Thursday, 19 May 2016

SHIRE BRIGADE #10: CHRIS NASH


A chat as part of my "long-running", "highly respected" series for All Out Cricket magazine with the long-serving Sussex opening batsman and occasional off-spinner, Chris Nash, not long after the death of his teammate, Matt Hobden. 

Shire Brigade: Chris Nash

DAVID GRAVENEY INTERVIEW


It started with a chat about Gloucestershire's loss to Minor Counties in the 1980 Benson & Hedges Cup, the first such giantkilling in that tournament. At the end of the chat, reasoning I had someone on the line whose reflections and opinions on the game would be saleable (romantic, I know), I asked if he'd do a longform interview for cricinfo, with the theme being selection. 

He would, he said, but could I send the questions through in advance?

I could, I said. 

So, having first asked cricinfo if they would commission such an idea, I devised a load of questions, trawling through his eleven-year stint picking the England side, and emailing my go-to guy for cricketing insights. And then I emailed them to him. Tis was February 2015. 

Still in the employ of the ECB, Grav perhaps needed to ensure there would be no hidden traps, no ambushes. That wasn't my aim. It's not 2008. 

He gave the questions his assent, but we couldn't seem to fix a time. The interview was eventually carried out in June. He gave very little away. Admirable, in a way. Confidences should be kept. But he had that curious facility for appearing to say a lot while saying very little that is the hallmark of politicians. Not even talking about Duncan Fletcher could get through his forward defensive. I put it down to him being indecisive, overly collegiate, a weathervane who blew this way and that. We made some polite small-talk and he asked if he could see the transcript before I filed it with cricinfo. I said that would be fine (while secretly thinking it was a bit much given he'd barely suggested there might be any cats in bags, let alone let them out –to get among the pigeons or otherwise).

I then told cricinfo I had done the interview. This was eight months after it had been commissioned. After the 2015 World Cup, when ESPN had spent a huge amount of money building a studio overlooking Sydney Harbour, not to mention manning it with expensive pundits. They told me they were cutting back on freelance contributions and now no longer wanted it.

Arse.

I contemplated trying to flog it elsewhere, but thought I'd wait and see if the lie of the land in Bangalore might change. By the new year, it had. So, I transcribed the interview always, always a tedious task
–and then emailed David to let him know. I told him to get back in touch and "I will do the amends (within reason)". 

He said he'd be in touch, because "there were several changes". I sighed, then told him he needed to do this before the end of the week. He didn't reply.

Three days later I emailed again, by now starting to feel a bit irritated at all the hoops I was having to jump through. It may have shown in my tone, too. I told him I'd agreed to make amends "within reason" but didn't want to "bleed the interview of all colour", especially since "there was nothing controversial in there". 


The email I received back was an unequivocal baring-of-teeth, definitively refuting the notion that he was a pussy cat (which I may have based entirely on the fact that he smoked a lot). Afterwards, I posted this status on Facebook, which sort of completes the story. 


Here is the interview. It's interesting, without being incendiary. I think we parted on good terms. But boy, it makes you realise how the jousting between a ravenous news media eager to fasten on to a poorly chosen phrase and officials keen to protect themselves thereform starts to pollute the air in which even these fairly harmless conversations take place.

Oh well. Glad I'm not doing this particularly seriously. 


Talking Cricket: David Graveney



 

Friday, 26 February 2016

PREPARING FOR ANOTHER SUMMER


Moddershall 1st XI when I started out 

The run up to a new cricket season is markedly different for an old(ish) man – a man perhaps able to count his remaining cricket campaigns on the badly gnarled fingers of one hand – than it is for a fresh-faced, bright-eyed youngster. Back when I was a teenager, life stretching out before me as a seemingly endless sweep of run-soaked summers, my pre-season thoughts were usually little more than idle daydreams – the usual fantasies of scoring 1000-plus runs, cup final centuries, hooking this or that West Indian pro out of the ground.

As you get longer in the tooth your horizons draw in, and you merely hope your body survives the five months without breaking. You hope, too, that your enthusiasm isn’t snuffed out by the various off-field duties and dramas that come with seniority and responsibility. Having already lost the buzz once, in 2010, after which I stopped playing for three years, I now know what the warning signs are. But the beauty of that three-year hiatus, I later discovered, was that my focus shifted away from myself, and my own diminishing powers, and onto the young players in my team, helping them develop their talents. Pass on some wisdom, learn about their personalities.  

Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with those lofty individual ambitions of youth, since to take care of your own contribution is almost always going to help the team realize its collective goals. Nevertheless, it’s easy to become too excitable, too fixated on personal targets, build it up too much. As a batsman, a slow start to the season – a few unplayable balls, a couple of bad decisions, a run out, an abandonment or two – can mean those initial targets become more or less unattainable, and therefore oppressive, a numerical reminder of the “failure” that the season is shaping up to be. We can be our own worst enemies.

My best ever season in terms of runs started fairly slowly. I don’t remember the details (I have it written down in some dusty folder somewhere, when such things seemed to matter a lot and before there was the Internet to document it for you), but it wasn’t until late July that I really got going. I was heading to Spain for my university gap year in October and so, to earn some cash, spent a couple of months working at the Creda plant in Blythe Bridge, loading the parts for white goods into big kilns then taking them off again. Then putting others on, then taking them off. The tedium of the work made me appreciate the weekend’s cricket all the more. Crucially, it made my thinking much clearer. It made me value my wicket more.

the good old days
I ended up scoring 895 league runs that year, but during those last six or seven weeks of the season I didn’t think about aggregates or targets. I just batted. I was ‘in the zone’. Relaxed concentration. The game was easy. The noise in my head was off, for once. Yep, I just batted.

And that’s the thing about targets: if you’re going to have them, they should be about the process not the end result. That’s something of a sports psychology cliché these days, but it’s true. And it’s true because it works. What focusing on process not outcomes means is that you should draw in the frame of reference for “What I want to do” from the whole season to the next game, the next hour, the next over, the next delivery… Stay in the process.

Simplifying a little, that process boils down to three things, depending on the discipline. For batting, it’s decision-making. For bowling, it’s pressure. For fielding, it’s awareness (or concentration, you could call it).

Making the right decisions as a batsman of course requires several skills: judging the pitch and which shots are on, which not; working out each bowler’s threat and how they’re trying to get you out; assessing the scoreboard situation and what needs to be done. None of this is in your head as the bowler is running up, of course. It’s done between balls, in conversation with yourself, and between overs, in conversation with your partner. 

For a bowler, maintaining pressure also requires several ancillary calculations: what each batsman’s strengths are and what fields to set; what’s in the wicket for you and what the condition of the ball might allow; what the game situation requires, etc. Nevertheless, the process is all about maintaining pressure, being patient.

As for fielding, and awareness, that’s simply about being tuned into what the team is trying to do – i.e. what a hyper-precise skipper wants when he moves you three yards this way, two yards that – and what the batsman is trying to do to counter it. And it is about keeping the team buoyant, switched on, optimistic.

In his autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone, the great Australian skipper Steve Waugh wrote that “fielding is a true test of players sacrificing themselves for the interest of the team because it’s the only facet of the game where you don’t get statistically rewarded for your efforts”. And that is precisely the point about making a slow start to the season, falling short of your targets, be that as a batsman or a bowler. If you don’t hit the ground running, you can still make a contribution that isn’t statistically rewarded. Be a good teammate. Keep the troops going on those hot afternoons. Encourage your mates out there scrapping hard to get you a total. Take your weary bowler’s jumper to the umpire. Polish the ball. Go and console a fielder who’s dropped an important catch. Buy the skipper four or five pints of lager because you love him. Step out of your bubble (it’s stressful in there), think about what the team needs, and keep putting in the pot.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

DOES MIKING UP PLAYERS TURN CRICKET INTO A CIRCUS?


The latest blog for ESPNcricinfo (given a much snappier title than I've managed) was supposed to be a general look at the way broadcasters are encroaching on the game, particularly T20, asking whether, in the main, this was a good or bad thing, and in what ways.

Then something happened. I was watching the 1st Australia vs India T20I at Adelaide when a quite extraordinary 2 minutes 20 seconds of live international cricket broadcasting happened, involving the current Australian Test captain (though not skipper on this occasion) Steven Smith talking live while batting to the three Channel 9 commentators, Mark Nicholas, Mike Hussey and Ian Healy. It lasted one Ravindra Jadeja over. It ended in Smith's dismissal and a rather animated send-off from Virat Kohli.

So I wrote about that incident, and the wider implications of having players wired up and conversing with commentators. 


When Entertainment becomes Intrusion

It was a real struggle to whittle this down to 1200. I could easily have gone through the exchange sentence by sentence, riffing on the various issues it raised. 


Here's the exchange as it played out in real time: 


Australia are 82 for 1 off 8, chasing 189. They have taken 19 from the previous over. Steve Smith is 20 off 12 balls.

Nicholas: Steve Smith’s miked up. Steve, you’ve got ahead of the rate.
Smith: What’s that, sorry?
Nicholas: You’ve got ahead of the rate now.
Smith: Yeah, we’re going alright.

Ridiculously over-the-top laugh from Nicholas.

Smith: Hopefully we can keep getting a few boundaries away here and there. We’ve got plenty of power, so… It’s a pretty nice wicket out there. It’s coming on pretty well so all good at the minute.

He finishes just as Jadeja leaps to bowl. Aaron Finch cuts to point. No run.

Hussey: Steve Smith, what’s the plan against Jadeja? Where are you going to try and hit him?
Smith: Wherever he bowls it. Just watch the ball and see what happens.

Again, Jadeja is entering his delivery stride when Smith finishes. Finch lifts the ball over extra cover. It will skip away for four.

Smith: That’s a nice shot!
Nicholas: You commentate for us, mate. You’ve got it covered. You’ve got the bird’s-eye view.
Smith: What’s that, sorry?  
Nicholas: You’ve got the best view. You call it for us.
Smith: That was nice, that. I’ll see what I can do for ya…

Jadeja is running in again…

Smith: Might have to run hard here. Pretty long boundary straight. We’ll see how we go.

Finch drives to deep cover. Smith calls “yep” and scurries to get on strike.

Nicholas: Now, are you pre-meditating or not?
Smith: When do I premeditate?!
Nicholas (laughing): Yeah, yeah.

Jadeja in. Smith works the ball from outside off to deep mid-wicket.

Smith (to Finch): Yeah, push, c’mon!

They settle for one.

Hussey: That’s really interesting, Steve: no premeditation at this stage. You’re just seeing the ball and looking to react to it?
Smith: Oh yeah, you never know what’s going through our minds.

Jadeja is already running into bowl. Finch drives out into the covers.

Smith (to Finch): Just the one, mate.
Smith (to Hussey):
You never know mate. You’ve just got to watch the ball and see what happens.

Smith is on strike for the final ball of the over.

Healy: He’s darting them in, angled in to the right-handers. 103kph.

It’s unclear whether this is commentary or advice. Smith tries to work a ball from outside off stump through the completely open midwicket region. He gets a leading edge to extra-cover, where Virat Kohli takes the catch and proceeds to give Smith a send-off.   

Nicholas: Steve Smith is out, and he’s unable to talk us through that. Understandably. What a disappointment: 21 to Steve Smith.


 

A WINTER OF EXPANSION



The pavilion at Great Chell: symbol of the precariousness of all clubs  



It has been a winter of expansion – not only of my waistline, but also of the NSSCL. Indeed, the winter’s cricketing activity has been dominated by the NSSCL restructuring, with several new additions coming in (including our own Sri Lankan enclave, Moddershall Phoenix, straight in at the fifth tier) and a raft of major and minor changes. 

Primarily, the expansion serves to reward ambitious clubs, allowing them access to the area’s premier cricket competition. The restructuring into a ten-division ladder is for the same purpose: to reward well-run, ambitious clubs. In theory, allowing a club’s 2nd XI to progress up as high as the second tier of local cricket (providing they’re below the 1st XI, of course) means they can offer youngsters not quite ready for the 1st XI (and seniors no longer good enough) the best possible standard of cricket, rather than, at best, fifth tier. In turn, this hopefully enables them to keep those youngsters that they have developed at the club for longer (with the knock-on effect of preserving a club’s playing identity, of slowing down the revolving door) rather than having them cherry-picked by fly-by-night, house-of-cards clubs with plenty of money but no infrastructure who are able (they will say) to offer 1st XI cricket. 

Not only that, clubs that are currently struggling for numbers yet still retain a dedicated core of players will not be punished, or even forced to close, for not being able to put out two Saturday sides. If you can muster up eleven, you can still play (without having to meet unattainable ECB Clubmark goals). So, sensible all round. 

While the restructuring is all perhaps a little confusing at the minute – why are Moddershall A still called Moddershall A if it’s a straight ladder? Why not Moddershall 1sts through to 5ths? Does this affect the starring system? – the changes nevertheless serve to illustrate the broader reality that the league is a continually evolving entity (even if it was more comforting and less disorienting when it was 1A and 1B, mirrored by 2A and 2B!). 

Moddershall ourselves were beneficiaries of this evolution in late 1989, when the folding of one of the league’s founder members, Great Chell, allowed us into the NSSCL. We haven’t looked back. A season later, Chell (who had a phenomenal pavilion, the Lord’s of the Potteries) re-emerged, having merged with another founder member, Sneyd (whose pavvy wasn’t quite so salubrious), before both clubs bit the dust. In the 1960s they had West Indies Test players as pros, today they are a memory. A salutary lesson. 

"The Lord's of the Potteries" [Chell photos provided by Gary Stanyer] 

In our early NSSCL days, we played many times against clubs that are either no longer with us, or no longer members of the league: Nantwich, Crewe Rolls-Royce, Haslington, Buxton (it would have been quite an early alarm-call, trekking from there to Norton-in-Hales for a 12pm start in September: Derbyshire to Shropshire for a North Staffs & South Cheshire fixture!!). Nantwich left in the mid-nineties and have since gone on to win the Cheshire County League on a number of occasions. They were another of the NSSCL’s founder member clubs, one of the dozen that started out in 1963 (coincidentally, the year that one-day cricket began, in the form of the Gillette Cup). 

As well as Chell, Sneyd and Nantwich, the other NSSCL founder members were Stone, Crewe LMR (today, Crewe), Longton, Leek, Knypersley, Norton, Bignall End, Newcastle & Hartshill and Porthill Park. These clubs were predominantly based in the Potteries or in other sizeable towns, and their respective current fortunes – five in the Premier League, three defunct, three down the pyramid, one elsewhere – show just how difficult it can be to sustain a club’s strength (be that on the field or in its social aspect) over a long period. It’s hard work, and requires thousands and thousands of small acts of investment of time, love and energy (not to mention, for some of those founder members still in the top flight, a well-thumbed chequebook). 

The NSSCL’s first great expansion took place in 1981, when several clubs took the plunge and sought out a better grade of recreational cricket – the likes of Cheadle, Little Stoke, Caverswall and Elworth, all of whom have won the NSSCL, as well as Leycett, Kidsgrove, Stafford, Burslem, Barlaston, Betley, Buxton and Crewe RR, who haven’t won the NSSCL. And in some cases, for various reasons, won’t. 

Everybody played everybody once during that 1981 season. The top dozen went into 1A, the rest into 1B, with second teams shadowing them in 2A and 2B respectively. My dad’s club, Little Stoke, finished level on points with another team (I forget which) smack bang in the middle of the table, meaning they had to contest a playoff. It was at Great Chell, funnily enough (maybe the opposition was Great Chell themselves). It was tense. There were several abandonments. Little Stoke engaged the Derbyshire opener (and sometime Staffordshire Academy head coach) Alan Hill as sub-pro. He made quite a few good but ultimately fruitless scores. On one occasion, he stroked 80 and it snowed. It was eventually resolved in the early weeks of October. I forget the result. It’s not important. It’s the exploring-the-massive-pavilion that counts. 

After this first Great Leap Forward, there was an occasional dribble of newcomers, usually the best of the old North Staffs and District League, one of the oldest in the country and the chief casualty of NSSCL expansionism. First it was Audley and Ashcombe Park in the mid-eighties. Next Moddershall got in, then not long after that it was Checkley and Meir Heath, followed by Haslington. 

Audley CC
At some point after that (my history is sketchy and the NSSCL Library has not yet been built), they introduced a one-up one-down backdoor (or trapdoor) entryway to the NSSCL, designed to offer an incentive to the restless, ambitious clubs in NSDL while quelling its officials by preserving the latter’s identity. But NSDL were fighting the historical tide – fighting evolution – and in 2005 the NSSCL expanded to four divisions, split into A and B sections (with the NSDL folding and living on as a midweek competition), which is where we have been, with a few changes in the cast, until the League’s November AGM last year. 

So now we have Milford Hall (who, I’m told, don’t get along with our junior section), Sandbach, and Onneley & Maer to add to the long list of NSSCL clubs. But what do all the new changes amount to? I don’t really know, beyond turning up on a Saturday with enough white clothes not to embarrass yourself by having to wear someone else’s, and trying your best for your team, for your mates... But what this potted history does show us is that Moddershall, for a rural club (I mean, we are not even in a village!), punches far, far above its weight. You only need glance at the list of NSSCL winners over the first 53 years of competition to see that.

11        Longton 
6          Stone 
5          Leek 
4          Crewe 
3          Audley, Knypersley, Nantwich, Newcastle & Hartshill, Norton, Moddershall
2          Little Stoke   
1          Ashcombe Park, Caverswall, Cheadle, Elworth, Great Chell, Norton-in-Hales, Wood Lane

The four clubs that have won more NSSCL titles than us were all founder members of the League. Crewe’s last title was in 1986, and their next won’t be any time soon. Stone may have won twice as many NSSCL titles as us (boosted by winning the last two year’s Premier Leagues, of course) but they have also played over twice as many seasons (2016, our 27th year in NSSCL, will see us having been members of the league for half its lifespan). 

Of the five other clubs to have won, like us, a trio of titles, four were founder members of the league (and one of them owed two of its titles to the current Moddershall groundsman, on an early-career three-year pro’s assignment), albeit two of those four are no longer NSSCL clubs. The fifth, Audley, an excellent club, joined in 1986, four years before us. That means only Longton has a better “seasons per title” ratio than we do. 



It is a record of which we can be justifiably proud, particularly given that every other club to have won three or more NSSCL titles has a significant population base on its doorstep from which they can draw. Not only that, the absence from the list of clubs with far greater financial resources than Moddershall demonstrates just how difficult it is to win. 

But it is also a record on which we cannot afford to dwell. The league evolves, some clubs prosper, others decline. The only thing that’s permanent is change, as they say. There can be no complacency, no time for feeling sorry for ourselves because a few good players have jumped ship, for one reason or another. 

Given a fair wind, it is within the compass of the present group of 1st XI players and the quickly improving cricketers rising from the junior ranks to ink Moddershall’s name on to that NSSCL roll of honour for a fourth time. And when it happens, it will be the best thing they'll do in local cricket. 


SHIRE BRIGADE #9: STEVEN CROFT


The ninth in the All Out Cricket Shire Brigade series took me to Lancashire. This made it half the counties chalked off on this first lap (assuming it will be recommissioned, and I don't, or even that I'll get to 18), having previously done Notts, Somerset, Northants, Durham, Warwickshire, Kent, Essex and Hampshire. Or Luke Fletcher, Pete Trego, Steven Crook, Colonel Mustard, Ian Westwood, Stevo, Foster and James Tomlinson.  

The obvious choice for Lancs would have been Glenn Chapple, but unfortunately that couldn't be sorted. After that, it seemed as though current skipper Steve Croft would be the most "cult". While he's certainly a fan favourite, I had been warned by a journalist from one of the Lancashire locals that he was hard work as an interviewee, either because he was a bit dull or, more charitably, because he didn't feel he should open up for the press. 

Either way, there wasn't a huge amount of quotable material by the time we'd done. Not that he was a bad stick.... 

Shire Brigade 09: Steven Croft 


 

DARTS AND CRICKET


Darts. The national sport of Stoke-on-Trent. Obligatory to like it, therefore. And like it I do, although a fair bit of it through gritted teeth: the commentary, the walk-ons, those inane fucking chants that never stop

I decided to make it the topic of a Cricinfo article, largely because it was on the TV every day and I'd been down to Ally Pally for a mate's 30th birthday, but also because I could think of four or five darts-and-cricket connections, including the bonkers Fred Trueman-presented TV show The Indoor League, Cook playing (Jimmy, not Bob or Gary) Anderson on TV, Graeme Swann revealing in a questionnaire I sent him what his darts nickname would be, and Freddie Flintoff's commentary when MvG threw a nine-darter in Blackpool. 

In the process of 'researching' the piece, I also discovered that Fred had teamed up with Davina McCall to present a Sky TV gameshow called One Hundred and Eighty. I thought it would be execrable – I mean, it was Davina effin' McCall (and her attempt to do the One Hundred and Eighty call is feeble) – but I found myself getting into it. A lot. Check it out on The YouTube. 

Meanwhile, have a read of this:

T20's Spiritual Brother


 

PAUL HARRIS: GLEANINGS


'Arro. Or Arrow, maybe.

He got some stick from the Poms (especially Boycott). And from the Aussies. But he gave precisely no fucks. He got stuck in. He did a job. He wasn't neurotic. And, given that he played a lot of cricket with Kallis, Smith, Steyn, Boucher, Amla, Morkel et al, he was mighty good fun to chat to: self-effacing without being meek, cheeky without being infantile or too laddish.

That said, if you're going to phone a bad line in South Africa, try not to do it from a bad line in rural England. With the dictaphone too close to the regular phone, creating feedback. Especially if the guy has a really bassy Saffer accent. Because it isn't at all difficult to transcribe that.
Gleanings: Paul Harris



* Thanks to David Fairbrass Jr for sorting it out

SHIRE BRIGADE #8: JAMES TOMLINSON


The first I heard of James Tomlinson was when Moddershall's professional, Imran Tahir signed for Hampshire midway through our 2008 title-winning campaign. Hampshire were struggling at the time and Immy gave them instant cutting edge, taking 12 for 183 on debut, and 44 wickets in seven games, as they avoided relegation from Division One.

But he wasn't the only bowler who did well for them that year. James Tomlinson took 67 wickets with his lively left-arm swingers, the most in the County Championship (either division). He's also a thoroughly nice bloke, as I found out when I had a chat to him for the All Out Cricket Shire Brigade series, which shows off his all-round good-eggedness. 



Shire Brigade 08: James Tomlinson    


 

FLASHING AT FOOTITT


Everyone in cricket remembers the quickest bowlers they faced. The heightened awareness, the sense of limits, the physiological messages that "you shouldn't really be doing this, you're out of your depth".

For me, there are four, plus a couple of others that bowled the odd sharp ball. In chronological order, rather than speedgun, first there was Barrington Browne, the most beautiful bowling action I've ever seen. Then there was Mick Lewis, twitching and spitting and swearing, a man who looked like the guy from Green Day who would go on to bowl the most expensive spell in the history of ODIs. 


The fourth express paceman was Tino Best, a story I've told a few times. But before him, while having a two-year sabbatical from Moddershall with Wollaton in the Notts Premier League, was Mark Footitt, the left-arm quick who carried the drinks and bowled at cones all winter. At 30 years of age, and with next Test tour going to India, Footy is unlikely to get himself a Test cap, especially with Finn and Wood (not to mention Woakes, Jordan and Plunkett) vying for the third seamer's position.

You never know, and a good debut season in Div One with Surrey might convince the selectors to give him a run. It's odds against, mind. And my own experience of playing against him as a raw 21-year-old would suggest that he isn't quite up to scratch.
 

Still, it was fun hearing Footitt stories from one or two old comrades and foes, most of which went into this ESPNcricinfo blog which, again, has a slightly clunky title. I'd have gone for: Fast-Tracked Footitt a Lesson in Perseverance (or a synonym of the last word beginning with 'f').  

'The Cordon': Memories of Mark Footitt's club career 

Monday, 1 February 2016

PROS AND CONS


At the back end of last summer I was asked by All Out Cricket editor Phil Walker to write something about the hallowed club pro: the greats and not-so-greats, the upside and downside, a few yarns. I'm not entirely sure whether he realized that I'd written something very similar for them a couple of years earlier (while he was editor) but I was happy to oblige. 

However, time soon caught up with me and I found the deadline approaching with no work having been done. One Friday in September, the day of the deadline I headed to London for the Lord's one-day final, having explained to Phil, using a mixture of truth and white lie, why I hadn't yet filed.
 

I arrived at my mate's house (he was in Devon) and stayed up till 4am working furiously on this and another piece for AOC. Then I turned in for what was a smidge over 4 hours' kip, then dragged myself across town to Lord's.

Upon arrival, I checked the seating plan for where to park myself and my totally knackered Dell laptop and USB keyboard (keeping it real at the Home of Cricket). Who should I be sitting next to? Yep, Phil Walker. Ace. Only, he hadn't arrived. Acer. So I cracked on with writing about Sobers and Learie Constantine, SF Barnes and Shane Warne. But then he did arrive. Arse. 


I apologised for my slackness with the Pros prose. He said: "No problem. Monday's good."

I apologised for my slackness with the piece about Staffordshire's 1000th game. He said: "No problem. We're pushing that back a month to a different issue." I thought: "Well, you could have fucking told me that yesterday, before I stayed up till 4am working on it." But I said: "Oh, cool." Mainly, because I was in the wrong.

So then we watched the match, a humdinger, and I had a much-needed beer with a couple of journalists before schlepping first to Archway, to pick up the bag I'd travelled down with (as I'd be going to stay with friends in Woking for a couple of days), and then on to Dalston, where I was meeting said friends for drinks before heading on to Hackney Wick to an Altern 8 rave, at which I would start the process of writing about their dancer, Martyn, with whom I'd played junior cricket. I was still awake at 8am, by which stage I was a little bit tired. 


Still, the piece about the pro's turned out alright. And the strapline calls me a "stalwart clubbie"... 

Prose and Cons 





A VISIT TO DUKE'S


The pill. The cherry. The tater. The conker. In no other sport is the ball such a crucial component of how the game is played. But then, in no other sport is the ball subject to such dramatic change – some natural wear-and-tear, some, erm, man-made – over the course of its life.

And this is why we love cricket: a ball that is in a process of continuous variation, a pitch that is in a process of continuous variation. An ever new set of conditions to 'read'. The quality of the cricket ball (and the pitches!) therefore plays a hugely significant part in balancing out the cricketing ecosystem, ensuring that neither batters nor bowlers become predators or prey for too long.

And cricket balls had been in the news a lot during the latter part of 2015: first, in the wake of #60allout, various Aussie luminaries advocated their fair nation using the Duke's ball in first-class cricket; then, when the pitches in the Emirates and Cape Town were too flat, people called for them to take up the Duke's, too. And then there was the pink ball to be used in Test cricket's first day-night game...




It was with all this in mind that I went down to East London to speak to Dilip Jadojia, boss of Morrant Sport, who own Duke's, to find out why their hand-stitched ball was better than the much-maligned Kookaburra. 


The resulting article was difficult to write up, insofar as it inevitably came quite close to advertorial in places: Dilip's observations about having cricket balls that were good for the game of cricket of course overlap significantly with his commercial interests. That said, there are a good number of second opinions out there who would fully support his claims. All told, it was an interesting two-hour chat with a very, very smart cookie.

In quest of a durable cricket ball


Friday, 29 January 2016

SHIRE BRIGADE #7: JAMES FOSTER

Not many people play Test cricket for England while still at university. One such was James Savin Foster, the Essex stumper rated the best in the world by none other than Jack Russell, who said that "he's taken wicket-keeping to a whole new level". 

35 years old now, Fozzie has recently landed a job as cricket professional at the Forest School, where he himself was a pupil twenty years ago. The school have allowed him to play one more season of county cricket, and the way Jonny Bairstow's been keeping there are a few at Essex who'll argue that he still should be playing for England.

In the dregs of the summer I tootled along for a chat at the ramshackle Chelmsford ground, and as an added bonus I was not only able to chew the fat with former Essex and England leggie Robin Hobbs (one of only five to have been capped by England in the last 50 years) but also saw Jesse Ryder score a masterful hundred, taming Jimmy Anderson in the process. 


Shire Brigade: James Foster


* The others are Adil Rashid, Scott Borthwick, Chris Schofield and Ian Salisbury)


Wednesday, 27 January 2016

THE DECLINE OF STOKE'S INNER-CITY CLUBS


Another month, another 'Cordon' blog for ESPNcricinfo. I cannot really recall what prompted me to write about the old, defunct grounds of the Potteries – not only Great Chell and Sneyd, but all the other factory grounds that have fallen by the wayside – but I do know that 24 hours after it was published I received an email from my editor in India telling me they had had the UK office on the phone, not particularly happy with the content. 

Apparently, UK cricinfo was just about to embark on a series of interviews with the ECB about grassroots cricket, and felt that I ought to have offered them right of reply. First, this isn't a news piece; it's a column. Second, it wasn't remotely scathing of the ECB (although I think here the headline was a little alarmist).

My stock at the UK end of ESPNcricinfo is non-existent, with pretty much every pitch having been rejected there on the grounds of them having no budget, so I don't suppose I've done anything drastic to my prospects of getting more work from them. 

Anyway, there was a quickly cobbled together paragraph shoe-horned into the piece, and nothing more was said. All a storm in a teacup, no doubt. 

'The Cordon': The Slow Withering of English Club Cricket

 

TALKING CRICKET: AGGERS ON RADIO BROADCASTING


One of the better feelings to be had in this line of work is when someone relatively famous* – that is, someone who you imagine is far too busy to be chatting to you – is generous with their time. Such was the case with Jonathan Agnew who, either side of a man coming to fix his oven, gave me the benefit of his broadcasting wisdom over a long, rambling hour on Skype. 

In one way, it was a fairly difficult interview to conduct. So fulsome were his replies that he often ended up answering three or four questions at once, all of which had me scrabbling down my notes, furiously crossing out while also scribbling keywords, hopefully to have him expand on a throwaway remark or observation. 

It was hard work, but in another sense it was very easy, because you start to develop a 'second ear' which follows the conversational flow not so much as would anyone in any ordinary exchange – i.e. to grasp meaning and elicit information –but to listen for quotable lines, for juice. Aggers was a constant stream of juice. Without doubt the most eloquent interviewee I've had. 

That's not to say I agree with everything he said. On the technical matters of broadcasting, I defer to his authority. But on strictly cricketing matters I find he can be a little rash, a little quick to offer opinions, often conservative opinions. Nonetheless, that doesn't alter the fact that he's very engaging company (he has since given me a couple of other interviews, one for my book, another for a piece in The Cricketer (about the Stanford T20 game in 2008) and definitely someone you'd want to have a beer with.

It's a real shame, I think, that this piece got less than a thousand social media shares, especially given how the story of Shahid Afridi (an interesting yarn, no doubt, but pretty niche) received over 25,000. 


* I say relatively famous. There was an episode of Pointless recently that showed five pictures of sports broadcasters, and Aggers was the lowest score: that is, the best answer. My cricket blindness prevented me from realizing this. I went for Claire Balding, the second highest. The others were Hazel Irving, Peter Alliss and Bobby George.


Talking Cricket: Jonathan Agnew


HOW TO SET THE FIELD FOR LEGGIES (IN ASIA)

 

It's funny which pieces get the most attention, the most traction on social media. Usually, they are ones involving Asian themes, and in this regard the ESPNcricinfo subeditor that chose the headline of this one did well. (I didn't dare venture below the line. Indian commenters are a special breed...)

The piece was published in advance of England's tour of the UAE, when it seemed likely that Adil Rashid would get a gig. He did, of course, starting with a five-for in a Test that England almost swindled after it had ambled along for four days, but fading quickly as both he and Moeen failed to exert any kind of control on the Pakistani batsman. Still, he has gone on to have an exceptional Big Bash League, and looks a crucial prospect for our T20

Around the same time, South Africa were arriving in India for their own Test series with an old friend Imran Tahir having been picked for what was likely to be his last flirt with the five-day game (he remains a first-choice pick for SA's white-ball teams).
 

This piece recapitulates an idea that I developed while watching Immy's torrid early experiences in Test cricket, trying to figure out a way for him to be more effective. 

How to Manage Legspinners in Asia 

 

SHIRE BRIGADE #6: DARREN STEVENS


The sixth in the monthly series caught up with one of county cricket's most underrated players (at least, if we're judging by England selection). 

Darren Stevens is a destructive batsman whose late-career reinvention as an all-rounder who purveys some of the tricksiest dobbers on the circuit has often kept Kent afloat during a tricky period, as this once powerhouse club adjusted to their financial realities and rebuilt with a team of homegrown talent (Billings, Bell-Drummond, Blake, Riley, Cowdrey, Northeast et al) and no overseas player. 

He is still trooping on, now almost 40, and Jimmy Adams and Rob Key will be hoping they can squeeze a little more out of Stevo before he heads off into the sunset. 

Darren Stevens: Shire Brigade 

 

J.K. LEVER: GLEANINGS


Truth be told, I didn't remember much about JK Lever's career. I found out from Phil DeFreitas (an interview I did in October 2014 that still hasn't been published) that Lever was coaching Lashings, so I thought it would be worth pursuing.

I remembered him bowling the last ball of a Lord's final against Notts, with four runs needed, and being carved to the Tavern boundary by Eddie Hemmings. I remembered a few other TV appearances as the swing-bowling spearhead of a very strong Essex side in the 1980s the likes of Gooch, Ken McEwan, Keith Fletcher, Neil Foster and Derek Pringle, with a solid support cast of Brian Hardie, Paul Prichard, Stuart Turner, Ray and David East, David Acfield, et al. 


Lever flanked by Turner (left) and Fletcher

Turns out he had one of the most successful (and controversial) England debuts of them all en route to playing 29 Tests. That said, and without being churlish about a charming fellow, he was only the second most interesting Lever to have played for England that I've interviewed... 

JK Lever: Gleanings