Archive for October, 2011

Samit Patel and the two dozen Bounty bars

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Two autobiographies by well-known international bowlers have been making the news recently. One of them is by an Englishman whose career has undergone a startling renaissance from under-achieving pain in the arse to the giddy heights of Ashes winner, captain of his country, and number-one ranked bowler in the world, while still managing to be a pain in the arse; the other provides the answer to the perennial question: “What’s pissing off Indian cricket fans this week?” As regards the latter, I am looking at you, Shoaib Akhtar.

As with most answers to this question, it inevitably involves Sachin Tendulkar, and once again it seems to be a thing of little consequence that has the faithful dusting off the pitchforks and kindling the flaming torches. Shoaib’s autobiography, Controversially Yours, seems to have the Sachinistas in a tizzy because in it he mentions that during Pakistan’s 2007 series in India, The Little Master, suffering from tennis elbow and subjected to a stream of short balls, may have treated Shoaib’s bowling with some trepidation.

Less Pavlovian than knee-jerk, the reaction in the Indian press and on the Internet was perhaps depressingly predictable. Sachin Tendulkar, backing away from a delivery? Scared of fast bowling? How dare you. The outrage. Etc.

Put it this way, if a fast bowler does not regard the batsman in his sights as anything other than a mortal, flesh-and blood-obstacle between himself and a wicket which must be removed, then he should probably consider a career in landscape gardening. Great bowlers do not give a flying proverbial for reputations. “Sachin may be your god, but he is not mine,” Shoaib quite reasonably proffered in response to the hoo-ha. Quite so.

One does wonder how Sachin feels about all of this, but if I were him the tendency of millions of fans to take massive umbrage on my behalf over some imagined slight would scare the bejesus out of me; I’d probably never leave the house.

Another “tell all” has also made the news this week. Graeme Swann, like Shoaib a bit of a “character” (tolerable on the field when taking wickets; during an extended rain break in the dressing room perhaps not so much), has spilled the beans on life in the England camp and his career at Notts and Northants. In his book The Breaks Are Off, out this week, he informs us that KP was a shit captain, Kepler Wessels was a twat, and that he has no idea why Darren Gough tried to rearrange his face in the hotel toilets in Johannesburg during England’s South Africa tour of 1999-2000.

The extracts I’ve read are all entertaining stuff, but it’s an anecdote about Samit Patel that has proved the most startling.

During the ill-fated and best-forgotten Stanford series in the Caribbean in 2009, several members of the England team came down with a stomach bug, the kind of malady that ends up finding expression “from both ends” as Swanny helpfully explains. Patel claimed to be among the afflicted, and this was accepted until he was spotted exiting the hotel shop with an armful of “two dozen Bounty bars”, saying it was the only food he could keep down.

It’s easy to poke fun at Samit’s complicated and well-documented relationship with food, but this suggests to me a problem slightly more serious than a propensity for nicking an extra samosa from the hotel buffet of an evening. It suggests that Samit is a binge-eater and the various failed attempts to get him into shape now make a bit more sense – how else can one explain the otherwise baffling ineffectiveness of playing for one’s country as an incentive?

The most unfortunate result of this revelation is that Samit could well go on to score a Test match double hundred, take 20 wickets, captain his country, save a small child from a burning building and physically transform himself into a slab of muscle and sinew capable of taking on a cyborg assassin from the future like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, and I’ll still always picture him with two dozen Bounty bars.

I hope they were at least of the dark chocolate variety; I can barely even manage one of the bastards.

Swann also documents a run-in he had with Patel at Notts back in 2008, accusing him of undermining him behind his back at a time when both men were vying for an England place, so I think it’s fair to say that this is one rift that’s not going to be mended any time soon.

Someday, it will surely be possible – as a sociological experiment and not just for the laughs – to put Graeme Swann and Shoaib Akhtar in a room together in some remote government laboratory in the Mojave desert and see which of them comes out alive. Just call me the cricket equivalent of Philip Zimbardo

In absentia

Monday, October 10th, 2011

I’ve been away. Not “away” as in prison, brokering a Middle Eastern arms deal, or monitoring the skies for the arrival of our alien overlords in a tumbledown cottage in the Lake District while donning a tinfoil helmet and searching for evidence of Nazi submarine bases under the polar icecaps.

That was last year.

No, I’ve been north of the border on my annual visit to my parents. During that time, Graham Dilley and Steve Jobs passed away. I was made aware of the former and somehow missed the latter until the morning of my drive back to Leicester. Mind you, this is not quite as bad as when I was in Paris in the summer of 1997, and completely unaware of the fact that not only had Princess Diana been in Paris during that time, but had died in one of the city’s underpasses. Switching on the TV in my hotel room to watch them unloading her coffin at a British air base proved a slightly surreal and discombobulating experience.

Jobs’ passing, like Diana’s, proved a familiar apotheosis to a similar cult of personality – only with post-it notes stuck on the windows of Apple stores rather than the ransacking of the nation’s flower supplies for a state funeral.

I wouldn’t call myself a drinker of the Apple-flavoured Kool-Aid, but will be forever thankful to Mr Jobs for allowing me to keep abreast of developments in the sport I love while on these yearly visits up north.

The council estate my parents live on now is only slightly less of a shithole than the one I grew up on, where recreation consisted of folks cutting the heads off cats and throwing themselves off multi-storey buildings while ripped off their tits on glue. It’s safe to say Whitfield was a cricket-free zone. A sport seen as being played only by poofs and Englishmen, the foisting of Test match coverage on Scottish television was regarded in our house with the same dismay as Thatcher’s Poll Tax and the ridiculous price of Betamax video recorders.

Graham Dilley was part of that tantalising wonderland of grass and white flannels glimpsed in the time it took for my father to mutter, “Christ, bloody cricket. This is what we pay our licence fee for,” before stabbing at the off-button with an authoritative finality. I was ten years old in 1981, and all I knew of cricket was from reports on the 6 o’clock news. Botham was so totemic that even a working-class kid growing up in the poverty-blighted wasteland of a Scottish housing estate could not but be aware of his existence, or of his greatness, and of the bright satellites of Gower, Willis and Dilley who circled in his orbit. The names didn’t mean a heck of a lot to me at that time, but they were wrought with significance; linked to great men, and great achievements.

A few years later, in 1986, when I was in high school, a bloke turned up to one of our PE classes to teach us how to play cricket. I wish I could remember who he was; he was only there for the one day. The bat felt like a railway sleeper in my hands and my backlift was non-existent. But the first time I made contact with the ball gave me, if not quite a lightbulb moment, a grudging recognition that this could be a sport I would in all probability be useless at, but that I would actually enjoy. Horse-racing was my favoured sport at that time – our biology teacher eventually gave up any pretence of trying to impart any knowledge and would retire to the staff-room for an hour-long fag break while the kids threw their chairs out the window and I sat reading the Racing Post from cover to cover. (1986 was the year of Dancing Brave, beaten by half a length in the Derby by Shahrastani – I was gutted.)  But an hour’s coaching from some guy I never knew the name of, twinned with snatched glimpses on a Radio Rentals telly of Botham and Dilley batting their team not just to safer ground, but to a position from which they would win, sowed the seeds of something that would bloom much later, and that would prove very deep-rooted indeed.

My parents are aware of my zeal for cricket, and have come to regard it now with less scorn and more puzzled bemusement – similar, I imagine, to how they’d react if I breezily announced I’d opened a gay brothel in Basingstoke, or had joined the Masons.

Their house still remains a cricket-free zone, but I am all right with that, due to careful planning each year that ensures my visits do not coincide with major internationals. That, and making sure my shiny mobile gadget courtesy of Mr Jobs is charged at all times.

If this Scottish boozer were ever to run a cricket team, sign me up - and god help the opposition

The only cricket I missed this year while I was up in Scotland was the Champions League T20, or more precisely, the remainder of the tournament after Leicestershire crashed out (two matches, two defeats, still FLT20 champs so am not overly devastated).

All the things that bothered me about this tournament returned with a vengeance once the Leicestershire lads had gotten on the plane back to Blighty, and from then on my interest level plummeted from the giddy heights of “infinitesimal” to an only slightly more apathetic “fuck-all” once Somerset had gone down to a Mumbai Indians side curiously permitted to bend the rules as to its allocated quota of overseas players.

The crass commercialism, the all-white cheerleaders (presumably the organizers think that objectifying women is fine as long as it isn’t Indian women who are being objectified), the often dire standard of cricket on offer… somehow all this seems easier to put up with when it is on the ridiculously overblown scale of the IPL, a viewing experience akin to standing behind the engine of a 747 at full throttle.

When it’s on the scale of a smaller tournament, one that has already fostered a significant amount of ill-will through playing hardball with broadcasting rights, when you add all of the above to rules cooked up through expediency and financial motives rather than fairness, it becomes easier just to ignore it.

Admittedly, there is a pleasing symmetry in the fact that another meaningless T20 tournament for the Attention Deficit Disorder generation lost me in the time it took to remind myself there’s an India-England ODI series coming up soon.

Make of that what you will.

In other news, I hear that Josh Cobb will be in attendance at the Kowloon Cricket Club at the end of this month as a result of his call-up to the England squad for the Hong Kong Sixes tournament. If ever a competition was made for Josh it’s this one, and hopefully he’ll get the chance to propel a cricket ball through the window of one of those surrounding skyscrapers.

It also seems now to be a certainty that Leicestershire will lose James Taylor, as he has not signed a one-year contract extension offered by the club and has informed them he wishes to move “with immediate effect”. Whatever the outcome, I wish James the best of luck. One can only hope that whichever county he ends up with will hardly see him as he will be away on England duty.

One competition aside, 2011 was a year of dashed hopes and squandered potential for the Foxes. Next year, we will be minus James Taylor, Paul Nixon and Andrew MacDonald. But I am predicting big things from Ned Eckersley; Martin van Jaarsveld has come aboard and thanks to this year’s T20 success there will be slightly more money in the kitty to play with. Australia and the West Indies will be visiting Grace Road. If anything, I’d like next year to be slightly less bipolar.

Hope is the little light that keeps the winter darkness of the off-season at bay, and my annual Scottish sojourn the gateway between the end of the domestic season and long weeks spent shivering in front of the television watching an endless string of ODIs sprinkled with the odd Test match.

Roll on Friday, Hyderabad, and India v England.