Archive for the ‘lord’s’ Category

Urn Burial

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

On a sun-drenched Sunday evening at Lord’s, on one of the hottest days of the year, England bowled Australia out for 235, chasing a total they could only have reached had Don Bradman been kept in cold storage and defrosted especially for the occasion.

They saved themselves a day, secured themselves a 2-0 lead, and, in all likelihood, the series as well, and prompted a whole heap of hand-wringing Down Under as to how it can possibly have come to this.

Sports sections of Australian papers have been brimming over with theories, analysis, finger pointing and hair-tearing, with a sideline in shirt-rending and chest-beating. T20, that rampaging wrecker of domestic scheduling and the Sheffield Shield, is to blame; it’s the pitches; it’s the lack of unity within the side; it’s a lack of forward planning and inadequate youth development; it’s the simple fact that the current Australia side is shit and they are now reaping the whirlwind of all the afore-listed. Sack-cloth and ashes indeed – and not the type that reside in a display case at Lord’s, that small terracotta eye of the storm of hype that preceded this series.

Shades, then, of Shelley’s Ozymandias and Thomas Browne, who, in his Hydriotaphia (Urn Burial) wrote that “time… hath an art to make dust of all things”. Edward Gibbon, too, might have been able to come to the party with a few words on the catastrophic crumbling of empires (though conflating Christianity with T20 might conceivably be pushing it), and, if you’re more contemporaneously-inclined, now would be a good time to invoke your Spenglers and your Toynbees and mention how everything is cyclical (cycles of what, though? On this, no one seems to agree).

One aspect I’ve particularly enjoyed when gathering the research for the blogs article in the Wisden Almanack is that the reactions to events are often more fascinating – and instructive – than the events themselves. I’m not big on interaction, but I do like to observe, quietly but closely, with an obsessive eye for detail, in the background (think the wall-scrawling, notebook-filling serial killer from Se7en, if he was a cricket fan – alright, perhaps that’s too much information). Given the reaction in the Australian media the last time England hammered Australia, the latest tsunami of Antipodean excoriation – ranging the gamut from reasoned analysis to near full-on hysteria – is no great surprise. Because if anything was guaranteed to bring affairs to a head, it was this, the series that, while its relevance in a post-colonial world might be up for debate, for many still defines the sport.

For a while now, it would seem that objects in Australian cricket’s rear-view mirror may indeed have been shitter than they appeared. It’s only now that that reality is stark enough – that they are being tailgated by a third Ashes defeat in a row – that it must be confronted. During Australia’s last round of dominance, it was the likes of Hussey, Ponting, Warne and McGrath who constituted the engine under the hood. Now, they simply do not have the horsepower, and at Lord’s they seemed to coast completely to a halt. It was a crushing, ignominious, soul-destroying defeat. The difference between the team that tore England apart in 2006-7 and the team that collapsed so abjectly on Day 2 at Headquarters the other week – a panicked procession of wickets that put one in mind of a herd of deer scattering over a hillside at the sound of a gunshot – is now so stark by comparison that the elephant in the room is now all there is. In a search to pinpoint the reason, everything assumes significance and everything is fair game for criticism – even down to the new team spirit Darren Lehmann has engendered, and which was on display during warmup at Trent Bridge. How dare they share a laugh and indulge in jolly japes when their team is being obliterated on the field – this is war, dammit! Conversely, there’s also been much made of the talk of a rift between Michael Clarke and his former vice-captain Shane Watson, who is admittedly not covering himself in glory at the moment due to a mystifying inability to understand the lbw rule. Michael Clarke may be a fine batsman and a strategically imaginative captain, but he is no man-manager. And so on. It’s understandable, the desperate need to find the one underlying reason that, if tweaked satisfactorily or banished entirely, will fix everything. There is no magic bullet, though, that can fix the troubles of this current Australian team. The side are not without talent. They are however, lacking in experience. The only thing that can fix this is time. The only way out is through.

If defeats along the lines of Lord’s – and likely the loss of the series – do not destroy the team’s young talent, they will at least thicken the scar tissue that will enable them to fend off future slings and arrows. (And speaking of outrageous fortune, it’d not be making excuses for Michael Clarke in acknowledging that his failure to win the toss on both occasions so far has not helped him.)

Ashton Agar, Australia’s very own version of Cinderella at Trent Bridge, complete with fairy-tale “you shall go to the ball” call-up before sweeping the England bowlers off their feet – and their lengths – ended up back in the kitchen at Lord’s in terms of comedown. As a Test bowler, he’s not yet ready. In a few years, he will be. Usman Khawaja’s batting equivalent of a panic-attack in the first innings was mitigated by a cool-headed partnership under pressure with his captain, a confident carting of Stuart Broad to the boundary on three occasions and a wristy line in leg glances that, dare I say it, put me in mind a little of VVS Laxman. Australia need to keep faith with him at number three because that debut knock at Sydney in 2011 was no fluke in terms of things to come, though there’s been a fair amount of water under the bridge between then and now. James Pattinson, collateral damage as a result of Australia’s wobbly batting and insufficient rest between innings, has it in him to become his side’s McGrath but is as yet too fragile. So was James Anderson at the beginning of his career. Pattinson, too, needs time, as well as careful management.

The current team might be the best Australia have, but they really aren’t that bad. The raw material is there. Trust me, they aren’t about to turn into the West Indies just yet.

Which brings me to the one thing I never saw coming, only two matches in: the almost apologetic reaction of some England supporters and pundits to their own team’s dominance (and even more ridiculously, wails that the series is being “devalued” because of its one-sided nature). Having already been tickled by the moral relativism that abounded in the wake of Stuart Broad not walking at Trent Bridge, this is a whole new thing. Sport is war! No, hang on, it isn’t, it’s a game for gentlemen, with standards and something called “the spirit of the game” to uphold – we don’t really know what that is, but we will make a big song and dance out of it dependent on the advantage it gives us! And anyway, we don’t gloat, we are British and – it goes without saying – better than that! I doubt McGrath, Warne et al. were sobbing into their Baggy Greens over the prospect of the Ashes being devalued as a series in 2006-7 when England were being dismantled, or that the thought that a close-fought series would really be better for the sport gave them many sleepless nights or prompted agonized, soul-searching contemplation.

Like hell it did. Only the English could feel sorry for the opposition and then have an existential crisis about it.

I know we all love an underdog, but let’s not get carried away. Australia will rise again. Me, I’ve always liked the notion of time as a river. The water will flow on, passing trees and houses, and at some point, around the next bend perhaps, it will pass more trees and houses, only different ones. Australia’s next great batsmen and bowlers won’t be Ponting, Hussey or Warne; they will be someone else. And that next bend could be sooner than you think.

Broad blitzkrieg blows New Zealand away

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

You have to feel for Tim Southee. You lead your team from the field an hour before lunch on the the fourth day, having bowled your side to a chance of victory and gotten your name on the fabled Lord’s honours board with your fourth five-wicket haul in Tests and match figures of 10-108. You are only the second player in history to have taken ten wickets in a match at Lord’s for New Zealand. England have crashed from 180-6 overnight to 213 all out. The result isn’t a foregone conclusion – with 239 needed, your team will still have to achieve the third highest fourth-innings run-chase at this ground – but victory is so close now, you can taste it.

A little under two hours of play later and it’s all over, your side incredibly and ignominiously vanquished by 170 runs and your bowling overshadowed by Stuart Broad’s dramatic return to form – 7 wickets at the cost of only 44 runs in just 11 overs – after a lacklustre performance on Friday in which it never seemed to twig that bowling short and wide was doing nothing but feeding run-hungry batsmen. How you must wish that particular penny never dropped. You could be forgiven for wondering what the hell just happened.

Southee steams in at Lord's

Southee steams in at Lord’s

Ah, cricket. Test cricket, more precisely. While those who’d paid £60 for a ticket shivered in the stands on a day which saw more cloud than sun, at least the thought that it was miles away from the IPL and its spot-fixing and assorted histrionics could be guaranteed to provide a little warmth; otherwise Day 1 had precious little going for it. Thursday was moribund batting of the dullest kind, self-preservation at its most dour as England, perhaps mindful of underestimating New Zealand the last time round, seemed to regard any run rate faster than a plodding two an over as the height of extravagant negligence, akin to leaving a toddler alone for a fortnight with a supply of oven chips and Haribo while the parents take off for Ibiza. This is what the fear of failure does to you; it wasn’t just the spectators who were frozen.

It was forecast to be a rain affected draw, but only 10 overs were lost on Thursday; a drizzly end to a day that fizzled out when it had never really got going. Expectations for the rest of the match were for more of the same. How wrong we all were.

Each day after that featured a collapse of wickets as the narrative speeded up considerably, giving us episodes of drama and achievement, and records too, as James Anderson found himself only the fourth Englishman to reach 300 Test wickets, just reward for a bowler who is arguably yet to reach his peak. Amongst the clatter of timbers and the wafts to slip there were fine instances of youthful maturity too – Joe Root temporarily steadied the ship with Jonathan Trott in a partnership of 123 and while he failed to get his name on the board this time, bowled by Tim Southee for 71, that he will do so in the future seems a likelihood close to certainty. New Zealand’s Root equivalent, Kane Williamson, showed the type of cool-headed watchfulness familiar to those who’ve seen him already in county cricket. That he is his country’s vice captain shows that New Zealand Cricket are already thinking along the same lines as England are with Joe Root in planning for the future.

Sunday, though, belonged to Stuart Broad. A bowler who some love to hate, who irritates with his self of sense-entitlement, his dogged insistence on following his own wrong-headed strategies and his petulant confrontations with umpires, he’s blown hot and cold over the last couple of years when it comes to his wicket-taking effectiveness. On Sunday, though, he was scorching: you could have been forgiven if you saw curls of smoke rising up from the ripped-up ruin of Bruce Martin’s wicket –  stump, camera and all wrenched violently out of the ground by an unplayable delivery.

Like a hurricane, Stuart Broad left New Zealand in ruins. The rebuilding will have to be quick. Daniel Vettori, who played his last Test ten months ago, has recovered from a troublesome Achilles injury and has been called up to replace the injured Bruce Martin. England have already named an unchanged squad for Headingley.

That Broad is back to his best constitutes the laying of good foundations for the start of England’s Ashes defence in June. As far as New Zealand goes, however, they have some serious shoring up to do before their next encounter with Cyclone Stuart on Friday.

Calypso conundrum

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Amidst all the dire weather we’ve been having lately, one thing that has brought a smile to my face was an article by Christopher Martin-Jenkins in The Times last week.

In it he wrote of his slow recovery from illness, which has involved chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a series of seven operations. He won’t, he says, be able to attend the first Test at Lord’s next week, but is looking forward to watching it on TV, with great anticipation: “Never, truly, have I so looked forward to a Test match.”

It’s an article that gladdens the heart, not just because CMJ is on the mend, but because his joyful anticipation of the start of England’s international summer crystallizes all that is good about cricket and being alive to see it.

Not only that, but with the weather set fair for at least the next few days, it seems, after a false start involving much rain and many interrupted days of county cricket, with the first Test against the West Indies only days away, like we might be getting a summer after all.

I wish I could be as optimistic as CMJ about the Windies’ chances, though.

Their preparation has been shambolic. They arrived in the the UK last week in dribs and drabs due to visa cock-ups, and an eleven minus captain Darren Sammy were comprehensively demolished by England’s second string in the Lions game at Northampton. True, their batsmen did put up a better showing in their second innings, and Darren Bravo’s 57, following on from his 51 in the first innings, gave the pundits a chance to dust off those Brian Lara comparisons. But one respectable innings total and a couple of decent individual performances won’t win you a Test match, and certainly not against a full-strength England side.

That’s not to say there isn’t talent in the West Indies ranks – far from it. Their seam attack in English conditions could cause the home side some problems, though our batsmen have been more vulnerable to spin recently, as that embarrassing winter tour in the UAE demonstrated. But even then, bowling out this formidable England batting lineup twice seems like a mighty big ask, and their own batting looks brittle and inexperienced; one fears Shiv Chanderpaul will once again be asked to bear a heavy load on those diminutive shoulders.

When this West Indies team takes the field at Lord’s, it will be notable more for its absences. Chris Gayle, of course, is the most high profile. To a neutral, the conflict between him and the West Indies Cricket Board has been a long-protracted soap opera, a jaw-dropping saga of board-versus-player pettiness and pomposity. That finally seems to have come to an end now, with Gayle likely to be selected for the limited-overs matches that follow the Tests, though it seems the board administration took one more opportunity to place Gayle on the naughty step when it questioned his attitude for requesting clarity regarding his international future before turning down a T20 contract with Somerset.

Other notable absences include Dwayne Bravo and Sunil Narine, who, along with Gayle, are currently making the most of lucrative contracts in the IPL, the tournament that to the WICB represents such a huge stumbling block on the road back to the glory days for its national team.

In an article in The Cambridge Companion to Cricket, published last year, Hilary Beckles, a director of the West Indies Cricket Board, wrote: “No previous generation of West Indian cricket leaders has had as divisive an impact on Caribbean development discourse as that of Lara and Gayle. The failure of their teams to compensate for the spreading sense of despair in West Indian socio-economic decline and political disillusionment led to an intensely critical perception of both as politically unfit for the role of leadership. The public feels, furthermore, that despite its insistence on the team having an important political role ‘beyond the boundary’, the game has been hijacked by an uncaring cabal of mercenary money seekers, players without attachment to traditional sources of societal concerns.”

This, in a nutshell, is the conflict that lies at the heart of the mess West Indies cricket is in. To reinforce the credo of country before self the WICB has taken a route that favours the dictatorial over the constructive, and as far as individual player selection goes has discarded the disruptive in favour of the malleable.

It’s not an approach that makes much sense. It seems counter-productive to dispense so drastically with experience for the sake of unquestioning obedience. There also seems to be a lack of transparency as to why certain players have been discarded. The most notable of these are two players currently plying their trade – and scoring runs – in English county cricket.

Ramnaresh Sarwan has so far been a valuable addition to Leicestershire’s ranks this year, and while he could have been forgiven for rethinking his decision to sign for the Foxes in light of April weather that required a minimum of three jumpers, he quickly figured out the best way to keep warm at a chilly Grace Road is to score runs, and lots of them. You’d think his 105 against Derbyshire a few days before the squad was announced, as well as a Test average of 40, might have put him in with a shout of selection, but it seems other factors might have told against him.

He cites his closeness with the West Indies Players’ Association, which has a long history of conflict with the WICB, as the likely reason. “There are a few in the Caribbean who have been targeted and I am one of them,” he says. “I am trying not to focus on it too much, I am just happy to be here at Leicestershire. I do not have to worry about any coaches telling my fellow players that he wants me to fail and that he does not want me in the team.”

Brendan Nash, dropped from the West Indies squad last October while vice-captain, became so disillusioned with his treatment by the WICB that he moved back to Australia to play grade cricket for Melbourne’s Doutta Stars, saying he had no intention of returning to Jamaica in the near future. He is now scoring runs for Kent, and like Sarwan his experience has proved invaluable. He admits now his international career is probably over, but is still not sure entirely why.

“Looking back on my five years in West Indies cricket, it is a structure that is designed to make you fail,” he said. “I think I speak for a lot of guys when I say they are unsure what they need to do and why some people are selected, whether they are just from the right island, or what.”

Given their bowling attack, and the erratic but undoubted talent of the likes of Darren Bravo, green shoots of recovery do seem to be appearing for the West Indies, and – credit where credit’s due – Darren Sammy has grown into the leadership role beyond that of specialist coin-tosser to instil some team spirit into his troops. But when coach Ottis Gibson states: “If we can take this Lord’s Test to four days, that will be great,” it seems those shoots may yet be rooted in shallow soil.

Come Thursday, England’s goal will be to make them wilt.

Michael Atherton and the rehabilitation of Mohammad Amir

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

On Monday evening, Sky Sports aired Michael Atherton’s hour-long interview with Mohammad Amir, the young Pakistan bowler sent to prison last year in the wake of the Lord’s spot-fixing scandal. Amir is currently serving a ban from all international cricket until 2015, and it is the first time he has told his story to the public since he pleaded guilty.

Mike Atherton is one of the finest and most perceptive commentators on the modern game. He wields an eloquent pen in fair and balanced fashion, wears his not-inconsiderable intelligence lightly, and while I may not always agree with everything he has to say, it’s a rare day indeed when I don’t admire the manner in which he’s expressed it.

So it’s fair to say I – along with many other cricket fans, judging by the buzz on Twitter – were looking forward to receiving (hopefully) honest answers to some tough questions.

But if it was a probing interrogation you were expecting, this wasn’t it. Playing Martin Bashir to Amir’s Diana, Atherton’s questioning of the young bowler constituted less a searching cross-examination than a series of gentle prompts to allow Amir to tell his story in what turned out to resemble a soft-soap PR exercise designed specifically to aid in the young bowler’s rehabilitation.

It’s hard not to be warmed by the first part of Amir’s story: his upbringing in the small village of Changa Bangyaal; his progression through the academy and the Under-19 setup; and the day he was told he would be playing for his national team, his description of being overwhelmed with pride at trying on his new Pakistan shirt for the first time, and of emotion at seeing his name and number on the back.

Talent like his comes along but seldom. It is every sports-fan’s favourite feel-good story: the penniless, gifted prodigy plucked from obscurity through a fortuitous combination of chance and a talent-spotter’s keen eye. Unfortunately, as we now know, with this story there was to be no fairytale ending.

I found myself watching Amir’s body language for signs of defensiveness and dissembling as the story proceeded into murkier waters: the approaches from captain Salman Butt; texts to and from “Ali”, the mysterious Dubai businessman unnamed until now; the hatching of the plot in Majeed’s car in the carpark of the Marriott Hotel the day before the Lord’s Test; the handing over of £1500 in cash.

And this is where my doubts started to creep in, when I really didn’t want them to.

Parts of Amir’s interview just don’t ring true for me. When first approached by Salman Butt about fixing, Amir says he responded with “bro this is forbidden… leave it, I am not going to do it”. However, the texts he sent to Ali before the Oval Test – including “for how much”, “but what needs to be done” and “so in the first 3 bowl whatever you like and in the last 2 do 8 runs” – are damning. That he could flip-flop between telling Salman Butt that fixing is wrong to exchanging incriminating texts with a dodgy Dubai businessman implies a willingness to succumb to temptation at best and an astonishing moral flexibility at worst. And despite the fact he knew, when he later accepted the £1500 from Majeed, that he had been asked to do something wrong, that “it was cheating cricket”, he still did not think to come clean at the ICC hearing in Doha.

If Amir was so certain then of the wrongness of what he was doing, then surely at some point the thought “I have to tell someone about this” would have presented itself. One would have had to have been delusional to think this continued collusion would never be found out, and surely at some point you’d think getting caught would have become a far more terrifying prospect.

I have sympathy for Amir’s youth, and am willing to allow for the fact he was naive and scared, but a cynic might also say that playing the naïveté card would most definitely be to Amir’s advantage in terms of rebuilding his career and reputation. In a follow-up article in The Times the day after the interview, Atherton conveys explicit belief in Amir’s story that he was blackmailed into going along with the fix, and that money was never a consideration.

And this is something else that bothers me.

Mike Atherton is a former England captain and a man who cares deeply about the sport. He is also a compassionate human being, who believes that Amir should be given a second chance: would there were more like him willing to extend forgiveness to those who are honestly repentant. But he is also a Sky Sports commentator and one generally expects one’s commentators to maintain a certain amount of impartiality.

Perhaps there is some sense of responsibility here, of redressing the fact that it was News Corporation, owner of the now-defunct News of the World as well as of a controlling stake in Sky, who were indirectly responsible for curtailing Amir’s career and landing him in prison with a six-month sentence and five-year ban. In his Times article Atherton writes that Amir’s downfall was the “unintended consequence” of an undercover reporter with a briefcase of cash putting pressure on a fixer to produce results and thus provide evidence of corruption. One of the ironies noted by many at the time was that it took a tabloid to achieve what law-enforcement could not do, given the various legal complications surrounding entrapment.

With this interview and his impassioned article, it would seem Mike Atherton has firmly nailed his colours to the mast as the vanguard of a campaign for clemency for the disgraced bowler. Any pretensions to playing devil’s advocate are removed when he writes:

“It seems to me that there are only two interpretations that follow on from Amir’s version of events. Either you believe him, which doesn’t in any way exonerate him from the guilt of the no-balls at Lord’s, but does provide some context and understanding of the hole he found himself in and the pressure he was under – context that suggests that much of the basis upon which he was imprisoned and banned from the game was false. Or you don’t believe him.

“Instead, you believe Majeed, who said in his conversations with the journalist that Amir was corrupt. And you believe Butt, who used the opportunity granted by Amir’s guilty plea and silence at court, to round on him and describe him as far removed from the innocent naïf that others have painted him as.”

In other words, you believe the unquestioned villains of the piece, the men for whom sympathy is rightly in very short supply, over the word of a naive young man led astray by those he trusted and too frightened to do anything other than to go along with them, and shame on you for doing so.

Forgive me if I don’t believe it’s that clear-cut. What if you don’t believe any of them?

Of course, Amir cannot change his story from when he pleaded guilty, but some of his answers seemed glib and rehearsed, tripping off the tongue with a familiarity gained through having said them many times before. Clearly he and his legal team have left nothing to chance. This in itself, of course, is no indication of guilt, but when you choose to defend yourself through the media, image is everything, and there were many who, rightly or wrongly – including myself – doubted his sincerity at various points in the interview.

It hardly needs pointing out, of course, that whether or not you believe him – and whether or not you want to do so – will be down as much to your emotional response as to the cold hard facts of the case.

The very essence of sport lies in the emotions it provokes in those who follow it. It is nothing without honesty of effort and sincere striving for victory on the part of those who take part in it. We should not hold sportsmen to be less flawed and less venal than we are, but we do. Athletes can be ruthless, unpleasant bastards who make the lives of those around them hell, but as long as they are accomplishing superhuman feats in their chosen sport through their own honest effort and ability we look up to them as gods. To throw a game or influence the outcome of it through dishonest means, especially where money is involved, in whatever context, is to the sports fan the ultimate betrayal.

Mohammad Amir bowled two no-balls. No one died. But in the context of sport, for many what he did is unforgivable.

I want to believe this young man. I want to believe he has a future. But if or when he ever steps onto a cricket field again, will we be able to trust him? Will we all be whipping out our mental tape-measures to compare the extent to which he overstepped at Lord’s to any no-balls he might bowl in the future? Is it ever possible he will play again without suspicion, no matter how much goodwill we may extend towards him? Pakistan’s cricket board and fans may very well feel the same way. It is easy to mourn the loss of Amir’s talent to the sport, but without him Pakistan cricket has moved on, with the recent series win over England a symbolic turning of the page.

Another thing the interview and article have failed to do is reassure me as to the extent of corruption in the sport.

In November of last year Atherton reported in The Times that the day after Amir pleaded guilty, a member of his family was approached in a mosque in Lahore and threatened. “And they wondered in the ICC hearing in January in Doha, Qatar, why Amir did not come forward and reveal all to save himself from a more serious sentence,” he wrote. During Amir’s sentencing, Justice Cooke said: “The reality of those threats and the strength of the underworld influences who control unlawful betting abroad is shown by the supporting evidence in the bundle of documents, including materials from the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit of the ICC”.

And yet in Tuesday’s article Atherton concludes instead: “The notion of an overarching syndicate or mafia-like organisation is clearly false. Fixes that happened were clearly based on friendships and loyalties within the team and would have been known only to those involved”. Given this all serves as an unpleasant reminder of the recent case of Mervyn Westfield and, before that, the highly suspect Sydney Test of 2010 and the allegations of absconding wicket-keeper Zulqarnain Haider, which is it? How far does the corruption spread?

None of this has given me any reassurance about the scale of corruption in cricket, or of Mohammad Amir’s part in it. If this was the intended purpose of the interview then, despite Atherton’s admirable willingness to see the best in his interviewee – one may question his judgement, but certainly not his compassion – for me, at least, it has created only more questions.

Five days and one moment

Monday, July 25th, 2011

If Andrew Strauss sounded a little hoarse in the post-match presentation today, that is understandable. No doubt the result of much appealing, it was probably even more down to celebration, as England made sharp, clinical work of scything down India’s second innings to wrap up a historic 2000th Test match.

It’s been five days of ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and unexpected detours along the way. It’s seen scintillating batting and superb bowling from England and an India weakened by injury and absence and doing the best with what it had only to find England far too strong an opponent.

Above all, it’s shown that rather than the twitching corpse many alarmists would have you believe  Test cricket resembles – and that’s not to say there isn’t rightly concern for its future – it is capable of climbing off the canvas, kneeing you in the balls to get your attention, and making you forget every meaningless ODI and T20 you’ve ever been exposed to.

That’s not to say the shorter forms don’t have their place – and it’d be churlish of me to take too much issue with T20 considering Leicestershire are doing rather well in that format right now – but Test cricket remains the very greatest format the sport has to offer. Preferring Test cricket does not make you boring, uncool or an antediluvian dinosaur stuck in an ivory tower (not, of course, that there is anything wrong with this).

It means you want to see the best cricketers in the world being judged on their abilities to perform at the highest level. It means paying attention rather than instant gratification; it means witnessing moments of greatness or disappointment, or even sometimes moments of farce and anticlimax, but all of these are threads in a tapestry you can only truly admire by stepping back and viewing them in the context of the whole.

If this sounds a tad precious, I apologise. Like most cricket lovers I’ve spent hours trying to explain my love for cricket; sometimes, I’ve even managed to succeed. Tests like this sure make my job easier.

That’s not, however, to say it was a classic meeting of equals. India did not look like the number one side. Undercooked through lack of preparation, missing their star opener, their lead bowler hors de combat and the continuation of Sachin’s Lord’s hoodoo (34 in the first innings, 12 in the second) meant England always looked the better side. With a few exceptions, the galacticos could hardly be described as having performed well as a unit, and they will be hoping Zaheer Khan will at least be back for Trent Bridge where he performed so well in the Jellybeangate Test of ‘07, snaffling 9 wickets and a deserved Man of the Match award.

From the hard slog of Day One, to KP’s all-banners-flying double ton on Friday, with Ian Bell and Matt Prior in support; golden boy Stuart Broad regaining his lustre; Matt Prior’s rescue-mission ton after the wobble caused by a resurgent Ishant Sharma; Jimmy Anderson’s five wicket haul, his 11th in Tests and his third at HQ… We had drama, controversy (oh, for a full DRS!), queues since 2AM stretching down the Wellington Road and Tendulkar causing a near-riot as he came back from a net session before the start of play…

I love Test cricket so much right now, I should probably be served with a restraining order.

Tendulkar in the field, Day One

Tendulkar in the field, Day One

But. India are not the number one team for nothing. They may have the unfortunate habit of losing first Tests in series, but a two-match margin of victory for England is far away still.

India needed only 73 runs in their second innings to win at Trent Bridge the last time these teams met there. Tendulkar scored 91 in the first innings. The year after that, 2008, the new stand went up, with the resultant microclimate helping the ball to hoop round corners. Jimmy Anderson could run riot here, Tremlett has excellent form against India at this ground, and India will be praying Zaheer Khan is fit.

The best is yet to come.

One last thing. If I were told tomorrow that I’d be stricken with total amnesia regarding this match and that I would only be allowed to remember one moment from it, despite England’s superb victory, I’d choose to remember a shot played by a batsman on the losing side. That shot was Rahul Dravid’s airborne punch through extra-cover that took him to 98: daylight between feet and ground, every muscle tensed like a Bernini statue brought to life, a perfection of balance and timing with the added flourish that makes cricket-porn tragics like me take a long, deep and satisfied breath: the hot-spot replay showing the white heat signature bang in the middle of the blade.

The past five days have showcased everything that is great about Test cricket. And sometimes, true greatness comes distilled in a single moment.

Pietersen: grit, graft and genius

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

I have been present at three of Kevin Pietersen’s five Test centuries at Lord’s.

I wasn’t present when he raised his bat after smearing the ball through the covers for four to bring up his 202*, but I was there to watch him lay the cornerstone, making bricks out of mud and constructing the foundation of a major personal achievement and a big England total through hard bloody graft.

The first day of this Test was a frustrating one for spectators, topped and tailed by rain, runs at a premium, Zaheer Khan and Praveen Kumar threatening with the new ball under a gloomy sky that made it hoop and swing.

I only go to Lord’s about twice a year these days – the provincial on day-release to the Big Smoke – but it’s a magical place even when it’s raining. I’m still recovering two days later due to acute shoulder knack after carrying all the assorted junk needed for a day at the cricket when the weathermen can’t make up their minds as to when it’s likely to chuck it down, and besides, one never knows when one will miss one’s last train back to Hobbiton and be forced to construct a shelter for the night made of sticks, cardboard boxes and a shopping trolley. It pays to be prepared. Add to that the accumulated spoils along the way of newspapers, programme, obligatory book purchased from the Lord’s shop, and I feel like a squaddy who’s done a ten-mile run with a full pack. Maybe I’ll be lucky and regain full use of my arms by Wednesday.

Anyway, while Day One didn’t give us much in the way of action, in the light of Kevin Pietersen’s mighty knock yesterday it’s interesting now looking back on the notes I made when I got home on Thursday. Pietersen looked like the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs that day; the ball found the edge of his bat more than the middle, and England didn’t so much look in top gear as they resembled a pensioner backing a Lada Riva estate out of the driveway and onto a busy street via a sharp turn, the cat, and the cunningly placed tricycle belonging to the kid next door.

While Pietersen looked undeniably nervous, there was also a grit-your-teeth determination to him, to make it through the day and grind out the runs now matter how hard, or how ugly, they came. It is easy to say this with hindsight, but I had a feeling today would be the day which, by the application of sheer bloody-mindedness and strength of will, would be the acorn from which a mighty oak would grow.

You could point to the support of Ian Bell and Matthew Prior at the other end while KP was accelerating through the gears yesterday, but to me his most important partnership was with Jonathan Trott on the first day, because that was when runs for Pietersen came the hardest. He finished Thursday on 22*, while Trott outscored him on his way to another inexorable 50. If Trott had departed before play was called off due to bad light, the unsettling effect on Pietersen could have proved disastrous for his search for fluency.

Trott gets his 50

Trott gets his 50

That fluency was in full, imperious flow by the time Pietersen raised his bat yesterday to acknowledge the applause marking his third Test double century. His second came seven months ago in Adelaide, and while it does not feel that long ago, sprinkled as it will remain with Ashes stardust, seven months is an eternity in cricket, and in a batsman’s career.

Forgive me if I’ve gone on about this before, but the public’s relationship with Pietersen proves endlessly fascinating to me. There’s of course been all the ruckus over his vulnerability to left-arm spin, which seems finally to have been laid to rest (Strauss is now the subject of the spotlight’s glare due to his own unfortunate weakness facing southpaws) and the frequently expressed view that no one should be given a free ride due to past brilliance if this brilliance is constantly “on the cusp” of returning.

With KP, though, there’s always the sense of schadenfreude when he’s out of nick, as if he is paying the price for his arrogance, and the urge to kick a man when he is down is a temptation many are too happy to give in to. When Pietersen does well, it is expected of him; when he does not, the glee, the carping over his South African heritage, the barbs levelled at his “ego”… well, it all provides good tabloid fodder when often there is precious little else to write about. So it goes. No doubt he is used to it.

Pietersen’s first 50 runs came from 134 balls; the 50 that took him to 100 from 82. From 100 to 150 took him 85 balls; from 150 to 200 only 25. By the end he was seeing each delivery like the proverbial football; Ishant Sharma the lugubrious, floppy-haired victim of this late and gloriously unrestrained hitting.

I wasn’t present to watch Pietersen in full, triumphant flow yesterday, but on Thursday I saw him do the donkeywork. I missed the edifice’s completion, but I was there when the first stone was laid, and that feels as great a privilege.

KP lays the foundations

KP lays the foundations

Finally, another thing I’ve liked from the play so far has been the relative lack of rancour between the two sides, but we are of course only on day 3 of a possible 20 possible days of Test cricket (16 according to a confused Jonathan Trott in his amusing interview the other day) so there is time yet for a vigorous ejection of toys from prams.

The banter between Pietersen and Praveen Kumar especially has been good to see. These two know each other from the IPL (ex Bangalore team-mates) and the moment in which PK congratulated KP, and vice versa – Praveen having stepped up admirably in the absence of a hamstrung Zaheer to take his maiden Test 5-wicket haul – was a great moment.

Having had a discussion recently with another cricket fan on Twitter as to whether the notion of “the gentleman’s game” has ever been anything other than rose-tinted romantic idealism, it was a pleasant reminder that decency and respect for the opposition does not need to be a casualty in these days of spiralling sponsorship deals and endless arguments over technology.

Still, early days… This series has a long way to go yet.

England v India Lord’s preview

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

If the Sri Lankan series just concluded was a humdrum, monochrome blur – the equivalent, in televisual terms, of a clapped-out black and white portable from Radio Rentals with a vertical hold problem and half its knobs missing – India are now here with a promise to dazzle us in flat-screen glorious 3D technicolour with a kick-ass sound system.

When it comes to a vision for the future of our great game, we all know it is the BCCI hogging the remote, but clear your viewing schedules now because this shit is going to be more overblown than a Cecil B. DeMille epic – though maybe not quite as long, satisfied as we must be with four Tests.

India are the number one ICC Test ranked nation. Their batting lineup is the stuff of legend, stats-porn and “best of all time” lists. If Sachin doesn’t make your World XI list, then I doubt there is anything else we could ever agree on. Some of these galacticos we may never see in England again.

Of course the talk is all about Sachin. The printing presses of Britain’s newspapers are probably looking at an ink shortage after all the articles written about him in the Sunday sports sections. There’s even been the sly suggestion that The Little Master gave the Windies tour the swerve to give himself the optimum chance of his 100th international hundred coming at Lord’s. Given his highest score there is 37, we could be traversing the realms of wishful thinking rather than the cold hard face of probability, but it is nice to dream.

Just as much as I am looking forward to Sachin chasing that impossible dream, I am looking forward to watching Rahul Dravid, a man who has always laboured in Sachin’s shadow. The fact that both India and England have rock-steady, unflappable accumulators as their number 3s appeals to my sense of symmetry and anticipation of close contest. And if VVS Laxman shows us just a hint of the swivel-jointed wristiness that has made commentators purr and opposing nations weep (Australia in 2008, 2004, 2001 etc.) then that will make me exceedingly happy.

Of course, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see England grab the top spot with a 2-Test margin series victory. The chances of this happening are extremely unlikely, but I believe we have the better bowling attack, and “attack” will be the operative word against a side that will punish anything wayward. Chris Tremlett, with his height and bounce, will be aiming for the jugular. He will be re-entering the arena against some familiar faces. He was impressive against India at Trent Bridge in 2007, albeit in a losing cause, and knows he can give them problems. Graeme Swann, with his flight and guile, has the edge over counterpart Harbhajan, and when the ball swings, Jimmy Anderson is nigh-on unplayable.

As I’m writing this, Andrew Strauss has just scored a century for Somerset against India in the tour match at Taunton. Warm-up matches are of course not the be-all and end-all as far predictors of success go. Taunton’s is the flattest of flat decks, and the Indian bowling is rusty and missing three of its key men. Strauss may not have the strategic nous or the charisma of MS Dhoni, and must reassert his authority after handing over the captaincy reins to Alastair Cook in the ODIs against Sri Lanka, but he is an Ashes winner and one half of the duo, along with Andy Flower, who has built England up to the position of considerable strength they now occupy. He will have to do what Dhoni has rightly become famous for: leading from the front.

The kings of world cricket versus the pretenders to the throne: it is inevitable that proceedings at some point are going to get… tense. Heated, even. On-field decisions will be questioned, there will be trash-talking and sabre-rattling and India’s new coach, Duncan Fletcher, not exactly a “people person”, will no doubt get pissed off at someone. Fletcher has already found himself in the unenviable position of being a staunch advocate of the decision review system while at the same team being national coach for a country that wants fuck-all to do with it. Fletcher’s skill as a coach is almost universally unquestioned, though I can’t help feeling it will all end in tears at some point. In the meantime, I’m sure that a purported pay-cheque of £700,000 is a nice palliative.

The visitors, with much pomp and fanfare, are marching into the valley, but England can gain an early advantage in grabbing the high ground at Lord’s. India have arrived in England on the back of three Tests against the West Indies which many critics think they should have steam-rollered beyond a simple “job done” 1-0 scoreline. Some of their key players haven’t played any meaningful cricket since the IPL, and they are now in the process of chasing 462 at Taunton, with play currently suspended due to rain. As preparation for a Test series goes, it ain’t ideal.

Egos will be bruised, tempers will flare, drama will be ensue, and legends will be written.

Grab your popcorn. Fuck Harry Potter. This is the must-see blockbuster of the summer.

The true spirit of cricket

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
Kumar Sangakkara at Lord's

Kumar Sangakkara at Lord’s

Back in June, Vic Marks wrote an article on The Cricketer magazine’s website bemoaning the fact that Twitter has removed all the mystique from our sportsmen.

He speaks of Bradman and Hutton et al. as “distant, glamorous men; they were charismatic partly because we did not know everything about them… Now via twitter we would know precisely what they had for breakfast and which TV programme they watched”.

To dismiss Twitter as all noise and no signal, is, of course, dismissively simplistic. For communicating breaking news it is unparalleled – it takes a lot of skill to pack punchy, useful and immediate info into 140 characters. With brevity, there is often considerable wit. Dismissing Twitter because of its bite-size format is like saying that haiku isn’t a valid form of poetry because it’s too fucking short.

And hey, maybe hero-worship of the kind that Marks writes about is over-rated, anyway. People are, after all, just people. Interesting, however, that Sachin Tendulkar has a Twitter account and that doesn’t seem to have affected his god-like status in the slightest.

True, much of what is posted on Twitter is banal. If I had a pound for every time a cricketer mentioned they’d eaten at Nando’s, I would have been able to buy the bloody company. But I like Twitter. It’s like sitting in a crowded boozer with several conversations going on at once. You can tune out what you don’t want to listen to, and join in the ones that are interesting or entertaining. There are days I can live without it. But I like knowing it is there. Communication, in any form, is useful and serves a purpose.

But some things need a bigger platform. There are some things that need to be said, and that take one man, standing in a room in front of others, and an uninterrupted length of time in which to say them.

And last night, while sitting at my laptop, I listened, live and in real time, to Kumar Sangakkara do just that.

Sangakkara is a remarkable individual. Intelligent in an age in which it is unfashionable to be so, a lover of literature in a world where admitting you have never read a single book since you left school is worn as a badge of pride. All that and a cover-drive, as Christopher Martin-Jenkins memorably said in his introduction, to rival Wally Hammond’s.

As this year’s speaker at the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, Sangakkara admitted there were many things he could have talked about: spot-fixing, the DRS, the future of Tests and various other issues that have featured heavily on cricket’s radar lately.

That he chose to speak about Sri Lankan cricket in its context of an island nation torn apart by war, and his experiences growing up during it, all the way through to the national team’s World Cup triumph in ‘96, the tsunami of 2004 and the attack on the team bus in Lahore, was really nothing less than you would expect from a classy individual who takes his responsibility as a sportsman and as an ambassador for his country very seriously indeed.

During the one hour Sangakkara spoke, he did what only great writers or orators can do: transport the audience from its comfort zone and enable it to experience the unfamiliar, and, in the case of the incident in Lahore, the terrifying.

Sangakkara’s retelling of this was utterly gripping; bullets hitting the bus “like rain on a tin roof”, Sangakkara’s moving his head seconds before a bullet burying itself in the side of the seat where his head had just been, Tharanga Paranavitana, on his debut tour, standing up and yelling that he had been hit:

I see him and I think: “Oh my God, you were out first ball, run out the next innings and now you have been shot. What a terrible first tour.”

It is strange how clear your thinking is. I did not see my life flash by. There was no insane panic. There was absolute clarity and awareness of what was happening at that moment.

I hear the bus roar in to life and start to move. Dilshan is screaming at the driver: “Drive…Drive”. We speed up, swerve and are finally inside the safety of the stadium.

We all sit in the dressing room and talk. Talk about what happened. Within minutes there is laughter and the jokes have started to flow. We have for the first time been a target of violence. We had survived.

We all realized then what some of our fellow Sri Lankans experienced every day for nearly 30 years. There was a new respect and awe for their courage and selflessness.

We were shot at, grenades were thrown at us, we were injured and yet we were not cowed. We were not down and out. “We are Sri Lankan,” we thought to ourselves, “and we are tough and we will get through hardship and we will overcome because our spirit is strong.”

I admit that while Sangakkara was recounting this, there were times during this part that I had to remind myself to breathe.

Sangakkara was also scathingly critical of the damage done to Sri Lankan cricket since 1996 through the self-interest of certain individuals interested only in two things: money, and power.

Accusations of vote buying and rigging, player interference due to lobbying from each side and even violence at the AGMs, including the brandishing of weapons and ugly fist fights, have characterised cricket board elections for as long as I can remember.

We have to aspire to better administration. The administration needs to adopt the same values enshrined by the team over the years: integrity, transparency, commitment and discipline.

This is, of course, particularly relevant given the ICC’s new recommendation that all national boards make themselves free of political interference within two years. Given Sanath Jayasuriya has only recently flown home after being foisted onto the national team for a grand total of two matches by his country’s government, it would seem Sri Lanka has some way to go in this. It has also now transpired that sports minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage “has ordered Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) Interim Committee to examine the remarks made by Sangakkara during the lecture,” according to the country’s national news agency.

In this respect, it’s not been a great few weeks for cricket.

England’s dire showing in the last two ODIs aside, politics has been foisting its corrupt, immoral and bloated self-interest on the sport too often for my liking. The Jayasuriya affair, the 2009 genocide of the Tamils, the demonstrations outside cricket grounds, hell, even boggle-eyed Eurosceptic and professional little-Englander Nigel Farage made an unwelcome (by me, anyway) appearance in the TMS box.

I’m an idealist, but I am also a realist.

Sport and politics are inseparable: ‘twas always thus, and always will be. Cricket has at various times been the sport of colonial oppressors, an opiate for the masses, and a tool for propaganda, the acceptable face of oppressive regimes to present to the wider global community as “proof” of their reasonableness and fair play.

Sometimes I think we cling to cricket because, like a great number 3 batsman, it provides us with an anchor, something around which this whole crazy and often fucked-up innings called life can revolve and which can get us through to stumps with some respectability. We wish to live our lives the way we would wish to see our cricket played, so we can hold the mirror of one up to the other and not have it break with an almighty crack.

Kumar Sangakkara expressed this more eloquently than I or anyone else ever could when he said at the end of his speech:

My loyalty will be to the ordinary Sri Lankan fan, their 20 million hearts beating collectively as one to our island rhythm and filled with an undying and ever-loyal love for this our game.

Fans of different races, castes, ethnicities and religions who together celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common national cause. They are my foundation, they are my family. I will play my cricket for them. Their spirit is the true spirit of cricket. With me are all my people. I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan.

I admit I am a cynic. I look for ulterior motives in most things. It does not make me paranoid: it makes me prepared.

I know that in reality, there is rarely any such thing as a unifying force for good.

But when Kumar Sangakkara tells me that cricket can be just that, I believe him.

You can listen to Sangakkara’s speech, in full,  and read the transcript at the Lord’s site.

Prior breaks pane, but series not exactly a cracker

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

It was a glove that “ricocheted”. It was a bat handle that “bounced off the wall”. It was, says the culprit Matt Prior, simply that the dressing room window “exploded” when he put his bat down next to the others.

Whatever the explanation behind the broken window at Lord’s, this was the story that dominated the newspapers the day after the 2nd Test against Sri Lanka meandered to a lacklustre draw, and with rain forecast for the Rose Bowl, this is one Test series that – one extraordinary collapse aside – has failed to fire the imagination.

From an England perspective, Lord’s was mostly about the negatives. The bowling was underwhelming: Stuart Broad was undercooked, while Tremlett and Swann did their best on a wicket that gave them nothing. Steven Finn’s line and length were, along with Jimmy Anderson, notable by their absence.

Things were slightly more encouraging on the batting front. Kevin Pietersen was out for a low score in the first innings – thankfully not to left-arm spin this time – but he did take the first steps on the tentative road back to form in the second to the tune of 72 runs. That KP may finally be crawling from the slough of despond in which he’s been neck-deep for the last year or so is a great sign, if only because folk might finally shut up about it.

But while we might finally be Shutting the Fuck Up About Kevin, tongues are now wagging over Andrew Strauss’s current susceptibility to left-arm seam, and the rather serious development whereby he seems to have forgotten where his off-stump is. Strauss relinquished the ODI captaincy to ensure his longevity in the Test format, so this is slightly worrying.

Speaking of ODI captaincy, the new man in the job, Alastair Cook (MBE) carried on carrying on, with yet another Test hundred to his name with an innings for the most part so funereally paced and utterly devoid of flair, I can’t remember a fucking thing about it.

If this had been Jonathan Trott, he’s have been lambasted for being too slow, and if this had been Kevin Pietersen, he’d have been howled at for being too selfish, given that Cook finally speeded up once he’d passed three figures. Whether or not Cook felt annoyed enough at getting out to a soft dismissal on 96 in the first innings and thus was determined to get his century in the second, only he can say – but if this isn’t the definition of selfishness, I don’t know what is, considering England had a Test to win. But then Cook isn’t South African, so that’s okay.

You can tell I’m on the fence about Alastair Cook – of course there is room in cricket for every type of player, and I am thankful for Cook’s current rich vein of form, but I cannot for the life of me understand why his stolid, tentative approach is deemed a virtue at the same time as Jonathan Trott is being beaten around the head with the “boring” stick.

There was one batsman at Lord’s who could certainly not be labelled boring, and that was, of course, Tillakaratne Dilshan, who probably decided that having to face the cameras in a post-match interview after one’s team is bowled out for 82 is an experience one would really rather not repeat, so, with an underdog’s rage, a captain’s heart and helped by some god-awful English bowling, he set about pasting the opposition to all parts on Saturday, which was the day I turned up – fortuitously, as it turned out to be the best day weather-wise.

Explosive in T20s and ODIs, only slightly more circumspect in Tests; Dilshan’s aggression always makes him a joy to watch.

Deprived of an option in the ballot this time around for a seat in the Mound Stand (comfier seating), I was in the cave that is the Lower Edrich, which has a great view of the middle but occupies a blind spot as far as the scoreboard goes, necessitating the use of guesswork, a portable radio, and keeping count in one’s head as each milestone approaches. Suspended from the roof above me was a hoarding commemorating Sidath Wettimuny’s 10-hour 190 in 1984 – the highest Test innings for a Sri Lankan batsman at Lord’s… until Dilshan decided it was going to take something epic to wash away the taste of Cardiff.

It was a long day in the field for England, and by the end of it the lads sitting behind me were simultaneously chanting demands for the Dilscoop as well as pleading hopefully for a wicket.

Dilshan hadn’t broken Wettimuny’s record by the end of the day but he was well on the way to it, being not out on 127 at the close.

Dilshan: more bounce than the England seamers

Dilshan: more bounce than the England seamers

There was to be no Sri Lankan collapse on the last day – a recurrence of Cardiff’s last day dramatics was unlikely, given visiting sides always tend to raise their game at Lord’s – but England are going to struggle badly against India if this is the best performance they can muster.

I dug out the Ashes 2010-11 DVD box-set the other night and re-watched Melbourne. Aside from that rush of nostalgia and recognition through having been there when history was made, I was conscious of watching a switched-on, aggressively turbo-charged England going for the jugular and with the exception of the last few Australian wickets to fall – a typical case of England easing off the gas when they look to have it in the bag – you knew you were watching a side at the top of their game and who were ravenous for victory.

At Lord’s against Sri Lanka, they looked like rather than going for the win, they just didn’t want to lose. Given India are taking their upcoming visit to these shores very seriously indeed – they have sent what is basically a second-string line-up to the West Indies due to resting their major players – and given Strauss’s current travails as a batsman, I suspect the spectre of Zaheer Khan and Co. looming over the horizon is not something England will be relishing.

And so to the Rose Bowl on Thursday for the last Test. The wicket will most likely be flat, and there will most likely be rain. Awesome.

Jimmy Anderson has been named in the squad after recovering from his side strain. His pre-Test workout was supposed to have been Lancashire’s recent rained-off T20 game, though how much 4 overs constitutes a workout of any usefulness whatsoever is highly debatable.

Finn will be the man for the drop; perhaps harsh considering that at Lord’s, in between overs of unutterable filth, he did take wickets, and did improve as the match went on.

I’ve already mentioned the new One-Day captain, but this was hardly a sparkling outing for the new T20 captain, either. Stuart Broad is struggling badly – he currently averages 35.97 runs per wicket – but he is English cricket’s Golden Boy and seemingly beyond censure. I don’t know why this is. He’s a good bowler when in form, but doesn’t seem to have the patience to want to wear batsmen down with McGrath-like, keep-it-simple, top-of-off-stump line-and-length bowling. He tries to be too clever, and often forsakes patience for aggression, occasionally leading to a chat with the match referee and the imposition of some negligible penalty. (McGrath was a far better multi-tasker, showing you could be consistent and a bastard and still take wickets.)

Every seamer should aspire to McGrath-esque precision-genius, but that is just me.

Finn: better than Broad?

Finn: better than Broad?

I know I shouldn’t write off the Rose Bowl, given I made that mistake with Cardiff. But Lord’s hero Dilshan will not be playing due to a broken thumb, and Sri Lanka seem to be regarding these Tests as a warm-up for the ODIs that follow.

That the ODIs promise to be a far more gripping prospect than the Tests sadly constitutes another nail in the coffin of the format all cricket boards should be hell-bent on protecting, but in today’s money-driven reality, it seems to be all about the saying, and not much about the doing.

Test cricket already seems to be marginalized. But again, that might just be me. Sometimes though, when faced with ODI series that never end, and T20 tournaments that proliferate like fungi, it feels like it, and a future without Test cricket does not really appeal to me.

Farewell, Fred

Friday, September 17th, 2010

The match that took place at the Oval, August 20th – 23rd, 2009, was the last time Andrew Flintoff played Test cricket.

He didn’t play at Headingley and England were screwed. Kevin Pietersen didn’t play either which meant England were doubly screwed. Fred returned at the Oval and though he only took one wicket, he pulled off one of the great moments of the summer in his run-out of Ricky Ponting as England proceeded to regain the Ashes.

But regardless of what happened in that last Test, I’d already had my moment of magic that summer.

I’m talking about Day 5 at Lord’s. Some days are so damn perfect you couldn’t script them any better if you sat down and tried, and Monday July 20th 2009 was one of these.

My day didn’t start all that well: train was late, phone call from work about some irrelevancy, 40 minutes to get from St Pancras to the ground in time for start of play, urgent need to piss before taking my seat in the Mound Stand (5 minute bell rang as I was in the toilets). But I think that must have been the cricket gods’ way of taking pity on me and getting all the extraneous bullshit out of the way “early doors”, as they say, because I was settled in my seat just as the umpires were coming out.

It’s ironic now, after the fact, that I’d entered the ballot for Saturday tickets and hadn’t been successful, and even when Day 5 tickets had gone on sale I’d laughed and bought one with no real expectation that the match would even last that long. As it stood, unbelievably, Australia were still dragging their innings along by bloodied broken fingernails, with Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin the last twitching neurons in a short-circuiting batting order. The sun was out, and the wicket was still a belter.

Clarke had impressed me. There’s something about him that annoys the hell out of me, with his numerically-illiterate tattoos and his to-the-manner-born expectation of captaincy once Ponting hangs up his bat – but he had played some lovely shots the day before and showed doughty determination while wickets had fallen around him. Only Brad Haddin – a batsman I found myself warming to, not least after his hopping terror that the ball stuck in his pad was still a live one – had stayed with him.

It was perfectly possible that these two could pull off the runs needed for an improbable victory. Improbable-but-possible is usually enough to give any side a sniff of victory against England. Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Hauritz were still to come, so it could have been a long day.

But magic happened; Flintoff happened, thundering down like the wrath of god on anything human standing between him and the stumps. He got Haddin with his 4th delivery for 80 with a ball that was only a few overs old and he sent it down consistently over 90 mph. Jesus christ it was beautiful. The noise was tremendous. We were all on our feet. The floor was sticky from 4 days’ worth of spilled beer and Pimms. I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything but the fact I was here, and I was watching something that suddenly felt fraught with impending significance.

Clarke was tempted out of his crease by Swann with the 2nd ball of his over. Canny bit of bowling – Clarke walked down the wicket to the 1st ball of Swann’s over and I knew that’s how he would get out.

Mitchell Johnson was better with bat than with ball by an order of magnitude. His 50 came and went without me noticing until I looked up at the scoreboard and thought “shit”.

Fred again, got Hauritz, poor brave Hauritz with the dislocated finger, clean bowled him for 1. When he bowled Siddle he turned towards the Mound Stand and spread his arms and did that Colossus thing and we all went bonkers. Five wickets. Name on the board. Absolute magic. By this time I’d given up taking pictures because I just wanted to cheer and roar the lining of my lungs bloody along with everyone else.

Mitch’s resistance ended when Swanny got him for 63 and the reaction of the crowd was relief, disbelief, and crazy celebration. Fred was mobbed by the team and there was no way anyone in the crowd was sitting back down again.

It was all over by 12:40. England won, first time since 1934 against Australia at Lord’s.

The mood afterwards was one long cigarette after the orgasm of England’s victory. People were milling slowly about at the back of the Pavilion waiting for the Australian team; the museum was shut because there was a press conference going on inside; the amount of people just standing around was insane and no one seemed in any hurry to leave.

Fred’s career ended after England’s Ashes victory at the Oval and he went under the knife, yet again, for another procedure on his rickety knee. Increasingly, as time and rehab dragged on, his return to any sort of cricket became an ever-receding pipe dream, and while the announcement of his retirement from all forms of cricket on Thursday 16th September was criticized for its timing, coming as it did on the climactic day of 2010’s county championship race, it really came as no surprise to any of us.

Say what you like about Flintoff – the messianic wicket celebrations, the residency in Dubai, the polarizing dressing room presence – but he was a player who was, if not one of the all-time greats, a cricketer who gave England fans moments of genuine greatness, a man who gave his all every time he stepped onto the field.

No matter how many energy drinks he might pimp in the future, no matter how many witless reality TV shows he may appear on; none of this will ever make me forget his tremendous exploits as an England cricketer, and in particular that day at Lord’s when he ripped the heart out of the Australian team and gave England belief once again.

Farewell, Fred.