Friday, 21 December 2012

DAVID STEELE, THE MOST UNLIKELY S.P.O.T.Y. OF THEM ALL

Steele by name...

In the 58-year history of the BBC’s much loved Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award, there have been only four cricketers to have received the main prize. All the first winner had to do was snare 19 wickets in a Test match, at a cost of 90 runs, while the two most recent were buccaneering batting-and-bowling behemoths, latter-day action heroes whose pinnacle came against the oldest cricketing enemy in the two most dramatic Ashes series of the modern era. The fourth recipient was also a player whose apogee came against Australia, but he was as similar to Ian Botham and ‘Freddie’ Flintoff as a bank clerk is to a boxer.

Silver-haired and bespectacled, David Steele was the most unlikely of all winners – “Test cricket has not enjoyed such a romantic story in years,” remarked Wisden – yet perhaps also the most cherished, the one whose success chimed most deeply with the British national psyche, our stoicism, defiance and perseverance, be that real or idealised. The Dunkirk Spirit in whites. He didn’t so much strike a blow for ordinariness as for the extraordinary in those considered ordinary, and at the time of his emergence there had been little in Steele’s modest career with Northamptonshire to suggest that he would take to Test cricket with such aplomb. 

That he got his opportunity at all owed much to fortuitous circumstance, as is always the case to one degree or another – the notion that you ‘control your own destiny,’ in cricket or in life, is a self-help manual myth (just ask Barry Richards and Mike Proctor). Geoffrey Boycott was in self-imposed exile from international cricket having taken umbrage at being passed over for the England captaincy in favour of Mike Denness. This – and Denness being summarily deposed after innings defeat in the first Test had followed a 4-1 pummelling in Australia that winter – created the space in the team, but a 33-year-old batsman averaging in the low thirties for “an unfashionable county” was a far from obvious choice. However, the new captain, Tony Greig, had a clever way of finding the sort of Steel(e) required to withstand Lillee and Thomson: “He went to see the umpires and they gave him a nod. Good move, that”. Their hunch would prove inspired. 

It wasn’t only on the cricket field that things were bleak. Having failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup as they would the one after, England’s football team were bungling their European Championship campaign. Inflation was at 24.2%, the highest since 1800. And the political climate was fraught, with the far-right National Front mobilising and the IRA active. From out of this desolation came an improbable figure to briefly and gloriously galvanise the country, walking straight out of his solid if unremarkable county career into the flaming roars of Lillee and Thomson. 

England team on Steele's debut. Back, L-R: Woolmer, Gooch, Old, P Lever,
Amiss, Steele, Wood. Front: Snow, Knott, Greig, Edrich, Underwood
Well, not quite straight. Famously, on debut at Lord’s, when Steele first “went to war”, his grand entrance was not so much gladiatorial as farcical, redolent of another character seen on the big stage for the first time that summer, Basil Fawlty: “I went down a flight of stairs too many and almost ended up out the back of the pavilion. When I got out there, Lillee called me ‘Groucho’.” But Steele was no comedy act and there would be no faux pas once out on the field. Gritty rather than pretty, he immediately “got stuck in” and would slowly turn the tide of the series, perhaps the national mood.

* * *

There are certain superficial parallels between Steele’s effect in 1975 and that of the Olympics this year, the latter offering a similar dollop of succour – for a city submerged by riots and looting twelve months previously and for a country paying the price for financial joyriding. Indeed, it’s debatable quite how much affection Steele’s famous “bank clerk who went to war” epithet would inspire in today’s economically straitened times, with government bailouts for banks and simmering rage at executive bonuses. Where all this provoked the short-lived Occupy movement, Steele, the very antithesis of recklessness – indeed, his parsimony earned him the nickname ‘Crime’: it doesn’t pay (also outdated, some would say) – decided he was going to do some occupation of his own: namely, of the crease, which was largely lacking in Boycott’s absence.

It is ironic that his opportunity arose in the manner it did, for Steele was “a big admirer of Boycott, the way he played. We’re similar people, from a mining background. We had a good discipline of the mind. And that’s what you need. I always felt I had a good temperament and north Staffordshire gave me that, no question.” At the heart of that upbringing was his uncle, Stan Crump, a Minor Counties stalwart of thirty years and pro in the North Staffordshire league when “it was in its heyday, before television. When there was a derby match, you couldn’t get in. It was marvellous.”

Practising come rain or snow with future county teammate Brian Crump on Stan, his dad’s back-garden concrete pitch, at the weekend the teenage Steele pitted his wits against the likes of Sonny Ramadhin (“a fantastic bowler, whether he threw it or not; a sort of early-day Muralitharan”), Roy Gilchrist (“mad as a March hare, but quick”) and West Indies captain, Frank Worrell (“wonderful man and marvellous player”). All the while he did a six-year apprenticeship as a printer, earning £14.50 a week, and played Minor Counties cricket for Staffordshire along with the likes of future England wicket-keeper Bob Taylor, and his captain, the former England leg-spinning all-rounder Jack Ikin, who popped his head round the Lord’s dressing room door after Steele’s debut innings half-century. “A lovely memory”.

His pay would rise to £21 per week when he came on the radar of the Northants secretary and recruiter-in-chief, Ken Turner, who “had never played cricket but he knew what being a cricketer was all about and had a knack of finding good cricketers. He said to Crumpy, ‘Who’s this chap Steele who’s getting all the runs for Staffordshire?’ Brian said, ‘It’s my cousin’. He said ‘Well you better get him down here’. And that’s how it went.”

Progress was steady, if unspectacular, until 1972 saw him miss out by twenty minutes on becoming the first batsmen to 1000 runs. By 1975, he says, “I was ready. I was at the top of my game”. His ascent was fortunate, in both sense of the word. “It was the benefit year. It all helped the revenue.” 

Steele on the attack at Headingley
After his 50 and 45 at Lord’s, Steele top-scored in each innings at Leeds (as he would do in six of his first eleven innings) before vandals protesting the imprisonment of George Davis caused the abandonment of the game, preventing an England team considered bedraggled two games earlier from the chance to force an Ashes decider at the Oval. Steele finished with 365 runs at 60 and, with no tour that winter, had to wait until the arrival of the West Indies for the resumption of his international career.

As has been wonderfully captured in the documentary Fire in Babylon, the tone of that encounter was set by a pre-series verbal salvo from the captain that did little to endear him to his own batsmen, let alone the opposition – a red rag that would become a white flag. “It was ridiculous, what [Greig] said. He said he ‘loved a challenge’ but the challenge was too much.”

The most gruesome act was played out on “a s--- wicket” at Old Trafford. “There were one or two who were twitching a bit, but we didn’t have fear. We were apprehensive of what was to come, but it wasn’t fear. Brian Close almost got battered to death, but he was an idiot. He said no bowler could hurt him and set out to prove it. He got more runs off the shoulders, chest and rib cage than he got off the bat. Brilliant bloke, Closey – 45, he was then. We don’t rush things in England, do we? We like our cricketers to mature.” 

storyteller
These were grand tales to begin with, of course, but have been polished to perfection by years on the after dinner circuit, where he remains a popular speaker. His enduring love for the game drips from each sentence, whether reminiscing about bagging 8 for 1 as a fifteen-year-old or watching Pietersen’s hundred in India: “I loved the game. Still do. I think about it nearly every day.”

Indeed, when Steele reflects on his career the feelings are vividly alive, memory telescoping faraway emotions into a tangible present – not in angst, though, but warmly sighed over, a demonstration of that equanimity that served him so well as a batsman. For instance, he regrets not being able to deliver a Championship to a county still to win one (along with Somerset and Gloucestershire, one of three in that boat), particularly the near-miss of 1965. “We just wanted someone to draw with Worcestershire and we’d have won it. But Hampshire did a stupid declaration in a rain-affected three-day game and Worcester bowled them out for 31 and won the Championship. So that was a major disappointment.” 

And then there was his omission from the 1976-77 winter tour and the irritation at missing out on the overseas blazer. “They left me out against India, which wasn’t right. I got runs against all the quicks and as soon as the little diddlers came along I was left out. Out came the rabbits, the Fletchers and all these. Then they went and played the Centenary Test in Australia. I should have played that.” Even while alluding to “cliques, the old school tie,” there’s little genuine rancour. “I knew I couldn’t do much about it and moaning doesn’t do any good at all. I didn’t let them down. They let me down.”

Although he insists he would change nothing about his career, Steele’s life was itself irrevocably changed by those events. The carnivorous coup he pulled off with a local butcher – “lamb chops up to 50 runs, then steaks after that. Kept me going two years” – has entered cricketing folklore, while his exploits also prompted an unexpected call from John Moores, owner of Littlewoods pools and Everton FC. “He said he’d like to give me a donation for my benefit. I was busy with everything but he said it wasn’t going to be tuppence, and it wasn’t: it was four grand [almost £33,000 in today’s money]. There he was with his old ducks, his secretaries, all sixty, seventy, lovely man, old world, and he said ‘There we are mate; I’ve been watching you on that telly, you’ve done a grand job’. Before I went he said to his PR man, ‘Take him round the stores and let him take what he wants’. I thought, ‘Good god, it’s Christmas here. Santa Claus has come!’ And I did: took a shirt here, a suit, hats, you name it – went home with a bloody carful.”

* * *

In comparison with his on-field highlights – “walking out with the lion of England on, because that’s what you dreamed about, then kissing the cap when I got the hundred, thinking ‘this is the ultimate’” – the SPOTY award was merely “the icing on the cake”. And it was not an honour that surprised him – not from self-regard, of course, but because he saw a couple of “old muckers” from his club cricket days. “I said ‘What are you doing here?’ They said they’d won the Radio Times competition for saying why they thought their choice should get the prize. When I went through the door [into the studio], I suddenly twigged and thought, ‘If they’ve won it, I’ve won it’.” 

collecting SPOTY
And won it he had, edging out the hurdler Alan Pascoe and swimmer David Wilkie, although not without more mirth. “It was funny: when I arrived at Lord’s on my first day, one of the selectors was Len Hutton, and he called me ‘Derek’. Then when I got up to receive the prize, even the presenter got me name wrong. He also called me ‘Derek’.”

This Sunday, when the eyes of the nation will be treated to a pageant of sporting excellence in this most gilded of years, somewhere in the audience will be an unassuming “professional grandfather”, fond of a glass of white wine and a yarn, the latter doubtless flowing in proportion to the former. As he mingles with the great and good of British sport, attempts to lure him into saying something grandiose about his time in the spotlight will be met with as resolute a forward defence as he showed to Thommo and Lillee, Roberts and Holding. “We’d been down. People told me it was Churchillian. I don’t know… Somebody just came and got stuck in and gave them a bit of inspiration and that’s why the country got behind me”.

Steele will admit that a similar feelgood effect was achieved by the Olympics: “They were inspirational. Brilliant. It had been a miserable summer but suddenly we had three weeks of good weather and it was tremendous, really brought the country together.” As for the award itself, he “can see three or four winning the award: Jess Ennis, Mo Farah, Andy Murray. But I’m backing Wiggins. It was an incredible achievement to win the Tour de France.”

For English cricketers to show admiration for a yellow jersey is a rare thing, but the down-to-earth and determinedly normal Wiggins would indeed be a worthy addition to an illustrious list of great sportspeople – great people – including, among others, Bobby Moore, Jackie Stewart, Kelly Holmes, Henry Cooper, Torvill and Dean, Seb Coe, Steve Davis, Steve Redgrave and “just a bloke from Stoke who loves an oatcake,” David Stanley Steele. 

The original version of this piece was published by ESPNcricinfo 





Tuesday, 4 December 2012

FOOD-RELATED CRICKET STORIES (OR VICE VERSA)


I wrote a somewhat frivolous piece about cricket and food some months ago, pitched it to Cricinfo last week, and hey presto they decided to run it -- albeit not in the XIs section for which it was intended. Feel free to have a guess as to the other ten, given that the title they chose for it reveals the first one: Dodgy Prawns and Other Delights 






Monday, 26 November 2012

THE PENANCE AND REINTEGRATION OF KEVIN PIETERSEN



It was an innings of unambivalent, unarguable genius. He hadn’t played such a knock for, oh, some four whole Test innings.

In the three days following his frenetic, panicky efforts in Ahmedabad, Kevin Pietersen managed to overhaul his modus operandi against spin (as this most diligent and streetwise of batsmen has repeatedly demonstrated the capacity to do), then get himself in with quiet authority and a clear mind, before flourishing in a manner few can aspire to, let alone pull off. Indeed, he never looked like he was in anything but total control – either of his emotions or the threat from the Indian spinners. It perhaps helped him that Shane Warne counselled him to back his technique, but self-belief isn’t enough. You need method. Decision making.

Facing his apparent nemesis, Pragyan Ojha, purveyor of the left-arm spin that was deemed to be his Achilles heel and who had twice dismissed him in the first Test, he looked absolutely rock solid. From ball one. Firstly, he moved late into position (having picked up length quickly). Secondly, when defending on the front foot, he let the ball come to him and thus did not thrust his hands out or break his wrists, be that turning to leg or playing a ‘curtain rail’ to try and run the spinning ball out on the offside. Everything was synchronised, aligned.

Defending off the back foot – to begin with, at least – he shortened his backlift, a method that was not that of ‘looking to attack but if it’s not there, defending’ routinely advocated in the more macho cricketing lands, but committing absolutely to defence in circumstances where, initially, you need to play back as much as possible (because the ball was frequently jumping) and, as a result, introduce the danger of being undone if the ball skids through. Ask Sachin.

Against the offies, he employed this same technique – a shorter backlift in the early stages – but, crucially, was very light on his feet and opened up his shoulders as the ball spun and bounced, and occasionally spat, ensuring that he didn’t get closed off and into the sort of positions where you nick it on to the thigh pad and into short legs hands. 

Once initially settled, he used his feet to pressurise the bowler’s length, but didnt overhit. Finally, when truly established, he brought out the audacious, the extravagant, and the barely conceivable en route to his third truly special Test hundred of the year, following his efforts in Colombo and Leeds. After a chastening few months, the banished genius was smiling again – a subdued smile, perhaps, but also, dare it be said, a more authentic and unselfconscious smile.

Predictably, Twitter was quickly thick with flippant comments ridiculing the idea that Pietersen had needed to undergo the process of “reintegration” at all, thus implying that everyone should simply have got on with things, as though the breaking of trust in a group environment is not a matter of the gravest importance. It doesn’t matter if we have doubts about Old Archie’s trustworthiness on this job, because he’s the best darn safecracker in the business... Not all of these remarks were throwaway, either. Many were delivered by professional writers, for whom the concept of teamwork scarcely impinges on the texture of their work and for whom it is therefore easy to be dismissive of such notions as seeking a background ambience of collective harmony to their endeavours.   

With no little disingenuousness, it has thus been averred that the problem – the issue – was nonexistent, imagined, unmanly, and that, quite apart from scoffing at the notion that Pietersen’s presence in the dressing room was toxic and potentially ruinous to morale (in such a way that would affect performance rather than the barroom banter), the process of reintegration has been of no consequence whatsoever. Perhaps it hasn’t as far as KP’s batting is concerned; but it it would be difficult to believe that it hasn’t affected – in a positive way – Alastair Cook. At the very least, he wouldn’t have to endure that selfsame press pack continually asking him about KP’s absence in the event of sub-par team performances. 

But surely anyone who has lived for an extended period of time in the same group – i.e. anyone who is part of a nuclear family – must acknowledge that life is generally easier when there are no bad atmospheres, no repressed animosity, no bad blood. So, a time-honoured process of contrition and forgiveness was set in motion. No dramas. 

The team’s celebration of Pietersen’s century seemed genuinely warm (as opposed to at Headingley, when, playing across the faces of the politburothere were a few stitched-on smirks for a traitor headed for the pogroms) and his own celebration was in keeping with the relaxed tenor of his innings. Maybe he had eschewed the literal Red Bull for the metaphorical Valium, swapped stimulant for sedative; there was certainly a serenity, an equanimity, in his eyes between balls, whether those be defended under duress or cuffed imperiously to the boundary. 

In some ways, that relaxed demeanour might be precisely because his wings had been clipped (his Red Bull wings, you might say). Gone was the air of studied mateyness, the cloying awareness of brand KP, the suspicion that all was done to the end of positioning himself for IPL riches.

He has remembered the importance of his statistical legacy and a place in the games pantheon. And this is not to denigrate that outlook at all; it is merely to point out that he needed the threat of its removal to be reminded of the stakes, and his ultimate dependence on others to realize hs personal ambitions. He has truly learned the value – in a non-monetary sense – of Test cricket (for Englandto him. And we know this not because he has said so in some PR platitude (which he has), but because he has not dug in his heels (as would have an overly defensive and intransigent ego) and because he has bent over backwards to salvage his Test career. This is genuine humility, it would appear.

And perhaps Andy Flower needs to be congratulated, for the outcome is surely vindication of his handling of the affair, his apparent willingness – all brinkmanship aside – both to do without his best player, push come to shove, and to welcome him back once he was satisfied that the ethos of mutual respect would not be fatally compromised. Demanding a sincere apology isn’t so punitive now, is it?






Wednesday, 31 October 2012

SCORCHER!



Imagine it – you’re off to play a winter’s cricket in Australia. Good decks, tough competition, magnificent weather. Gonna have a blast. Even if you’re just going to watch, it’s a sunlover’s paradise.

OK, better pack your case. What will you need?

T-shirts: ten of. Four or five pairs of shorts. Some short-sleeve shirts. Few muscle tops – maybe not. Budgie smugglers? Check. Actually, better take some swimming shorts, too – I’m told the ocean gets cold. Oh, and flip-flops: one pair. No, two. And some outfits for the evening. Maybe some more shorts, too, cos’ it’s always absolutely baking hot Down Under, right?

Erm, that might not always be true…



And if it's not windy, theres the odd shower...



The two clips give us two of the legends of the commentary booth – Sir Geoffrey Boycott, Vice-President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yorkshire; and Richie Benaud, master of understatement and laconic wit, and famous for only wearing suits of a certain hue of suit: white, cream, fawn, bone, taupe, ivory or oatmeal.

Anyway, I digress.

What is brilliant about Richie’s commentary here is the ludicrous optimism. Cricketers are of course famous for looking on the bright side of…er, the weather: “if it stops in the next 10 minutes and the wind picks up…” Fine, we’re glass half-full people here (even when our glass is half-full of murky rainwater), but surely this is taking it to absurd levels.

A “quick-drying ground”!!! Strewth



Wednesday, 24 October 2012

SPECIAL TEAMS



Picture the scene: some time in the very near future, an exceptionally gifted yet unheralded and almost completely unknown fieldsman – a club cricketer from the Shires, a man off the Maidan – swoops at cover in the T20 World Cup semifinal and throws down the stumps, removing Shane Watson or Chris Gayle or Virat Kohli. A couple of hours passing will reveal that it’s the match-winning moment and yet no-one bats an eyelid, other than in astonishment at the uncanny anticipation, suppleness of the gather, and laser-like accuracy of the throw.

What’s to stop it happening, this glory of a plumber or plasterer, policeman or pilot?

Well, unfortunately, it’s the good old Laws of the game (2.3) and, beyond that, the playing conditions for all ICC tournaments. You see, our hero is not a substitute fielder, on for an injured (or ‘injured’) player. This is a designated specialist fielding replacement. A ringer, only legal.

But why is this scenario at present just a fantasy, a pipedream – and an apparently unpalatable one, too, if attempts to get this piece published are anything to go by? Why such a reflex invocation of tradition when contemplating this gimmick (and it is, unapologetically, a gimmick)? Should this potentiality of cricket – and not really that radical a one, when seen in proper context – at least be examined critically and debated? Maybe the supporters would like to see it. Maybe…  

Anyway, there seems little prima facie reason or point to the traditionalists bridling about it contravening some imagined essence of the game – one editor said “I don't think it’s going to happen and I don’t think it should. They don’t do it in baseball, even though there is the money. Balancing the different skill sets and strengths and weaknesses is part of the interest” – especially for Twenty20, to which it would be limited. I don’t know whether people have been nodding off during the Maxx Mobile Strategic Time-Out, but the good ship Gimmick has long since sailed. T20 has long since prostrated itself afore the deities of commerce and entertainment: the cucumber sandwiches are zingerburgers; almost nothing on the clothes, pitch, umpires or equipment is not a billboard; boundaries are greeted not by polite applause but by the plosive bursts of techno-pop (their greater frequency not correlated to the excitement they educe) and choreographed jerking from pompom-wielding hardbodies.

We are in the era of cricketainment.

Not that all in the sports-watching fraternity consider entertainment the be-all and end-all. There are naysayers, and some of them not at all conservative. The counter position has perhaps been most eloquently expressed by the eminent football writer Jonathan Wilson:

One of sport’s great strengths is that the better side does not always win: that a team with poorer players can, through doggedness, effort and organization, prevail … One of the most depressing things about the modern breed of armchair fan is their demand to be entertained, their seeming belief that coaches are somehow answerable to them. They’re not. Sport is about struggle, about sides trying their utmost to win using whatever means they can within the rules and the spirit of the game as they interpret it. And if that means playing defensively, so be it.

He was talking about fitbaw, of course, o jogo bonito, and while the point is less valid in connection to T20, where a defensive mindset is clearly counter-productive, it could nevertheless be apt for ‘cricket as a whole’ (and it is surely in this articulation that cricket’s traditionalists tolerate T20). 


But of course Twenty20 is cricket’s pioneering tool, its commercial cutting edge – not only financing the rest of the game, ensuring that, to paraphrase Nasser, “your New Zealands and West Indies and Sri Lankas” remain part of what is already a small Test-playing pool, but also ensuring that new generations, faced with an ever-pluralising range of leisure options, are attracted to the game. It is, we are told, the format that is going to ‘crack’ America (ah, the old trope of a bandwagon pushing West across new frontiers), and if special teams – specialist kicking units for both goal and punting to clear lines, specialist offence and defence – are good enough for American football, then why shouldn’t it be acceptable for cricket and this era of rampant made-for-TV boom-boom?  

In many respects, cricket has of course already been Americanised. The IPL’s kitschy razzmatazz, the fluff and the cheerleaders, the advertising timeouts and macho franchise names, are a template every bit a part of the global omniculture as the golden arches. It has spawned the Champions League, too, a grotesquely imbalanced and unloved tournament that, this month, South African bums have shown little inclination to find seats for, let alone shuffle to the edge of them.

But let’s not be too quick to deride Twenty20 per se on account of these gaudy superfluities when the format has clearly hothoused existing technical (and perhaps tactical) skill-sets, as well as developing new ones, all of which have fed back into longer forms of the game and created variety. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the slower ball bouncer, scoop and ramp shots and switch-hits owe their proliferation to T20 and are intriguing innovations.

As for fielding, after a great leap forward in the 1990s, levels have continued to improve as every single run has been struggled over, with the baseball techniques of relay throws and sliding pick-ups having become commonplace. But despite the fact that it’s no longer the game’s poor third relation – sabermetrics might indicate just how much of a difference it could make – there are still a few fielding passengers, stuffed into the side like a favourite overcoat into a suitcase on the very reasonable basis that, y’know, their batting and bowling skills kinda demand it. Not that such ovoid figures ought to be euthanised for the sake of some crack Soviet-style fielding regimen, you understand. (Funnily enough, another editor to reject this pitch grabbed very much the wrong end of the stick here: “Not too sure about the whole idea of treating fielding as an add-on skill. Seems a bit of a throwback to the days when real men didn’t get their whites dirty. Also the idea that cricket can be broken down to its component parts and some or all of them jazzed up for the Americans.”)

Even so, we could argue that, the odd comedy misfield notwithstanding, this facet of the game could be improved for the benefit of spectators, on the basis that it’s the one skill that everyone at the ground can appreciate more or less equally, regardless of the angle at which they’re sat. And the way? Yep: introduce fielding special teams, maybe three or four whiz fielders who can replace a few of the lumberers, which will not only elevate the overall standard of fielding but also the overall level of the entertainment: actual cricket entertainment – what the sort of people I’d rather not talk to may call ‘the spectator experience’ – not the boundary writhers and infantilised hucksterism of the commentary.

Still holding the wrong end of the stick, the aforementioned editor continued: “I think part of [my problem with it]…is the sort of implicit suggestion that there aren’t four top-class fielders in most international T20 teams – or, to put it another way, that the standard of fielding can be raised by such a spectacular extent from its current level as to make this sort of experiment worthwhile”. But there are two misconceptions here: (a) we aren’t necessarily talking about international teams; and (b) it isn’t at all relevant how many excellent fielders there are. It’s about how many poor ones there are. In any case, the actual number of replacements, the nuts and bolts of it all, could be whatever the administrators want. An innings could be divided up into five-over blocks; each team has four designated replacements and three of them can come on for each bloc… It is as open to tinkering as a Ranieri midfield. 

Look at it the situation this way: if entertainment is about providing guaranteed showmanship (at good value) for the oft-neglected punter, then depriving the crowd of the world’s best fielders of the appropriate stage simply because they aren’t good enough batters or bowlers is illogical (assuming you want excellence, not slapstick). Is it not fair that the best fielders get the chance to appear on the biggest stage? Why ever not open up the possibility (in T20) of being selected solely for your fielding? There are certainly some cricketers out there who may now be household names, even when that name is Sybrand Engelbrecht, about whom they raved at the 2008 Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia due to some sensational catches. He also went to the CL T20 in 2009 but the sole game he played for Cape Cobras saw him bowl a single over and not bat. Be that as it may, several credible witnesses have said that he was the best fielder they have ever seen. 


Some domestic English fielders who could have lit up international cricket in this role include former Derbyshire man Garry Park, Chris Taylor of Gloucestershire, Lancashire’s Steven Croft and, of course, Gary Pratt, at present famous for his contribution to that series, which got him on that bus ride. Perhaps Pratt does occasionally dine out on it – and why ever not, if needs must – but playing Minor Counties cricket for Cumberland and peddling occasional anecdotes of his larks surfing English cricket’s first sustained wave of top-rank competence are not going to sustain him forever. The fact is that Pratt had certain skills that, in different circumstances, could have featured regularly, and with complete legitimacy, at international level (notwithstanding the fact that, under Fletcher, he clearly wasn’t at Trent Bridge by accident).

Fielding special teams would permit the upward flow of supremely talented fielders and recognise fully that it is a gift in its own right. The innovation would be supremely inclusive and meritocratic, giving club cricketers the legitimate chance to represent their county, and even perhaps their country (again, quite how the payments would be worked out, or how it would be possible to be available on a semi-pro or freelance basis is a problem for the market and for individual choice).

Furthermore, only having to field for 10 of 20 overs (and let’s face it, the joy of fielding, if ever there, is always the first thing to go) could prolong the careers of some iconic, box-office players: they and their skippers might think that it’s worth hiding them for ten overs (four of which will be spent bowling), if that’s the mandatory amount for all 11 genuine team members. And this scenario also creates a whole new tactical dimension: which five-over blocks to keep the ageing spinner on, etc.

Then there could be some ‘unforseen’ effects (if the ensuing speculation is not itself a paradox): specialist fielders could acquire a general confidence in their game and become actual players, pros. Conversely, put under the spotlight solely for their fielding, with no second string to fall back on, they could effectively ‘yip up’ and the coach might have to factor this in to selectorial decisions. However, they would no doubt produce stories. And we are an unremittingly narrative species in the way we process the world (as neuroscience increasingly shows), hence the love of sport, which is live theatre, an existential drama: Bollywood and Hollywood, with no guarantee the good guys will win. 

Finally, and this is where a traditionalist may bridle, it will permit certain celebrity cricketers without compromising the essential meritocracy of the bat-versus-ball battle. Usain Bolt has expressed a desire to play for Manchester United, but it is perhaps as a cricketer that his truer non-sprinting talent lies. It’s well known that he’s bredren with Chris Gayle and has been talked of as a possible Big Bash player. Well, we don’t really know of his ability (undoubtedly, he would be the fastest person to one T20 run), but I’m pretty sure he could do a job in the outfield! 




Wednesday, 12 September 2012

PIETERSEN, TEAM SPIRIT, AND THE LESSONS OF NONLINEAR THERMODYNAMICS…




weariness, and the philosophy of Steve Archibald

How do you make the multiple One?

This is not only the perennial problem of team-building but also that of government: creating esprit de corps or forming a body politic. It is also a problem that Alistair Cook will face regarding his best batsman now that Andrew Strauss has resigned the captaincy, citing a gut feeling that his “race was run,” his depleted resilience undoubtedly exacerbated by the Kevin Pietersen saga – which is not the same as claiming the latter was the sole cause of his captain’s exhaustion (and thus there’s no cause to be sceptical about the outgoing skipper’s stated reasons: unlike Iggy Pop, he didn’t want to be a passenger). For it is true, in both a trivial and a profound way, that the events befalling our lives always emerge from multiple causes bumping into each other...

Sometimes, as both Strauss and KP would confirm, these life-events are great headline-making ruptures and schisms; sometimes, an accumulation of tiny cracks and fissures that remain imperceptible in the large-scale day-to-day concerns of a life (until such time as they subsume it, if steps are not taken to forestall that occurrence), even if the decision to absent oneself from office is a single clean break on the ‘main line’. Cutting the cord rather than coming apart at the seams. And so it is that a fatigued Strauss, a threshold of lowered resistance crossed, no longer ableto tolerate what he’d put up with only the previous week, has gone – and to universal acclaim – while the KP issue, and the concomitant problem of unity, lingers.  

As is well known, when Team England and the ECB decided to omit Pietersen from the Lord’s Test against South Africa, even with the world number one Test ranking at stake, the behavioural code that Hugh Morris deemed him to have flouted through his shenanigans in Leeds the week before was a breach of the team’s “unity of purpose and action”. By taking such drastic measures against their star batsman, Andy Flower and the England management eschewed pragmatism for principle and, in so doing, ostensibly protected (or restored) the harmony of the dressing room and asserted the primacy of team spirit over all else during a time in which it appeared to have evaporated – if, indeed, it can be said ever to have truly existed at all…  

For, above the noisy hullabaloo surrounding Pietersen this last month, that old aphorism of the ex-Spurs and Barcelona striker, Steve Archibald, has fluttered across the airwaves on a high frequency, beyond the audible range of some yet loud and piercing to others. “Team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory”. Cue slightly cynical titter and sage nods of heads, then move on to the next universal truism.

But is team spirit really just an illusion? And are those surfing the insistent and palpable highs and lows of team sport suffering some sort of collective hallucination? Was the MCG ‘sprinkler dance’ the addled reverie of poor delusional souls? Or could it be that the adage actually reveals more about Steve Archibald’s sense of detachment from the group than the nature of the latter itself? Or even, perhaps, could it be an oblique expression of the general cynicism and individualism of an age in which “rational self-interest”, the cornerstone of neoconservatism, has apparently been sanctified?



ebbs and flows (and sprinklers)

Superficially, of course, it would appear hard to disagree with Archibald. Team spirit does indeed feel at its strongest in the aftermath of victory: euphoria irrupts; a group buzzes; camaraderie is felt coursing through the collective body, an intangible yet conspicuous sensation that almost anyone who has played (voluntarily, rather than at school!) would have experienced at one time or other. Even so, it stands to reason that a group whose very existence and purpose is to participate in competitive sport will have its mood largely dictated by the result. Also, that an accumulation of victories will give this feeling more permanence still. This is not Harvard PhD stuff. But does that mean that the mood, the spirit, is wholly determined by the result?

The Archibald Hypothesis, if that is not too grandiose a description, appears to rest on a particular version of what philosophers would call ontological fallacy (that is, an error as to what type of entity something is, its nature), assuming that team spirit is like an object: something definitively attained or definitively lost; here today, gone tomorrow; now you have it, now you don’t.

A palpable, ineffable and fluctuating sensation within the collective body, team spirit is perhaps better thought of as what another pair of Scottish philosopher (of considerably greater influence than Archibald), Duns Scotus and later David Hume, called a “haecceity”: a “thisness” with the characteristics of an “individual”. Take the atmosphere in a room: demonstrably there, even if you cannot quite put your finger on its provenance or precisely gauge its lifespan. The same for the seasons: even if the precise moment of its arrival or passing are beyond accurate knowledge, we get enough of a sensation summer’s haecceity to know it is around (well, bad example…). Same for team spirit.

Like everything else in the universe, then, a cricket team (and thus its spirit) is a dynamical system. It has a discernible emergence (even if haphazard and chaotic, with those multiple causes), a distinct means of holding together (‘consistency’), and an ultimate coming-undone, a disintegration. Birth, life, death – everything from an entire species to its individual members, a continent to a thought. The Canadian thinker Brian Massumi summarises precisely what any structure – Team England included – comprises:
“A structure is defined by what escapes it. Without exception, it emerges from chance, lives with and by a margin of deviation, and ends in disorder. A structure is defined by its thresholds – the relative limits within which it selects, perceives, and captures more or less consistently (its margin of deviation); and the absolute limits beyond which it breaks down (chance, chaos). Order is the approximate, and always temporary, prevention of disorder.”
So, stability is only ever metastability: order within certain limits. And much as water freezes below a certain temperature and turns to steam above another threshold, a group’s staying-the-same only happens between certain limits – what a group leadership might call drawing the line – and with a certain expenditure of energy. Staying the same requires energy. It is negentropic. There are no closed systems. The outside seeps in, the inside trickles out. As the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (whose A Thousand Plateaus was translated by Massumi) wrote in a broadly political context: “there is no society that does not leak in all directions”.

Given the ebbs and flows of team spirit, it is little wonder, then, that the bonds within a group or team are sometimes referred to as “chemistry”. And this is only partly metaphorical, for in a very real sense that is precisely what leadership or management works upon: human beings’ moods, for each of which there is a corresponding admixture of hormones, a sub-personal neurochemical stratum to be stabilized. Not so much micromanagement, as molecular. Flower the chemist, rather than the alchemist?

no such thing as a closed system: tunnel at Rafah, Palestine

porousness, leakage

“Capturing energies that escape” is as probably as good a description as you’ll find of what team management is about. From this point of view, rule by fear and heavy-handed subjugation – and the concomitant attempt to seal off those creative ruptures, inventions and ‘escapes’ of the imagination that threaten to transform the identity of the group, to set it off on an adventure, a becoming-other – is less efficient than through empathy and consensus, since, with tyranny, there’s always more escaping energy to capture (for Deleuze and Guattari, every organ in the Imperial social body is “a possible protest”), something that all paranoid despots learn in the end.

Undoubtedly, Pietersen’s summer-long brinkmanship vis-à-vis his commitment to Team England’s cause over and against his apparent desire to maximise his IPL earnings lent credence to the view that he was jeopardising team “unity and purpose of action”, and even that he had been marginalised as a result of his behaviour: “it’s not easy being me in the England dressing room” he complained, infamously. Then came those text messages – no, those, you doos – grousing about his treatment at the hands of the Axis of Andy (an act easily interpreted from a psychological standpoint as unconsciously punishing his ‘persecutors’ by seeking to undermine the unity they have created) and at the time disingenuously spun as offering tips on how to dismiss Strauss out (“Can’t wait till you come round the wicket”). Finally, there was his extraordinary video, morsels of sincerity piercing the PR blancmange in a curious mix of contrition and self-justification, all attempting to position himself back within the group.

It goes without saying that a group of whatever dimension is beset by factors that undermine it from within (what the anthropologists like to call ‘scission’) and without. For cricket teams, there are not only the ravages of defeats, but injury, ageing and renewal cycles, salary jealousies and haggling over bonuses, selectorial issues, availability, personal rivalries, the purring and pettiness of the Ego, as well as events that blow in from the horizon potentially destabilizing the team (Mark Boucher’s appalling, career-ending eye injury could have had this effect on South Africa. In addition, there are unflattering or critical passages from current teammates’ autobiographies, which don’t appear to undermine the “unity of purpose and trust” within Team England as much as text messages. What was it Marshall McCluhan said about the medium being the message? Anyway, in the light of Massumi’s description of structuration processes cited above, these factors are some of the individual’s “margins of deviation” (the group here as an entity distinct from its component parts is an “individual”, a haecceity).

The underlying reason for such continual disequilibrium is simple: the desire to do as you please, the appeal of an unmediated life, is very strong indeed, much stronger than rules. Since the dawn of time, then, socialization can be understood as finding the means to bind the errant desires of its members to the codes, norms, or laws by which that society lives (always with struggle, always with leakage, always with molecular change). An ‘Us’ must be created, a sense of belonging, an embodiment of the group: a social body.* And a cricket team is no different.

Anyway, what is constant in all this is that, while a team spirit can be artificially induced – as paintballing is for the village side, so a visit to Gallipoli was for Steve Waugh’s Australians, and there are people who trade on this supposedly ‘scientific’ ability – its organic emergence, its crossing of a threshold, is only truly intelligible retrospectively (a haecceity: both unambiguously present and vague of provenance). And since this spirit is always already in the process of coming undone, it needs perpetual shoring up.

In a modern international team, the myriad distractions with sponsors and endorsements, untimely nights out on pedalos, persistent screaming at misfields, Twitter (with its potential breach of the sanctity of the dressing room) – all these are potentially ruinous to team spirit, all part of the vicissitudes of that intangible togetherness. Little wonder that, speaking earlier this year about the possible end of Chris Gayle’s exile from the West Indies team, Nasser Hussain – something of a lay expert in creating harmony from disparate elements – argued: “It doesn’t matter so much what he does at training or even on the pitch. It’s in the hotel bar at 11 o’clock that counts, with young impressionable players hanging on his every word…” Leakage.

But the means of creating order – and the sense of belonging and team spirit that will grow gradually from that soil – is not only top-down, implanted through managerial edict. There are also bottom-up mechanisms, thousands of tiny gestures and ‘local’ interactions (at times, so subtle and nuanced that the team doesn’t perceive them and which have already landed their blows on the spirit of the team before the team knows what has happened) that, like street-level social niceties, add up to the character of a community. Ultimately, that is what ‘banter’ is: a form of self-regulation within a group, clipping people’s wings, cauterizing overinflated egos, the wayward member either modifying his behaviour or risking ostracism. Part autopoietic, self-organizing system; part command structure.

Yet by the same token, banter itself must be conducive to harmony, since it too can disrupt the equilibrium – as, for instance, when it becomes bullying, the systematic harassment of a marginal figure (often unconsciously pursued, ironically, as a means of strengthening collective bonds, or at least those of a sub-group within a group). And in the process of becoming-ostracised – apparently the topic of Pietersen and Matt Prior’s heart-to-heart conversation in the lead up to the Lord’s game, after which the former said he was feeling “great” – this perception can induce the worst paranoia, wild accusations and violent lashing out as one struggles over one’s status (the serenity of one’s Ego).

This, of course, is the obvious explanation for the excesses of Pietersen’s behaviour – his perception, recently underlined, that someone in the England dressing room was unambiguously lampooning him from behind the cover of a parody Twitter account: KPGenius. More specifically, his grievance that what went on inside the dressing room was in some sense being leaked beyond its confines, turning a private sanctuary into a public goldfish bowl and completely transforming the nature of the ‘banter’, affecting the relations between the individual players and thus the team as organism. 

Ilya Prigogine

KP, phase transitions, metastability

To return to a paraphrase of the initial question: How do you turn a heterogeneous molecular population (the organs) into ‘molar’ unity (the organism)?

Just as the team is an always open reality, a continual process of binding energies together, so its spirit is not static, but something that fluctuates. Nothing is ever fatal or irreversible (it was Prior who instigated the clear-the-air conversation), even though the continual effort to make the multiple One, to build a team, undergoes these often imperceptible molecular leakages and escapes – the criticisms, the selfishness, the arguments, the glances – that are felt as a perturbation in the ‘molar’ circuits, a disruption of (metastable) order, a dissipation, leading to paranoiac accusations and heavy-handed wing-clipping alike.

Deriving as it does from physics, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of molarity – turning the parts (which never cease being parts that subsist) into a whole, the same body of matter considered as two regimes – is one that nevertheless perfectly captures the abstract dynamics of social processes: i.e. turning a loose agglomeration of bodies into a unity, giving it an identity. Perhaps, finally, it is by drawing out the earlier parallelisms between socialization and nonlinear thermodynamics that we will best grasp the misconceptions around the notion of team spirit, and, by dint of that, the misunderstanding regarding the allegedly heinous or terminal nature of KP’s peccadilloes.

One of the prime figures in nonlinear thermodynamics, Ilya Prigogine, demonstrated – particularly in his book Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Discourse with Nature, co-authored with Isabelle Stengers – that physical systems, under the influence of “attractors” (like poles), tend to self-organize toward an optimal distribution of energy. But – and this is the crucial lesson for team cultures – he also showed that, pace classical thermodynamics, not only are all structures open, to the extent they are linked to an energy source or involve the infolding of the aleatory outside (our bodies need light and water; our societies need food, electricity), some complex systems are “dissipative” (i.e. far from equilibrium) and thus there are several metastable states that a system can attain. In sum, he repudiated linear determinism and simple cause and effect – for instance, sneeringly telling your teammates that they weren’t capable of dominating the world’s best bowling attack necessarily spelling the end of your involvement with the group…

Schematically, and bearing in mind the author’s resolutely non-expert understanding of these matters, we note that water in a pot under the influence of heat (i.e. an intensive difference between outside and inside temperature) leads to different patterns of molecular activity, activity that may look chaotic but about which mathematical modelling reveals strict patterns, or order (“unity of purpose and action”). At a low temperature on the stove, the difference in temperature evens out through a simple, uniform dispersion of heat: conduction. If the temperature is increased, bubbles of hot water break free from colder water and accelerate upwards towards the surface of the water before turning back in a circular motion: convection. Finally, if the temperature is increased further, a system of nested vortexes and eddies – turbulence – increasingly usurps the order of circulating water. Two things: (1) the capacity to ‘fall into’ these three patterns of motion is immanent to the fluid medium, a potential, the crucial thing being the thresholds at which the medium switches from one pattern to another, its “bifurcations”; (2) this matter-energy system self-organizes into an orderly form through local interactions that are ignorant’ of the global system (the molar individual).  

If we persist with the analogy, a metastable state for a cricket team can be attained (for a short time at least) with a high level of molecular activity – that is, with ‘creative tensions’ between its constituent parts – or it may be at a very low-intensity (all players of similar background and disposition: a public school sixth form team, say) with many hypothetical states in-between. In order to assess the nature of team spirit (as a metastable state), what needs to be elucidated is the system’s precise history, its bifurcations points or “phase transitions”: a different form of motion immanent to the molar individual’s interrelation of molecular bodies, but not in any way determining, since these virtual states need to be actualized by another force: always multiple causes (an event is an encounter); no such thing as a closed system…

In this light, Pietersen’s behaviour at Leeds – a phase transition in the team dynamic – did not emerge out of the blue but had as a genealogy a slow, singular labour of causes and their interactions – both truths and perceptions, each of which is as potentially causally efficacious as the other. It was no doubt partly to do with having his head turned by IPL lucre and the moneys received by his globetrotting peers, as Andy Flower acknowledged. It was also, partly, about his difficulty in integrating with the team culture and entering the general mateyness of Swann, Bresnan, Anderson, Cook, Finn, Broad, Prior. As many commentaries have touched upon, this friction is far from fatal or unique in the history of cricket. As was said of Boycott: I don’t care for him but I like his runs.  

Likewise, the departure of Strauss potentially marks a new bifurcation of the previously dissipative system; a possible search for a new equilibrium. Where there’s a will… Apology and penance is of course a social mechanism that compensates the disrupted equilibrium and can in time restore the harmony and seal the breaches. In the sage words of Andrew Strauss prior to the Lord’s Test: “Cricketers are a pretty forgiving bunch. But we need to bring stuff out in the open, we can’t just have it swept under the carpet and I’ve got no idea at this stage how that’s going to work out… I think if we are going to resolve these issues, everyone’s got to take a bit of a long hard look at how things have developed over the last couple of weeks in particular and say, ‘Have we all done everything we can to avoid this happening?’ …But it’s not going to be resolved overnight. If we’re going to resolve those issues we need to do it face to face, away from the media spotlight and away from PR companies.” 




spillage, spirit 

Such ups and downs in the life of a team provide the most compelling argument against Steve Archibald’s hypothesis. Given that the maxim elides the supposedly illusory team spirit with good team spirit, does this mean that, in the case of a poor result, the corresponding dejection is equally false? Surely the flipside of Archibald’s claim would be that there is never team spirit in defeat, which for many who have been involved in team sports might border on the offensive.

Team spirit is not the same thing as elation. It is always there: good, bad, or ugly. It is nothing less than the precise resilience of the bonds permitting a team to dress its wounds and ride out the good and bad sessions, good and bad days, good and bad weeks. When Strauss asserted prior to his hundredth and final Test that “you learn more in defeat than in victory” he was, in a sense, tacitly endorsing the notion that team spirit encompasses this full spectrum of emotions and that the exhilaration of victory is merely the highest plateau or pitch of intensity that it attains.

Most crucially, although it is intangible, it is not supernatural, not at all transcendent as the word spirit perhaps implies. Far from being in some netherworld beyond, it is the potential immanent within an ensemble of bodies to bring forth these intensive states of togetherness in which concerted action pushes the component individuals to great collective achievements, that gets something more out of them.  

Even if team spirit is not felt in all corners of the dressing room in quite the same way, to quite the same degree; even if some people may be part of a team but not fully part of its spirit, that doesn’t render it some dizzy fantasy of collective togetherness. The mutual care for those struggling through tough times, looking out for your mates, creating a supportive environment, singing not only when you’re winning – all of that is real as a bruise on the inside thigh.

Fragile? Perhaps. Precarious? Certainly. Susceptible to a sudden collapse? Without doubt. But just because no-one has ever seen or touched something, that doesn’t make it illusory.


* Simplifying to the extreme, for a long time this attempt to forge a sense of belonging was mediated by custom, belief, and meaning. In ‘primitive’, kinship-based society, it was done through social rituals and marking in bare flesh (tattoos were more than decoration then) so as to fashion a memory for man of obligation, mediation – what Nietzsche called a “cruelist mnemotechnics”. In State societies, the sense of belonging was elaborated principally through symbolic representations of the higher unity (Law, tax money, official language – all substitutes for the distant despot that no-one saw), but these transcendent Ideas must also be continually hewn into the social body, whence flags and anthems. In ‘civilized’, market-based society, the unity is achieved through contractual relations and normative behaviour operates around honouring those contracts – meaning and belief are entirely secondary.


Wednesday, 5 September 2012

SIX DELIVERIES FROM TODAY AT THE O.D.I.*



ginger recklessness

With England having secured the essentially meaningless number one ODI ranking until they get annihilated in India in January, the final game of the series was basically played for pride alone: the wheee of a win as opposed to the meh of a draw. Still, (Confucius, he say) winning’s a habit and all that…

However, without Flower’s forbidding dressing room presence, England were undone by what the experts call ‘sh*t batting’. And there was a carrot-topped streak of indiscipline running through it.

First, Resilience’s Ian Ronald Belly-Lad, having prevented the ball from hitting the stumps by stopping it with one of his pads, a mode of dismissal known to the selfsame experts as ‘leg before wicket’ (or lbw), decided to spunk the sole review of the innings in the fourth over (the very fact that he had to discuss it at all ought to have told him to shuffle off for a dose of medicine…but then, he has a history of not wanting to go when dismissed on this ground). This was cricket’s equivalent of putting all your cash on the roulette wheel (red, obviously) on the first night of a once-in-a-lifetime’s-savings-funded fortnight in Vegas.

Then, after the awful inevitability of Ravi’s failure (see below), Body Language’s Jonny Bairstow played a cameo from off of the balls of his feet, bopping hither and thither to prod down the hot tin roof of a pitch, ‘taking it’ to Big Morkel with aggressive intent, before unnecessarily walking across his stumps and chipping one to deep square leg. Red Bull at a gate. After that, Eion Morgan skipped down the pitch to JP Duminy’s nondescript, _____ offies and got too close to the ball, slapping it flat to mid on.

Clearly, these donkeys cannot simply be browbeaten into performing better. No, management need the optimum balance of stick and carrot (top).


 Ozzy and Ravi

There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a young (and undoubtedly high) Ozzy Osbourne earning a living in Berlin in the 1970s by being on call for an eccentric German aristocrat (if that is not itself tautological) whose highly particular fetish involved lying beneath a glass coffee table while someone (Ozzy, in this instance) perched above it and… – well, there’s not a sufficiently delicate way to put it – defecated atop the hitherto transparent surface. Whatever turns you on, I guess.

For any workshy young deviant, one for whom the last vestiges of ‘self-esteem’ have long since flown the roost, that is truly a gig to inspire envy. Getting paid for dumping – unbelievable, Jeff! (Mind you, I’m not entirely sure one could get away with listing it as a legitimate ‘job goal’ when signing a Jobseeker’s Agreement.)

Anyway, I mention Ozzy only to illustrate the fact that the modern world is full of cushty sinecures and chancers blagging it in easy billets, all of which brings us to Ravi Bopara, continually selected as a batsman for an international cricket team and yet not required to make any actual runs. Nice work if you can get it!

“But he brings a lot to the party,” his apologists counter. Fine, but his bag of cheap Es and wraps of meow-meow are no use if you don’t fancy the adult confectionary. 


narks

It’s the Big (well, Medium-Sized) Debate: are ODIs just a sugar rush (and not quite as good a sugar rush as the new stuff) providing little in the way of nourishment? Maybe. Either way, we all know “sugar’s rubbish”. But the ECB tried to persuade us that a five-match Australia series shoehorned into the middle of the summer was a worthy sporting attraction, that those bright yellow jerseys would compete with the other prominent bright yellow jerseys of the summer’s sports stories – the ones that started out clean, with the everyman brilliance of Bradley Wiggins, and yet ended sullied, with the news that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was to be banned for steroids, WADA completely ignoring the fact that he has beaten cancer and thus had immunity from everything… Yet this hasn’t been the only sporting drugs story of late. Oh no.

Many felt that the ECB were clutching at straws when they accused the Saffers of being drugs cheats. Sour grapes, they said. Yet, after the crushing Oval Test victory that set up the D’Oliveira series win, Graeme Smith could scarcely have been more candid: “we owe a lot to hash”. He then skipped off to fashion a makeshift bong from a Gatorade bottle. Conclusive and damning evidence, no?

Amla, meanwhile, went of for some throwdowns. He was reported to have lent his prayer mat to Alistair Cook.


“the sun always shines on TB” (A-ha!)

After some deliberation while he located the correct shelves in His omniscience, God, a.k.a. the Supreme Being (sometimes referred to as Allah or Yahweh), has given his final verdict in the great debate taking hold of Midlanders East and West – i.e. which city is the better: Birmingham or Nottingham? – and he has done it through the medium of weather.

The game here was played out under pale blue skies (prior to the floodlit part, smartass), as had been the T20 game against the West Indies and the four days of the Wisden Trophy Test. Down the road in Brummidge, things haven’t gone quite so swimmingly (well, you know what I mean). Three out of five days of their Windies Test were washed out, as was the Cashraker ODI against Australia in July.

Conclusive.


 Woak-o Oh-Yes!

With England missing the ambivalent hipsterism of Stuart Broad – “I’ll give the Barnet and clobber a whirl, but I don’t want to commit to all the sh*t on my arm” – it was good to see a frontline seamer of real batting ability at number 8 (a pet topic of someone of this parish).

“He could be whatever he wants to be,” pundits are wont to say of young cricketers of promise. Well, given that young people want to be things like dragons and drones and drills, it is doubtful whether one should adhere to that notion. Even so, his naked batting talent, the excellent positions he gets into, the instinctive movement of his hands, the range of strokes, all augur well for England’s search for Test-class all-rounders: here may be a fourth seamer eventually capable of batting as high as number 6.  


* NB. We have made it five in honour of England short-changing the crowd to the tune of 29 balls, thus allowing SA to knock off with 93 balls to spare. Please take it up with the ECB.