Archive for April, 2012


Thursday, April 19th, 2012

I’ve not yet sat down and watched an IPL game all the way through this year.

I didn’t mean it to work out this way. There were things I wanted to see, such as Rahul Dravid’s swansong before he sinks gratefully into the rocking chair of retirement, Jesse Ryder’s timeout from New Zealand cricket after another boozy misadventure, the ridiculous ongoing KKR soap opera and gauging how badly they are doing by the point at which Shahrukh Khan stops turning up to their matches.

I have caught a few passages of play here and there, but the thing that’s struck me most, though, are the uncomfortable juxtapositions that have been occurring lately. One could even call them examples of dramatic irony. On the day that Chris Gayle went ballistic for Bangalore at the Chinnaswamy versus Pune Warriors – a scorching innings of 81 that included five sixes in one over off the hapless Rahul Sharma – Shivnarine Chanderpaul was determinedly grinding out the runs at Port of Spain to steady the Windies ship after a diabolical start where their first three wickets were lost for only 38 runs. These two innings, Gayle’s and Chanderpaul’s, and the 9,000 miles that separated them, represent the fault-line that divides the game. Sometimes, it feels as though you must be on one side or the other; as a fan, straddling that divide is uncomfortable, if not impossible.

The West Indies could have done with Gayle in their ranks during their hour of need, but he is where he is due to a chain of circumstances not entirely of his own making. In the form of the West Indies Cricket Board, it seems this unstoppable force managed to find its immovable object. There have been encouraging noises coming out of the Caribbean lately regarding a rapprochement between the two, but it seems wrong that Gayle should be in India while Chanderpaul takes the burden of his country’s Test hopes on his shoulders.

Kevin Pietersen too has entertained, but he has brought with him his own controversy, the way that only KP – genius, mould-breaker, shit-magnet – can do. He got himself into a bit of hot water the other week when he ascribed English attitudes to the IPL as jealousy. There was some confusion as to where and when (and if) the “jealousy” word was uttered, since Pietersen seems to have done more than one interview that day, but it provoked a fair amount of blustering and sputtering in the UK press. Coming so soon after his 151 against Sri Lanka at Colombo, lauded as one of the finest Test innings ever seen, and while English county cricketers ply their trade in freezing wet conditions on seaming spring wickets, it’s been another stark and discombobulating contrast. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and we’re not at The Oval freezing our extremities off, either, while waving arthritically to the pavilion for another jumper and a pair of hand warmers.

Judging by all the tub-thumping that occurs on Twitter and forums this time every year, there doesn’t seem much room for doubt in this brave new world – you’re either a clued-up progressive who moves with the times and accepts the IPL and all its various copycats as a logical, entertaining result of the sport’s snowballing commercialisation, or you’re derided as an antediluvian dinosaur (the term used to be “purist”, but you’re more likely now to be branded simply a snob) if you dare to venture a preference for the longer form. Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket has been cited many times in comparison as a similar gamechanger – once the dust had settled players were better paid, scoring rates in Tests became faster, the world did not end – but I’m resistant to the simplistic view that history repeats itself. True, both tournaments had their genesis through a desire for money and power, but the riches and influence have changed hands since Packer’s time. The lure of a large pay-cheque for a few week’s work continues to provide a headache for county and national administrators when it comes to fixture clashes and player availability. It’s an issue that’s grumbled about but continues more or less to be tiptoed around, lest the inevitable “restraint of trade” threat raises its head. You cannot blame Chris Gayle for helping his bank account by plying his trade in a variety of T20 tournaments. Hell, he’s great entertainment, and he’s making the most of the opportunities available to him. But he will be helping his country – and cricket – more when the WICB allows him back into the Test fold rather than treating him like a rebellious teenager.

The IPL isn’t Packer Version 2: it is less revolution than evolution, and whether it will prove a dead end in that respect is still too early to tell. Like the Titanic, it could end up being sunk eventually by the iceberg of indifference, a victim of its own hubris and bloated hype, as viewing figures and advertising drop off. Whether there will be any pickings left for cricket after it’s done pursuing its scorched earth policy through aggressive scheduling and self-interest is the main concern.

The death of Test cricket has been predicted before, and fair enough, it is still with us, but one could also say it’s these continually raised concerns that have reminded us of how much in the way of tradition and history we stand to lose. The erosion, though, has now reached a point of insidious acceleration. Pietersen was bought during the transfer window for this year’s IPL by Delhi in a deal reportedly worth US$2.3 million. For becoming the number one Test team, England received a cheque for US$175,000. Add to that the increasing frequency of two-Test series and the cancellation – sorry, “postponement” until 2017 – of the ICC Test Championship, and while it’s not quite barbarians-at-the-gates stuff, Test cricket’s fortifications could definitely do with some strengthening.

I do enjoy the IPL, albeit in moderation – like the coke-snorting yuppie who gatecrashes your party and drinks all your champagne, it does tend to go on a bit. I’m all for embracing change and accept that the game must adapt in this current economic climate. But some things are so valuable, you cannot measure them in money, and you cannot tear down a load-bearing beam in your house because the woodworm have taken a chomp at it and it doesn’t quite fit in with your snazzy new decor. It’s all about balance. Sure, you could probably make a home in the rubble if you needed to, but would you really want to live there?

pp. 161 ff.

Friday, April 13th, 2012

It’s been a roller-coaster, the last few weeks.

It culminated in the doorbell going on Tuesday and my partner solemnly placing an Amazon package in my hands, and my fingers fumbling clumsily with scissors, sellotape and cardboard as I opened it. The packaging you want to open quickest always gives the most resistance.

In February last year, I was fortunate enough to be asked to write the article on blogs for this year’s Wisden Almanack. It’s sitting beside me as I type this – custard-yellow cover adorned with celebrating England fielders in fitting recognition of Team England’s ascendancy to number one Test nation. It has the reassuring heft of scholarship, tradition, and high quality writing, and for the first time has the name of Lawrence Booth on the cover.

After skimming briefly over my article to reassure myself it was really in there, and the last year of reading, note-taking, collation, near nervous-breakdowns, writing, rewriting and polishing hadn’t all been some fever-induced dream, I put the Almanack back down and spent the morning eyeing it nervously, circling it from a distance. These things can take some time to sink in. Then, predictably, the cricket fan in me gained the upper hand, and I started greedily perusing the other articles like a starving man at a gourmet dinner: the Five Cricketers of the Year (Tanya Aldred’s “cheese sandwich” line in her piece on Tim Bresnan has rightly been quoted numerous times), Gideon Haigh’s trenchant take on the ICC, Mike Yardy’s moving account of the depression which forced him home from the 2011 World Cup, and most notably Lawrence Booth’s hard-hitting view on the responsibility cricket boards must bear towards the well-being of the game… these are just a few of the many pieces of superb writing that you’d expect from the longest running and most famous sports annual in the world.

My article, “More rewarding than the facts”, is on page 161, if you fancy reading it.

There are a lot of blogs out there. Theodore Sturgeon once said that ninety percent of everything is crap, and this applies as much to blogs as anything else. But there is some superbly informed and passionate writing out there. I didn’t just want to do a list of the best, most of which the average internet-savvy cricket obsessive will already be familiar with. I wanted to highlight the ones that afforded an alternative window on what was happening in the cricket world at the time – writing that would make you think, raise an eyebrow, shake your head, or possibly even all three.

I also wanted to show that blogs and blogging, if not yet quite accepted as legitimate journalism, are at least attracting the attention of those in the sport’s upper echelons – something I experienced myself when Mike Atherton was kind enough to comment on my article on his interview with Mohammad Amir.

At the end of the day, I am just a fan. I’m an intensely private individual and I value my anonymity; like most introverts, I don’t crave the limelight and have little interest in self promotion. I am happier on my own or amongst a few like-minded cricket obsessives at Grace Road on a rainy April afternoon than I am at black tie dinners.

But when Wisden calls, you answer.

My main fear was that I’d miss some hidden gem, some piece of inspired lunacy or creative brilliance, but once I’d gathered my material, the gist of what I wanted to say took shape and my train of thought suddenly acquired a destination; the writing became the easy part. This was aided in no small part by the encouraging approval Lawrence Booth gave to my proposal, his helpful suggestions, and his assured touch as an editor. For the foreseeable future, the Almanack is in extremely good hands.

The best thing, though, about being published in the Almanack is seeing my name included in a list of contributors who, between them, have written at least a dozen of the books that currently occupy pride of place on my bookshelves. I finally saw sense in deciding not to pluck them all off the shelf and take them with me to the Wisden dinner to get them signed. To be listed alongside them and to be sitting amongst them on Wednesday night in the Long Room at Lord’s was an incredible honour and a dream come true.

Thanks must also go to Jarrod Kimber, whose article on the top Tweets of the year filled out the third page of my article. It was Jarrod who passed my details on to Lawrence and gave me this opportunity.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the support and patience of my long-suffering partner, who once wryly observed that I can talk about cricket for four hours and not once repeat myself – and didn’t mean it as an insult (I think).

Cricket is a broad church which provides a welcoming sanctuary to a wide range of eccentrics and obsessives. I understand there was one such in situ at The Oval recently who mistook a pigeon for Jesus.

Me? Well, they let me write an article for the Wisden Almanack.

Cloudy, with unsettled conditions

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Typical, that I should be writing this as wind and sleet hammer at my window.

Last week, Leicestershire played Cambridge MCCU under skies that matched the light blue of the students’ caps. Tomorrow, the season proper begins with a championship match against Glamorgan. Given that storms have been raging up and down the UK all day the chances of a punctual start are looking slim.

I’d like to say that Leicestershire’s prospects this year are bright, but success in the FLT20 aside, last year’s results made for grim reading. Triumph at Edgbaston on Finals Day was a fantastic achievement, a testament to getting one over on the sleeping giants who underestimated them and then going all the way through a combination of never-say-die cricket and indomitable team spirit. It secured the county a place in the Champions League, and along with assistance from some generous benefactors, helped to drag the account books back into the black.

A replication of that success this year is statistically unlikely, although, despite losing James Taylor, Paul Nixon, Harry Gurney, and Andrew McDonald, notable components of that victorious outfit are still with us: Abdul Razzaq will be back for the 6-week campaign, Will Jefferson (if fit) will play his heart out, and never underestimate a team that has Josh Cobb bowling while Matthew Boyce patrols the boundary.

Becoming Twenty20 champions managed to take the sting out of finishing bottom of the Division 2 table of the County Championship.

But to be brutally honest, I’d gladly forgo any future success in T20 for promotion to Division 1. That, to me, and most supporters of county cricket, is the trophy that matters most. I look at what we have lost in terms of personnel and it is discouraging. James Taylor is again in the news, having hit 101* for Nottinghamshire against Loughborough MCCU. In comparison, Leicestershire were beaten in their encounter with Cambridge by 100 runs (granted, the stated intent was always to bat as if it were a four-day rather than a 50-over encounter, but the students seem not to have gotten that memo, accelerating markedly during their last 20 overs to set a total Leicestershire never looked in danger of chasing).

George Dobell wrote an excellent defence of county cricket at Cricinfo, arguing passionately for its preservation and against the raft of ridiculous regulations and requirements that currently hobble it – one such that directly affects Leicestershire this year involves the absence of Andrew McDonald due to the fact he has not played international cricket in the last five years. Dobell also takes well-aimed fire at David Morgan’s proposed cuts to the County Championship programme, and emphasises all that county cricket has given to team England in terms of talent and thus to the game as a whole. He notes, “The smaller clubs contribute just as much. Lowly Leicestershire, surviving on a turnover about 10% that of Surrey’s, have produced the likes of Stuart Broad, Luke Wright, James Taylor and Darren Maddy in recent years. Turn off their funding and that supply line will disappear.”

As a Leicestershire supporter, I’m proud of the success our players have gone on to enjoy. But that doesn’t help us win championships. I find myself with the same mixed emotions as this time last year: as the season starts, I see exciting young talent waiting to be developed and potential waiting to be fulfilled in the likes of Shiv Thakor, Rob Taylor, Greg Smith, and Ned Eckersley, and further Lions honours on the horizon for Nathan Buck, but I also see bigger clubs with bigger cheque-books hovering like vultures at the end of it.

It seems no matter how many England players we produce, we remain that most unfashionable of counties, the one everyone wants to leave. James Taylor has cited as the main reason for his move to Nottinghamshire his desire to test himself against first division bowling. One cannot blame him for making a move that will further his career, but given his talent, that he should have left was always going to be on the cards. Harry Gurney, too, had good reasons for leaving, due to a lack of opportunity in the four day game. But the fact remains that we are currently mired at the bottom of a division that’s regarded by many as a ghetto of losers, has-beens and never-will-bes, and this is why promotion is so vital, if we are to stop losing our best players.

Maybe it’s the weather, but I honestly did not set out to be so gloomy about Leicestershire’s chances this year. Aside from our promising young talents, Ben Smith, the county’s new batting coach, has arrived with a mission to transform Leicestershire’s batting in the four day game, and new signing Ramnaresh Sarwan, still feeling the sting of being dropped from the West Indies setup, is hungry for runs; hopefully the bad weather he’s experienced since he got here hasn’t dampened that zeal.

This year is likely to be another rebuilding year for the Foxes. Tomorrow, when the game against Glamorgan is due to start, the forecast is for overcast conditions but thankfully no rain. Here’s hoping at points during the season we see the sun.

Leics play Cambridge under blue skies

Leics play Cambridge under blue skies