Stephen Parry – it could all have been so different…

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It has been announced today that Lancashire spinner Stephen Parry has joined Australian Big Bash League side Brisbane Heat for the rest of the tournament. Researching an article for All Out Cricket magazine, I spoke to Stephen recently about his early days and how it could all have been so different. 

Stephen Parry made his England debut in March 2104, playing a handful of ODIs and T20s. This achievement would have been unthinkable when he was trying to make his way in the game. John Stanworth, Lancashire’s Academy Director, says Parry ‘didn’t quite get it as a younger player’ – a charge Parry readily admits:

“I was in and out of the age group sides until I made a breakthrough in the under 16s. I had a decent year and then at under 17s, I had a really good year. I bowled well and I batted at four. I was the leading wicket-taker by far. I got picked for the Academy and then I think I kind of believed it was just going to happen. Well, it didn’t and Stanny [John Stanworth] kicked me off.

“It was a bit of a wake-up call. I’d been on top of the world the year before and now I was off the Academy. I hadn’t pushed on enough. No-one wanted it more for me than Stanny and he was probably disappointed. I was upset and disappointed too at the time but now I know it was for my own good.

“I could’ve gone either way then. I decided to postpone university and I went to Australia to play cricket – and I think I probably grew up a bit. When I came back, I went trialling all over the place off my own bat and then eventually I got a chance of a game for the Academy after another player got injured. I got 96 not out. This was half way through the season and I then had a run in the side and got a contract at the end of that year, when I was 20.

“You could argue that 20 is quite late but I think sometimes it’s important to go through the experiences. Having been dropped, it was all about how I reacted. I could’ve walked away but, as my Dad says, I was like a bad smell – always hanging around! It helped that I’ve always really enjoyed my cricket and whether I’m playing for my country or my league club, I just try and bowl my best ball each time.”

We’ve got all the ingredients but need to sack the Cook

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Peter Moores’ rather equivocal ‘support’ for Alistair Cook after his, and England’s, failure a couple of days ago (not to be confused with their failure today)  was an unexpected speck of light at the end of the tunnel.

Though Moores and now Downton keep insisting publicly that Cook will lead at the World Cup, it must be only them, the selectors and Cook himself who believe he is the right man to lead England into the World Cup. The problem is that the selectors and Moores have gone down a Cook cul-de-sac and can’t find a way out.

They backed Cook and continue to back him largely because they backed him before, and each time they do it they make it harder to go back on that decision. It’s a self-annihilating circle demonstrating the utmost lack of self-awareness.

As for as I can tell, they backed Cook for three reasons – desperate hope, convenience and a sense of him being the right kind of chap.

Desperate hope – he did score a few decent runs when he first took over as ODI skipper. He looked ok. However, he averages under 30 in 2014, has scored one 50 in his last 22 ODI innings, hasn’t scored a ton in 45 and has made next to no runs in this current series. And now he’s dropping catches. It’s not that he’s suddenly turned into Mike Brearley either. His captaincy doesn’t make up for his lack of runs. We’ve just lost this series.

Convenience – it really is ideal if one skipper does all the formats of the game or even a couple of them. But not if it’s all going so very wrong. It’s even counter-productive for Cook himself, who seems to be taking his increasingly shaky technique and crushed confidence into the test match arena.

The right kind of chap – he is the anti-Pietersen. He may be gauche, fumbling and awkward at times, he may be an uninspirational leader, he may to batting what Ed Miliband is to statesmanship but he’s a good egg.

Most infuriating of all is the realisation that the selectors, management and Cook are prepared to jettison England’s chances at the World Cup in order to save face on a poor decision to retain Cook as ODI captain. And ‘infuriating’ just doesn’t cover it if there is truth to the generally-accepted rumour circulating that Cook will quit as ODI captain after the World Cup.

Basically the selectors are saying, ‘We wait four years for this opportunity and players put their hearts and souls into getting in the squad and playing – and this year we’ve even planned six months of our international cricket schedule around it – but, hey, let’s write it off this time so Alistair can play in a tournament he’s always wanted to play in and the selectors won’t be forced to publicly acknowledge they’ve got it completely wrong.’

It makes me furious just thinking about it.

I’d love to dissect the 30 man England World Cup squad in minute detail, wondering what our best eleven is but it feels so pointless. Which is a shame because it feels like we have some players who are starting to show what they can do.

The bowling seems steady rather than spectacular but we can rely on Tredwell, Moeen and Broad when he’s back. Anderson isn’t a given in ODI cricket for me – if it doesn’t swing he gets tapped. Woakes is increasingly, and surprisingly, impressive; then there’s hopefully a resurgent Finn, with Jordan as back-up.

Batting line up should be Hales, Moeen, Taylor, Root, Morgan (assuming he remembers how to bat), Bopara, Buttler. I’d like to drop Morgan as his recent record is as unimpressive as Cook’s but I’d need to be confident that his replacement from the squad of 30 would definitely be better. There are no guarantees.

Having said that, I really wouldn’t mind if the selectors were bold for once and went for Ballance or Bairstow, Samit Patel or Adil Rashid. They won’t of course. (With quite a few dashers in the order I probably wouldn’t risk Jason Roy as well.) Stokes, unfortunately, has lost his way – probably not helped by the management not being able to decide if he’s an all-rounder, a batsman who bowls or a bowler who bats. I wouldn’t be averse to Vince getting a go, while Luke Wright is in there for old times’ sake only.

Unfortunately it looks like Cook will take up a valuable place in that order so some poor sod who deserves a game won’t get one.

There really are some exciting players in the squad – mainly batsmen – but I just feel utterly deflated before we even set off on our World Cup run-in.

The question is, will the powers-that-be find a weaselly way out of this – like Alistair Cook having a sudden flare-up of his back trouble. I wouldn’t put it past them. What they won’t do, of course, is admit they were wrong and actually drop Cook for the World Cup. Fingers crossed for 2019.

UPDATE: Info on the BBC’s live feed of the ODI today provides more crushing evidence:

England’s ODI captains have departed their roles after each of the last four World Cups. 1999: Alec Stewart sacked. 2003: Nasser Hussain resigned. 2007: Michael Vaughan resigned. 2011: Andrew Strauss resigned.

Since the Champions Trophy in 2013, England have completed 27 ODIs against Test-playing opposition (ie not counting Scotland and Ireland) – they have won nine of those, and lost 18.

And even more depressing…

Alastair Cook, speaking to Sky Sports: I’m working as hard as I can, I’m as hungry as ever to score runs, so I’ll go on. “I’ve always had an attitude to play cricket and compete. Yes, it hasn’t gone well over the last 12 months both personally with the bat and in one-day cricket. “I would feel very wrong to walk away from it. If it’s taken away from me, I’ll feel very disappointed, but I certainly won’t be giving it up.”

Pfftt.

Beyond Tuesday

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When the Australian players walk out to begin the test match in Adelaide in a few hours, they will still be hurting like hell.

The rawness of Phillip Hughes’ death will barely have abated, and they will need to find their own way to get through the game, to take that necessary step that allows them to get on with their own lives while still leaving space to mourn the hole in their lives where Phillip Hughes used to be.

The unpredictability of grief means we should expect and accept pretty much any reaction. There may be players who simply can’t allow themselves to contemplate the grief and will put it to one side for the whole game, while others may be overwhelmed by it. There is no one-size-fits-all response to the fathomless loss of a loved one. As spectators, our response to the players should be only compassion.

But where does cricket go beyond this test match when it comes to remembering Phillip Hughes?

So far, the reaction has been extraordinary. Much of its intensity has come from the genuine, heartfelt and remarkably beautiful words written and spoken by those close to the young batsman and to the game. I can’t remember the last time such a rush of perfectly-chosen words came flowing from the pens of cricket writers, bloggers and even tweeters. And Michael Clarke’s eulogy? Well, that was something else.

People have revealed their true selves in recent days, inspired by sheer grief to throw off the shackles of expectation and societal norms. Suddenly the fragility of human existence and the flimsiness of the masks we wear were there for all to see. We are all the same beneath the differently-coloured caps and sport is, after all, sport. Hughes’ team-mates and the wider cricketing fraternity grieved openly and with dignity for the life that will remain unlived.

I hope this honesty can remain. My fear is that it will be overtaken.

In our modern society where anomie and despair make uncomfortable bedfellows and result in ostentatious displays of collective grief, we may find the visceral, searing, truth-telling honesty of Clarke et al’s reaction is subsumed by grand, calculated, institutionalised gestures.

Of course collective grief is useful and necessary sometimes. It allows communities to find a shared understanding and consequently some much-needed consolation. Clearly what has happened since Phillip Hughes’ death, such as the putting out of bats in solidarity, has been of great comfort to his family, friends and team-mates who can never be in any doubt that he was loved.

But with Cricket Australia planning a series of events to remember Phillip Hughes, I find myself urging them to play it low-key, to give people opportunities to grieve but not to create an unstoppable institution, not to make it into 63notout the brand. Once it reaches this corporatised level, then the connection with the real feelings expressed so eloquently in recent days is lost. Suddenly everyone will find themselves obliged to behave and react in a certain way, and the natural rhythms of their own grief process will be lost.

It’s not hard to picture batsmen in a few months’ time, reaching 63 and feeling they ought to raise their bat to the sky for fear of being the first not to do so, and risk showing disrespect where none was meant. Similarly the spectator who would rather share a tacitly-understood glance with a friend or simply have their own private thoughts is obliged to stand and applaud because that is what everyone else in the ground is doing. And suddenly Phillip Hughes’ death is no longer about Phillip Hughes but is about people being anxious to be seen to be doing the right thing.

Everyone has their own way to deal with these things. They don’t need other people to tell them how. Just look at the events since the tragedy happened. Leave people to express their own thoughts in their own way, and we hear the truth. Truth about them, about their friends, about cricket, about life.

Dhoni needs to reignite the fire

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There were times last summer, during the England v India test series, when I wondered whether MS Dhoni had lost it completely.

Times like when he stood back to the spinner, much to the utter befuddlement of almost everyone (including Nasser Hussain and Shane Warne on commentary) and, even worse, he barely even bothered to move to take some deliveries and fielding returns. It looked like he simply couldn’t be bothered to raise his arm to stop the ball.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5HnQ8fLVVU

Admittedly, he livened up again for the ODI series, as he often does. But it struck me, as he watched some more byes fly past with a total lack of concern on his face, that he had actually bought in to his public and media image of Captain Cool, and bought into it so much that he was now playing it cool, even when the situation demanded action. He had joined Chris Gayle in the ‘too cool to be seen to be making an effort’ gang.

The thumb injury that is keeping him out of the Sri Lanka ODIs and first test against Australia will give him – and India – time to take stock. India can now, perhaps, finally see a Dhoni-free future. For so long, he has been the glue holding the team together, the bridge between generations, the calmness around the impetuosity of the young bucks.

For many years, we have been astonished by the composure with which Dhoni greeted the vicissitudes of international cricket. Whether India has won emphatically or lost embarrassingly, his press conferences and interviews are measured affairs, his temperament – like his batting when he has an ODI to win – ice-cool.

This coolness has also always been apparent on the pitch. However, of late there has been something different about it. His calmness has become very studied, very deliberate. Martin Crowe’s excellent article on the masks we wear comes to mind – Dhoni has become his mask of coolness. His persona has overtaken his personality.

http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/693959.html

The danger is that his coolness no longer belies the fire inside but that it has extinguished it.

I’m glad he’s got a sore thumb. He needs a rest. He is still a remarkable cricketer and though the next generation is nearly ready to take the reins, India – and all cricket fans – are surely not done with him yet. Relieve some of his burden, let him remember his passion, let’s see the fire burn again.

You’ll spoil your tea…

In many houses up and down the land, parents say to their children, ‘No, you can’t have sweets now, you’ll spoil your tea.’ And the children protest:

‘But Mum, I really want some. I love sweets.’

‘But it’s lasagne for tea – your favourite.’

‘I know but tea’s ages away. I do love lasagne and I’ll definitely eat it all up, even if I do have sweets.’

‘No’

‘Oh, pleeeease… ‘

Promise you’ll eat your tea?’

‘Promise.’

‘OK, just a few.’

‘Thanks Mum.’

One hour later…

‘I can’t eat it all, I feel sick. It wasn’t as nice after all those sweets…’

‘I told you…’

…ad infinitum.

And where, you muse, might this analogy of instant gratification versus long-term consequences be taking us? I shall tell you. It is taking us to the absurd schedule that modern international cricketers – and England cricketers in particular for the purposes of this blog post – are facing. These are schedules where not only we do have the big meals to look forward to like the Ashes but where the snacks in between are getting bigger and bigger, and more and more frequent. Not only that, but even the main meals are coming twice as often. And England’s players, and their fans, are starting to feel sick.

When I saw this week that England players were giving interviews and had had their winter haircuts, I knew that it must be time for them to board a plane again for their next stint of international cricket. It struck me how long they seem to have had off. Checking back, England’s last international fixture was on 7 September, the T20 against India. The fact that only two months off seems like a lifetime speaks volumes in itself.

Of course, we’ve had Bangladesh-Zimbabwe, Pakistan-Australia, and West Indies-India (briefly) to keep us amused in the meantime but England may well look back on those two months and reflect on it as an extraordinary period of rest. In the next year, this is what’s ahead of them:

  • Nov/Dec 14 Sri Lanka – ODIsecb
  • Jan 15 Aus/India – ODIs
  • Feb-Mar 15 World Cup – ODIs
  • Apr-May 15 West Indies – Tests
  • May 15 Ireland – ODI
  • May-Jun 15 New Zealand – Tests, ODIs, T20s
  • Jul-Sept 15 Australia – Tests, ODIs, T20s
  • Oct-Nov 15 Pakistan – Tests, ODIs, T20s
  • Dec 15-Feb 16 South Africa – Tests, ODIs, T20s

It’s quite an extraordinary list – and there’s no let-up in sight thereafter.

I was sure it wasn’t like this when I were a lad. I seem to remember having to wait for months for the next international cricket to watch, listen to and read about. I used to scour the back of my Dad’s newspaper looking for cricket scores – any cricket scores – just to feed off the scraps until the next big match. Natal v Griqualand West? That’ll do. Mashonaland v Matabeleland? Yes please.

Checking back, it seems my memory doesn’t deceive me. In 1989-90, for example, there were six summer tests (the Ashes) and four winter tests (West Indies) and that was it. Going back even further to when I was but a mewling, puking infant, England played four tests and a World Cup in the summer of 1975 – and there was no winter series at all.

Now look at the schedule above and tell me it’s the right thing for players and spectators alike.

It’s not. We are gorging on snacks and spoiling our meals. The sugar value is high and the nutrition value low. It will make us, the spectators, and them, the players, ill. In the short-term, we must watch sub-standard performances, players being rested, meaningless matches. This will – and has already begun to – lead to disgruntlement and lower crowds at matches. Do you think the ECB and ICC have noticed? Kind of. But their solution it to make up for falling ticket revenue by adding more matches in the hope that a) more spectators cumulatively will come but mainly b) the revenue from selling broadcasting rights will increase still further.

It’s a treadmill we’ll struggle to climb off.

Perhaps in ten years time, the great and the good will sit down to watch a rubbish match between two knackered, second-string sides, in front of a desultory crowd and finally twig.

But probably not. They’re more likely to point the finger of blame at the players: the handsomely-rewarded, cosseted, coached, feted, never-had-it-so-good, should-be-proud-to-play-for-your-country players. The travel-weary, bodily-broken, absent-father, empty, depressed, exhausted players.

They only wanted to play for their country, just like so many of us when we were kids. Now that honour is in danger of becoming an empty husk, with all the joy sucked clean out.

Please, powers-that-be, stop force-feeding us. We’re not hungry any more.

What our views on KP say about us

‘We are generally the better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others.’ – Blaise Pascal

I’ve come to the conclusion that people’s views on KP are shaped only partially by the ‘facts’ to have come out, from both sides, in recent weeks. Those facts tend to be used to vindicate the views someone already holds. There have been few conversions to one side from the other.

[The more nuanced articles by some former players who either shared dressing rooms with him or shared other dressing rooms in a lengthy playing career are the exceptions, and their nuance has been welcome relief.]

KP is a divisive character – and a strong one. This is what made him a challenge to manage and this is what inspires strong reactions to him. I believe that people, by and large, automatically come to a conclusion about the KP situation that both reflects their own personalities and sends out a signal about who they are to the outside world. Some send this signal out more consciously than others.

To back KP is to say, ‘I’m independent of thought, I can cope with someone being a bit different – hey, it’s probably because I’m something of a maverick myself. Actually, I’m pretty anti-establishment and I don’t mind who knows it. If I’d been captain in that dressing room, I’d have shown the leadership skills that keep people like KP on board; if was a bit better at cricket, I’d have been the modern-day Mike Brearley.’

On the other side is the supporter whose beef with Pietersen is based on an existential jealousy. This might be the person who has lived a conventional life, conformed, been polite, unselfish and is ultimately unfulfilled and rather sad about it. For this person, KP was their alter-ego, the one who was bold where they were timid, who stood up for himself where they backed down, who lived the life they wish they had. So they are impossibly jealous of this non-conformer, a mirror to their lost self.

Beyond that are the people who simply can’t comprehend how anyone could possibly like this brash, cocky, selfish individual. For these people their disgust is straight, simple and unquenchable. No argument, that’s that. Now Colin Cowdrey, Denis Compton…that’s what cricketers should be like.

Then there’s Mr/Ms reasonable. The people who not only want laws obeyed but want life’s unwritten rules followed too – those tacit understandings that make society roll along smoothly. Those rules allow for mavericks – in fact outwardly they are welcomed (‘wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same?’ they lie) but even the maverick behaviour must conform.  So it came to pass that at the start these people believed in Kev, backed him, forgave his silly haircut, rejoiced in his bold and fearless batting in that fifth test in the glorious summer of 2005. These people pinned their colours to the mast: KP is great. But then came the captaincy furore, textgate, retiring from ODIs and T20 then unretiring himself. This was not the done thing. This didn’t follow the rules. And this all reflected very badly on Mr or Ms Reasonable. They were shown up in front of their friends. Kevin had let them down. You don’t forgive a betrayal like that.

Smiles better

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First Posted 22nd August 2014

He reaches his hundred, takes off his helmet and the smile spreads across Joe Root’s rootface, the sort of smile that makes you feel warm inside. It’s the kind of smile you might see on a young child who’s just finished their nativity play, remembered all their lines, not dropped Jesus and then seen his proud Mum and Dad in the front row. It’s a smile that simply won’t stay on the inside.

After a long old summer, finally the England cricket team appear to be enjoying themselves again.

For those of us who have only ever dreamt of playing for our country, of creaming a cover drive to the boundary at Lords, of uprooting off stump with an away-swinger at Trent Bridge, seeing the players smile is more important than it might first appear.

It’s not that we don’t recognise the hard work, rare talent and total dedication that’s needed. Nor do we ignore the constant pressure on the players, 300 days a year away from families, and the almost insurmountable physical and mental challenges of today’s draining schedule. Sure, it’s hard work being a professional cricketer. Despite all this, though, there’s a phrase that keeps ringing through my head: ‘But, you’re playing cricket for England!’

So to see the ingénue young faces of Root, Jordan, Buttler – even the rejuvenated Cook – smiling again, smiling broadly and unguardedly from the sheer pleasure of playing cricket for England and playing well strikes a chord with us as cricketers and supporters. This is precisely how it should be – not all frowns, snarls and weary resignation.

Beyond the irrepressible youngsters, there are the semi-smilers. Gary Ballance is tempted to, and does, crack a smile occasionally but he’s clearly wary, having let down his guard once and paid disproportionately for it. Moeen is just too serene to beam. Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett would like to but don’t feel comfortable enough in the side yet to let it all out. Ian Bell is busy trying, unconvincingly, to play the part of gnarled, senior pro.  Jimmy is…well, Jimmy.

Stuart Broad, on the other hand, seems to be cheering up all the time. Maybe it’s the chronic injuries that have precipitated this change in outlook. Although he must be fed up with them a lot of the time, the injuries must also have given him the perspective that comes from realising your career is finite.  He might succumb to a career-finishing injury at any time so, dammit, he’s going to enjoy it while it lasts. Wickets these days are usually greeted with a delighted smile rather than a cynical, world-weary send-off or the ‘This is just what I do’ face that smacks of an over-deliberate display of disinterest.

Winning helps, of course, and so does rotation. The schedules these days are increasingly acknowledged as absurd and it pays to keep players fresh, to take them out of the arena, to make them miss playing. They perhaps remember again what it is to be excited and desperate to play rather than exhausted and desperate for a break.

We all started playing cricket – including the England players – because we love it. And we still do. All we want is to see the best players in the land loving it too. So, keep up the good work lads, keep enjoying your cricket and keep showing us what a pleasure it is to play for England.

Time to accept the game’s moral imperfections

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3 June 2014: Senanayake mankads Buttler. Cue hands on hips from the English, deliberately over-the-top congratulations from team-mates for Senanayake and a familiar outpouring of opinion and vitriol from everyone else. Was it ever thus. Cricket’s rich history of the law v the spirit goes way back and takes in WG Grace, Bodyline, Trevor Chappell’s underarm and of course the original Mankad from Vinoo.

Common sense says Buttler was right to be given out – it was within the Laws, he’d been warned in that game and had been trying it on in previous games. He was arguably gaining an unfair advantage. But… but it still doesn’t feel right, it still feels a bit, I don’t know…off.

As many people have pointed out, was it any worse than Root punching it to the keeper but still waiting for the review? We’re in the same territory as we stumbled into last year with the Broad affair. Why is not walking for a thick edge worse than not walking for a thin one?

There’s no logic of course, somehow some things just feel worse.

Many people have called for Law changes to fix the mankad situation. This won’t work – tinkering with the laws solves nothing but simply shifts the goalposts – and often inadvertently creates a new set of goalposts.

Personally I’ve always found in difficult not to walk in the amateur cricket I’ve played. I can think of only a couple of occasions where I didn’t – once was in an under-17 match (yes, it was a while ago and clearly still resonates) where I was batting well for once and was our last realistic chance to win, and once in a senior league game where there was already bad blood between the sides after an opposition player refused to walk for a blatant edge, and we’d vowed to walk for nothing. Neither occasion sat comfortably with me.

Of course, my way is arguably the most lily-livered approach of all – a pragmatic and fickle approach based on no principle at all. I admire those that walk whatever the situation and I understand those that never walk. Until no-one is given out wrongly, this is the approach that makes the most sense. Indeed if we could get over the morally-baseless yuck factor of seeing an obvious edge missed or a batsman being mankaded, then this approach, if adopted by all, would actually solve all problems. We would no longer need to scratch our heads over why we expect people to walk for edges but not run outs or stumpings, which can be equally obvious.

But of course, this won’t happen. Each person has a moral compass and each compass reads slightly differently, with doing the right thing being an irresistible attraction to some while doing the best for themselves and the team being the magnet for others. Who is to say which is right, without recourse to broader moral imperatives that resonate in disciplines far beyond the field of play?

The spirit of cricket is an unfathomably nebulous expression that is impossible to nail down. Everyone’s definition is different. The interpretations of spirit of cricket can be so wide as to render it irrelevant, an empty husk to be blown on the winds of outraged huffing and puffing of fans and the media. It quickly becomes no more than a crutch to support personal preference and prejudice, and a specious validation of a fabled game that never existed.

Partisan supporters will always seize on moments such as this to hunker down even further into their entrenched positions. Their world is black and white, and that is how they like it.

In the absence of a universally accepted moral code, the yuck factor is all we are left with – and everyone’s yuck is different. Until we recognise that, accept it and get on with playing in an imperfect game full of imperfect people where occasional conflict is unavoidable then these arguments will continue to go round and round. There is no solution. Let’s just get on with it, shall we?