Friday, 30 December 2011

ALL-TIME APOSTROPHE XI


Capt. Basil

I suppose, looking back, there’s an outside chance that it was all fevered or dreamy or intoxicated reverie, half a chance that I only imagined that strange conversation in the pub about apostrophes and sportsmen which at the time I reported as fact, but now am prepared to admit – or at least to entertain the notion – that it may not have actually taken place, a conversation in which it was suggested that a little known, flash-in-the-pan, medium-fast Kiwi left-armer was the best cricketer ever with an apostrophe in his surname. (I know it’s ludicrous now – but at the time I hadn’t thought of him. Or him.)

Anyway, in an act of frankly pathetic self-plagiarism (if such a thing is possible), I then recycled this almost certainly imaginary conversation, only this time it was about apostrophied footballers, of which there are many and from whose number I’ve subsequently selected a formidable team, from Preud’homme to Eto’o, with the likes of Guivarc’h on the bench.

And that is where I had parked this ground-breaking, epochal research project until last month, up until the point at which the sheer volume of complaints, lobbying, and desperate, suicide-threatening pleas from Joe and Josephine Public compelled me to pick up the original baton and – in the light of a completely fabricated barroom debate – choose a bunch of cricketers with names carrying this most vexatious (and, in the vanguard linguistic city of Birmingham, redundant) of punctuation marks.

After an intensive four-week period canvassing the mover’s and shaker’s (and grocer’s) of global o’pinion, at long last I’ve settled on my Cricketing Apostrophe XI, competition for which was fierce. As I said before, the game that my fantastical team would find itself playing would be a Punctuation Shield Final, inevitably against the Hyphen XI (a decent side, with their Hamilton-Browns, Inzamam-ul-Haqs and Fleetwood-Smiths). I say inevitably, yet I suppose it’s theoretically possible that you could also assemble a team of accents – acuté, gràve, circûmflex, tĩlde, ümlaut, çedilla, čaron, kål and suchlike (no doubt skippered by the redoubtable Chris Tavaré) – although I’m not sure what sort of game this rag-tag and heterogeneous bunch’d give either the palpably united Apostrophes or Hyphens in the Punctuation Shield semi-finals…

But I digress.

Here it is, then: my grammatically homogenous team, veritable Aryans of the apostrophe. (Note that no Sri Lankans have made the team, despite most scoreboards having little choice but to apostrophise their surnames.) Clearly, it is less graphematically appealing than the Footballers XI, for the simple reason that cricket – corralled as it is in the former British Imperial territories (and thus, apostrophe-wise, largely restricted to the Celtic tongue, give or take a Goa and a flow-a from Samoa) – lacks the linguistic diversity of the footballing world, which can call on such apostrophe-bearing languages as Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Maltese, Hebrew, sundry Polynesian and Bantu tongues, and of course the Celtic stuff, from Irish to Breton. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for balancing the understandable desire for that frisson of orthographical unorthodoxy with having to pick a competitive team. (For the Punctuation Shield, as I say.) Otherwise, well, I’d have bunged in Maurie Fa’asavalu – a rugby player, true, but a quality apostrophe.

But still I digress. The team…

Oh, they shall play at Lord’s. Where else?


 O'B 

CRICKET’S ALL-TIME APOSTROPHE XI

1: Norm O’Neill (Aus)
Described by Gideon Haigh on his Cricinfo profile as a “broad shouldered adonis who gave off a golden aura of good health,” the tough-as-teak opener averaged 45 across 42 Tests, his PB of 181 coming in the tied game of 1960 in Brisbane, yet is widely considered an underachiever. Not in this side, he ain’t.

Bits-and-pieces Lancastrian famous for winning the Walter Lawrence Trophy by equalling Percy Fender’s 63-year-old record for the fastest first-class century in terms of time (35 minutes), runs blazed off the fearsome new ball attack of DI Gower and JJ Whittaker. With MCC knickers starting to twist, the feat was soon revoked, relegated to an inglorious footnote in Wisden entitled “contrived circumstances”.

3: John D’Arcy (NZ)
Mr D’Arcy played 5 Tests for New Zealand as an opener – all in England in 1958 – and yet didn’t make a single first-class century in his entire career. Not one (grip problems, apparently). Kiwi strength in depth. Former Derbyshire batsman Tim O’Gorman is pushing hard for selection, it has to be said.

4: Basil D’Oliveira (Eng) captain
The late D’Oliveira will forever be remembered as the man who in 1968 faced down apartheid, leading to his homeland’s 25-year exclusion from Test cricket. He was also a fine batting all-rounder who served Worcestershire with distinction, a legacy continued by son Damian, now academy director. (Probably also sneaks into the yet-to-be-selected Herbs XI.)

5: Niall O’Brian (Ireland) wicket-keeper
Another off the production line of inventive ginger-haired Irish left-handers, following Eoin Morgan and Ed Joyce (no, I will not debate whether the latter was inventive or not). ’Keeper in this team (yes, I do insist on the apostrophe to mark the elision of wicket- because it’s not “just the same as phone”).

6: Ted a’Beckett (Aus)
Toured England in 1930 with Bradman, playing at Leeds when The Don made his country’s highest Test score of 334. Doubting Thomas was a relation.

All-rounder who played for Australia when they were gash. Wouldn’t have got in the side as either pure batter or bowler, and shouldn’t really have done as an all-rounder either, although he once smashed an 18-ball half-century and did a half-decent job in the ODI team when they won the 1987 World Cup. Now presents Channel Nine’s lunchtime show – presumably because he’s good at hawking merch and casually littering his sentences with mentions of their “corporate partners”.

8: Kerry O’Keeffe (Aus)
The ABC commentator with the infectious giggle wouldn’t get within a million miles of any other representative XIs – save perhaps Players Who Rhyme With Beef – but that cheeky little apostrophe sneaks the leggie into this all-time XI as second spinner ahead of near namesake Steve O’Keefe. Kiwi swinger Shayne O’Connor would play on a green’un.

9: Bill O’Reilly (Aus)
Genius purveyor of fast, spitting leg-breaks and top-spinners during the 1930s who took a gross of Test scalps in his 27 games, including 27 in the Bodyline series, and was rated by Richie Benaud as at least the equal of SK Warne. He also disliked Bradman intensely. Kudos.

10: Iain O’Brien (NZ)
Big-hearted self-professed depressive who spent a bit too much time playing league cricket in Derbyshire before pulling his finger out of his backside and bringing an air of genial club cricket to the Test arena as he ran uncomplainingly into gale force winds, nibbled it around, and made a bunny of Mahela Jayawardene. Underrated (although not quite good enough as sub pro for Leek in 2008 to stop Moddershall winning the North Staffs & South Cheshire League title).

11: Murphy Su’a (NZ)
Was born in Wanganui, which is pretty much what he did as a cricketer… Middle name: Logo. Stout-hearted, stout named.

POST SCRIPT:
Indeed the Apostrophes shall play the Hyphens, as Rishabh @CricketNerdist has taken up the challenge and selected an all-time double-barrelled outfit, which you can take a look at here. Controversially, theres no place for Rory Hamilton-Brown, a.k.a. the white Asad Shafiq (perhaps because the hyphen is an affectation of his fathers), nor Misbah-ul-Haq. Assuming nobody wants to select a team of Accents (and beyond Chris Tavaré, I'm not sure I know any), all thats now required is for some maths genius to work out the outcome based on some incomprehensible algorithm or other. Or maybe aggregated career averages. Volunteers? 




Wednesday, 21 December 2011

HITTING THE DECK HARD

Stray balls lying around cricket grounds are a hazard, a nuisance. In the past, they have been known to change the course of cricket history: Glenn McGrath in Birmingham, 2005, being the most obvious example. Now, for all that they're a commonplace sight, I'm pretty sure I've never seen one actually heavy-rolled into the cut strip. This incredible photo comes, I think, from Aussie grade cricket – appropriately enough, you might say, for the embedded ball resembles nothing so much as a meteorite that collided with the earth, à la Uluru, say. 

Speaking of McGrath, you imagine that, were he confronted with a ball buried in the pitch like this, he'd probably be looking to hit it four, maybe five times an over. Mind you, it looks just a yard short of his in-between length...



Tuesday, 22 November 2011

LIVING THE DREAM...

And so, finally, it came to pass: after a long journey from Lahore to Durban via Stoke-on-Trent, and an equally arduous existential journey – changing his nationality, no less Imran Tahir, at 32-years-young, fulfilled a lifelong dream and played Test cricket. Regular visitors to this blog (ha ha!) will know that I have written previously about the much admired former professional of Moddershall CC – at the time of his bow in international cricket at this year’s Cricket World Cup, to be exact – and these achievements feel as gratifying to all those who shared three great seasons with him at Barnfields after he had been signed from Norton-in-Hales in 2004 (for whom he took just 7 wickets in 4 games against Moddershall as we picked up 95 points and four wins; even so, it was still a pretty safe punt, we felt...) as I am sure they feel for him.

With Immy as pro’ and yours truly as captain, Moddershall won the Staffordshire Cup in 2004 whilst losing the final of the Talbot Cup that same year to Audley – a day that began for me in Cambridgeshire with an almighty hangover; a game in which I not only skippered but kept wicket, too (reluctantly, as always), and in which Immy repeatedly forgot to give me the signal that the googly was coming (a scratch of his bowling mark), these balls thus being not only too good for TP Singh, their left-handed pro, but also the ‘keeper that was to have stumped their dangerman… The following year, we almost, almost pipped a super-strong Longton side, spearheaded by Alfonso Thomas, to the Premier League title, having had our club game watched by then Pakistan coach, the late Bob Woolmer. Then, after a two-year hiatus for us both – Immy at Meir Heath and up north, me at Wollaton in the Nottinghamshire Premier League – we pulled off a truly remarkable North Staffs & South Cheshire League title victory in 2008, a season in which Imran first started to flicker more brightly on the wider cricketing consciousness.

Today, if not quite yet a superstar, he is certainly very highly regarded, enough to be frequently spoken of as the missing ingredient in the South African attack. Indeed, that was the thrust of the ever-brilliant Barney Ronay’s piece on The Guardian’s website last week, which describes the “hitherto globetrotting Pakistani impresario of the leg-break and googly” as “the most familiar of debutants, a baby-faced 32-year-old” and “bowler of rare talent”. His conclusion? “South Africa, twenty years after re-entry in international cricket, finally have a proper spinner”.

Now, if you take a quick squizz ‘below the line’, you’ll notice that a certain ItsGoingIrish left a comment that, at the time of writing, has received 59 anonymous ‘recommends’ and several heart-warming, pseudonymous responses further down the thread. Indeed, the author himself tweeted that the post was “easily the best thing” about his article. It is an uplifting tale (I assume Mr Ronay was talking content, not form). 


My post – for ItsGoingIrish is I; it s a fair cop, guv – sought to let the wider cricketing public know just what a solid chap Immy was – is – by telling the story of his efforts for Moddershall in 2008, efforts that, if not quite above and beyond the call of duty, were undoubtedly something that spoke of a loyal, committed, and devoted cricketer, as well as a thoroughly genuine bloke. (I should point out, by way of counterpoint, that it’s none too difficult to think of another Imran that played for Moddershall, one who – as a man of slightly more self-regarding bent and not quite so much of a team player, truth be told – would not, I think it’s safe to say, have schlepped across the country out of any sense of ‘moral duty’ to help our club. Or any club, probably.)

Champions' post-season de-brief

Anyway, here’s the tale I posted, with a couple of slight amendments for the sake of colour and/or clarity (albeit maintaining the brevity with which I’m not usually associated):
    In 2008, Imran was playing for Moddershall in the North Staffs & South Cheshire League, wheeling away uncomplainingly, bagging his five- and seven-fers, pestering the groundsman to play on the same track next game (we did, several times, and Kim Barnett’s face was a picture when he saw one such Bunsen), and badgering me to move up the batting order from No7 (I occasionally let him swap with me at No6 but he hardly ever played the situation: heart-attack material).
     And then, out of nowhere, Hampshire signed him.
    Our chairman at the time, being the sort of trusting soul readily found among the armies of volunteers who put their love and sweat into England’s many cricket clubs, was perhaps not the best man to deal with Imran’s new – a few days new – agent, and so, with this agent telling Hampshire CCC he had some spurious verbal agreement with us, the club found itself having to haggle with Hampshire over compensation.
    Forcing Immy to keep his contract with us (even though we were in our rights to do so) was not an option, as we had no desire to stand in the way of his cricketing ambitions, naturally, but it’s fair to say that Wee Club in the Shires were not really being heard, or even listened to, by the county club, who merely referred us to the agent. The agent offered us a derisory sum, one far short of the remainder of his deal – and that’s without even considering the rent on his house (6-month contract), the return airline ticket (and we’d need another for any sub we’d have to fly in ... although that was the time the UKBA and ECB regulations started to make this a very protracted procedure indeed), the car...
    In the end, the agent told us we would have to get further compensation from Immy himself. We tried Hampshire again, actually threatening them with holding Immy to his contract. Nothing.
    More than a little vexed, Immy looked at the remaining fixtures of both Hants and ourselves and told me that he’d be free to play 5, maybe 6 out of 9 games (we were second in the table at the time) and that he’d inform Hampshire that he wanted to play for us whenever possible (and remember, by this time he’d had a couple of false starts with his county career, at Yorks and Middlesex, so wasn’t in a strong position to start making demands).
    It turned out that, for the rest of that season, we played only once without him (another game was abandoned after we’d hired ex-Zim seamer Gary Brent as sub, an absolute gentleman who refused his payment, taking only petrol money) and went on to win the Premier League title on the last afternoon, Immy making a golden duck, as it happens, but celebrating the crucial bonus point-securing wicket with a run and scream every bit as intense and sincere as those at the CWC in March, or during his record-breaking debut 12/180-odd against Lancs at Old Trafford.
    He finished that season with 44 wickets in seven Championship games for Hampshire, as they avoided the relegation that had seemed likely when he joined. For Moddershall, it was 80 at 11. But by far the most significant statistic was the mileage Imran did on the motorways in order not to let us down.
    On one occasion he phoned at 4pm on a Thursday afternoon, tea on Day 2 of a Champo game, saying it’d definitely be finished by the “end of tomorrow” and that, after all, we wouldn’t need a sub for the weekend (he was right). On another, he finished a Championship game at Southampton on the Friday, played for us in Stoke on the Saturday (skipper asking him to bowl unchanged from one end), then CB40 in Taunton on the Sunday. This was dedication, love, generosity.
    Imran played three years with us and I never once heard anyone say a bad word about him. If rewards in sport were doled out on the basis of the size of a player’s heart, Immy would have a glorious 3 or 4 years in Tests to adorn his career.
    A fine man, indeed.
Immy, fingers at Barnfields are crossed for you. I hope the rest of your leg-spinning days bring plenty of successful miaows... 

* You may also enjoy the comparison of Imran's spell at Moddershall with Rangana Herath's 




Wednesday, 2 November 2011

NOTTS ON FOREST

Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours...

What happens to Notts CCC’s cricketers when the summer wanes and winter reclaims the hallowed Trent Bridge outfield? Well, a couple of the squad’s local stars – Bulwell behemoth Luke Fletcher and Giltbrook-raised Samit Patel – often make the 2,742-step journey from the dressing rooms (that’s right, they hibernate in there during the winter), along past the Trent Bridge Inn, over Radcliffe Road, down Pavilion Road, then right to the City Ground: their Mecca. I intercepted Fletcher and Patel along this Pilgrim’s Way and asked them about their love of Forest, the Notts lads’ footballing skills, and other Beautiful Game-related matters...

How long have you been Forest supporters?
LUKE FLETCHER: Since the day I was born, I think. 22 years.
SAMIT PATEL: 26 years.

What’s your first Forest memory?
FLETCH: First memory was losing to Man Utd, 8-0 or 8-1 or something. Ole Solskjaer came on as sub and scored four [this is still the record home Premier League defeat]. I probably went before that but can’t remember it.
SAMIT: They lost to Southampton at the City Ground, 3-1 I think, and all I remember is just running for safety.

Ever been tempted, during the hard times, to ditch them for one of the big clubs – Liverpool, Man Utd, Arsenal, etc?
FLETCH: No, not at all, not at all. I’m not a glory boy.
SAMIT: No [However, Samit admitted that, if he did, he’d choose Man Utd].

How many times per season do you get down to the City Ground?
FLETCH: Well, I’ve been away the last three winters to play cricket in Australia but I’ve managed to squeeze a few games in here and there. I was there against Blackpool a couple of years ago in the playoffs when they lost. I try and get down a couple of times a year but this winter maybe I’ll be able to make it every other week.
SAMIT: Probably about 10 or 12 times, I’d say.

What’s the best Forest game you’ve been to?
FLETCH: Sheffield United at home, 4 or 5 years ago, when Johno [David Johnson] was playing. Semi-final of the play-offs. We won 1-0, I think [research suggests this must be the (poorly remembered) 1-1 draw in 2003].
SAMIT: Beating Leicester 5-1 a couple of seasons back.

Who is your favourite current player?
FLETCH: Big Wes Morgan. Solid as a rock.
SAMIT: Luke Chambers. He waited patiently for his chance but is now the first name on the team sheet, for me.

Who is your all-time favourite Forest player?
FLETCH: Stuart Pearce.
SAMIT: Brian Roy.

What do you want from Steve Cotterill?
FLETCH: I don’t know. If he gets us to the Premier League then he’s a legend, but if he doesn’t then he’s no different from the others, I guess.
SAMIT: Same as everyone else: I want him to make some good signings that’ll take the club to the next level – the Premier League.

Having watched a few of the squad’s morning warm-ups – proper ref with a whistle, two linesmen, Champions League theme tune playing over the PA – it’s obvious you guys like your footie. Who is the best footballer in the Notts CCC squad?
FLETCH: This is a tough one… We run a Power League side and we’ve got a few good players there, but I’d probably say the best out-and-out footballer would be Scott Elstone. He’s pretty sharp. He’s got good skills, good passing, tackles well, finishes well… But let’s be honest, I’m the best goalkeeper on show at the minute.
SAMIT: Chris Read. Natural athlete. Good engine. Always has time on the ball.

Which famous footballer would you say you’re most alike?
FLETCH: Neville Southall.
SAMIT: Jan Molby.

Jan Molby or Samit Patel?

If you were captain of a game of football among the squad – picking teams alternately, like in the playground – who would be the last one in the squad to be chosen?
FLETCH: I’m going to go for David Hussey when he’s around: he’s clumsy, he’s Australian, he’s not really got a clue what he’s doing.
SAMIT: Luke Fletcher. He’s terrible.

Which current Premier League manager is Mick Newell most like? He reckons Arsène Wenger, because he’s “philosophical” and has “a good accent”.
FLETCH: I’m going to go for Sir Alex Ferguson. He gets the best out of players, Mick; he’s got a lot of experience and has won two County Championships, which is a good achievement.
SAMIT: Erm… I’d say Owen Coyle. [Libel laws and our desire to see Samit remain on the staff at Notts prevent us from publishing his reason for this comparison].

Have the European Cup-winning goals ever popped into your head at an inappropriate moment, as Archie Gemmill’s World Cup wonder goal does for Ewan McGregor’s character in Trainspotting?
FLETCH: I can’t say they have to be honest. I have seen the goals, but they’ve not popped in my mind at a, um, random moment.
SAMIT: Er, no.

Prior to the League Cup game with County, you both thought it’d be a “walk in the park”, “nice to give the kids a run”, and said “you won’t even bother going”. Given that the epic 3-3 encounter might have given you some new-found respect for the neighbours, I was wondering: if getting a Notts County tattoo somewhere on your body would guarantee Forest going up this year, then winning the Prem next year, and the Champions League the year after that, would you do it?
FLETCH: No, not at all. I’m a fan of tattoos but I’m not a fan of Notts County’s badge. I wouldn’t do it even if it meant Forest winning the European Cup for the next 10 years!
SAMIT: No. Couldn’t do that. Sorry.

Have you ever walked through town at night, hugged the Brian Clough statue, and said “thank you”? If not, have you ever thought about it?
FLETCH: I’ve definitely stood and had a picture there with Cloughie…er, and I probably have hugged him, too, to be honest. But I don’t think I’ve said “thank you”.
SAMIT: Not thought about it, no, but I’d definitely do that if it got Forest promoted.

Nottingham Power League shot-stopper, Luke Fletcher

If you had a statue built for yourself in town, like Cloughie, where would you have it and what pose would it be making?
FLETCH: I’d be in a wicket-taking pose, or appealing for an LBW, and I’d like it to be next to Cloughie [yes, we’re all surprised he didn’t say on Fletcher Gate in the Lace Market… The Notts supporters certainly think Fletcher’s gate is wide enough to get a tram through it].
SAMIT: Outside The Living Room in the Lace Market, holding a beer.


Interview originally published by LeftLion.


Sunday, 9 October 2011

IN PRAISE OF VIRAT


So, today’s the final and, despite what I might have written elsewhere, I’m quite looking forward to it. Not quite; a lot. Yes, there are still aspects of Twenty20 cricket – and Indian-hosted T20, in particular – that are likely to bring on nausea (the supper-singing hyperbole of the commentators, and the all-singing, all-dancing Yankeefied razzamatazz make it the cricketing equivalent of a non-stop diet of chocolate cream cakes), but, to paraphrase the subtitle of the Peter Sellers movie Dr Strangelove, I have Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love CLT20. (And yes, this is despite it clearly being an unlevel playing field, the tournament structure blatantly gerrymandered to allow Royal Challengers Bangalore to remain at home for the semi-final, despite having been runners up to Somerset in the group.) 

The tournament has been a harum-scarum ride, with Dave Warner’s twin-peak pyrotechnics ultimately eclipsed by Gayle’s brutal power (112 metres!!); with the crafty, grafting cricket of Somerset and Trinidad & Tobago, the two teams that freelance biffer Keiron Pollard might have played for had Mumbai Indians not had first dibs on him; with the virtually unplayable yorker-bouncer-slower ball combinations of Malinga the Slinger; with close finishes galore to keep the neutral absorbed (or at the very least not tempted to see what dress Rachel Riley was wearing on Countdown). 

But most of all, there’s been Virat Kohli, the kind of guy who, to borrow a favourite metaphor of the current India coach, brings a lot to the party. In fact, he probably rocks up to every soiree with a platter of exquisite canapés, a selection of quality wines and a chocolate tort (compliments of RCB), such is the range of his shot-making ability. 

I will come out and say it: I have not been as thrilled by a batsman for a long time. For all the ball-munching excellence of Trott and Bell or the occasional audacity of Morgan and KP, the current England team does not simultaneously take the breath away and have you purring in acknowledgement of cricketing correctness. For all the monumental batting feats of Ponting, Hussey and Watson, Kallis, de Villiers and Amla, none are particularly easy on the eye. Same goes for the best of Pakistan, New Zealand and West Indies. Oh, and Tamim too. 

Then there’s India, that vast nation of iron-wristed batsmen. In terms of purity of stroke and easy elegance, Ajinkya Rahane is close, but not quite Kohli’s equal (there is the chance, of course that this could be the whole throbbing spectacle distorting my perspective and usually impeccable judgment). Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag – great players all, but none of them are so completely classical as is the 22-year-old from Delhi (Laxman and Sehwag are not big movers of their feet, while the King of Method, Dravid, is often bailed out by lightening hands and defensive instincts). So it is probably not since Lara and Sachin that I have been as turned on by a level of batsmanship that more or less says to the bowler: “whatever you have, it’s probably not enough.”  

Talking of quick hands, Kohli wields his willow like a ping-pong paddle, bringing the blade through an extraordinarily pure arc, too, whether tucking it into the legside, clipping it wide of mid-on or playing his signature stroke: the lofted extra-cover drive, hands accelerating up through the hitting area like a golfer. This shot is not played inside-out, with fade, as it is for so many who hit the ball well in that area, for Kohli simply lasers it to his intended target (more or less to the exact seat number) and can also hit the ball bolt straight down the ground. Actually, it is often his footwork that determines where the ball goes, the hitting arc dictated by body alignment. 

But all this technical talk is already to take some magic away, to render it matter of fact, scientific, when it is clearly the work of an artist, a genius. Yes, he has those two founding principles of all the great players – balance and picking up length – but what I marvel at in Kohli is his manipulation of the field, the physical (balance) and perceptual (length-judging) feeding into the cognitive act of shot selection, then back into the physical (the motor system). The shot selection hasn’t always been flawless in this tournament, but such is life in the overheated world of Twenty20. However, just watch how he plays the ball on the offside, steering the ball either side of the backward point, gliding it fine of third man, forcing the offside configuration to move clockwise in synch then drilling the ball over extra-cover (or, utterly fearlessly, straight over long off).

Kohli’s manipulation of the field is only possible because of the glorious palette at his disposal (not all great players have such breadth of options). And as is often the case with batsmen who have such liquid shot-making possibilities, there is a tendency to be too self-critical when perfection isn’t reached. Watch Kohli mistime a drive or misplace a ball and he will berate himself ferociously; again, this could be a symptom of the context rather than intrinsic to Kohli himself, but it speaks of a fierce will. Is this too excitable? Perhaps, but by and large he appears capable of immediately re-focussing. And when he does, he plays without fear (is this why the shot selection occasionally askew?). I’ve lost count of the times I’ve though ‘you just need to nudge twos and put the bad ball away’ only for him to launch it into the stands. 

To grasp the jack-in-the-box Kohli’s sheer enthusiasm for the game, you only have to observe him sat in the dugout, up and down, touching colleagues, chatting, chirping, living and breathing every single ball. You’ll often find him alongside his coach, Anil Kumble, and a cynic might be tempted to surmise that he was a teacher’s pet. But that hypothesis doesn’t stack up: there is no question of him needing to creep in order to advance up some notional pecking order; alongside Gayle, Dilshan and skipper Vettori, he’s clearly at the top of the RCB food chain, frequently consulted by his skipper on bowling changes. You only need to see how he speaks to such veterans as Mohammad Kaif to realize he exudes seniority, an authority deriving from both charisma and on-field performance. And he takes responsibility, the hallmark of any leader. 

In fact, with India having been utterly demolished in England this summer, it would make sense for Duncan Fletcher – if indeed he is able to make such a decision – to install Kohli in the Test team without further ado, and to make him vice-captain to Dhoni. This will not compensate for the lack of bowling penetration, the discovery of which remains India and Fletcher’s greatest immediate challenge, but it will ensure there is no apathy on the field. And after the cricket they played here, at times, that can only be a good thing. 

But first things first: the CLT20 final is here (you may already know the outcome). Having been central to RCB’s back-to-back 200+ chases, definitely no second fiddle to the celebrated T20 batting imports Gayle and Dilshan, we wonder whether the young man born on Guy Fawkes’s Night has one more display of stroke-making fireworks left in him. If he carries his team home, then the livewire tattooed extrovert with the pumping fists and bulging eyes can be anointed as the new face of a modern, confident India.




Friday, 16 September 2011

EL CRÍQUET

NB. This very short piece was written for The Cricketer and published in their September 2011 issue.

Belgrano Cricket Club, Buenos Aires

Deep in that most anglophile of South American cities, Buenos Aires, lies the historic Belgrano Athletic Club, venue since 1891 of an annual North versus South three-day cricket match that has first-class status. Skipper of the Belgrano Barbarians cricket, James Drummond, had been eagerly anticipating the upcoming Lord’s Test but predicts that “only a handful of die-hard fans with access to the internet will follow it live, as there’s no TV or radio coverage. The rest of us will check BBC for updates and reports.”

As well as scant media exposure, the impact of Test #2000 is further reduced by both a negligible Indian ex-pat presence in the city and the fact that “Argentina is also playing in a T20 tournament in Miami, which will be followed more keenly”, while local attention has been firmly on football’s Copa América, hosted by Argentina, which finished this Sunday [July 24].



















Indeed, of the sports introduced by Brits, it was cricket that least took hold among the locals, being largely restricted to ex-pats in clubs like Hurlingham, Lomas, and St Alban’s. Anyway, adds Drummond, “the Argentines are quite fickle. Now it’s the rugby season, so the focus in the English clubs is definitely there.” That said, during the World Cup, Estebán MacDermott’s national cricket team did locate some all-night bars showing matches, where they duly rendezvoused to “follow individual players – like KP and Tendulkar – rather than teams”. Delightfully non-partisan (and very British)!




Sunday, 4 September 2011

McMAHON SEEKING MINOR CONSOLATION


A week ago last Monday, as the confetti and champagne-covered Tim Bresnan romped around the Oval celebrating his chunky contribution (16 wickets at 16.3 and 154 runs at 77) to England’s annihilation of India and ascent to the world number one Test ranking, his England under-19s captain from nine years earlier, Paul McMahon, could have been forgiven for casting a rueful eye over events and wondering what might have been. In that summer of 2002, when the best young players of England met their Indian counterparts (the maker of the painstaking Oval pair, Suresh Raina, included), off-spinner McMahon was on the verge of signing a four-year contract extension with home county Nottinghamshire. Today, when not busy in the North London office of international law firm Bird & Bird, he can be found barrelling up the A1 to Cambridgeshire, either to play club cricket for Peterborough (who last weekend fell at the final hurdle before the televised Cockspur National T20 finals), or to skipper the side that he has just led to a home Minor Counties Championship final against Devon at the picturesque March CC, starting today.

Of course, the story of a youthful prodigy drifting away from the first-class game is far from unique – one of McMahon’s predecessors as skipper of England under-19s, former Durham batsman Michael Gough, quit the sport aged just 23, citing a lack of enjoyment – but it is always tempting to wonder why it happened; or implicitly: what went wrong?

For the first three of his five years with Notts, while McMahon was up at Oxford reading Law (incidentally, he has the curious distinction of being the bowler who has dismissed Adrian Shankar most often in first-class cricket), the county employed Stuart MacGill to bowl on their famously swing-and-seam-friendly Trent Bridge pitches. Then, in 2005, a certain Graeme Swann joined the Outlaws, the moment McMahon now realizes he ought to have seen the writing on the wall: “I had hoped that when MacGill moved on I would be in a position to play regularly as the front line spinner. But that signing [Swann] has obviously worked out fantastically well for all concerned.” However, he now believes that “with hindsight, I should have left a couple of years earlier,” perhaps making the opposite journey to Swann, heading for the turning pitches at Wantage Road at the time when a strong Second XI record (175 Championship wickets at 20.8) would have outweighed the lack of first-team cricket in his final two years at Notts.

Perhaps there was an element of loyalty that kept him there, a difficult itch to scratch. Having learnt the game over twenty years at Wollaton CC in Nottingham’s western suburbs – the last three of which were played alongside recent England supersub, Scott Elstone; all in the company of his left-arm spinner father, Gerry, once good enough to take a hundred from Joel Garner in the Central Lancashire League – it was only natural that McMahon should want to accompany colleagues such as Bilal Shafayat, Nadeem Malik and Samit Patel from that England under-19 group into the first team at Trent Bridge. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t to be; not that there’s any trace of resentment: “I have never been a fan of hard luck stories,” affirms McMahon, magnanimously. “Professional sport is, in general, a fairly transparent and meritocratic environment; the cream will generally rise to the top and the players who win games and affect situations positively for their team are generally recognised and rewarded.”

So, having trialled unsuccessfully with Warwickshire 2nd XI in 2008 (largely due to reservations over his batting when compared with Ant Botha), he called time on his full-time aspirations and threw himself into a legal career, also immersing himself in the Minor Counties cricket he considers comparable in standard and intensity to Sydney and Melbourne first grade, and just as important to the respective system’s upward flow of talent. Following a couple of seasons with Oxfordshire, he switched to Cambridgeshire in 2010 and this year took on the captaincy with not inconsiderable success. Not that it has all been plain sailing, mind…

Squeezing through what was to all intents and purposes a straight shootout for the title with Staffordshire in the final round of group matches, Cambridgeshire were crowned Eastern Division champions despite accruing the lowest haul of batting bonus points since the three-day competition began in 2001: a paltry 10 in six games from a possible 24. Such have been the batting woes – four of their first innings have subsided to 62-5, 81 all out, 46-7 and 77 all out – that no one has managed to record three figures for them all summer (only Northumberland fared as badly), while none of their seamers has taken more than eight championship wickets. However, in McMahon and fellow Peterborough Town offie, Lewis Bruce, Cambridgeshire perhaps hold the trump card – indeed, in amongst their combined aggregate of 68 Championship scalps, both have already bagged 10-wicket match hauls at the March ground this season, McMahon’s match analysis of 45.2-15-90-13 against Northumberland the best in this year’s Championship.




Devon’s stand-in skipper, Chris Bradley, also an off-spinner, should therefore himself be relishing a bowl on the March track, but is wary of underestimating opponents who, despite their batting tribulations, have already this season overturned first-innings deficits of 117 (only that few thanks to a 101-run tenth-wicket partnership) and 156 to win, the latter, nervelessly, in that crunch game against Staffs. That said, Devon are just as battle-hardened, having coming through what was also effectively their own all-or-nothing eliminator against the eventual runners-up in the Western Division, convincingly seeing off Shaun Udal’s Berkshire (winners of the MCCA knockout) by 10 wickets.

Having dominated Minor Counties cricket for much of the 1990s, winning four straight championships under the erudite captaincy of Peter Roebuck (1994-1997) and two since, Devon are perhaps a little more relaxed going into what is a repeat of the 1994 final. Even so, club secretary Neil Gamble is certain that the current squad is hugely motivated to forge its own identity: “apart from [former Gloucestershire all-rounder] Bobby Dawson, it’s a completely different team to our glory years. The majority of the team are under 26 years old and weren’t involved then, so are desperate to write a new chapter in the county’s winning tradition.” 

With Cambridgeshire already having felt the disappointment of semi-final elimination in the 50-over competition, and not having won the Championship outright since their sole success in 1963, McMahon is acutely aware of how much it means to the Fenlanders and their support. As for himself, “winning the play-off final and contributing in a way that suggests I’ve continued to improve as a cricketer through my twenties would probably be one of the most meaningful things I’ve achieved in cricket.”

* An earlier version of this article appeared on the website of SPIN magazine.



Friday, 19 August 2011

VIRENDER'S SURRENDER


He must have a pair on him, eh, that Sehwag? A king pair... I mean, to play a shot like that, in a situation like that, you’d need a couple of water melons squeezed inside the old protector. Grandes cojones, hombre.

Or perhaps you simply need to be insane. Or reckless. Or tired. Stupid, maybe. Even cowardly…

But let’s not speculate here as to why Sehwag threw the kitchen fucking sink at a king pair-avoiding length delivery off the world’s second-best swing bowler in murky light on a new-ball deck. No, let us wait a couple of paragraphs. Then we’ll spew forth our ill-informed conjecture, after some facts (well, perceptions masquerading as facts) have been considered.

First up, there’s the Asia-to-Blighty Respect-for-Conditions quotient – a drum banged so long and hard by Geoffrey Boycott on TMS during the Edgbaston Test, you’d have thought he’d marched straight in from the Shankill Road. The line of thinking, a corridor of hyper-certainty, goes thus: ‘e swans in to England, has a jazz game in Northampton (essentially still Nagpur; the ground’s name even sounds like an Indian tennis umpire at the Empire Builder’s Grand Slam Final between clay-courter Hernán Cortés and ol’ Cecil: “Ad-Wantage Road”), a game in which he makes a scratchy 8 against the second-string attack of a second-rate team, then goes straight in to the Test side. Cue apoplexy from Boycs, a man who very much likes his preparation. Indeed, for the bigger series, he advocates a minimum of seven three-day warm-up matches (ideally running parallel to another series in which he’s already playing, thus allowing him to bat for 14 hours a day. Plus nets). But Geoffrey, Geoffrey – they didn’t fly him over to watch now, did they? And it is not impossible to come straight off an injury and make a score (as was definitively proven, I think, by my post-broken elbow 40-ball half-century against Ottis Gibson in 1999).

Anyway, this is not about first principles: Thou Shalt Get Used to Nibble (coincidentally, also what the team nutritionist is advising him). No, the main thing was the manner of the pair. More than anything else, the dismissals smacked of mental sluggishness. Or end-of-Empire decadence.

In the first innings, you’ll recall, he dropped his hands too tardily to avoid a shortish (but not viciously climbing) ball from Stuart Broad, gloving to the ‘keeper. He then stood around – literally – for a couple of days while India’s ‘bowlers’ ‘toiled’ to ‘contain’ England, occasionally venturing off his shooting stick to console a fellow ‘fielder’ for a drop or a misfield. He didn’t even bowl his handy part-time twirlers, Dhoni instead utilising Suresh ‘Would you be so kind as to pitch it up to me, old chap?’ Raina’s penguin off-breaks.* Finally, he strapped ‘em on and, well, you know the rest… As he trudged off – I think he trudged off; I would imagine him to have trudged off – I half-expected him to be intercepted by Plod and arrested for driving without due care and attention. I mean, he looked trolleyed.


schnicky 

Cue what I thought would have been screamingly obvious headlines in the Indian popular press: “Viru-lent casualness to Indian efforts”. In actual fact, The Times of India and The Hindustan Times were both sombre and reserved in their assessment, although the oneindia website offered this Sidhuian synopsis of the “Nizam of Najafgarh”: “With caution thrown so irresponsibly and one would daresay [sic] insanely, to the wind, Sehwag had bitten into the bait wholeheartedly… India were 3/1 at that stage... and [there was] no hint of gritty counter-offence to look forward to, just another slip downward into the swamp of humiliation”. 

No, the real post-innings Viru vituperation – the sheer puritanical exasperation of it all – came from the English press. For instance, Nick Hoult in The Telegraph said he “deserved the barbs [because] in certain circumstances fame and fortune are better replaced by fight and fortitude,” while the normally sanguine Mike Selvey in The Guardian pronounced thusly from the press box on (very, very) high:
It was dismal cricket, a disgrace actually, from a player of his quality, no matter his entertainment quality. No doubt it will be predicated on Sehwag being Sehwag and “this is how he plays”. Not good enough. Not nearly good enough. Some discretion was needed to get through to the next day. It was the mindless play of someone who believes he might be above the industrious norms of some.
The slightly sanctimonious tone of such verdicts is perhaps borne of an understandable frustration at the utter one-sidedness of the series (and maybe its ramifications for the future of Tests), but they are doubtless also in part impelled by some atavistic impulse that leads us to search for heroes – for transcendence – in sport, a yearning deep within our DNA that Sehwag embodied some superhuman power, able, even after 26 half-arsed throw downs from Munaf, to show up Cook’s piffling 294 for the sport-destroying yawnfest that (the IPL would have us believe) it was. I mean, when Sehwag made 293 against Sri Lanka in December 2009, he made it from 291 balls fewer than Cook. (And let us not speak of his fastest-in-history fully-fledged triple centuries). 

But he couldn’t. His feet of clay went nowhere; he swished, shnicked, and shuffled off. Veni, vidi, Viru.

Clearly, Sehwag is a polariser of opinion – indeed, following Gower, Gilchrist, Jayasuriya and others, he’s the latest incarnation of the Swashbuckler’s Dilemma, a complex phenomenon that elicits just that sort of frankly hypocritical love-hate dynamics from the cricketing punditariat. “Madness” they yell, while praising Dhoni for breaking his run of bad form by…playing some shots. Madness, indeed. “Stick or twist? Stick or twist? Stick or twist?” he’ll gabble, banging his head against the bathroom mirror...

Besides all that, in an era of steroidally buff sportsmen, we should feel a deep, wistful contentment that the slightly pudgy, samosa-munching Sehwag can excel, that a man twice as likely to be seen hob-nobbing at the gymkhana as bench-pressing at a gymnasium is still able to make a triple-fucking-hundred in Madras (which any Cook’ll tell you is pretty hot).

Lord only knows what Duncan the Taciturn is making of all this, sat there with hulking inscrutability in a dressing room about as sanctified and ready for sweeping change as the Vatican (apologies for the Sehwagianly careless religious metaphor, for I would not want it to be presumed that they had a 27% chance of being career pederasts). But, beneath that outward impassivity, Behind the Shades, tangled up in the rarefied BCCI politics, he surely cannot be calm; no, Fletch – mentally, at least – must be flapping like a C-stream English language supply teacher at Knuckleduster Comprehensive who’s just been told he’s going to have a new asshole ripped for him by the nice young couple rearing their family at the back of the class.

They do what they want. They can no longer be disciplined. The power is theirs. And the same goes for schoolkids. 

Anyway, at some point very soon – probably late tomorrow, maybe even Sunday if weather and Straussian conservatism kick in – Virender Sehwag will come bouncing down the Oval steps – literally bouncing, should he stumble – and out to the middle to try and make some runs. Any runs (although a drop to short cover and scampered single isn’t likely). Otherwise, he’ll be doing what most other men on the verge of a mid-life crisis are doing: staring at an Audi that they don’t really want. 0000. Vorsprung durch Technik, as they say in Yorkshire: “Progress through Tech-neeeek”. 

The whole of India – the whole of cricket – hopes it’s temporary, of course. But what if it’s not a blip? What if this is the slippery slope?

Perhaps the decline is all down to his hair loss – or rather, down to the eternal Cricketers’ Cycle of hair loss and renewal: the perennial waltz of Mother Nature and Advanced Hair Studio. Warming down after all those 45-minute IPL slogfests (or “innings”, as Sehwag calls them) against Kallis, Warne and Doug the Rug, they must have chatted about something. One can only assume it was about re-seeding old wicket ends. Only, now that he has his hair back, he’s lost his powers: an inverse Samson. Forgive me Delilah, I just couldn’t take any more… (Of being a slapdash slaphead, presumably). 

I don’t know whether Sehwag’s a triskaidekaphobe or not, but as only the 13th bagger of a king pair in a 2003-Test history, joining other such luminaries as Adam Gilchrist and, erm, Javed Omar, I guess he could consider himself the victim of ill luck – until the point, that is, that he starts to analyse how it actually happened. But it’s not obvious that Viru has yet reached the point of thinking about it at all.

* flightless. 





Wednesday, 27 July 2011

GOWER PEN: INSULAR?


There are certain things that you can only really admit when there’s little left of your bedraggled, bullet-riddled reputation left to salvage, when one’s stock is a-tumblin’ and unlikely ever to be restored. So it was that, halfway in toward the collection of skeletons in the deepest recesses of my closet, I happened across a somewhat corny poem that I had written as an 18-year-old (which in itself is an disclosure I’d rather not make) about a cricketer I greatly admired. (I won’t say a hee-ro, ‘cos what’s a hee-ro...)

The uninspired title of this uninspiring eulogy was ‘Ode to Gower’; the verse was penned in a blizzard of delusional self-congratulation and speedily despatched to the man in question, then of Hampshire, from whom I received a gracious if understandably perfunctory reply (pictured below), more of which in a moment…

While its tone was undeniably mawkish, a younger generation might not realize that Gower hasn’t always been the slightly leathery anchorman for Sky Sports’ international cricket coverage, a polite middle-class ying to Botham’s bumptious yang (albeit with the same Bacchanalian streak). No, he was once the flashing blade of English cricket, a man who hooked his first ball in Test cricket to the deep-square fence and thereafter scarcely reined in his attacking impulses, gathering 8231 Test runs at 44.25 to lie third on the England all-time run-scorers list behind men of utterly opposing character in Gooch and Stewart, quintessential sergeant-majors both. That said, in his Cricinfo profile, former Wisden editor Matthew Engel speculates, baselessly, that “his devil-may-care attitude hid some complexities, perhaps even an inner loneliness”.


Anyway, despite his stellar record, Lord Gower was always viewed with a certain degree of suspicion by the joyless roundheads at the TCCB (antecedent of the ECB) and thus was often, it seemed, playing for his place. They saw him as a dasher, a dilettante, dangerous and distracting. A scapegoat in, um, goat’s clothing (well, coiffeuse). Capricious. None of which quite mitigates my poem’s bootlicking butteriness, of course…

However, the benefit of an improved understanding of my teenage psyche – otherwise known as revisionism – now permits me to explain all this away as a ruse: clearly, the phrase “good that fortunes at Moddershall are improving” implies that I’d taken the trouble to inform him of our circumstances (we were in our third year in the NSSCL, then a two-division league, and would that year win promotion), no doubt in an effort to get Gower, then in his last year of international cricket, to attend an event at Moddershall CC – you know, a race night, quiz, pool comp, that sort of thing. As it was, he was probably out hunting yak. In a tiger moth.

The presumption – or, I suppose, optimism (naïveté, even) – is pretty staggering, now that I reflect upon it. At that stage I no doubt thought it entirely reasonable that a former England Test skipper would pop up to rural Staffordshire as a heartfelt thank you for a piece of cruddy adolescent verse – I hadn’t gone through the Copernican revolution of the self, and therefore still thought everyone else was a planet orbiting me, the earth (the sun, of course, shone out of my arse).

Anyway, the point is this – I can now pronounce,
as a sort of politburo of my adolescent id, that the poem is not the unambiguous hero-worshipping schmaltz of a teenager. It is subterfuge, designed to get a famous face to help out my club (altruistic version) and in so doing garner myself a vast dollop of kudos (egoistic version). Given the unlikelihood of it happening, however, I might just as well have saved myself the trouble (not that it was much trouble), wandered down to some cricket ground at which he was playing, and bellowed, in the manner of madmen the length and breadth of the land: “Oi, Gower – come cut this ribbon for us, ya gifted square-driving twat, ya!” 

As you can see, Gower’s reply was entirely in keeping with the persona now familiar to us from the Sky chair: indulgent up to a point, but firm. For those struggling with his handwriting, it reads:
Dear Scott,
Thanks for the letter – and the poem: familiar, but nonetheless appreciated sentiments. Good that fortunes at Moddershall are improving – I hope all continues to go well.
Yours sincerely, David Gower.
Now, if I were feeling particularly sensitive, the phrase “familiar…sentiments” could be interpreted as a withering assessment of the hackneyed ideas in the poem, as cutting as it would be for WH Auden or WB Yeats to endure a critique of their use of zeugma or chiasmus [insert clever use of zeugma or chiasmus]. That said, I wasn’t writing for the Bridport Prize. I simply thought, in my own insane way, that I could get him to Barnfields for a beer. I’m still Waiting for Gower

What’s that? Oh, the poem. Here. If you must:


ODE TO GOWER  

There’s no finer sight in the game of cricket 
than to see David Ivon Gower strolling to the wicket
at Lord’s, the opening Test of the Ashes,
the first act of another of those titanic clashes –
he enters the fray at 20 for 2,
all England praying he can make a few.
Languidly he stands at the crease,
running fingers through that golden fleece,
awaiting the bowler – fairly quick –
he rocks back, then…a little snick,
he offers a simple catch behind.

“What must go through that lad’s mind?”,
sighs a Yorkshireman in the crowd,
“Bloody terrible!!” he screams aloud.
“First ball he faces is wide and short,
flamin’ obvious he’d go and get caught,
but could he leave the damn thing alone…
now our chances of winning are blown;
another cheap wicket the Aussies have bought,
Mr Gower out for bloody nought.
Now, you know I don’t like to criticize
but I don’t think the lad even tries!”
His young son tries to disagree
but the wise old veteran interrupts his plea:
“Look, son, you’re barely a youth –
Gower couldn’t care less, and that’s the truth”.

Second innings and England are deep in trouble
chasing 330, Aussies starting to bubble.
Remember the phrase “cometh the hour…”?
Well, out to the middle strode David Ivon Gower.
30 for 3 and backs to the wall,
our cavalier – on a pair – awaits his first ball…
Short and wide, it’s crashed through the covers,
up leaps the Tyke with Gower’s other fickle lovers
and yells “Well played, son, smashing shot!!!” –
what short memories some folk have got.

Australia’s bowlers begin to cower;
with perfect placement and latent power,
with cuts and drives, glances and flicks,
Gower moves effortlessly to ninety-six.
Desperate, the Aussies, to find a match-winner,
they toss the ball to their number one spinner
who flights it up, with a hint of drift,
but Gower just dismisses it with a roll of the wrists
and as the ball speeds away over the ropes for four
the prince of cricketers is a hero once more.
The crowd stood to proclaim a scintillating ton
and within the hour England had won;
Gower was back as the idol of the nation,
as he drank in another standing ovation.

Now, our Yorkshireman came to realize
just what he’d seen transpire afore his eyes,
and that night, before he went to bed,
turned to his beaming son and said:
“Some folk criticize the way that he plays
but if they could see him on his majestic days
when a cricket ground would be brim-full
just to see one commanding pull,
a lazy flick or elegant drive,
the sort that brings the day alive,
they’d forgive him the odd mistake
(something simple, as you or I would make)
because what he has just cannot be taught:
the man’s a genius, a true God of our sport!”

Now you now why I pay twenty quid a ticket,
just to see David Ivon Gower walk to the wicket.