Archive for July, 2011

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.