Archive for August, 2011
Saturday, August 27th, 2011
It’s been a right old up-and-down week as a Foxes fan.
Thursday: Leicestershire crash to defeat by Surrey at Grace Road in the latest chapter of what has been a dismal championship season.
Same day: James Taylor makes his England ODI debut and scores 1 off 8 balls.
That evening: news spreads that Harry Gurney, the man who has helped bowl the county to T20 Finals Day, is off to Nottinghamshire on a three year deal. Not only that, but injury means that he will not be taking part in Saturday’s extravaganza.
Friday: the England ODI and T20 squads are announced. James Taylor is in neither of them.
Today, Saturday, August 27th: Leicestershire win their semi-final versus Lancashire by the skin of their teeth, conceding 6 off the last ball of the match to take it to a super-over. Big Will Jefferson, fresh from 121 against Surrey, is the hero of the hour. He wins it for the Foxes with a balls-out, guns-blazing, almighty heave into the crowd for 6, followed by a primal scream of triumph.
Nerve-shredding? Only slightly.
T20 finalist; place in the Champions League qualifiers assured: I was prepared to accept this should they fall at the last hurdle. Actually to hell with that. A loss would have been gutting. It would have been the end of a dire week, and it would have hurt like a motherfucker.
In the final, Somerset limited Leicestershire to 145-6. Abdul Razzaq, opening instead of Andrew McDonald, made a subdued 33. Josh Cobb’s stay at the crease was worth a brief but entertaining 18; Jefferson again played his heart out for 35. Around the 12th over, as wickets started falling regularly, momentum ebbed.
It was a total that looked about 20 short. 20 runs is the difference between twitchy uncertainty and fatalistic resignation.
And then the magic. A true team effort that shows what a small county – struggling financially, plundered for its talent, written off by all and sundry – can do when it believes.
Five Somerset wickets fell in the space of 19 runs – Hildreth, Pollard, Trego, Suppiah and Buttler.
Josh Cobb and Matthew Boyce were the double-act that headlined the show. Every wicket of Cobb’s was caught by super-sub Boyce on the midwicket boundary.
A superlative diving catch by Paul Nixon to dismiss danger man Pollard would have done credit to a man twenty years younger; he will have to put that retirement on ice for a bit longer because boys, you’ve bagged yourselves a trip to Hyderabad.
Hell, Charlie Fox even won the mascot derby.
“Good luck to the underdogs,” Hampshire captain Dominic Cork said prior to the final.
See, the thing with underdogs is: sometimes they have a tendency to bite you on the arse.
Well played, lads. Well bloody played.
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011
It’s cool that you get an actual trophy for being the world’s number one Test side.
That the ICC, in its wisdom, found it suitable to bestow on the reigning table-topper a mace which looks more like a tent peg, majorette’s baton, turkey baster, or artificial inseminator used on a cattle farm, does admittedly tend towards a more “what the heck is this?” reaction, rather than, “wow, this’ll look great on the ECB mantelpiece”.
This is of course not helped by an image of Kevin Pietersen, in the England dressing room at yesterday’s close of play, brandishing it whilst clothed only in a towel and not looking at all camp in the slightest.
Anyhoo, England are number one. Day 5 at the Oval, the last day of the English Test summer, proved to be a slightly tense affair, at least during the morning session. For the first time this series India, following on, managed to last an entire session without losing a wicket, but when Amit Mishra finally fell after lunch for a valiant 84, the end was swift in coming.
Graeme Swann, who has already had the death knell sounded prematurely on his career by at least one journalist alert to his relative paucity of wickets lately, roared back into the spotlight he so adores with a six wicket haul. England’s batting had again been rock solid as the batsmen made the most of a flat deck prior to its last day disintegration and Swann’s rampage.
Sachin Tendulkar, more likely unsettled by Mishra’s wicket rather than the prospect of being out in the 90s for the ninth time in his Test career, fell on 91 to a brave lbw decision given by umpire Rod Tucker, who even now is probably fleeing the country having changed his name to “Todd Rucker” and wearing comedy beard and glasses to avoid recognition. It was a marginal decision, but the correct one – even had lbw referrals been allowed in this series, Hawk Eye would have shown the ball clipping the top of leg stump.
While not quite as invested in the cult of Tendulkar as so many are, I have to admit to mixed feelings on the Little Master failing in his bid to bag that hundredth hundred in these Tests.
Had he reached that ton, the talk would have been on nothing else. It is, fundamentally, a contrived statistic – “52nd Test century” would not have sounded as significantly monumental – and scored in the context of a series lost 4-0, especially when placed against Rahul Dravid’s epic, battling first-innings 146*, it would have meant very little.
Coming at the end of a Test series in which India managed to score 300 only once – exactly that and no further – as one player after another fell by the wayside due to injury and unfitness, as the world’s erstwhile number one collapsed like a bloated behemoth under the weight of its own hubris against a side hungry, honed and ready for the kill… a Tendulkar milestone under these circumstances would have provided only bathos in a series that’s been nothing from India’s point of view but a long extended failure.
Worse, it would have overshadowed the bright light of Rahul Dravid’s star which has shone undimmed through this series, along with flashes of spark from Praveen Kumar (what a lion-hearted character he is). No doubt it would also have been used to go some way towards papering over the cracks of India’s many failings.
Good umpiring, as Rod Tucker demonstrated, is no respecter of reputations. And neither is this England team.
I can’t help, though, but wonder whether this is simply a blip on India’s part, or the outward manifestation of a more insidious decay. While the team is on the verge of straddling that uncomfortable territory known as “transition”, with its galacticos looking towards retirement sooner rather than later, and its young hopefuls still inexperienced and making their way, I doubt anyone could ever have foreseen them being on the receiving end of such a thorough hammering. Kris Srikkanth, India’s chief selector, has been quoted as saying of his selection committee, “I can proudly say that we have done a good job” – uncomfortably reminiscent, not only of the band playing blithely on while the ship is busily humping an iceberg, but of Andrew Hilditch’s similarly self-deluded sentiment in the wake of Australia’s last Ashes drubbing.
While the England lads are no doubt nursing well-deserved hangovers, there remains a salutary lesson in all of this. Ian Botham thinks England can be number one for at least the next 8 years. The fall from the number one spot may come sooner than one would like, due to reasons entirely outwith England’s control: South Africa have Test series coming up against Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand, the first two of which will be at home. England do not play another Test till January.
There is also the small matter of ODIs, a format England have hardly excelled at of late. Prior to a five-match series against India, England play Ireland on Thursday, with many senior players being rested, including the captain, Alastair Cook. It’s understandable that the bowlers, especially, should be given a break, and I’m excited at the fact James Taylor has received a call-up, but the inexperienced nature of the squad (Mike Atherton, in an understandable slip of the tongue, referred to it the other day as the Lions squad, ten of whom have been included) has rather pissed Ireland off.
This is not surprising when not only are England resting Cook and other key players, but Eoin Morgan, an Irishman, will be captaining them. The match also seems to be a glorified fitness test for Jonathan Trott, who appears to have recovered from his shoulder injury. All this on top of the fact England were soundly thrashed the last time these two sides met, and you could forgive the Shamrocks for thinking that the latest England tactic consists of “thinly-veiled insult”.
This match has “banana skin” written all over it. As long as Taylor gets a ton, I’m not too fussed.
But if you are an England fan, you’re already resigned to England being shit at ODIs.
By the grace of Flower’s canny management and the team’s superlative performances, it seems England have ascended to the lofty heights of Test supremacy. Rather than fret over hyperbole, ODIs, talk of “sporting dynasties” and what may happen in the future, I am content, at least for the next couple of days, to savour the fine wine of victory and watch endless repeats of the highlights.
It’s still a daft looking trophy, though.
Saturday, August 13th, 2011
“It’s kicking off in Croydon now,” the hospital porter told me gloomily as he brought me back from the X-ray department.
Monday night, well, early Tuesday 1:15AM to be precise. Guest of the Royal Infirmary since 8AM the previous morning due to an ongoing condition that flares up from time to time. Morphine in my system; 40 hours with no sleep, pain by now dulled to something slightly less excruciating.
There’d been a queue for the x-rays: me, teenage lad with broken wrist, old man on trolley. By this point I had no clue as to the day, or the time, but I knew that London was burning.
“There’s a blaze at a furniture warehouse,” said the porter. “A big one.” I felt I should offer an opinion on it, and sensed he was expecting one, but I didn’t have the energy. I just wanted to sleep.
Back on the ward a quick check of Twitter informed me that the riots might be coming to Leicester. I had visions of waking up like the Cillian Murphy character in 28 Days Later, or like a character out of a John Wyndham novel, to a city burnt out and abandoned.
But the main thing was getting home for the Test. Nothing else mattered as much to me. To take my mind off where I was, I’d tried to focus my disgruntlement less on the online rantings of the String ‘Em Up Society and the Moral Decay Brigade than on Ravi Bopara being picked to replace an injured Jonathan Trott ahead of James Taylor. It was a decision I regarded as profoundly bonkers and still do, with Taylor making 106 for the Lions on the same day Bopara managed only 7 being a case of “figures that speak for themselves”.
But then you’d have to say that’s possibly the only thing England have got wrong recently.
This was the Test billed as the big one, the one that could see England ascend to number one status. The staging of it was very briefly in doubt due to the fact Birmingham too had been hit by the riots, with 3 confirmed deaths to follow.
It truly was a case of cricket down the rabbit hole. You could pick a less surreal time to hold a Test match.
It is now Saturday evening. The Test is over because India capitulated far quicker than we would ever have imagined back in May when the Sri Lanka series proved so disappointing. They still have not scored 300 in an innings, or taken twenty wickets. Sachin still does not have his hundredth hundred. Even Dravid could not save them; one of the few Indian players who’s come out of this series with any credit, he was bizarrely given out “hit shoelace”.
Alastair Cook’s batting was better than morphine. Effective but soporific. Hitting the pain that sometimes comes with being an England fan, and that doubled us over in 2006-07 and made us grind our teeth in a cold sweat at the agony of it. Jimmy Anderson’s lethal deliveries were the scalpel that cut away the last of those dead-flesh memories; Kevin Pietersen’s 63 the adrenaline injection straight to the heart.
It’s good to be home, and good to see England complete the recovery that started with Pietersen’s kill-or-cure revolt against Peter Moores in the early months of 2009.
The patient is not only fully recovered, it is kicking arse.
The riots and the looting are over now. Talking heads are occupying the news channels and the blame game is in full swing.
The cricket bat signed by the Lancashire team for Mal Loye’s benefit year remains propped against the wall next to my bed, just in case.
The country’s in a bit of a mess at the minute, but I am home, England are number one, and that’s pretty good to be going on with.
But Jesus, what a weird week.
Sunday, August 7th, 2011
No one seriously gave Leicestershire a chance.
Yesterday, they played Kent in the T20 Quarter Final match at Grace Road. Before the match started, all the Sky commentators tipped Kent. Journalists, critics and various self-appointed experts rubbed their chins contemplatively and pronounced from on high that the Foxes were lucky to get this far.
Even a report in the Sunday Times today started with “Leicestershire are as near to hopeless as makes no difference in championship and 40-over cricket this summer, so possibly they surprised even themselves by qualifying for the Friends Life Twenty20 quarter-finals”.
It is almost de rigeur to look down one’s nose at Leicestershire, an unfashionable county by any measure. Lack of money; small ground stuck in the middle of a housing estate; over-reliance until a few years ago on Kolpak players; currently battling for wooden spoon honours in the County Championship; CB40 competition long given up for lost. There are those who even say they shouldn’t have first class status, such is their withering contempt.
And even though the county has been in the habit of producing players for England and its associated development squads lately, the suggestion that James Taylor won’t seriously be considered for full international honours until he moves to a Division One county haven’t helped Leicestershire’s image as some kind of Dickensian cricketing ghetto that promising youngsters should be plucked from forthwith if they are to get on in the world.
At the mid-way point yesterday, after Kent had batted first and amassed a colossal 203 for the loss of only 3 wickets off their 20 overs, there must have been a lot of prematurely written match-reports waiting only for pithily-scripted variations on “result never in doubt” before their authors hit the “send” button.
But anyone who wrote Leicestershire off in this match, even in the face of chasing down the second highest T20 total ever scored at Grace Road, obviously hasn’t been paying much attention.
Partnerships were, and always have been, the key in this form of the game for the Foxes, and Leicestershire made their intent to not leave anything in the locker plain from the outset. Josh Cobb, reinvented as a pinch-hitter at the top of the order after a lull in his career following a maiden first class century at Lord’s while still a teenager, pasted Azhar Mahmood for 6 off only the 4th ball of the innings.
He fell for 18, but opening partner Andrew McDonald carried on for a brisk 53 off 32 balls with every other Leicester batsman – bar Will Jefferson, who fell to a marginal lbw decision – carving the admittedly lacklustre Kent bowling to all parts of the ground.
James Taylor, no doubt galvanised by being unfathomably passed over for Ravi Bopara for the England squad for the 3rd Test at Edgbaston, swept, drove and pulled for his 22 after taking a blinder of a flying catch in the field to put an end to Azhar Mahmood’s mighty innings of 91, but arguably the real star of the day was the man who was playing his last game at Grace Road.
Running Man - Nixon gets the Foxes to Finals Day
Paul Nixon, in the manner of Indiana Jones, could just as well say it’s not so much the age as the mileage that’s forcing him to hang up his bat, but neither seemed much of an impediment to him yesterday. Hitting 4 fours and a towering straight six before he was dismissed, his 31 left Leicestershire needing only 2 runs for victory.
Matthew Boyce hit the winning runs with a scorching offside boundary with 4 balls to spare. The playing area was invaded, Nixon was hoisted aloft, a pint pushed into his hand and he was carried off the field by an adoring crowd.
“We didn’t bowl well enough,” Kent captain Rob Key said afterwards. “But I never thought they’d get close.”
It was hard not to conclude from this that there’d been perhaps a touch of complacency about Kent – borne out by their subpar bowling and fielding – and too on the part of everyone else who wrote Leicestershire off.
It is because they are regarded as the underdog, and that in a year which has brought so much disappointment in the championship and CB40 competitions, that the Foxes will not die wondering in this year’s T20.
The opponent who is most to be feared is the one who has nothing left to lose. They won yesterday because they were prepared to throw everything they had at chasing down the total even if it meant losing wickets. They have a potent mix of young, hungry talent and older, seasoned campaigners who know a thing or two about defying the odds. Paul Nixon, part of the one-day international setup that won the 2007 Commonwealth Bank series and salvaged some English pride after the horrors of the Ashes, knows this probably better than anyone.
Neither Nixon or Andrew McDonald will be with the county next year. But before that, there is a semi-final at Edgbaston to be won. And beyond that, well, anything is possible.
Yesterday, as the Leicestershire openers walked out to embark on that already written-off run-chase, I tweeted “Massive total by Kent, but I still believe”.
And as the Foxes look forward to Finals Day on August 27th, I still do.
Get your claws in, lads.
Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011
In 2007, on the last day of the England-India Test at Trent Bridge, I made use of my complimentary Day 5 ticket to go and watch India rattle off the 63 more runs they needed for victory.
Granted, Chris Tremlett caused them a few hiccups in the form of three wickets that morning, but India were so obviously the stronger side that very few England fans turned up for the inevitable denouement.
Tendulkar had scored 91; Zaheer Khan had taken 5-75, and while England had had the better of a draw at Lord’s, they were thoroughly outplayed by the visitors in Nottingham. Tremlett aside, individual contributions for England were sporadic. Michael Vaughan, the cartilage in his right knee by this time crumbling quicker than a two-week old digestive biscuit, made a magnificent, into-the-breach 124 on the fourth day, but more was expected of other men who did not deliver. With bat, ball and aggression, India were the laser-guided missile aimed right at England’s soft underbelly.
What a difference four years makes. Since then we have had the IPL, fear for the future of Tests (though that hot potato was already being fiercely debated) and the DRS can has been prised open and worms are wriggling all over the damn place.
India have become the number one ranked Test side. England has won the Ashes twice, home and away.
Of more immediate import to a spectator at Trent Bridge this year, there also seemed to be a heck of a lot more wasps about. Buying an ice-cream could possibly have proved fatal.
We’ve already had a cracker of a first Test in this series, the 2000th, no less, which lived up to all the hype that preceded it, but gave us an India strangely apathetic and “undercooked”.
Duncan Fletcher has said in the past he likes his charges to go into a series a little underdone, which makes him sound like an avant garde chef with some strange Heston-Blumenthalesque ideas when it comes to cooking up the right ingredients for a Test-winning outfit. I’m assuming he may have meant something along the lines of al dente pasta rather than salmonella chicken, but such is Fletcher’s inscrutability, it’s impossible to tell. Like I said, I give him a year.
One other thing that’s changed since 2007 is that Stuart Broad is the new Botham. Which may or may not follow on from being the next Botham. And which I could also curmudgeonly extend to a future which contains the phrase “once touted as”, three words filled with gentle regret over lost potential, or a flame that burned out too soon.
But let’s not go there yet – this is NOW, dammit. And it is glorious. England are leading this four match series 2-0 and are one win or two draws away from being the Big Fromage. The Edam of Excellence. The Gouda of Greatness. The Cottage Cheese of Clinical Conquest. The Dairylea of Dominance.
You can tell I am writing this near tea-time.
Broad was given the Man of the Match Award for not only reminding us he can bat, but also for proving his critics right when they said he’d never be successful if he kept banging it in half-way down the pitch with every delivery and with delusions of grandeur about being England’s “enforcer” rattling around in his blond head.
With a little bit of help from the DRS (no referral for the Harbhajan Singh lbw that turned out to be a deflection from bat onto pad so obvious it only needed the replay to see it) the boy Broad bagged himself a hat-trick and the gratitude of a nation, helping us all to feel a little less irritated at his tendency towards petulance and wilful obstinacy, when all it took was pitching the bloody ball up and bowling straight.
Jimmy Anderson chipped in as well with a thunderbolt of an in-swinging leg-cutter that sent VVS Laxman’s off-stump cartwheeling; one of those Jesus deliveries we see every so often from Anderson and that, if you are a worshipper of fast bowling, make the heart sing.
Broad may have deservedly been dubbed Man of the Match, but Tim Bresnan was Man of the Day with his 90 off 118 balls and his first five-wicket haul in Tests; that Bressie-lad did all this on Yorkshire Day must surely prove which side of the Pennines the Great Almighty is more partial to.
While pace won it for England, one batting feat for England is impossible to talk about without mentioning the controversy that accompanied it. In 2007 there was Jellybeangate; in 2011 it was Runoutgate, or whatever the Twitter “hash tag” is that’s been appended to it. Bell’s 159 came not just with a single slice of luck, but the whole damn pie: the Flan of Fortune, if you will.
Of course there have been two distinct, polarized points of view regarding the run-out. First, that Bell was wandering out of his ground and off for his tea because he assumed the ball Eoin Morgan had flicked off his pads had gone for four and that the over had been called, in which case all he was guilty of was extreme doziness and India’s move in removing the bails was a rather sly one.
On the other hand, never do the umpires’ job for them, and never assume. The run-out was legitimate; the umpires followed the letter of the law in giving him out, and well, hard cheese, Ian… you won’t be doing that again in the future, will you?
Uncomfortable memories of the Murali runout in 2006 and the 2008 Collingwood-Elliott incident at the Oval were dredged up; furious debate erupted over the Laws versus the Spirit of the game; the crowd howled its fury and disappointment and Trent Bridge turned into the Terrordome.
So when a small, ginger-haired batsman re-emerged from the pavilion, eyes cast sheepishly down but defiantly practising his forward defensive on his way back out to the middle, the boos that greeted the umpires and the Indian fielders turned into cheers when it emerged MS Dhoni had withdrawn his appeal, after being requested to do so by Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, and by bending the rule that says you can only withdraw an appeal while the batsman is still on the field of play.
Everyone agreed that India had done A Good Thing. And I’d like to think Paul Collingwood may have benefited from a 20 minute break so that cooler heads might have prevailed after Ryan Sidebottom barged into Grant Elliot.
But I have a couple of issues with all of this. It is all very well citing the Spirit of Cricket, and it is of course a good thing to aspire to decency and fairness in the sport in which you choose to participate, or indeed of any other aspect that constitutes daily life and your interactions with others.
But if it had been, Kevin Pietersen, say, instead of Ian Bell at the centre of this brief but intense shit-storm, would Dhoni still have withdrawn his appeal?
One man’s spirit of cricket could very well represent a lack of killer instinct to someone else. My problem with the admirable but nebulous “spirit of the game” is that in the end it is all down to who, where, when and what – who is at the crease, the match situation, what it means for the series, the risk of having your house burned down back in India versus having missiles thrown at you on an English cricket ground.
We stopped expecting batsmen to walk when they knew they’d nicked it long ago. If you walk, you are regarded as a charming eccentric whose playing career will no doubt come to a premature end because of it. Who’s to say in ten years we’ll look back at what happened at Trent Bridge and wonder, with the Test top spot up for grabs, at the admirable but charming quaintness of Dhoni’s action?
When “doing the right thing” involves the inevitable conflict between morality and self-interest, there is never any guarantee that the “right” decision will be made.
Andy Flower’s assertion that “We felt that Bell wasn’t attempting to take a run and therefore we wanted to ask the Indian side to reconsider their appeal” does not sit all that easily with his admonition to Andrew Strauss after the England captain’s recall of Sri Lankan batsman Angelo Mathews in a Champions Trophy clash in 2009. Mathews was run out after a collision with Graham Onions that was entirely accidental – Onions was genuinely trying to get out of Mathews’ way – but Flower stated afterwards: “I just wouldn’t have done it. I would have sent the batsman on his way. He ran into the bowler. Simple deal.” Hmm.
Pondering a lucky escape? Bell in the field on Day 4
I think Dhoni made the right decision but Bell, according to the Laws of the game, was completely in the wrong and his on-camera interview after close of play was evasive and defensive; no doubt he had been coached on what to say, as he could barely give a straight answer to any of the questions.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said of all this ruckus is that England did not win by 22 runs – or the 69 more runs Bell put on with Morgan after the former was reinstated.
International incident narrowly averted. Going by the blizzard of gushing, laudatory press releases that began landing on journos’ desks soon after, Dhoni’s act of chivalry seems to have been seized on with some relief by the various governing bodies at being handed a break from having to deal with the rather more pressing concerns of slow over-rates and the non-use of Hawk Eye in lbw decisions.
Shane Warne referred to the “warm, fuzzy” feel-good feeling that enveloped Trent Bridge after the resolution of Bellgate. While cricket is currently dislocating its shoulders slapping its own back, and enjoying an enthusiastic orgy of self-fellatio, a bigger storm could very well be brewing on the horizon.