Archive for March, 2012

Staying in the game

Friday, March 30th, 2012

I’d like to know what was going through Mahela Jayawardene’s head when he was given the captaincy of his country for the second time around in January.

Anyone who heard Kumar Sangakkara’s Spirit of Cricket speech last July knows Sri Lankan cricket has been in turmoil for some time now. The mess it’s gotten into hasn’t been as dramatic as that of West Indies cricket, but it’s been an unsavoury tale of internecine bickering, political interference and withheld payments. At one stage the ICC even had to step in to pay the cricketers, since the World Cup team haven’t been paid since last April.

If any of this gave Jayawardene a sinking feeling of “here we go again,” or even, in the words of Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, “I’m getting too old for this shit,” he hasn’t said. But since he’s regained the captaincy Sri Lanka have played positive, fighting cricket. Tillakaratne Dilshan found the captaincy crown an ill-fitting, weighty burden. He and his batting struggled under it; every time he went out to the middle he seemed to have storm clouds wreathed around his brow. He looked, as PG Wodehouse once wrote, like a man who has searched for the leak in life’s gaspipe with a candle. If ever there was the definition of a reluctant leader, Dilshan was it.

Mahela is cut from a different cloth; he doesn’t suffer fools but at the same time is his team’s even-tempered axis. Though it helps he has experience where this particular gig is concerned, leading by example seems a straightforward, reasonable requirement for the job as far as he’s concerned. When your country calls, you answer. The first Test at Galle in this series against England has been a masterclass of leadership and personal achievement. The prospect of failure becomes no longer an insurmountable obstacle to be crumbled before, but a challenge.

There was never the outright suggestion in the various previews that Sri Lanka would be a pushover for England after their UAE drubbing, but the many comparisons between the bowling attacks of Pakistan and Sri Lanka tended not to flatter Mahela’s men. After England were bowled out yesterday attempting an historic run chase of 340, it’s clear that what we were mostly guilty of was a gross underestimation of England’s ability to learn from their mistakes. The beatings will continue until morale improves. Or not.

Jayawardene may no longer have a Murali to turn to, but the last four days have shown that honest workman-like spin can trouble England just as well. Granted, the wicket was not quite as benign as some would have had us believe, but help for the spinners was more apparent during England’s second innings when they ironically made a better fist of things than in their first, when they were all out for 193 in under 47 overs. Their second innings was at least propped up by a magnificent century by Jonathan Trott – the slowest of his seven Test hundreds, the pacing of which was absolutely necessary – but their first was a baffling, kamikaze rush to disaster; if there was one consolation in seeing England batsmen give their wickets away through a slavish insistence on the sweep and a lemming-like urge towards self-annihilation, it was that at least they seemed in a hurry to put us all out of our misery.

Trott (along with Matt Prior and Ian Bell in supporting roles) aside, if England’s batsmen needed a masterclass on how to build an innings, Mahela Jayawardene provided them with a blueprint. The Baroque flourishes of Dilshan and other pyrotechnicians are not for him; his is a more Palladian architecture, with an adherence to first principles: balance, solidity, adaptability. Ornamentation and exuberance come after, when the edifice is sound. His batting is all clean lines, elegant simplicity, form through function. He came to the middle when Sri Lanka were in dire straits at 11-2, and on the rocks at 15-3; from then on it was a case of standing firm against the storm and keeping his side in the game with a magnificent 180. Of course, it’s not the first time he’s done this. His 115 against New Zealand in the 2007 World Cup – in which he started his innings with watchful circumspection and ended up pasting Shane Bond all round Sabina Park – is a particular standout. In Tests, he now averages 89.64 against England at home.

The components of England’s loss look unfortunate in isolation but disastrous when taken as a catalogue of mishaps, pratfalls and heat-addled shot selection. Mahela was dropped four times, Broad’s front-foot no-ball was revealed with tragicomic timing after the team had riotously celebrated bowling Sri Lanka out, and even England’s second innings seesawed repeatedly between hope and bathos as Jonathan Trott’s marathon innings was punctuated increasingly by his partners at the other end falling by the wayside through their own ineptitude – a Homeric epic interrupted constantly by advert breaks for double-glazing featuring second-rate comedians.

England must win in Colombo if they are to retain their number one Test status. The most worrying thing about this run of Test failures – four on the bounce now – is that while it’s tempting to look forward to a happier summer when England play the West Indies in May, the confidence of some players might be so shot by then, and the pressure on them to justify their selection so overwhelming, that Devendra Bishoo and Sunil Narine may end up causing them a very big headache indeed. After being put through the wringer in the UAE and Sri Lanka, it might just be a case of one spin cycle too many for England’s batting delicates.

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.

The Battering Ram and the Wall

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Fulsome tributes have been paid this week to two greats of the game. In one case it’s been a celebration; the other, farewell.

Viv Richards turned 60 on Wednesday. Today, Rahul Dravid announced his retirement from international cricket. Richards is a reminder of a once combative, proud nation, a conquistador with a cause; Dravid the consummate gentleman and understated technician, the velvet glove with the concrete core who gave his team backbone when it needed it while flashier performers stole the limelight.

Both men were major players in the forging of their countries’ national sporting identities and the casting off of the remnants of colonialism; both men were two of the greatest there have ever been.

Viv was a warrior: every match he played in a fierce skirmish between bat and ball which he regularly won. He may have called his bat his sword, but during his greatest achievements – 291 against England at the Oval in 1976, 182 not out at Bridgetown in 1981, fastest Test hundred against England in Antigua in 1986, to name but three – he wielded it like a hammer.

Dravid, though he may have laboured in Sachin’s shadow, was no mere shield-bearer. Like the man himself, his achievements, and the manner of their making, do not shout; it is only when you take the time to look at them that you realise their unarguable greatness. Second highest run-getter in the world in Tests; first Indian to score consecutive hundreds in four Test innings; possessor of five Test double hundreds; first player to score a century in all Test-playing countries… you will read many such lists today, and you will marvel at the numbers and at the longevity. There’s something gratifying about the fact his retirement comes while his performances in the England series last year are still so fresh in the memory, a series in which he shone while his team mates struggled. It’s always tempting to hope an old campaigner has one last fight in him; Dravid has walked away now while the decision is still his to make.

Aggression and eloquence; calmness and sheer force of personality; the battering ram and the Wall: Viv Richards and Rahul Dravid are two sides of a priceless coin that may no longer be in circulation, but that has given the sport such a store of riches to look back on.

Viv’s post-retirement career has not been smooth. Stanford ambassadorship; the travesty of the ground in Antigua named after him exposed as an unusable sand-pit during the England series of 2009. Such is the fragmented, troubled nature of West Indies cricket, the bickering between players and board and of the islands’ administrations with each other, that a man whose deeds could be used to inspire so many of the nation’s up-and-coming talent now chooses to steer well clear of any political involvement.

Dravid, similarly, is too valuable a statesman to be lost to the game, but whether he will feel similarly wary of the endless politicking of the BCCI and ICC remains to be seen.

All nations need their legends, reminders of what a country has achieved and of the heights it can reach again. Cricket in India and the West Indies is in a period of transition. India have yet to properly embark on their rebuilding; the West Indies have been in this phase for a long time but it has mostly been a case of one step forward, two steps back. If Viv Richards was the bullet fired at the heart of English and Australian superiority, the gun West Indies cricket is now wielding seems pointed squarely at its own feet. It says something that the only West Indian player who currently approaches Richards’ genius and swagger – Chris Gayle – is not even playing for his national team.

Whatever happens, the legacy of Dravid and Richards will remain untouchable. What they have given us, we will always have.

Of course time moves on. Sport, like so many other walks of life, is no country for old men. When Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton first heard a 20-year-old Jimi Hendrix play at a concert in London in 1966, they felt they should retire. Perhaps Dravid reached the same decision while watching Virat Kohli flay Lasith Malinga around the ground during that jaw-dropping 133 not out in that Commonwealth Bank Series group game in Hobart that got so many talking.

In common with many other England fans, Dravid, as sportsman and individual, has always appealed to me more than Tendulkar. Sachin’s greatness is such that he has been raised to the level of archetype, icon, god; as a person, he is essentially unknowable. There are obviously depths, but they are closely protected. That this is down to the hysterical adulation which greets his every achievement is understandable. Dravid has always seemed more human, more accessible. Erudite and well-read – with a wide range of interests including history, politics and nature conservation – he is a man who is blessed with an extraordinary sporting gift but who also recognises the importance of the world beyond the boundary and his place in it.

During his Bradman Oration in Canberra last December, Dravid quoted the Don’s words about leaving the game better than you found it. The game may or may not be better – there are compelling arguments for both – but it is different. Dravid said today that he would play in this year’s IPL (if you want a symbol of how much the sport has changed, look no further) and then he will decide on his future. It would be nice if he could stay involved with the sport in some way. Because cricket without the continued benefit of Dravid’s wisdom – and his clear-headed recognition of the challenges it now faces – would be so much the poorer.

The Wall at Trent Bridge

The Wall at Trent Bridge