle a member of Tunbridge Wells CC, W.G. Grace (who needs no introduction) all make fleeting appearances.

Well we may not have a time machine but this marvellous book is the next best thing. The authors in a separate chapter called "The Social Scene" describe the cricket weeks, the wandering clubs like the Band of Brothers, the Club Balls and the many grounds at which Kent cricket was played. Did you know that there was talk in the MCC of playing a Test match at Dover? Me neither! The authors do not dig too much into the changing and problematic cricket scene that was underway at the end of that Golden Age. Derek Birley in his "A Social History of English Cricket" said that "By 1914 pressure to turn what was a gentlemen's pastime into a business had exposed the weaknesses of the [county] system" and once the nasty affair of the Great War was over this was to be revisited and eventually we were to arrive at where we are today where Mammon calls every tune. But why not slip back a century and wallow a bit in Kent's triumphant year. Were those the days? Well maybe they were - but all too briefly!

This review by Paddy Briggs first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of "The Journal of the Cricket Society"