Manufacturing a cricketing spectacle

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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Scholars are divided on whether Elizabeth Barrett Browning was writing about Robert Browning or about cricket but her words came to me as I pondered my experience as a spectator in the crowd at the England V Pakistan World Cup match last Monday at Trent Bridge. (An intelligent, passionate poet, I think Elizabeth might have enjoyed cricket – although would have struggled with eight hours in the opium-free stand.)

Anyway. Her words dropped into my brain as I sat quietly watching the match while the Pakistani supporters leapt around me with ineluctable vigour. While there is no doubting their love of the game and their team, it became apparent that much of their more outrageous dancing and chanting came at the same time as the appearance of a TV camera.

And it wasn’t just the Pakistan supporters. The England-supporting schoolkids in front of us were frequently briefed by the cameraman to perform on cue. The camera didn’t just happen to capture some 10 year olds playing air guitar along to the terrible guitarist who was playing live during breaks in play, it captured them doing it because the cameraman had told – and shown – them what to do and when to do it, each of them performing on cue as he pointed at them one by one. The camera then moved away and they settled down to resume watching quietly and eating sweets.

Beyond the choreographed enjoyment, the simple presence of the camera changed the crowd dynamic. When it pointed at anyone, they leapt up to cheer and shout and wave. When it pointed at the Pakistan supporters, they launched into chants and dances.

We’re sophisticated enough to know now that just because something is on the TV or t’internet, that doesn’t mean it’s a true record of events. Selective editing, angles, re-takes and so on all mean that we are being shown a version of the truth. But live TV – most people would surely assume that what you see is exactly what you get? Well, it’s not. And not only that but the camera is not just a recorder of events but a shaper of events; not a neutral, objective presence but a presence that is an active part of the very spectacle it purports only to record.

As part of a broader picture that sees 4 and 6 cards and thundersticks handed out to everyone, that sees the Cricketeers hyping up the schoolkids to sing and chant, that sees music played in the ground to get the crowd singing along, and the picking out of anyone in fancy dress on the big screens for everyone to cheer – we are encouraged to express our pleasure at the spectacle and our support of our side in a very particular way. It’s a way that feels distinctly at odds with how many people might want to enjoy it but it’s the only way the authorities appear to want us to enjoy it. It’s not a 90-minute football match, it’s an 8-hour cricket match: we really don’t need to pretend that every minute is action-packed, every spectator is out of their seat with excitement, do we?

Without wanting to sound too curmudgeonly, I wonder if there is anything wrong with enjoying the game of cricket for what it is rather than feeling like you’re in a piece of performance art? In an era where scores of 300 are the norm and 400 is regularly within reach, and when so many truly thrilling players are showing spectacular skills, is this not enough? It feels as if cricket-the-product has become more important to the powers-that-be than cricket-the-game.

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On supporting Pakistan

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Three sounds echoed in my mind as I left Trent Bridge on Monday, having watched England play Pakistan in the World Cup: the incessant dull resonant thud of thundersticks being whacked together, the exquisite sound as the ball hit Jos Buttler’s bat before disappearing through extra cover, and the soundtrack of the day: the chant of ‘Pakistan! Zindabad!’

I went to the match alongside teachers and children from the school where I am a governor – all of us the fortunate recipients of tickets through the commendable World Cup Schools Programme. It was a first big-match experience for all the children who went and they loved it. Our seats were allocated, sensibly, in the alcohol-free stand; this, of course, was also where the vast majority of Pakistan supporters were too. We had quite an experience.

If I know nothing else, I know now that Pakistan supporters love their cricket, their team and winning. They live and breathe every delivery. They walk a tightrope of joy and despair every single ball, they are the very antithesis of stoicism.

How has it come to this, I wondered. How is it that all the England supporters (unfuelled by stiff-upper-lip-inhibiting alcohol) sit quietly, applauding gently, and trying not to eat their lunch before midday, while the Pakistan supporters punctuate any quiet moment with a series of loud call-and-response chants, chatter excitedly, and leap from their seats and run down the steps to dance with impressive vigour and enviable disinhibition every time there is a four, six or wicket? This is no hyperbole: there was not one boundary hit that was not celebrated as if the match were won.

What is the dancing all about? Is it simply a message of joy? Surely it cannot be – it is too orchestrated, too deliberate (though undeniably joyful too). It appears to be a bonding experience, a moment for men (for it was exclusively so) to bond under one flag, one religion, one nation. It is perhaps a rare space to express themselves and the pride in the nation from which they or their forbears come. In a British society that sadly appears to be becoming less tolerant, this is a rare opportunity where they feel safe just to be.

That’s not to say there aren’t tensions. The interactions with the stewards are uneasy, both parties trying their best (some individuals succeeding, others not) to find a light-heartedness in their interactions that doesn’t come easy. Despite the supporters’ ebullience, there is an underlying sense of nervousness, a tacit awareness that despite the freedom they have here in the ground, it is still one that could be curtailed at any moment. At one point someone from the back of the Pakistan section throws a bottle of water which lands in the area in front of the seats. Every Pakistan supporter turned to look, repugnance writ large on their faces, followed by several exasperated cries of ‘Come on, bro’. There are a few minutes’ uncomfortable silence.

There is little tension in the crowd, however (apart from, understandably, the old couple who can’t see the cricket every time the Pakistan supporters leap up to dance. They were moved after a while – a sensible decision from the stewards). There is no sense of aggression or pending confrontation bubbling beneath the surface. Ultimately we all share a huge love of the game, even if we express it differently. Everyone of us is amused by national loyalty tensions that are embraced by the fans: the chants of ‘He’s one of our own’ whenever Mo or Rash come on to bowl (see this great piece from Mo for more on this https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2019/jun/05/england-moeen-ali-cricket); the pantomime booing of an Asian man in an England shirt; the fans in half-and-half wigs and shirts proclaiming support for ‘EngPak’. A be-turbanned Indian supporter with a huge flag is embraced and sits amongst the Pakistan fans.

The schoolchildren we are with watch in bemusement and amusement everything that is going on, looking to the adults with perplexed faces as the famous Chacha Cricket sweeps regally around the stand, leading chants, greeting fans, taking selfies. I’m not sure how much adulation one man needs but clearly he is yet to reach his limit.

So I leave Trent Bridge having watched a wonderful match and experienced an extraordinary atmosphere that has left me curious to understand more about this group of cricket supporters, whose fervour is untrammelled, whose joy is unsurpassed and whose enthusiasm unimaginable. Where does it come from? What is it all about?

It makes me think back to the wonderful film Fire in Babylon in which one comes to understand the critical importance of the West Indies cricket team to the Caribbean diaspora, and I wonder if it’s the same for Pakistan today. There’s so much more than cricket at stake.

An implicit language

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One sunny afternoon on the school playing fields in 1982, the nine-year-old me came face-to-face with my Dad. In a father-son relationship founded in the old rules of stiff upper lips and unspoken affection, cricket was the medium through which we communicated, a way into a conversation where we could interact warmly, passionately even, without awkwardness. This was how we expressed our affection – and we accepted it. He knew no different, I knew no better.

As school drifted into the joyous last few days of the academic year, nine-year-old me walked to the wicket, heart thumping, ears alive to the cheers of encouragement from the boundary. Suddenly I became so self-conscious that even walking felt complex and mechanical, but I made it to the wicket and took guard in the annual Fathers v Sons match. The umpire confirmed my Viv Richards-inspired leg stump guard, I tapped my bat – my first, a size four Gunn & Moore – and looked up to see my Dad at the end of his run.

It was rare for him to go to a school event. But this was a special occasion. Mum had bought a picnic and a summer dress. While other dads who were playing wore jeans, tracksuits and trainers, my Dad was in his whites.

Dad bowled off-spin. I watched him begin his familiar, curved trot to the wicket, left shoulder dipping, before a short delivery stride and a surprisingly delicate pivot on his left foot. The ball hung in the air. So slow, so hittable. I swung as hard as I ever had, the shouts of ‘Go on, Nick, show your Dad!’ and ‘Six! Six! Six!’ spiking a surge of adrenaline.

As I swung my bat, I became aware that the expected moment of impact had come and gone. There was that instant between missing the ball and hearing it hit the stumps when you manage to generate a nanosecond of optimism before the sound of leather on ash crashes through your hopes.

My devastation was immediate and, I learned later, so was my Dad’s. He had thrown up a ball of innocuous gentleness, an offering from father to son, a delivery designed to ensure the moment belonged to me, not to him.

The tears prickling my eyes would not be swallowed away. The jeers and boos directed at my Dad made me feel better – and worse. My Dad prepared to bowl his next ball, utterly crestfallen.

In the weeks before he died, when his world had shrunk to reach only the edges of his hospice bed, his digital radio became the fire around which we gathered while his heart counted down its remaining beats.

We listened and agreed on enough to feel the warmth of our shared understanding, and disagreed on enough to maintain the fragile paternal carapace on which his dignity could rest. As consciousness became more fleeting, the mumbling of the radio alone, no matter what the words, was the blanket we wrapped ourselves in and huddled under while the cricket continued to wash over us with reassuring timelessness.

NET RESULT

I wrote this in July 2017 during the Women’s World Cup. The archive for All Out Cricket, the magazine for which I wrote it, seems to have largely disappeared so I’m uploading this, and possibly other articles, here for posterity.

Derbyshire CCC had put the call out to local club players to come and bowl to international teams while they were based at the county ground during the Women’s World Cup. Like a few other local hopefuls, I decided it was probably going to be my first and last chance to net with international cricketers, so I signed up.

I had been standing at the side of the nets for half an hour, waiting to be asked to bowl. I was neither warm nor loose. Suddenly the call comes. Now, my club team will tell you that my first delivery of a spell is something of a lottery. My bowling analysis after one ball frequently reads 0.1-0-4-0. So it’s fair to say that there was an element of trepidation as I marked out my run.

I picked up a white ball, stood at my mark and looked up to see Heather Knight at the crease, bat raised in anticipation. Yes, the England captain, having her last knock before her team would play on the opening day of the premier international women’s cricket tournament, one of the most important days of the players’ lives.

On the plus side, I made it to the bowling crease. From there, it went downhill. As I bowled, I felt as if I had momentarily inhabited someone else’s terminally uncoordinated body and following a confusion of limbs making a series of unrelated movements, I watched, powerless, as the ball landed – for the first time – nearer me than her, before looping in a miserable parabola and landing again three-quarters of the way down the net then finally falling miserably, ignominiously, ground-swallow-me-upingly into the side netting.

It’s amazing how long a few seconds can feel at moments like this. I jogged down the net to retrieve the ball and offer my apologies. The heavy silence was broken by the voice of a coach in the adjoining net, “One more in the side netting and you’re out.” I looked round to see if he was smiling. He was not.

I managed to land the next ball on the cut strip and spent the next 20 minutes trying to banish thoughts of side netting, the yips, beamers and broken fingers. Then I settled in, my body loosened up and I began to enjoy it. And by the time I got to Nat Sciver, I was bowling ok, induced an edge to first slip and am definitely claiming it as my first international wicket.

It was an interesting experience. Net bowlers are very much a commodity, human bowling machines to be switched on and off as required. You must be ready to bowl at any moment or be prepared to wait for an hour at the side until your type of bowling is required. Most volunteers were young and fit so their bodies, full of youth and vigour, seemed better suited than mine, full of age and inertia, to bowling on demand and without warning.

The day before the first match was a fascinating time to watch the England players close up. Brunt chirpy, Shrubsole deadly serious, Taylor busy and genial, most of the squad happy to sit and chat in groups when not required in the nets, happy to shoot the breeze. “The day before a game is very much the players’ time,” England coach Mark Robinson said, watching on. “They practise what they need to practise, maybe replicate what they might face out in the middle tomorrow. It’s important that the bowlers go and spend time in the middle, getting used to the ground and local conditions, see what it’s like bowling at either end and generally getting comfortable ahead of the game.

“I’ve already told the players who is in the starting eleven tomorrow. Sometimes I can do it the day before, other times we need to wait until matchday depending on the pitch, conditions, injuries and so on. Those in the side can focus on preparing well and it’s important for us to look after those who haven’t made the team. Apart from anything else, they’re only one injury away from playing.”

Watching the players from 22 yards, perhaps the most consistently striking feature of the batsmen was their timing. Tammy Beaumont in particular timed it beautifully, sending the net bowlers to the cover and mid-wicket boundaries with regularity. Sarah Taylor was less expansive and adventurous than I expected, perhaps still working her way back towards 100% – although never missing out on the chance to absolutely leather any half-trackers through midwicket. Having bowled to Heather Knight and Nat Sciver, I bowled to Fran Wilson, solid and powerful, and Danni Wyatt, full of energy and purpose. Then Alex Hartley and the chirpy Danielle Hazell batted while Anya Shrubsole practised hitting length balls for six in the next net.

Throughout, Mark Robinson stood and watched, occasionally having a brief conversation with a player or group. He cuts a thoughtful and largely inscrutable figure, his natural stance being arms folded and head tilted slightly to one side. However, he is calm, approachable and friendly, and has clearly formed an excellent and trusting relationship with the team.

As the session drew to a close, Mark Robinson was happy to chat. He had been quite content with all the net bowlers and thanked us for our time. Mark’s only slight concern had been the difference between the surface in the nets and the playing surface. The nets were a little slow, stopping a bit, turning and had some variable bounce, whereas the track the next day was expected to be a belter. He remained fairly phlegmatic about it though. “It is what it is,” he said. “It’s just that if anyone’s out of nick with the bat, this sort of surface can make it worse.”

A few days later and New Zealand were in town. I waited with half a dozen clubbies while the NZ team warmed up on the outfield. They were soon into a game of touch rugby – and the previously relaxed conviviality of the group changed quickly to intense competitiveness.

Moving into the nets, the atmosphere immediately felt different to when England were in town – probably indicative of the fact that NZ had just easily won their first game, while England had been facing the pressured prospect of the first match of a home tournament. As the net practice went on, the atmosphere remained utterly focused but also calm, with a real sense of underlying confidence.

The coach watching on was the epitome of that calmness. Even when one batsman got pinned by a bouncer, he took so long to walk down to see if she was ok that that by the time he reached her, she’d got up, dusted herself off, shaken her fingers and taken guard again. No dramas.

The bowler of the bouncer – and a number of others – was Lea Tahuhu. She was distinctly sharp and the only bowler across the two days that I saw bend the back netting at head height.

My own bowling was much steadier this time and I was fortunate enough to bowl at NZ’s two high-class batsmen, Suzie Bates and Amy Satterthwaite, who went about their business unostentatiously but classily. While still working on their own games, they were also giving feedback to the younger bowlers in the squad. I didn’t manage to get either out but did nick off one of the following pair for my second international scalp.

All the NZ players, and the coach, thanked the net bowlers for their efforts, which was a nice touch after two or three hours bowling to them. They’re a genial group (unless they’re playing touch rugby) and it was a pleasure to be a small part of their preparations.

Indeed, bowling to both England and New Zealand was a pleasure and a privilege – a high point in the bewildering litany of mediocrity that has characterised my recent cricketing life. I was able to stand and watch at close quarters two of the best international teams prepare for their biggest competition. While I’m not exactly expecting a call-up to the England’s next training camp, I hope my contribution helped the cause. Apart from that first ball…sorry Skip.

Book review: The Good Murungu

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murungu

Zimbabwe cricket seems to pitch itself either as an unfathomable soap opera that wallows in a bathos that ill befits its position as a test playing nation or as the utterly forgettable sub-plot to the tale of international cricket, becoming more and more irrelevant as time goes on. In Alan Butcher’s new book The Good Murungu, however, we gain some real insights into the parlous state of the game in Zimbabwe, which is so beset by problems that one must only hope that this book is more exegesis than eulogy.

The book details his time as coach of the country from 2010 to 2013, and as well as a great insight into the country and its cricket, this book presents a fine insight into the man. Alan Butcher appears to be someone not just interested in cricket but in life. He wants to know what makes people tick, he likes people who have views of their own, he embraces new ideas, is happy to be proved wrong and has a firm view of what he ought to provide as a coach. This combination seems like the ideal start for a coach who has to pull together any group of individuals, especially as disparate and complex as Zimbabwe’s.

The overall impression of Zimbabwe cricket that one is left with, certainly in the years Butcher was coach, is that it was involved in a slow, painful act of self-sabotage. Butcher reveals that players were treated appallingly, were criticised, talked down to, and were not paid for months. Instead of wondering why so many Zimbabwe cricketers gave up and headed for the certainty of a county wage, one is left wondering why there weren’t more.

Zimbabwe Cricket had crippling debts and little income except ICC handouts. Butcher reports that the situation was so hand-to-mouth that someone from the finance office went to the bank daily, sometimes for as little as $20. The coach clearly shelled out for various things from his own pocket – what else could he do when his players couldn’t get to practice because they couldn’t afford to put petrol in their cars or didn’t have enough cricket jumpers to keep warm on a tour of New Zealand?

The attitude of the powers-that-be was remarkable – a kind of egotistical, macho micro-management that Butcher summarises as, ‘Everything was confrontation, rarely an effort to understand, empathise or help.’ He describes a strange, deeply-hierarchical system, where respect was demanded not earned and power was an end in itself rather than a means to the greater good. It was a regime that routinely undermined the players and the coaches – then complained when they had little success.

It’s telling that after one confident performance, Butcher was asked how he made it happen. His response of ‘I just gave them some love’ was clearly so off-message that by the time the quote reached the papers, it was ‘I just gave them some glove’, with the implication that it was a rather more of a stick than a carrot approach.

Butcher’s method as coach has a lot to commend it and I like his considered approach. He appears to have always been willing to look at the person behind the reputation and to disregard others’ agendas in favour of making his own mind up. He is very thoughtful on the dynamics of teams and nature of relationships – and any coach who talks of the human condition and the Johari Window (look it up, it’s like Donald Rumsfeld meets Sigmund Freud) is my kind of coach.

As well as the cricket, Butcher provides something of a travelogue and is clearly not shy of a touch of epicurean indulgence. For me, I could have lived with less detail about safari, steak and red wine but I know many other readers have thoroughly enjoyed the texture this has brought to his story.

This is an honest account and although no punches are pulled, it’s also a very humane approach that seeks to understand rather than condemn. Butcher clearly loves the place: ‘I found a country, or at least a population, that was trying to move forward, trying to accept; a country in which I felt safe and welcome wherever I went.’ Butcher is sincere, honest, wise and open to new ideas. I’m left wondering why no other team has snapped him up.

 

Why are flawed heroes so hard to take?

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I was quite cross after the West Indies blitzed the last over of the World T20 final and snatched it from England’s grasp. I admired Brathwaite’s hitting of course and I sympathised with Stokes, who was a matter of inches away from being on all the front pages with head held high rather than on the back pages with head bowed. Still, I was cross that England had allowed me to think this was a done deal and we were six balls away from being world champions.

Then within seconds of the amazing West Indies win, we had TV pictures of Marlon Samuels tearing off towards the England dug-out, ripping his shirt off, seemingly spoiling for a fight. In a moment when you’d expect the emotion to be delight, joy and gratitude, he appeared angry, aggressive and ungrateful. His anger subsided – a little – but the posturing remained throughout the ceremony afterwards and the press conference after that. It was, I felt, ugly and unbecoming. Judging by social media, I was in the majority.

But then I wondered, why do we need our sports stars to be perfect heroes? Why should I or anyone else begrudge Samuels his moment or the way he chose to use it? Does our reaction say more about us than about him?

Yes. And this may be why…

Unwittingly, our sporting heroes represent order and morality. In the sporting arena, we expect good things to happen to good people. Sportsmanship, fair play, hard work, talent – these are the ingredients that bring reward aren’t they? Not always, they’re not.  Ben Johnson, Lance Armstrong, Hansie Cronje, Diego Maradona…all quite brilliant and all fatally flawed in different ways. The fall from grace is so spectacular because we expect so much. With each fall, an illusion is shattered.

It turns out that good is not always rewarded, iniquity not always punished. Suddenly the world is not as ordered and fair, it is arbitrary and amoral. Individuals are flawed, arguments are nuanced, stories are not black and white. We can’t take this dissonance as it makes life too complex, decisions too hard, certainty impossible, so our heroes must either remain elevated with the gods or vilified with the devil.

Another part of the problem is that very early in our lives we buy into scripts to which we expect everyone to conform. Fairy tales, Hollywood movies, Roy of the Rovers…we get a sense of where these stories will go, where the moral will be delivered, where right triumphs over wrong. Have you ever read a story to a young child where the ending wasn’t happy ever after or the good guy didn’t win? Utter bemusement and not a little fear. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be…this isn’t how the world is ordered.

Making our heroes superhuman also protects us in another way. They are not like us, they are achieving things we could never achieve, they are born to it. Well, not really. These are flawed human beings just like us. They have succeeded through talent, yes, but mainly through hard work, ambition, risk-taking, audacity, self-belief, practice. The painful thing is that they have succeeded where maybe we could have too. But we did not. They are more like us than we care to admit. So when they show their flaws, it makes us angry – angry at them for not behaving as their elevated position demands and angry at ourselves for not having succeeded as much as we might.

Finally, and returning to Marlon Samuels, it is easy to vilify a caricature. It is also easy for the person behind the caricature to adopt it as a persona, as the only way to take control of the way they are seen. I know nothing of Marlon Samuels off the field or of his upbringing but I do know that people don’t just get as angry as Samuels is for no reason. They don’t choose confrontation, they don’t need their ego boosting all the time, they don’t adopt an iniquitous persona from nowhere. I have no idea what made Marlon Samuels into the man he is today but I’m pretty sure that if I – and you – knew, we’d see him differently. We all have a story, even our heroes and villains, but of course it’s easier not to know it, easier to have a narrative free from ambiguity, where we know what is right and what is wrong. But the other night, Marlon Samuels helped to demonstrate that this is untenable. This is a world where the boorish, angry, unlikeable Samuels is the hero. Life is no fairy tale, and Marlon Samuels shouldn’t have to apologise for that.

The three-year itch

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Unsurprisingly, there’s chat about Alex Hales and whether he should get another chance opening the batting. This debate is as premature as it is predictable. The man has played two tests, averages 25, scored a good 60 in one of his four innings, and with a strike rate of 37 he is clearly reigning in his attacking instincts in order to make a good fist of the test opening job. He averaged 50 in the Championship last year. It’s worth noting, too, that in each of his four partnerships with Cook, it has been the skipper’s dismissal that has come first.

With all the talk of Cook’s run of unsuccessful opening partners, my mind turned to Graham Gooch’s rather slow start to his test career. He managed 0 and 0 in his first test and soon disappeared back to county cricket, only to return with considerably more success three years later.

Saeed Anwar had the same experience, coming back from a pair on debut to score 169 three years later. And as any cricket aficionado of a certain age will tell you, Marvan Atapattu is the poster boy for ropey beginnings followed by sturdy careers. He made 0 and 0, 0 and 1, 0 and 0 in his first three tests (admittedly rather unhelpfully each about two years apart). This is a less than solid performance for a test match opening batsman. Hales’ average of 25 looks pretty good compared to Atapattu’s 0.16 (and even his one run was rumoured to have come off his pads not his bat). Atapattu was then dropped for three years before coming back to have a distinguished 90 test career that included 16 tons of which six were doubles.

It was only as I began to research this article, which was ostensibly to be about Alex Hales (with a side helping of self-congratulation on my previous post calling for Mo to be kept at 8, Compton to be recalled and Bell to be dropped), that it dawned on me that all the players mentioned above were dropped for around three years before they made their successful comebacks. I wonder what the significance of those three years is? Is this the amount of time it takes to refine your game or work out whether you’ve got the hunger to play for your country?

It worked for James Taylor too. Much as I believe he deserved his recall sooner, the fact is that he had a three-year hiatus from the team and has returned a transformed player. He says himself that not being picked drove him on. Are the selectors on to something here? Do they possess a psychological insight that we hadn’t credited them with?

Nick Compton’s absence was approaching three years too. Undoubtedly a better player now.

There must be something in this three years thing (I think I’ll call it the Campion Rejuvenation Formula©) because Boycott even dropped himself for precisely that length of time before his glorious return with a ton against the Aussies in 1977.

Then there’s Adil Rashid, who spent six years in the international wilderness and judging by his form in the Big Bash, he’s now twice as good as he used to be.

(If I’ve missed anyone you can think of in the three-year club, do shout up.)

It’s impossible to know whether being dropped was the right decision, of course, because we can never know how players’ test careers might have turned out had they been retained. Other teams, with scarcer resources, might be forced to find out whether a player could learn on the job. Certainly when England’s own options have been limited, they’ve had to be patient. Look at Gatt – it took him seven years and 54 test innings to make his first hundred. Hales has had four knocks in his test career. I reckon he should be allowed a few more.

Don’t mess with Mo

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I’ve had misgivings about the way England have gone about dealing with the troublesome opening spot for some time. Today they picked Mo to do the job. It would appear that he got the job not because the coach and selectors thought he was the best man for the job but because they couldn’t come up with anyone else. ‘It’s not ideal’ is the ringing endorsement from the coach, who in one short sentence manages to undermine Mo and annihilate Hales’ confidence completely.

It would seem that Mo is expected to fail. If he does not fail here, he is still expected to fail against South Africa. So we haven’t solved a problem by picking him to open, we’ve postponed it – and created a new one.

Coming in at no.8 last summer was an odd spot for Mo but he rather made the most of this niche position during The Ashes. He played with delicious freedom and treated us to strokes of such grace that the ball didn’t so much hit the bat, as genuflect before it prior to racing away in reverential haste to the extra cover boundary.

Now, however, we’re in danger of doing a Joe Root on him. Taking him from a position where he’s comfortable and performing well and asking him to perform another role in the team that he’s not ready for simply because the powers-that-be are a bit stuck. It would be a crying shame if Mo’s confidence, currently clearly growing, was shattered by a difficult test series. And I do fear for him. From seeing the way he batted in the summer, he didn’t look like a candidate to open in a test match, and to see him wafting outside off stump in the warm-up matches like a cross between David Gower and d’Artagnan confirmed my fears.

What’s sad about the situation is that not only is this decision potentially messing with Mo (and Hales) but it’s also monumentally unfair on other opening batsmen who could be fulfilling the role. If they wanted someone to wave at balls as they passed outside off stump, they could have stuck with Adam Lyth. At least he opens for a living.

But really, I still have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about Compton and Carberry. Two proper openers who did a decent job and should have had a chance to do more. Both had steady, if unspectacular, county seasons and both would have been raring to go. Before you ask, no I don’t think they’re too old. Apart from Younis, Misbah and Shoaib Malik proving the old guard have a bit to offer today, I think Compton (32) and Carberry (just turned 35) are in that stage of their careers where the proximity of retirement is such that it really concentrates the mind. Perhaps you’d call it the Chris Rogers effect™.

When Chris Rogers retired from international cricket this year, I was so glad he didn’t rescind his decision after a successful series. I think he was so successful largely because it was his last series. Essentially he gave it his absolute all for two glorious years and by the end of those two years, he was spent. The fact that his light blazed brightly was inextricably linked to the fact that it blazed so briefly.

It would be the same with Compton or Carberry. Indeed, I think we got a glimpse of it when they first played. Remember how Carberry stood there in Australia and took on Johnson and co, where others were in full retreat? He tried his heart out in that series and his stats stacked up with the best of a bad bunch. One of these two (and realistically it probably would have been Compton) should have been inked in for the whole winter – Pakistan and SA. One of these two would have got their head down and fought with every last bone in their body. It might have been the start of a Rogersesque couple of years. And Mo would still have been down the order, persuading the ball to the fence and changing the shape of games.

Bell’s clangers

And a word on Ian Bell and his selection. My previous post explains my reservations about Bell. He shouldn’t have been picked for this tour, and shouldn’t have been picked for this game. I just don’t know what James Taylor has to do to get the nod. And now Bell has spilled two sitters at slip. When he was pondering retiring at the end of the summer, I think a part of him did. The rest of him should follow.

The Duke lives on

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So this morning the Duke of Bellington, aka Ian Bell, announced – http://metro.co.uk/2015/08/28/ian-bell-exclusive-im-in-no-way-ready-to-finish-i-still-have-plenty-i-want-to-achieve-in-test-cricket-5364510/ –  he’d like to continue playing test cricket (and also announced, rather redundantly, that he has retired from ODIs). I have to say, I’m surprised. I thought he was heading for the very opposite announcement.

What I’m more surprised about though, is that it appears to have been the coaches and captain who have persuaded him to stay. In fact, despite going off to ‘take stock’ just a few days ago, he now has plans to go to Australia in two years’ time to retain the Ashes. Hmm.

I think we can all agree that an Ian Bell cover drive is a thing of beauty and his late cut to third man is the deftest of touches but there’s a sense now that when he plays them we ought to enjoy them while they last because they don’t happen as often and they won’t happen for much longer. Bell now gets plaudits for getting pretty 50s and taking decent catches – the sorts of things that were routine before and barely discussed. When you’re getting rapturous applause for doing something twice in a series that you used to do day-in, day-out, the game is up.

There’s no doubt he’s been a fine player for England who has played some fine innings. But not many recently.

In the last three years, he averages 35.20 in test cricket; in the last two years, 29.24; in the last year, just 24.29. That’s a downward trend if ever I saw one. His career average is down to 43, whereas for a time in 2011 is was around 50.

These stats would suggest he is being picked on reputation. ‘Belly is looking great in the nets’, ‘He’s done it so many times in an England shirt’, ‘Form is temporary, class is permanent’…these phrases and many others like it have been trotted out by selectors, team-mates and supporters but it just doesn’t wash any more.

He’s been a fine England player but it’s time to look around. If Bell can have 22 matches over two years when averaging 29.24 with only two tons, then surely we can afford to give a young batsman a chance to match or beat that?

Assuming Bairstow is retained (with a championship average of 108.89 this year, how could he be dropped? Although they managed to drop him for the ODIs somehow…), then we’re looking at one of Hildreth, Hales or Taylor aren’t we? Although if Root stays at four, a resurgent Ballance could be tried again at five. More from leftfield are other players who have been performing to a high standard year in, year out – Mitchell, Madsen and Vince; or someone in red-hot form like Steve Davies. I still can’t work out what James Taylor has done wrong for England and I’d give him a run.

Just because he wants to keep playing doesn’t mean Ian Bell has to be selected or can’t be dropped. So in the last few weeks of the county season, there’s all to play for and we’ll see who senses a very real opportunity.

Cook the captain has arrived at last

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The Cook revolution has been a quiet one. It has sneaked up on us. After a drubbing in the last Ashes in Australia, Cook looked finished – certainly as a captain and maybe even as a player. But he stayed on. After a long and fruitless run in the ODI side, he was finally jettisoned but it was too late, leaving the team with no chance and Cook furious and hurt at his treatment. The way he was cut from the ODI side and captaincy (right decision, wrong timing) was enough to make anyone feel angry and humiliated. In these circumstances, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a player might just say ‘Sod you’, walk away and write a salty autobiography. But not Cook, who seethed quietly then harnessed his anger and transformed it into determination to prove himself as Test skipper and opening bat.

With this Ashes series win, Cook has finally overcome his captaincy blindspot and finally looks comfortable in his own captaincy skin. He must be lauded for his resilience, and the England hierarchy equally congratulated for their patience (go on, give them a pat on the back – it’s the only one they’ve had for a couple of years).

There was a decision in the Trent Bridge test that signalled to me that Cook is now the England captain he always wanted to be. On the final morning with just three wickets to take, he bowled Stokes and Wood instead of Broad. Why was this decision, which would have no impact on whether England won or not, so important?

  1. The way they’d bowled, these two lads were just as likely to take the wickets as anyone but the conventional and populist thing to do would have been to bowl Broad. Eight in the first innings, one more to take for a rare 10 in a match, home crowd favourite… But no, Cook took a bigger decision. He didn’t follow expectations but equally it wasn’t funky. It was a sound tactical, slightly intuitive, decision where he backed his own decision-making processes.
  2. It was a big statement to those two young players and to the whole team. ‘Yes,’ he was saying, ‘I’ve got Jimmy and Broady with 700+ wickets between them but actually these two young lads are going to finish the job.’ This said to his own team that he believed each and every one of them could win matches for England – indeed he expected them to, and they should expect to do so too. This was a confidence-inspiring move for a side gelling together nicely.
  3. It also said to the Aussies, ‘actually we’ve got four quicks who can get you out not just two. I trust them to do it.’ And they did it. I wouldn’t say it’s quite Roberts, Holding, Garner, Marshall but it is a quartet of fast men who can all destroy a side on their day. Future oppositions will have noticed.

So why has it taken so long for Cook to slip comfortably into the captain’s role? Well, he didn’t captain much before he got the England job and not everyone drops into the captaincy role easily. It clearly didn’t come naturally. Then he went two years without a Test century, barely justified his place in the team, got thrashed in the Ashes, dropped from the ODI side and drew with a ‘mediocre’ West Indies side.

The uncertainty led to what appeared to be captaincy by committee where he had plans when he walked out on to the field that he stuck to rigidly. He was slow to react and tactically limited. He became defensive both on the field and in front of the media. The latter was understandable – he came in for some fierce criticism, often unnecessarily harshly delivered. The former was less easy to defend. So formulaic was his captaincy sometimes, I’d imagined him before walking out on to the field with a piece of paper in his pocket from the master in charge of cricket, showing him when to change the bowling and where to put the fielders.

He was also dealing with the retirement of key players, turmoil at the top of the ECB and the KP issue. He was so busy fighting fires he probably didn’t have time to lead the team as he’d have liked. But peace, in the end, came. The New Zealand series was the turning point. Almost by accident, he realised just what his young team was capable of – and he liked it. They gave him confidence and now that he had a young team 100% behind him, he was able to reflect that confidence right back to them. Loyalty, support and commitment went both ways. A joie de vivre, missing for so long, returned.

So confident, calm captain Cook began to make good decisions on the field, tactically sound and often productive. The decisions weren’t made for the sake of being seen to make them, they were made because they were the best for the team. They were made because they came naturally to him. Finally the title of England captain sat comfortably on him.

I do still harbour reservations about his batting which I’m sure isn’t anywhere near as good as a few years ago. On the off side, he still seems to poke at the ball hard with his hands out in front of him and the way he was LBW to a straight half-volley in the Trent Bridge test was concerning (how did he miss it by so much?) but what his batting has now is self-belief again and that’s more than enough to paper over the cracks. He remains a good batsman if no longer a great one, and is an important foil for the expansive players down the order.

Cook the captain is so confident now that he was quite comfortable to say, after the Ashes had been won, that he hadn’t expected the team to be ready to win them just yet. He also went out of his way to thank Peter Moores. And his voice cracked with emotion when he talked about his team, the lads who had backed him all the way and played out of their skins to pull off a remarkable win. An Ashes win is always a defining moment for a captain but when that captain has been through what Cook has been through, it is a moment that resonates way beyond the field of play.