Archive for May, 2012

Calypso conundrum

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Amidst all the dire weather we’ve been having lately, one thing that has brought a smile to my face was an article by Christopher Martin-Jenkins in The Times last week.

In it he wrote of his slow recovery from illness, which has involved chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a series of seven operations. He won’t, he says, be able to attend the first Test at Lord’s next week, but is looking forward to watching it on TV, with great anticipation: “Never, truly, have I so looked forward to a Test match.”

It’s an article that gladdens the heart, not just because CMJ is on the mend, but because his joyful anticipation of the start of England’s international summer crystallizes all that is good about cricket and being alive to see it.

Not only that, but with the weather set fair for at least the next few days, it seems, after a false start involving much rain and many interrupted days of county cricket, with the first Test against the West Indies only days away, like we might be getting a summer after all.

I wish I could be as optimistic as CMJ about the Windies’ chances, though.

Their preparation has been shambolic. They arrived in the the UK last week in dribs and drabs due to visa cock-ups, and an eleven minus captain Darren Sammy were comprehensively demolished by England’s second string in the Lions game at Northampton. True, their batsmen did put up a better showing in their second innings, and Darren Bravo’s 57, following on from his 51 in the first innings, gave the pundits a chance to dust off those Brian Lara comparisons. But one respectable innings total and a couple of decent individual performances won’t win you a Test match, and certainly not against a full-strength England side.

That’s not to say there isn’t talent in the West Indies ranks – far from it. Their seam attack in English conditions could cause the home side some problems, though our batsmen have been more vulnerable to spin recently, as that embarrassing winter tour in the UAE demonstrated. But even then, bowling out this formidable England batting lineup twice seems like a mighty big ask, and their own batting looks brittle and inexperienced; one fears Shiv Chanderpaul will once again be asked to bear a heavy load on those diminutive shoulders.

When this West Indies team takes the field at Lord’s, it will be notable more for its absences. Chris Gayle, of course, is the most high profile. To a neutral, the conflict between him and the West Indies Cricket Board has been a long-protracted soap opera, a jaw-dropping saga of board-versus-player pettiness and pomposity. That finally seems to have come to an end now, with Gayle likely to be selected for the limited-overs matches that follow the Tests, though it seems the board administration took one more opportunity to place Gayle on the naughty step when it questioned his attitude for requesting clarity regarding his international future before turning down a T20 contract with Somerset.

Other notable absences include Dwayne Bravo and Sunil Narine, who, along with Gayle, are currently making the most of lucrative contracts in the IPL, the tournament that to the WICB represents such a huge stumbling block on the road back to the glory days for its national team.

In an article in The Cambridge Companion to Cricket, published last year, Hilary Beckles, a director of the West Indies Cricket Board, wrote: “No previous generation of West Indian cricket leaders has had as divisive an impact on Caribbean development discourse as that of Lara and Gayle. The failure of their teams to compensate for the spreading sense of despair in West Indian socio-economic decline and political disillusionment led to an intensely critical perception of both as politically unfit for the role of leadership. The public feels, furthermore, that despite its insistence on the team having an important political role ‘beyond the boundary’, the game has been hijacked by an uncaring cabal of mercenary money seekers, players without attachment to traditional sources of societal concerns.”

This, in a nutshell, is the conflict that lies at the heart of the mess West Indies cricket is in. To reinforce the credo of country before self the WICB has taken a route that favours the dictatorial over the constructive, and as far as individual player selection goes has discarded the disruptive in favour of the malleable.

It’s not an approach that makes much sense. It seems counter-productive to dispense so drastically with experience for the sake of unquestioning obedience. There also seems to be a lack of transparency as to why certain players have been discarded. The most notable of these are two players currently plying their trade – and scoring runs – in English county cricket.

Ramnaresh Sarwan has so far been a valuable addition to Leicestershire’s ranks this year, and while he could have been forgiven for rethinking his decision to sign for the Foxes in light of April weather that required a minimum of three jumpers, he quickly figured out the best way to keep warm at a chilly Grace Road is to score runs, and lots of them. You’d think his 105 against Derbyshire a few days before the squad was announced, as well as a Test average of 40, might have put him in with a shout of selection, but it seems other factors might have told against him.

He cites his closeness with the West Indies Players’ Association, which has a long history of conflict with the WICB, as the likely reason. “There are a few in the Caribbean who have been targeted and I am one of them,” he says. “I am trying not to focus on it too much, I am just happy to be here at Leicestershire. I do not have to worry about any coaches telling my fellow players that he wants me to fail and that he does not want me in the team.”

Brendan Nash, dropped from the West Indies squad last October while vice-captain, became so disillusioned with his treatment by the WICB that he moved back to Australia to play grade cricket for Melbourne’s Doutta Stars, saying he had no intention of returning to Jamaica in the near future. He is now scoring runs for Kent, and like Sarwan his experience has proved invaluable. He admits now his international career is probably over, but is still not sure entirely why.

“Looking back on my five years in West Indies cricket, it is a structure that is designed to make you fail,” he said. “I think I speak for a lot of guys when I say they are unsure what they need to do and why some people are selected, whether they are just from the right island, or what.”

Given their bowling attack, and the erratic but undoubted talent of the likes of Darren Bravo, green shoots of recovery do seem to be appearing for the West Indies, and – credit where credit’s due – Darren Sammy has grown into the leadership role beyond that of specialist coin-tosser to instil some team spirit into his troops. But when coach Ottis Gibson states: “If we can take this Lord’s Test to four days, that will be great,” it seems those shoots may yet be rooted in shallow soil.

Come Thursday, England’s goal will be to make them wilt.

Book review: It Never Rains… A Cricketer’s Lot by Peter Roebuck

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

It Never Rains

“I suppose it would be dull if one’s fortunes in cricket flowed along happily, roses all the way. But it’s most discouraging to do badly and worse, it preys on the mind. Unless runs come soon, it will become an obsession. It’s very hard to disassociate one’s human worth and one’s success with a lump of wood in one’s hand.”

In 1983, Peter Roebuck kept a diary of his year with Somerset in domestic cricket. With his death in controversial circumstances last November, It Never Rains… A Cricketer’s Lot has become increasingly hard to find. Written by a man who, by all accounts, was something of a difficult enigma, this is generally acknowledged to be his most honest and revealing book.

Cricketers’ diaries are ten a penny now, mostly consisting of ghost-written and vacuous PR speak that pay mere lip-service to revealing what goes on behind the heady heights of international success or the often-misleading glamour of a sportsman’s life.

The most notable break from this trend recently has been from the pen of Tasmanian cricketer (and now Australian opening batsman) Ed Cowan, and the direct and revealing honesty with which he writes of the fears and insecurities that can bedevil a professional sportsman is perhaps not so surprising given Roebuck was Cowan’s mentor.

I was never the biggest fan of Peter Roebuck’s cricket reporting. Most of it seemed skewed either by the grudge he bore against England after leaving the country in the wake of his conviction for caning three young South African cricketers, or controversial rabble-rousing, often for the sake of effect – a suspicion confirmed upon reading that he liked to draw up a list of ten contentious statements which he would then try to shoehorn into whichever article he happened to be writing that day. The apex (or nadir) of this journalistic approach came when he called for Ricky Ponting to be sacked as captain of Australia after the ill-spirited Sydney test against India in 2008. Shrill, bombastic and completely over-the-top, it came across initially as a reaction to be filed in the “knee-jerk violent enough to cause tendon damage” category, but there also remained the suspicion of cynical provocation. “Sacking the captain was the only story remotely dramatic enough to bring everything out into the open,” he wrote later, a statement which did little to disabuse me of this notion.

So, when I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of It Never Rains, it surprised me how much I enjoyed it. It is honest and without artifice. Absent is the bluster and the bombast, the grandstanding and the rabble-rousing; in its place is self-doubt and an outsider’s not always successful attempts to be comfortable in a team environment dominated by alpha personalities; a man trying to find his way (and himself) in a sport he’s not even sure he wants to succeed in. “It’s strange that cricket attracts so many insecure men,” he wrote. “It is surely the very worst game for an intense character… There must be some fascinating stimulation in the game to make so many of us, so ill-prepared for turmoil, risk its ugly changes. Otherwise we’d never tolerate its bounce of failure. And it is mostly failure, even for the best.”

The start of the 1983 season was, like the current one, ruined by rain, with the inevitable introspection that comes with much sitting around, waiting for play to be called off for the day or the match to be abandoned. Most of the concerns that cricketers fretted over then were the the same as they are now, and despite the eighties trappings of Austin Maestros, John Cleese and gammon and chips (no Nando’s in those day) there was still too much cricket, too much travel, burnout by season’s end, fretting over form and weather, the difficulty of having to adapt one’s game from a limited overs match one day to the resumption of the Championship on the next. Not much changes.

The glimpses of Somerset’s two big galacticos in those days, Ian Botham and Viv Richards, are fascinating when seen through Roebuck’s eyes, especially in light of the internecine warfare that was to tear the club apart three years later. Richards, especially, is portrayed as a force of nature, a man deeply admired but also to be regarded with respectful wariness: “I can remember the day in 1978, after our defeats in September, when he went into the bathroom and in his despair smashed his bat to pieces. You don’t meddle with people like that.” When Richards commiserates with Roebuck on his lack of runs, Roebuck is almost abjectly grateful for the concern, like someone finding himself sharing a cage with a man-eating lion that’s decided not to rip his face off.

It’s in the frank discussion of the depression that hit him that Roebuck was so ahead of his time, and it is an appalling indictment of professional sport, not just cricket, that it is only recently that cricketers and other sportsmen feel they can be open about an illness that has caused so many to suffer in silence. The search for form becomes futile,  the walls of hotel rooms start closing in, the slog of a long season becomes a never-ending treadmill. The shadows descended upon Roebuck with a vengeance in July. “I’m stuck in a swamp, being sucked down and waving my arms around in desperation, hoping that someone will notice.” The day that was surely the darkest, Monday 1 August, contains only two words: “No entry.”

Roebuck had his demons. He had friends, who, during those black dog days of August in 1983, helped him beat them back for a time, but, in the light of the way he met his end, and the allegations that followed, there was no-one, it seemed, who really knew or understood him. He certainly seems not to have made it easy for people to get close to him.

And there’s the rub – reconciling the openness with which he wrote his 1983 diary and the controversy that dogged him until his death and which still surrounds him.

They say never speak ill of the dead. My experience in the funeral business has taught me the implications that often lurk beneath the euphemisms when it comes to remembering the deceased. “Straight talking”: boorishly opinionated. “Would give you his last penny”: easily taken advantage of. “Life and soul of the party”: raging alcoholic.

I’ll admit the gushing eulogies that appeared after Roebuck’s death, and in most cases the complete airbrushing out of the controversial events in his past, made me uneasy. One blog that did venture another view reeked offensively of homophobia – and that just made me angry. What troubled me was that even-handedness, a picture of the whole man, seemed in very short supply; it seemed easier to fall back on those timeworn cliches: “troubled”, “conflicted,” “complex”, “tormented”.

“He did not crave partners on an equal footing but followers,” wrote Derek Pringle. Perhaps, in his struggle with his sexuality, he found a refuge and ordering of his inner chaos within the strictly defined frameworks of mentor and pupil, master and apprentice, and in his role of father-figure to adopted African “sons”.  But abuse of authority is abuse, regardless of gender or sexuality, and it is this need for control that seems to have been inextricably bound up with his sexuality, and which at times seems to have made others do what they would rather not do, that does not sit easily with me.

Roebuck could be open about his depression but feared the glare of the spotlight of public attention. When asked at one point whether he’d ever want to play for his country, he wrote: “I suspect I could tolerate the pressures of Test cricket; it’s the exposure I’m not so sure about.”

When he threw himself from the sixth floor of a South African hotel on the evening of November 12th, 2011, it would seem that this fear of exposure extended to his life off the cricket field as well.