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.