Friday, 16 May 2008

Get your priorities right, says Athers

Dear, oh dear: Athers gives Vettori an absolute tooling read here

Thursday, 15 May 2008

The English Game

Check out my interview with Richard Bean on about his new play about cricket, The English Game, showing at West Yorkshire Playhouse, and then at theatres across the UK: read here...

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Don't douse my flame

My current excitement at the start of the new domestic season will soon pass; experience tells me this. Ramps, it is good to know, completed his 98th first-class century yesterday, but not too long after he’s passed his 100th, I shall have tired of trawling the on-going season averages, grown bored of reading reports on runs scored or wickets taken by players long ago proved to be insufficiently equipped to make the Test grade and simply stopped caring whom it is that is leading whichever competition I fail to recognise from all the others: there is too much domestic first-class cricket

I look forward to the new season of Test cricket, I really do, but I look forward, so much more, to playing again after so long a winter. Part of cricket's appeal is entrenched in its delicate, precarious nature; a flame of summer so easily put out by the shedding of tears that other games, other activities of the season can easily endure

Monday, 7 April 2008

Life XI

Michael Henderson in the Telegraph not too many months ago, collated a list of the players he discerned most pleasing to his eye, and I've since thought that I should do something similar according to my own tastes, though with a few stipulations. My first stipulation is that I be allowed two lists: one made up of players whom I have seen play in an acceptable number of Test matches during my lifetime; a second, if I may be given poetic license, made up of those cricketers whom I wish I might have seen. The second condition - and the challenge makes the thing a little more interesting, I think - is that the players selected make up an actual team capable of making good account of itself in a Test match. I'll be including my reasons for selecting - and not selecting - players as well

So to the first list...

M. J. Slater
M.P. Vaughan (c)
B.C. Lara
S.R. Tendulkar
C.L. Hooper
M.E. Waugh
K.C. Sangakkara (wk)
A. Flintoff
S.K. Warne
A.A. Donald
C.E.L. Ambrose

But for the exclusion of Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Murali, this could pass for a collection of the best 11 players of the past generation, but you'd be surprised how many cricketers from the generation that went before it I might have included (Robin Smith, Aravinda de Silva and Mohammad Azharuddin, for instance) despite my being a mere 26 - this XI was far more difficult to put together than I anticipated

Were it not for my desire to cushion the frenzy of Slater's hitting with the grace that Vaughan provides, Chris Gayle would most certainly have joined the New South Walean at the top of the order; but, then, Vaughan - along with Hooper and Lara - was always guaranteed to make this XI

Slater's 80 in the first Test of the 2001 Ashes at Lord's clinched his place in the side, a raging, violent display of severe hitting that made the ground ring all around with the crack of infant skulls on Trojan walls; gleam despite its awfulness

Vaughan is a batsman from another time, his classical play sonorous below the visual unmelodiousness of his synthetic peers. Overpitch anywhere around off-stump and he will create a milky way through the covers, drop it too centrally short and the audience holds dead still for the coming, immaculate pull like the anticipant audience beneath an elaborate Swiss cuckoo clock as it prepares to strike noon, waiting for the inevitable to marvellously occur

Where then Gower? Much as I would have loved to have included Gower, I simply don't remember having seen him bat, though I know that I did: Gooch's gruffly effective blacksmithery had me clutching at my throat for breath, so perhaps I did not notice Gower because, until we are starved of breath, especially as children, we rarely pay the air due heed. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that Gower prematurely retired from cricket, playing his last Test match in 1992 and publishing his post-playing autobiography whilst I was still, literally, in short trousers

Lara batted with an electricity that no contemporary could come close to matching, and a number of his innings, especially against the Australians, were the stuff of epic poetry. People with chips on their shoulders - and why Lara was so burdened with one I cannot think - are capable of frantic, unexpected emotional and physical motion, and when this is coupled with the genius that so regularly visited itself on the Trinidadian at the crease, it can make for a beautifully harrowing scene that entirely transcends sport and passes into drama

Tendulkar I nearly did not include, and that you may find surprising, for he has set the canon for modern batsmanship. There is something about being told that someone's brilliance is unquestionable that riles, and were it not for the memory of his thrice successively whipping Hoggard for four through midwicket from balls swinging out through the corridor of uncertainty, he might not have made this side, for in the same innings, he was praised with such typically vigorous sycophancy for a hideous aerial inside-out drive that plopped down just beyond mid-off that I came very near to smashing the gogglebox. Not Tendulkar's fault that we should be prevented a fair chance to publicly assess him for ourselves without being accused of iconoclasm, but I consider him in the way that one might Mozart: all too perfect. Still, some men and women cry for Mozart. I'll not let my own blind-spot keep the greatest player since Sir Vivian Richards from this list

And what of Richards? Footage from his pomp acts as indomitable evidence of his arresting, fierce luminosity, but though I greatly admired the batting I was privileged enough to see as a boy, I was conscious, even then, of a sense that I was watching in action an old warrior whose status as a great was already sealed, and whose vitality at the wicket was not as it would have been four or so years previous; so for that reason, I feel I can cannot here include him

Coming in at 5, though, is a batsman that some feel might have succeeded Richards as Caribbean Master- Blaster-in-chief had he not so underachieved, but then Carl Hooper's bearish frame belied an inherent grace, his driving, in particular, lissom as the turn of a noble Florentian girl's delicately sleeved wrist at dance. If it is at all true that he’d require waking just as he was due out to bat, I like to fancy that he was woken from flightful, embroidered dreams, rich as mediaeval tapestry, whose river-carried narratives he played out abstractly at the wicket

Mark Waugh at 6? Well, I confess that, such is my distaste for his supposed off-field conduct that I allowed myself to first select the similar Damien Martyn ahead of him and then to consider Mahela Jayawardene as my 6, before coming to my senses and realising that, fine as those players have both been, I would be including either of them ahead of Waugh only to spite him. I'd suggest that his far more palatable twin was the better player, but though Steve was a significantly more attractive player than he is given credit for, Mark batted with an entrancing natural glamour that yet yielded huge numbers of runs and saw him finish with an average of over 40 in an epoch of great bowling

As should be patently clear by now, I am given to favour the aesthetic over the muscular - haughty as that sounds - and it is Sangakkara's cultured strokemaking and lithe movement that see him picked ahead of Gilchrist, though the recently retired Australian is the greatest wicket-keeping batsmen there has ever been, and one of history's most destructive batsmen also. Though itself ocassionaly robust, Sangakkara's easy strokemaking seems as if cultivated amongst the vellum of some Oxbridge library and relaxedly practiced in the holidays along the marbled white corridors of shaded Eastern palaces

Flintoff may seem like an obvious choice, and some may begin to wonder why there are no Pakistan cricketers in this team, but I must tell you that Saaed Anwar - about as good a timer of the ball as I've ever seen - was seriously considered for an opening booth and that Abdul Razzaq only missed out on the all-rounder spot here occupied by Flintoff by just a whisker. It is not, actually, for his brutish willow-wielding that Freddy is included here, for although that can stir to the umpteenth degree, it can be frustrating in equal measure: it is thanks to the game-altering rumble of energy - like the beating pulse of a powerful sea, to slightly borrow from Kipling - that his bowling can swirl up that he finds a place among players far more artistic than himself. Oh, I've never liked Botham, great cricketer though he most certainly was

I first became consciously convinced of Shane Warne’s actual greatness, though my subconcsious had long, long accepted it as a given, during the short, extra special spell he bowled at Trescothick and - more pointedly - Strauss on the evening of the 2nd day of the 2nd Test at Edgbaston in 2005

It is not merely that he bowled Strauss with a delivery as unplayable as the one he had so long ago famously bowled Gatting with, it is that Warne had managed, against reason, to turn the game on its psychological axis by adopting an attitude that suggested that it was actually England that were under the cosh, not the Australian side that rationality told us had the odds so heavily stacked against it. It seemed certain – absolutely certain - that Warne was going to get a wicket that evening through his sheer force of will and unmatchable skill, and when he did so with quite such an incredible ball, the players padding up in the England dressing room must have begun to fear, as I was doing at the point, that he might take 4 or 5 more that evening if granted the time, therefore single-handedly putting his country, improbably, in a position to win a game accepted wisdom told us Australia could not plausibly win. As it was, Lee (completely innocuous on the 2nd evening) was inspired to take 4 wickets the next day in helping Warne bowl England out for a poor 182 and then play a huge part in almost winning the game with the bat in partnership with Warne and then Kasprowizc, but I truly do believe that England would have won that game at a canter had it not been for the pressing apprehension conjured in their minds by one extraordinary cricketer during the dying light of a Birmingham day

It was in the latter stages of Allan Donald's career that I first heard him interviewed, and when I finally did so, I near executed a backward flip over my sofa such was my shock that somebody I so feared for his exploits on the field could be quite so warmly courteous and genial off it. Even before the Atherton incident that experienced the same perverse, terrifying thrill from watching him bowl as one does from watching, say, that blood-chilling crab walk up the stairs in the director's cut of The Exorcist or from bloody-mindedly provoking ghosts during the day that you will rue coming to you with malicious intent in the sleepless night of echoing, isolated boarding school corridors. It has been said of Evelyn Waugh that he had a limitless capacity for indignation and though I did not think of Donald in such articulate terms then, 'indignant' is the adjective I attach to Donald's bowling now: woe betide any that tempt the lick of Waugh's ferocious nib; woe betide any that triggers the nuclear explosion of Donald's bright white wrath

Curtly Ambrose's silent force expanded the length of my supposedly formative years but it was not until I had the pleasure of watching him at close quarters bowl seven or eight overs of unerring accuracy at Hampshire during his last tour of England that I actually began to fathom how very, very good the bowler my generation had so unthinkingly admired really was. The bouncers and abyssal stares we had so enjoyed had by this time disappeared from his weaponry, yet that same still sharkish ruthlessness - soundless, efficient, lethal - remained, ensuring kill after pitiless kill

Friday, 4 April 2008

That frightful bounder

I've been somewhat busy with planning for the new financial year, new work developments and what-not over the past week or two, so I've not been able to muster the enthusiasm to furnish you any pearls of cricketing wisdom (read: self-important drivel)

So what's happened during my time away

Well, Sehwag cracked another triple hundred in what transpired to be the most absurd draw played out on a quite ridiculously flat wicket in the first Test at Chennai ( South Africa are now giving India a frightful pasting in the 2nd Test on a sporting wicket at Ahmedabad), Sri Lanka posted their first win in the Caribbean but appeared to be in the soup in their first innings of the 2nd Test at Port of Spain until the elements hauled 'em out, Rana Naved has been allowed by the Pakistani cricket authorities to sign for Yorkshire after all and, most interesting of all, comic villain Shoaib Akhtar seems to have thrown down his last thunderbolt in international cricket

It is Shoaib I want to focus on, as I haven't had occasion to watch any play lately

It took me years to warm at all to the Rawalpindi Express, for the most part because I am suspicious not of extreme pace in itself, but of the idiot consensus that sheer speed is an end in itself. Moreover, he's more than a little obnoxious, isn't he, and barely does our once fair game (now so greatly tarnished) credit but I must say that my attitude toward him was considerably thawed by a ferociously hostile spell he bowled at Hayden in the 2004-5 series in Oz. Damned if I can tell you which particular session of which day of which Test it actually took place in but, my, I enjoyed it - enjoyed it more than any other spell of bowling I can remember, may the devil take me if it's not true

Remember, 'twas about the time our Antipodean friends were licking all comers left, right and centre (incredible that we beat them the next English summer, really), with that confounded Hayden at the centre of it all, laying waste to bowling attacks across the globe and I, for one, was infernal sick of it, I tell ye; infernal sick

So who should come along to wipe the leer off his over-sized face with a few volleys across the bows but that scoundrel Shoaib

No word of a lie, he fair set out to do bloody murder unto Hayden that day, dastardly daring the fellow to take a heave at anything around his chops, throwing his flopping locks back with a wicked, booming guffaw each time the horror-stricken Hayden stumbled about himself wondering where the deuce the ball had gone, as rocket after rocket passed his ear. The damn fool even took one to the helmet, if memory doesn't fail me, and only Lucifer knows how the Australian survived the blow, for Shoaib was verily in cahoots with Aeolus that day - mighty Ares, too - and would surely have killed a lesser batsman; but that's the thing itself, yer see: Hayden was on top of the world, strutting about the place like Agamemnon, and good old Shoaiby, that impudent soul, decided upon bringing him down a peg or two and he jolly well gave him what-for, didn't he? For that - and that alone - I'm sad to see the lad go, but go he finally must, the bounder

Wednesday, 26 March 2008


Michael Vaughan is quite right: England may have shown considerable backbone and no little skill in coming back from 1-0 down to win the series in NZ, but England will have to get much, much better if they are to avoid taking a shellacking off of big boys like the Saffers

There are so many positives to take out of the last two Tests - Siders, a mature Monty (with an arm-ball), Broaders far exceeding expectations, Straussy, KP and Bell back in the runs, Ambrose doing ok (that's a big thing) - that it's a shame to dwell on any negative aspects, but Vaughan's lack of form is something of a concern to me

Don't get me wrong, Vaughan is a fine, fine player and his cover-drive is one of the most blessed sights in cricket, but he made bugger-all runs in this series and these days lets too much go through the gate or else edges balls that he really shouldn't be. If it's just that his technique that's slipped a little, then he can iron things out, but if judgement is the isue, that's worrying, because picking length and playing the right stroke to it has always been Vaughan's biggest strength. Aggers doesn't seem to think that moving to 3 would make much difference, but I'm not so sure. Admittedly, he's played the majority of his best cricket as an opener, but he's looked, of late, too uncertain a starter (no shame in it, as Ponting, Butcher and Lara will testify) to open the innings and maybe it's time he dropped to 3, and stayed there. Providing we trust Strauss to partner Cook, that is

Elsewhere, the Tresco question, mercifully, has been answered, Broad is beginning to look the business (the consensus had been that he was shite) and could provide some sort of cover for Flintoff should the big man not, heaven forbid, make it back and I think that Hoggy should come back in place of 'Sprayer' Anderson, certainly for the early part of the summer. And Harmison? Does he really, really want to play cricket for England? 'cos 'e's looked as though he don't. Make up your mind, old boy, and put us all out of our misery, there's a good chap

So, the XI that won the last two Tests should splatter NZ in conditions over 'ere, but will those same players have enough to beat Smith and his charmless lot? We shall see

An exciting summer lies in store (if ever it gets here)

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Not many of them left now

I, of course, never got to see him play, but that is no reason not to do Bill Brown, that doughty Invincible, the honour of mentioning his passing

Clichéd as it may sound, Brown was always regarded as a true gentleman of the game, a self-effacing character more inclined to praise illustrious colleagues like The Don, McCabe and Keith Miller than brag about his own achievements with the bat, but it was he more often than not, in partnership with Bradman's near bête noire Jack Fingleton, that provided the platform for those player's unsurpassable achievements. Not one to throw the bat, he did what openeners are supposed to do: blunt the attack and stay at the crease until at least lunchtime on the 1st day

Finishing his Test career with nigh-on 1600 runs from 22 matches at an average of over 46, Australia won 14 of the Tests he played in and he himself was voted Wisden cricketer of the year in 1939 after scoring over 500 runs at an average of over 70 during the Ashes tour of '38, a tour which saw him post 133 at Trent Bridge and 206 at Lord's. Put it this way: only Bradman, of the tourists, outdid him in that series

Rest in peace, good sir