Archive for September, 2010

Less sackcloth, more Ashes

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Well, thank Christ that’s over. Watching England’s joyous, enthusiastic celebrations at the Rose Bowl at the end of the current ODI series against Pakistan last night felt like the breaking of a fever, or the lancing of a boil – the relief is bliss, but you would rather the disease didn’t come back any time soon.

Don’t get me wrong, the cricket itself was fascinating and the fact it went down to the last game made it more so, but much of the fascination was from a morbid, rubber-necking car-crash perspective, given the background of spot-fixing, scandal and Ijaz Butt. I’m not going to go into all that again because I am really just glad it is over, as I’m sure you all are, as I’m sure the England team is. The only thing left to say is that I would love to welcome back a Pakistan team, bursting as it is with talent, but not until all corruption has been cleansed from its ranks. Signs are this is not likely to happen soon, but we live in hope. I am not one of those who advocate the scorched-earth policy of banning Pakistan entirely from the world cricket arena, but something tells me this is the last England-Pakistan series we will have seen for a long time.

Anyway, enough of all that.

2:30 this afternoon at The Oval gave us the ridiculous scenario of Mike Atherton, standing in front of a big screen, ready to introduce a film clip naming this year’s England Ashes squad, a clip produced with all the slick bombast the ECB could muster and giving us a list already in the possession of news editors ready to click “update” on their websites on the stroke of 2:30 while the great ignorant unwashed were still digesting the news.

In brief: Chris Tremlett and Monty Panesar are in; no room for Adil Rashid or Ajmal Shahzad. Shahzad is in the Performance Squad; Rashid is not. Another notable absentee – from both squads – is Ravi Bopara, who will be playing first class cricket in South Africa. I am very pleased to see Tremlett given this opportunity, as I’ve been a fan of the guy since I saw him at Trent Bridge in 2007, where he took 3-12 in India’s second innings when they only needed 73 to win. He got a lot of applause from the fans in the stands that day, and seems a bowler reborn this year after moving to Surrey after criticism that he wasn’t aggressive enough: I’m hoping his prodigious height and ability to bang it in will pay dividends on the hard, bouncy Australian wickets.

Monty Panesar is also back, and will add backup to Graeme Swann should they require two spinners at Adelaide or Sydney. He acquitted himself well at the WACA in 2006, taking 5-92, in a series that turned into a relentless drubbing for England. Australia are not the team they were back then, but England will still need to pull out all the stops to beat them; this will be no cake walk.

In other good news, Leicestershire’s own wunderkind batsman, James Taylor, has been included in the Performance Squad. I would have liked to have seen Nathan Buck picked as well – perhaps it is still too early for him – but Taylor will be in Australia, during the Ashes, and well, given an injury or two, who knows?

The countdown to the Ashes starts now. Am I excited? Oh hells yes.

Chris Tremlett bowling at Trent Bridge, 2nd Test against India, 2007

Chris Tremlett bowling at Trent Bridge, 2nd Test against India, 2007

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.


End of another summer

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Last week was my final visit to Grace Road for the season, for the Championship game against Gloucestershire.  This will not be the last match I’m present at this year – that will be Melbourne in December, for some Antipodean tourney England are participating in – but it was attended with the same familiar, gentle tug of melancholy that I feel every year when I watch cricket in September at my second home.

I’d missed the first day – Leics had notched up 295 – and after a delayed start due to bad light Gloucestershire resumed on 54-2, Nathan Buck having taken the 2 wickets the evening before in a fearsome opening spell. Hamish Marshall was the only man who showed any semblance of resistance with an innings of 61, as Gloucestershire collapsed to 159 all out, and Leicestershire at stumps were cruising nicely on 147-1 with a lead of 283 and young Greg Smith in complete control of the bowling on 70.

Returning to the ground the next day I watched Smith raise his bat upon making a superb maiden 1st class ton – and certainly not his last for the county – and when Matthew Hoggard finally declared at around 3:15 in the afternoon, young Greg was on 158* and Gloucestershire needed 488 to win, ending the day on 78-5.

Greg Smith celebrates his maiden 1st class century

Greg Smith celebrates his maiden 1st class century

I have to confess I didn’t quite understand the logic behind the timing of Hoggard’s declaration: 400 would have been more than enough, and he did not seem in any particular hurry even after Smith had brought up his 150; add to that the fact that pretty lousy weather was forecast for Day 4, and there could have been a few faces with egg on them if they’d been unable to knock off the last 5 wickets.

The weather on Friday was indeed bloody awful, but the last 5 were eventually dispatched. Standout performers for the Foxes were of course the lad Smith, England bowler in waiting Nathan Buck, and that redoubtable warhorse Claude Henderson, with help from the county’s next all-rounder in the making, Jigar Naik, but really, it was a top-notch team effort. The result now is that Leicestershire have a mathematical chance of promotion (for “mathematical” read “negligible” but hell, keep hope alive, eh?) as they head to Wantage Road for the last match of the season on Monday.

While I only attended 2 days of the Gloucestershire match, as is usual with my visit to Grace Road, there was more to enjoy than just what was happening on the field. I chatted to the usual suspects, enjoyed the banter, kept my ears pinned for developments on the backroom/board front and on who was going where and who’d been offered what in the shape of a contract for next year. A members’ forum on the Wednesday evening after play yielded no real answers on the current boardroom crisis, though in truth none were expected; recriminations continue to fly back and forth between the board and ex-chief executive David Smith, and the situation remains muddy and unresolved.

With all that hovering in the background I was determined to just enjoy the cricket. The result gave me and the rest of the Leicestershire supporters something to celebrate and the overall goal of promotion is an elusive but tantalising possibility.

View from the boundary

View from the boundary

What are the odds?

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

I saw an awesome day’s Test cricket at Lord’s on Saturday. Jonathan Trott knocked off the run needed to take him to 150 in a record-breaking stand with Stuart Broad, who with his maiden Test hundred seems to be rediscovering his stroke play in timely fashion for the Ashes. England ended on 446, Pakistan were blown away for 74 all out and following on, finished the day on 41-4. For £75 a ticket, I saw a lot of wickets for my money.

Then I got home and switched on the television.

I saw that the News of the World had broken a story (cleverly, too late for other papers to jump on, so all the other Sunday morning cricket reports were purely about England’s superb bowling performance), the facts of which are now burned onto our appalled sensibilities. It concerned a dodgy Pakistan players’ agent, £150,000 in used 50 quid notes, and three no-balls delivered on Days 1 and 2, in varying degrees of obviousness, by Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, with the collusion of captain Salman Butt.

I loathe the News of the World with every fibre of my being. Their offensive, emotive brand of sensationalistic journalism sparks a brand of rage in me not much else does. In a crass opinion piece they not only devalued Broad’s maiden ton but sank low enough to mention his dead stepmother, Miche, to whom Broad’s thoughts turned on reaching his century: “Sorry Stuart, it means nothing.” A small boy, “pulling at his dad’s coat tails full of excitement”, his dreams betrayed, was also mentioned. I am surprised they didn’t manage to shoehorn in a drowning puppy, or accuse the Pakistan team of throwing cats into wheelie bins. Yes, I would think it’s fair to say my loathing for the News of the World is pretty much boundless. To coin a phrase, I wouldn’t wipe my arse with it if it was on fire.

But let us be honest, the evidence looks pretty damning. The only thing that could possibly have looked more suspicious about Mohammad Amir’s first no-ball was if Salman Butt had already had his hands full of sawdust as the bowler began his run-up. And the worst thing about it all is: how much of what we saw in this series, or indeed any other which Pakistan have taken part in over the last few years, is real? Test cricket is in the crapper, attendance-wise, but it does not need this type of publicity.

If there is a tragic figure in all this, it is, by common consensus, Mohammad Amir. Michael Holding was on the verge of tears on Sky Sports as he discussed how the career of this amazing young talent is now in doubt. Ramiz Raja thinks that due to his youth it is “possible he could have been drawn [into wrongdoing]”, and former Pakistan coach Geoff Lawson has reminded us not to judge these players “by the standards of our own country, when their situations are vastly different”. The possible threat of kidnapping and violence towards players’ families has also been mentioned.

Immediate reaction from cricket lovers such as myself ran the whole emotional gamut from disbelief, anger and sadness to “ban the whole bloody lot of them”. But it is clear that there are several things that need to happen.

Firstly, the ICC need to grow a pair. Pakistan cricket is worth saving, but not in its current corrupt state. Past punishments imposed by the Pakistan Cricket Board have been arbitrary and meaningless; vested interests and political manoeuvrings take precedence. Not only does the PCB need to get its house in order, but the ICC need to take charge when scandals like this threaten to ruin the international game.

Sadly, there are those in the ICC who have their own vested interests, and so this will not happen. And let’s face it, it doesn’t say much for the effectiveness of the ICC’s Anti Corruption Unit if it takes a reporter from a red-top scandal rag with a suitcase full of cash to expose only the tip of what may turn out to be a very large iceberg. Haroon Lorgat, the ICC’s current appointed deckchair-arranger, has given a statement saying that if any of the players are found guilty, “the appropriate punishment” will be handed out. At this point, such a promise sounds merely like empty bluster, and pretty meaningless given the ICC’s inability – or unwillingness – to tackle the root of the problem.

Of course, whether Giles Clarke has any right to be on his moral high horse in his refusal to shake Amir’s hand or look him in the eye during the post-match presentation is another question, considering the marked contrast between this and his welcome of a Texan, now being investigated for fraud, and his perspex box of dollars. Stony-faced and unsmiling at spot-fixing’s sullying of this series at the Home of Cricket, he obviously had no problem with Allen Stanford’s sullying of the Nursery ground by landing his gold-plated helicopter on it.

Unfortunately it seems, as with so much else, everything comes down to money – or lack of it, in the case of Pakistan’s cricketers.

While the angry bastard in me rages at corruption, nevertheless, the romantic in me clings to Stuart Broad’s comment that “whatever the true story is, I have absolutely no doubts that Pakistan were giving everything to try to win that match. It was proper competition, as it has been throughout the series”.

So while it may turn out that I have not been the only one who got my money’s worth from this Test I will also remember Trott and Broad’s partnership and Swann’s bowling for what they were – fine achievements that may have been over-shadowed by this story but not blotted out by it. Cricket is too precious to me for my enjoyment of it to be sullied by venality. And besides, there is an Ashes series to look forward to.

Amir bowls

Mohammad Amir bowls (a legitimate delivery) at Lord's