Wednesday 17 February 2021

Ashwin, master of spin and Renaissance man

Can there ever have been a cricketer more driven, more demanding of himself and yet more giving than Ravichandran Ashwin? 

There are many who have been as single-minded and dedicated to the game but they tend to be overtaken by either a Boycottian/Pietersenesque sense of self-importance or become introspective 'Mr Crickets'. They take from the game much more than they ever give back. They may inspire devotion, loyalty and respect but never genuine love. How could they when there seems none in their cricketing hearts? Ashwin asks of himself and gives to us all.

He is a technician, an analyst, a psychologist, a conjurer,  a philosopher, a sage and a prophet. He is a soothsayer, a cricketing haruspex scouring the entrails of past victims for patterns and clues. It is not luck or coincidence that has brought 29 five-wicket hauls but destiny.

He sees spin bowling not as art or science but an expression of both. A Renaissance man.

He is a geometrist, a geometrophile if you will - a lover of angles. Crease position, arm height, cant of the wrist and seam, and all variations thereof. And what of the permitted 15 degrees of elbow straightening? Don't think he hasn't looked into that!

He is a physicist. A devotee of the laws of motion and mechanics. Run-up, arm speed, rotation, grip and flick. Faster, slower, higher, lower. Undetectable at release, unplayable at the crease. 'Natural variation' you say? Don't be so sure. 

He is a chemist. There is nothing random in the compounds he creates from these myriad elements. Nets are his laboratories with Bunsen burners as standard issue. 

And he is a prospector too, always on the lookout for a new element to add to the mix.

But most of all he is an artist, a craftsman. He may possess a box of tricks like no other but he employs them subtly with guile, finesse and reserve.  Like Shane Warne and other Masters of Spin before him, he probes and thinks his way through an over - six bullets primed to fire, or not. Sometimes holding back your best shot is the right strategy too, in Test cricket at least. But he can play the short game equally as well as the long one. Adaptability, another Ashwin trait.

The joy and fulfilment that Ashwin finds in the science and art of spin bowling should be spread throughout the world, it belongs to all of us. But countries outside the subcontinent (where the majority of criticism of the Chennai pitch has come from) have to be open enough to see it. The England camp has wisely refrained from even implying anything negative - 'challenging' was Joe Root's euphemistic description -  but they didn't actively endorsed it. How could they? Such a surface is anathema to them and deemed 'below average' rating under ECB pitch regulations which state that:

"Pitches should be prepared to provide an even contest between bat and ball and should allow all disciplines in the game to flourish."

Generously, those regulations do concede that:

" There is nothing wrong with a pitch that affords some degree of turn on the first day of a match though anything more than occasional unevenness of bounce at this stage of the match is not expected. It is to be expected that a pitch will turn steadily more as a match progresses, and it is recognised that a greater degree of unevenness of bounce may develop." 


"In no circumstances should the pitch ‘explode’ / ‘go through the top’ though again, “how often” must be considered."

Yet these are the fields of dreams of future Ashwins and what feeds them nourishes us all. 

In the meantime England have a week to find some new answers to Ashwin's riddles. A good spin bowler is like a fine winemaker, a masterful one like a great Bordeaux vigneron. Ashwin has produced many great vintages of which Chateau Chennai '21 is just the latest. It will not be the last. Cheers!

Friday 12 February 2021

Leach should relish Pant's challenge

I was curious to see commentators questioning Jack Leach's confidence following the brilliant and fearless attack on him by Rishahb Pant in the first innings at Chennai. Why? 

Any spinner worth his salt enjoys a batsman coming down the pitch with agressive intent (they are not quite so keen on the more selective and disruptive Pujara style approach). Furthermore everything was in Leach's favour: the pitch was turning, there was significant rough outside the left-handers off stump, India were under pressure and conceding runs didn't matter. You literally couldn't ask for a more perfect situation. If you don't enjoy bowling under those conditions then you are in the wrong job. 

Leach actually bowled quite well, his opponent simply batted better and earnt the luck that he needed to survive and prosper. Yes perhaps Leach could have been more accurate, hitting the footmarks a little more consistently, he could have varied his pace and line a touch more too, specifically throwing the ball wider and a little slower but overall he did little wrong. Pant won this time but he defied the odds to do so. If the two find themselves in the same situation repeatedly over the four Test match series then put your money on Leach. 

Vitally he received strong support from his captain. Root backed him right up to the point where Pant's wonderful eye began to shift the odds in India's favour. Bringing Leach back soon after Pant's departure showed his continued confidence in his number one spinner, essential given the inconsistency of Dom Bess. 

It seems Kohli has requested old fashioned 'bunsens' for the rest of the series. Leach should be licking his lips.


Tuesday 29 September 2020

Australia '63 by Alan Ross (Book Review)

There are no punches pulled in the introduction to this tour diary, the author describes the series as one of the dullest and most disappointing that he has covered. It's an unconventional approach and one that you might have thought would send up the red flag of all publishing red flags. And yet such is the richness of the prose, the acuteness of the observation and the broadness of reference, that such trifles seem, well just that. 

Ross's earlier work, Australia '55 is considered the pinnacle of tour diaries but it must be said that the freshness of the subject matter and the quality of the cricket played in that series provided valuable assistance. Here Ross has fewer natural advantages at his disposal, but he still produces an emininently readable account which strays frequently and pleasantly but not excessively on to non-cricketing matters as he pounds the bitumen of the eastern and southern seaboards in an improbably reliable Morris Minor taking advantage of the long gaps between Tests. He elegantly savages Australian architecture of the time, quietly gushes at the new wave of antipodean painters and affectionately recounts a day in the company of the genial Arthur Mailey.

Much of Ross's match analysis reflects on the timidity of the batting. He attributes this to self-centredness on the part of the individuals concerned but also to a collective lack of urgency and positivity. He would not, I feel, have been a great fan of Dominic Sibley. The soreness of his disappointment is a recurring them, even if he finds some mitigation in postscripted reflections. Both sides possessed stellar names who would be or had been great but few were at their peak in 1963. An England side containing Cowdrey, Barrington, Graveney, Trueman and Statham could hardly be considered weak but only Trueman and Barrington produced performances to justify their reputation. In a series full of dull cricket, the showmanship of the Yorkshire fast bowler, something perhaps forgotten or overlooked by those of us who never saw him play, alone provided the author with moments of lighter entertainment and opportunities for gentle whimsy.

Our deepest disappointments are always reserved for those whom we regard most highly and Ross cannot have been alone in expecting that two teams captained by Richie Benaud and Ted Dexter would produce brighter, more enterprising cricket. But as Ross points out in his postscript (in typically Ross style he admits it was written some weeks later on a beach in Mexico!) there was then, and certainly is today, a tendency to view Benaud as a happy-go-lucky character willing to risk losing if it gave the chance of victory. Ross reminds us that Benaud was far more hard-nosed and pragmatic than that. 

These gentle realignments of popular theory are typical of a writer who whilst capable of tough criticism and trenchant views never loses sight of the player's perspective and the hidden stresses and strains which are so easily ignored or played down. He is never gratuitously harsh or mean-spirited, never sacrifices fairness for a killer line. A true polymath, his prose has the flow and rhythm of the poet, the curiosity, cultural awareness and nose for the off-beat fact of the best travel writers, whilst his eye for detail and keen analytical mind is that of a seasoned cricket journalist. 

They don't make cricket books like this any more. There are probably only a few who could write them and they simply don't have time; it was a slower, gentler era but in Ross' company never dull or ponderous.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

The mischaracterisation of Jos Buttler

If there was any remaining doubt that Jos Buttler is an outstanding batsman, there should now be none. His expertly constructed 75, in partnership with Chris Woakes, was a innings of class, temperament and skill in a high pressure situation for both himself and the team. And yet. And yet.

Despite all the evidence of his ability Buttler remains something of an enigma.  Exactly what sort of batsman is he? I don't mean is he a limited-overs specialist or a true multi-format exponent, those labels are boring, over-simplistic and frankly the question has been done to death. I'm speaking more deeply, more spiritually. Who is the batsman known as Jos Buttler?

I pose the question because many of the criticisms of him seem to stem from a lazy misunderstanding and therefore mischaracterisation of the player. To understand the player, you must understand the man, or the woman. And in this case, the misunderstanding comes from a subconscious desire to squeeze Buttler into a mould, a very particular and indeed unique model, for which he just doesn't fit.

When it comes to selecting a keeper there is every evidence to suggest that selectors consider batting ability more important than keeping skill, once a certain minimum threshold has been passed. This is not a new thing, both Les Ames and Jim Parks in an English context benefited from such thinking, but what was once a choice has now become a rule. If you're not capable of batting at seven or above, you won't play. But this new orthodoxy doesn't stop there, there is an unspoken, but evidential trend, certainly in England, favouring keepers who can bat in a certain style. And it stems from one man.

Adam Gilchrist wasn't the first Australian keeper to wield the willow effectively. His immediate predecessor Ian Healy was more than capable, Wayne Phillips before him was accomplished and stylish  and Rod Marsh was distinctly useful. And it was not just in Australia: Jeffrey Dujon was a delightfully attractive strokeplayer; Farokh Engineer, Alan Knott and Jack Russell were unconventional but highly effective; whilst Rashid Latif and Moin Khan were more than useful. But Gilchrist set a new standard, one to which every international keeper, including Buttler, is now measured and which not one has yet reached.

Superficially Buttler and Gilchrist are similar - gifted strikers of the ball who excelled in one-day cricket but who had to bide their time to earn their Test spots. But that is where the similarity ends. You often here commentators speak of Buttler having 'licence', Gilchrist never needed such authorisation. He was a natural game-changer, whether that meant counter-attacking from a position of weakness (rarely) or delivering the coup de grĂ¢ce to a flagging opposition (frequently). Where Gilchrist was instinctive and destructive, Buttler calculates and dismantles, where Gilchrist seemed carefree, Buttler always appears careworn. This is not a criticism of Buttler for it portrays a man who thinks and cares deeply, but it may affect his success - something he is well aware of, judging by the visual reminders with which he adorns his equipment. Perhaps he should write 'Gilly' on his bat handle instead - the meaning would be the same and television directors would be delighted. 

My point is that Gilchrist was a one-off. Over the course of a 100 Test innings at number seven, he averaged 47 with twelve hundreds at the frankly astonishing strike rate of 83. To put this in context, Brendon McCullum, a kindred spirit if ever there was one, scored at a rate of 63 in the same position (granted that it was only late in his career, after he gave up the gloves and assumed the captaincy, that McCullum gave full expression to his true self). Then there is Quinton de Kock who shares not only Gilchrist's left-handedness but his timing and flair. But even he only managed a strike rate of 70 batting at seven and he now bats in the top six, where he seems condemned to a never ending internal battle between team responsibility and his own more expansive instincts. Buttler's strike rate is 57.

If we absolutely must type-cast Buttler then it is to another master of white ball cricket that we should look. He most closely resembles MS Dhoni, a man so cool he could make a cucumber sweat, capable of strikes of enormous power and destructiveness but whose construction of an innings, particularly in one-day cricket always appeared calculated to the nth degree.

Likewise Buttler is not a particularly instinctive player, he thinks his way through an innings. And this is our misunderstanding. Where we see power, savagery and impudence, there is in fact strategy, guile and control. He doesn't play a reverse or a ramp on an impulse or because they look good but because he calculated it to be the right one in the situation. There is risk yes, but that lies in the execution and in that he has no fear. Talent and practice, particularly practice, much of it unseen and unrecognised, have seen to that. 

So the next time that we watch Buttler amble out to bat in that calm but intense way of his, let's not imagine the player we want him to be, but appreciate the one that he is.

Friday 1 May 2020

Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second by Christian Ryan (Book Review)

Most cricket books can probably be squeezed into one broad category or another but there are few that simply refuse to be pigeon-holed, Beyond a Boundary is an obvious example. Feeling is one of those outliers.

Christian Ryan doesn't search for any deeper meaning to the game or attempt to place it in a wider context. Instead he presents it from an entirely fresh perspective, a new light if you will, without flash or airbrush, where cloud cover doesn't affect swing but the colour, or lack of, of the image before us. Through months of conversations, Ryan disects a year of photography, the Ashes summer of 1975, by the outstanding Patrick Eager, the foremost cricketing photographer of his and perhaps any era.

I was first introduced to Eager's work at a young age through his collaborations with Alan Ross, pictorial accounts of eight international summers, seven English, one Australian. Through Eager's effortlessly atmospheric snaps and through Ross, the poet, with his  smooth, Bordeaux-rich prose, I became intoxicated with the game without even realising how. Flicking back through those pages again now, the reasons are clear.

Ryan has a different style to Ross, his is sharp and fresh, like a Chablis - you probably couldn't drink a lot of it, but every mouthful is worth savouring. And his approach here is simple enough: allow Eager to explain his process - the science, the technique, the gear; then show the reader, and remind the artist, of the art within.

Eager, in keeping with many at the pinnacle of their fields is reluctant to assign design to his most successful images with perhaps the exception his most famous one, that of Jeff Thomson, that envelops the front and back covers. He continually refers to luck as his greatest ally - just repeated cases of being in the right place at the right time. Ryan gently disuades him of such unjustified modesty. 

In fact it is unfair to say that Ryan doesn't look for deeper meaning and wider context, he does, but at the macro level. He forensically analyses each photo, diligently researches the stories behind them and gently jogs Eager's memory for the inside story as he goes. He also adds just enough details on the man and teases out sufficient personal reminicences to fill out the artist's character without the book ever feeling autobiographical or indeed biographical. It is a thin line, expertly trod.
Eager's success rate seems particularly remarkable given the technical limitations of the era. Most of the time he had one shot at getting the perfect image and then would have to wait until the following day to know whether he got it. Again this is where his plead of 'luck' falls flat, only an intimate knowledge not just of light, angles etc but of the game, the grounds and the players themselves could produce such gems so regularly.

My biggest gripe and it was an immediate one, was the size of the book itself. I had assumed a book centred around a selection of photographs, and especially one that retailed at 20 pounds, would be large enough to allow the reader to peruse the images without the aid of a magnifying glass. No doubt cost was at the heart of it, but unfortunately it does make this unusual but worthwhile project feel a little cheap, and neither Ryan's words nor Eager's many iconic images deserve that. 

Monday 17 June 2019

Absolutely Foxed by Graeme Fowler (Book Review)

It is often said that meeting one's hero is best avoided. The clash of the imagined with the real is unlikely to be a confirmational experience. Well growing up Graeme Fowler was my cricketing hero. And aside from a hastily signed autograph on the boundary edge, I've never met him.  I've watched him bat hundreds of times and on each occasion I recall feeling trepidation rather than expectation. He was that kind of player. Fielding was a more relaxing experience, one could comfortably sit back and marvel at his energy and athleticism as he prowled the covers or skirted round the boundary in front of the Old Trafford pavillion. I then read and re-read his first book Fox on the Run until the binding cracked and the dust cover was reduced to shreds. And when he retired I listened to him on TMS and giggled away as he bantered engagingly with Aggers, Blowers and Johnners. But none of those encounters brought me any closer to knowing the man. Until now.

'Frank and honest', it's the classic byline for a sporting biography. Usually it just means being a bit rough and unrefined, the result of a ghost writer's quest for the subject's 'authentic voice'. Well this book is definitely frank and honest, painfully so at times but it is neither rough nor unrefined.

What emerges is a complex individual a world away from the carefree clown-like persona for which he is most commonly remembered and which to some extent he cultivated. Fowler is clearly a deep and original thinker and something of an amateur psychologist; an inspiring coach who knew what made young players tick. What is surprising, although it is not an uncommon phenomenon, is his inability or unwillingness to channel those people skills into his dealings with higher echelons of power.  His refusal to toe the line in the face of the inevitable politics and bureaucracy that pervades cricket as it does every other walk of life, could be seen as an admirable trait but ultimately it served him badly. There certainly seems to be little on which he doesn't hold a pretty strong and uncompromising view; a degree of self-righteousness that, being a sportsman, probably helped and hindered him in equal measure. Whether you end up liking Fowler (as opposed to just admiring him) at the end of the book, will depend on whether you agree with his world view.

All this is set against the essential premise of the book, a most worthy one, to raise awareness of mental health issues and the dangers, the signals, the triggers and the consequences of depression. It is here where he is at his most honest and self-aware. The book starts with this, quite deliberately "I felt it was important as it allowed people to interpret the other stuff knowing I'd had depression later in life". It's the right choice. Not only does it inform the other stuff, but it reminds one of just how little of their real selves sportspeople, particularly those in team sports, feel able to reveal. It may be a more caring, sympathetic environment now than when Fowler started his career, but it can still be a brutal mix of euphoric highs and terrifying lows.

The most interesting aspect concerns Fowler's time as Head at the Centre of Excellence in Durham.  As he now seems to have the book writing bug, he could do a lot worse than dedicate an entire one to this story. The centres of excellence, now spread  around the country, were based on his own original idea and on his Durham model. They ought to have been his defining legacy to the game. They broke the paradigm that said that a teenager, fresh out of school, has to choose between sport and education. It's an idea entrenched in football and rugby, and since the demise of Oxbridge as a serious option for academically inclined sportsmen, in cricket as well. The provided a pathway both for those passionate about their cricket but uncertain whether they were good enough, or those passionate about their studies but with talent to burn. Safeguarding their futures as he says.

And yet in 2014, the ECB decided that the model was too expensive and too exclusive. The centres of cricket remain but the pursuit of excellence, intensive and elitist as it must be, has been diluted and diminished. Unsurprisingly it was the trigger for one of Fowler's most severe bouts of depression, but it should depress us all. Ultimately his vision, despite its concrete successes, wasn't shared by those who mattered. A failure of higher managment surely but could a more politically astute operator have changed their minds? Maybe. But that's heroes for you, great for some things but not so great for others. They're human beings after all, and this one's not a bad one.

Friday 24 May 2019

The Strange Death of English Leg Spin by Justin Parkinson (Book review)

I recently reviewed Twirlymen by Amol Rajan, a joyful, celebratory dance to the music of spin. Well almost entirely joyful. During the rare moments when Rajan wasn't being swept away by boyish enthusiasm, he also found time to offer the odd lament on cricket's greatest but most difficult art. Laments to opportunities not taken, not given or not recognised, to dreams dashed or unrealised, to promise unfulfilled or undeveloped, and to legacies lost or discarded.

That theme and in particular as it relates to English leg-spin (and chinaman bowlers) forms the central premise of this book. A story that begins brightly with a trickle of English (and Scottish) ingenuity and innovation, but which then goes south, literally, as first a stream of South Africans and then, a torrent of Australians take over. It is an extraordinary fact that only 5 wickets have been taken by English leg-spinners (Scott Borthwick 4, Mason Crane 1) in Ashes Tests since Bob Barber dismissed Graham McKenzie at Old Trafford in 1968.

In assessing how and why this happened, the author takes us on a familiar path through the main protagonists and innovators. En route he provides some welcome clarity on Bonsanquet's popularising rather than inventive relationship with the googly as well as suggesting a hidden, deeper meaning to the 'bosie' sobriquet. Despite admirably thorough research that brings out a few gems, one is still left with more questions than answers when it comes to the greatest of them all, SF Barnes - surely just as Barnes would wish it. I particularly enjoyed the speculative suggestion that Clarrie Grimmett, known for his attention to detail, employed fox terriers to retrieve the balls from his purpose built garden net because they were known for their high-energy level and low drool output!

As far as English wrist-spinners are concerned it has always been an uphill struggle. It is not enough that they must master the most difficult skill in the game, in which, as Ian Salisbury rightly notes, 'a centimetre wrong in your action can affect it by two yards at the other end', but they must also overcome an ingrained distrust of their art which has seemed to pass like contagion from captain to captain, era to era. It is hard not see in McLaren's reticence towards the admittedly erratic but dangerous Bosanquet and Hutton ( a leg spinner himself) and May's reluctance to utilise the myriad talents of Johnny Wardle, more than a hint of the risk averse tactics of the Strauss-Flower era. It is something of an irony that England's one international class wrist spinner, Adil Rashid, is born and raised in Yorkshire an area deemed by Hutton to be entirely unsuited, climatically, to such extravagant pursuits.

Instead English leggies have relied on the backing of deep thinkers such as Mike Brearley and Peter Roebuck and innovative risk-takers, such as Adam Hollioake who revived Ian Salisbury's career. Roebuck, speaking before the T20 revolution and way before England renaissance in the 50 over game, speculated that in a game where 400 was the new 250 leg-spin would be a risk worth taking. A point Rashid and others continue to prove.

Faced with such overwhelming negativity, it is no surprise that many such bowlers have headed for the Promised Land in search of love and understanding. In perhaps the most interesting and certainly original part of the book, Parkinson charts the progress of a number of young Englishmen sent to Australia to work with Terry Jenner, leg-spin guru and mentor to the Great One. The results were not, as if you need telling, messianic. Like Aubrey Faulkner, mentor to Ian Peebles, Jenner believed there was a right way, his way and a wrong way, all the others. In keeping with many of us who have spent years trying to perfect a simple leg-break, he saw Shane Warne not only as the perfect model but the only one. Unfortunately, and I could have told him this myself, this turned out to be completely folly. The result was a certain disillusionment for the characters concerned and undoubted disappointment for the ECB who had funded Jenner's work. But who knows, judging by Rashid's recent resurrection, perhaps it has a brought a greater appreciation and understanding as well. Dying maybe, but not dead yet.