Saturday, 12 June 2010

System's failure hits Bangladesh

Last week I championed 'patience' as one of the qualities which defines Test cricket. I could have added 'unpredictability'- the ability of a game to change dramatically first one way then the other, within the space of one session or continually over the course of five days. One of the defining features of good Test cricket that is. Sad to say, the action at Lord's and Old Trafford over the past two weeks was nothing if not predictable and anything but good Test cricket.

I say 'sadly' for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that Bangladesh deserve better and more sympathetic treatment. As Geoffrey Boycott pointed out repeatedly (to the point of self-caricature),  they were totally out of their depth in English conditions, a problem exacerbated by the sterile nature of their home pitches. They had neither the technique to combat the steady if unspectacular English bowling nor, more particularly, the bowlers themselves to exploit the conditions. At their current stage of development, playing two tests in England in late May, no matter how dry the weather, is asking a lot. It proved far too much. A three month tour of England playing county sides and finishing off with a one-off Test in easier conditions at the end of the summer would have been far more beneficial.

The current situation leads one to question the ICC strategy towards potential and new test playing countries. It is too easy to say that Bangladesh should never have been awarded Test status. It has had three seriously negative consequences: firstly the reputation of Test cricket has been damaged by unworthy contests; secondly players averages are being artificially inflated with cheap runs and wickets and thirdly and perhaps most importantly rather than being encouraged Bangladesh are suffering humiliation on a regular basis. But it has also been an enormous boost to their cricket and brought great joy to their citizens and supporters both back in 2000 when Test status was granted and over the past ten years.

These are not irrelevant considerations. So awarding  them Test status was not necessarily a mistake. But doing so without a sufficient 'post-accession' strategy certainly was. One only has to look at the ICC website to see the problem. Emphasis is placed on "closing the gap" between 'affiliate' and 'associate' member countries and the full, test playing nations. The inference being that each country in the latter category has reached some hypothetical minimum standard. Clearly that is not the case. Not only should the ICC create/change its strategy to Bangladesh now but it should also set up clear benchmarks for future countries, covering everything from umpiring to pitch preparation, both prior and after achieving Test status. It is in the interest of everyone concerned with cricket's future that they do so.


As a consequence of two no-contests, nothing further was learnt about the form or class of either England or Bangladesh than was garnered during the two tests on the sub-continent. The bowling of Steven Finn was a clear and encouraging exception. His follow-through aside, he appears a more balanced individual than Stuart Broad and with a clearer idea of what sort of bowler he wants to be. There may be room of both of them in the England team, especially with Broad's superior batting, but if I had to predict who was likely to enjoy greater success in Test cricket, my money would be firmly on Finn.


Predictable only to those of us with extensive experience of Old Trafford architecture, is its latest folie des dieux, 'The Point'. What has always amazed me about Lancashire since I first went to the ground in 1985 is its seemingly endless determination to diminish, at any cost, the appearance of its one memorable landmark - its old, Victorian pavilion.

Back in the 80's it was decided that the senior capped players needed a bigger changing room. So an annex was built on the side of the existing pavilion changing rooms. Rather than making some attempt to blend it in to the existing red brickwork (note red is not always a bad idea) the result was what looked like a rather upmarket, semi-permanent, beige port-a-loo. The pavilion's next near-appendage came in 1999 with 'The Lodge', a hotel development of apparently great commercial success, situated behind the seating to the immediate right of the pavilion. Although of more tasteful pallor, cricketing cream, it nevertheless looks exactly what it is: a hotel on a cricket ground. And now the aliens have landed their big, red spaceship on the other side. Shame they forgot to switch on the cloaking device.

The Old Trafford Pavilion may not be a thing of great beauty but it does have history. It is the one remaining link to the many glorious games and players to have graced the ground. It deserves to stand alone. Surely the could have stuck this thing on the other side of the ground?

Friday, 4 June 2010

Losing patience with T20

I almost watched an entire T20 game the other week, well two in fact - England's victorious semi-final and final of the World T20. And well worth a partial view they were too.

The skill and discipline of the English side not only fully merited them a first international trophy and the praise that followed but actually caused me to reflect on my general distaste for what I had considered the Lambrusco in cricket's cellar. Having reflected, however, particularly in the light of last week's First Test,  my overall impression is of an entirely new game developing. It may be a little unkind to describe it as the bastard child of cricket and baseball, but then again I can't really think of a better description.

Baseball is not the worse game ever, and so neither is T20. But it is cricket stripped of at least one essential and defining element. I have written previously about how Test cricket is aptly named. It places demands on its participants that simply cannot be fully tested in a limited overs environment: stamina and concentration come to mind. Perhaps most important of all though, is the value it places on patience. Patience for bowlers and batsmen, particularly for captains, but also for spectators.

Perhaps the most striking feature of England's play in the West Indies was their discipline, particularly in their bowling and fielding. One only has to think of Glenn McGrath to recognise that discipline is a quality as applicable to the long game as the short. But what made McGrath a 'relentless genius' was that he allied discipline to patience. His 563 test wickets and 381 ODI dismissals came because he gave batsman no respite. Of course he had the physical attributes: stamina to bowl long spells when needed and fantastic control based on a simple but metronomic action, but without the patience to maintain that line and length of a concerted period he would have been nothing like the bowler he was. By comparison T20 bowling seems to be heading in the opposite direction. With great skill, it must be added, the English bowlers served up a mixed bag of 'change-up' slower short balls, bouncers and fast yorkers. Exactly in the manner of a baseball pitcher. Nothing for patience, everything for variety.

To be fair, I did see the odd delivery patted back to the bowler during the World Cup matches, which, on simple mathematics, would be the equivalent of blocking out an entire over of a day's Test cricket. So perhaps patience is not entirely excluded. This is however an unsatisfactory comparison. A blocker is not necessarily a patient player, more likely he is simply a limited one. Patience comes from the self-confident (not arrogant) knowledge that sooner or later your opponent will make a mistake - you just have to make sure you are still around to take advantage. It is a mark of the very best cricketers and as such its value increases the higher the standard of play. KP, please take note.

In the absence of such subtleties, the T20 sprint places greater emphasis on other attributes such as  innovation and raw power. It also puts an even greater emphasis on fielding. Fielding is the 'defence' of cricket, where teams of more limited ability can reduce the gap to their more talented opponents. Baseball is obsessed with statistics, including those for 'errors' committed during a game. Now, T20 is not quite so low scoring and so an individual error is not quite so costly, but I would be amazed if Andy Flower and indeed every international team coach, does not already have similar statistics for their fielders. This is certainly no bad thing. Perhaps one-day cricket's greatest gift to the overall game has been the improvement it has brought to fielding (including some elements such as the slide pick-up taken directly from baseball) in all forms of the game.Whilst T20's star continues to shine, we can expect such trends to continue.

Fielding will, however, only ever be a side-attraction; it lacks complexity and therefore interest. And to my mind that follows for T20 too. One day I may watch a whole game. I doubt it though, I just don't have the patience.

Friday, 19 March 2010

KP, cricketing romantic or 99 flake?

England should be well satisfied with their First Test performance. Satisfaction in this case being measured in terms of banana skin avoidance. The only real comedy slip up came from perhaps an expected quarter. Kevin Pietersen.

Putting aside the bland, banal statements of the obvious - that his innings was a welcome return to form, proof that not much is wrong etc.,etc., his first innings dismissal was fascinating.

If you had been told in advance that he would be dismissed by a spinner on 99 then, with the best will in the world, visions of a huge premeditated slog-sweep/reverse swipe would have come to mind. This would have led to a large, and similarly premeditated, castigation of his irresponsible, self-absorbed, ego-maniacal persona. Prejudice confirmed and satisfied.

To a lesser or greater extent we would all have been guilty. Not, for the majority at least, because we dislike him, but because it shows ourselves to be a good judge of the man and the game. 'KP? Complex character? Nah. He's just like this guy that used to play at our club a few years ago, okay maybe a bit better, but the same massive ego...'

So attempting a sort of dainty nurdle down to third man for an ambled single was not really what was expected. Or wanted. In fact it has really rather added to his very particular mystique. If it weren't for that fact that it was a left arm spinner then one would be left thinking we didn't know him at all.

In his own words he admitted "Funny things happen to cricketers all over the world on 99". Of course this is true but, as I'm sure he'd agree, this isn't just any cricketer we are talking about. This is one of the most talented players the world has seen in the last twenty years and the most talented England player since David Gower. Even more to a point, this is a cricketer who wants to be a great cricketer. So I'm afraid that 'funny things happen on 99' just doesn't cut it KP. What were you thinking? I want to know.

One possibility is that he was so determined not to provide extra fodder for his critics that he determined that under no circumstances was he going to play the big shot. But I'm not convinced. It has a rather disappointing 'batting by numbers' feel to it and I would like to give him greater credit than that, even at the risk of continuing the mystery.

My preferred theory, which has the added bonus of taking his ego-maniacal rating into Kanye West territory, is that he consciously, okay subconsciously, allowed himself to be dismissed, considering that a hundred against Bangladesh was not a true Test hundred. There are precedents for cricketers denying themselves such landmarks. Mark Taylor famously declared on himself on 334 not out, leaving him tied with Bradman as, the then, highest score by an Australian in Test cricket. Less well-known was Gary Yates, the ex-Lancashire off-spinner's refusal to go to three figures in the face of some top quality Glamorgan declaration bowling, leaving it instead for his partner Glenn Chapple, who apparently suffered from no such elevated morals, to set a then world record 27-ball hundred in 1993.

Okay it's a bit of a flight of fancy, but what if there was more evidence?

Fortunately, KP doesn't just let his batting do the talking and is usually good for a couple of memorable quotes on which to base some in depth psychoanalysis. This week was no exception. Yesterday he announced that Test cricket is 'not a game for girls' and followed it up today with a pronouncement that he was a 'huge, huge, fan of Test cricket' (as Derek Pringle pointed out in The Telegraph, he never does anything by halves).

If we put this information into the 'bat computer' then, aside from establishing that he probably doesn't like girls' games, it may just add credence to my theory. The 'hugeness' of his of love of Test cricket suggests someone quite prepared to sacrifice a personal goal for the good of the game. The 'not a game for girls' quote though is even more intriguing and may reveal an astonishing truth.

Test cricket is complex, unpredictable and can go on for days. And what's more, men have been trying to work it out for centuries.... Think about it. What if Pietersen, was trying to tell us something? Test cricket is not a game for girls because.... it is in fact a girl itself. If so, his sacrificial dismissal was in fact his latest attempt to woo her, to prise her out of little Sachin's arms and into his all enveloping, slightly tattooed, embrace. How about that?

I wonder if Freud liked cricket?

Friday, 12 February 2010

The referral system - practically better, philsophically flawed

So the review system, is err under review. Again. This time the changes are expected to be cosmetic but actually rather sensible.

The first and most obvious change is to check no-balls after each and every delivery. It is so overdue that really some sort of compensation should be due to somebody. Given that we have had locked off cameras for run outs for years now, and that line decisions are by far and away the best use of video evidence, it is staggering that they have not been used before. Think of all the embarrassment that could have been saved poor David Shepherd after replays showed up the plethora of overstepping by Saqlain Mushtaq at Old Trafford some years ago.

The mystery is not why the change was made but why now? My theory is that Ian Botham got in somebody's ear. A conscientious pupil, Botham continued to work hard on his studies in disbelief (Fred Trueman scholarship) throughout the winter tour, showing particular élan both on this topic and on the 'floating slip' issue. I believe that either someone on the ICC panel accidentally tuned into the Sky commentary or more likely Sir Ian continued his training outside work hours and accosted one or more of them in the clubhouse after an afternoon's fourball-better ball. Whatever the reason and whoever is responsible, it is excellent news. Spread-betters, my advice - buy extras in the forthcoming series.

The other rumoured changes, involve the time allowed to ask for a referral and the number of referrals per match. Both of these are welcome in theory, how they will work in practice remains to be seen. The mistake that sport lawmakers continually make is to believe that creating more laws and more restrictive laws will make games better. Professional teams look at new laws not as threats but as opportunities. If they can find a better way to 'adapt' to the rule  ( which is often code for 'find a loophole') then they will have found an advantage.

During the last series England objected to the time South Africa took to ask for a referral, suggesting that they had looked up to their balcony for advice from the TV replay. Well what did anyone expect? You watch any Grand Slam tennis tournament and almost every player glances up to their corner before asking to check the call. As long as there is the opportunity to gain an upper hand, teams will take it. My question is why on earth didn't the ICC realise this? And as for England's complaint, well excuse my cynicism but if they didn't think of it then they were simply outmanouevred by Graeme Smith's side. Not that I approve you understand. It is not in the spirit of the game, England are correct, but I question their motives.

My solution, although I don't doubt that a way could be found around this too, is to not allow any TV replay until a decision to refer or not has been made. If such change were made, you can bet your life the TV stations would be demanding that teams speed up their decision-making too.

As for changing the number of referrals per match. I believe the favoured option is four per match instead of two per innings. This closes the loophole where teams use up their 'spare' referrals at the end of an innings. It won't stop the spurious request completely but it makes them less likely in the first innings of the game.

So the system will work better. Until the next problem comes along. Now to be fair to the ICC, it hasn't suggested that the meeting in Dubai this week is the final and definitive word on the subject. Nevertheless the next time they come together, I would like to see them review not just the specificities of the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS) but its entire rationale.

We often hear from commentators, although I am yet to hear the ICC state it officially, that the UDRS is designed to eliminate 'the howlers'. Or 'Harpers' as I believe they are now known. Whilst I understand the premise, I find it false. Surely you employ the best umpires to avoid 'howlers'? If not then any fool could do the job safe in the knowledge that there is the third umpire with his TV and gadgets to back him up. People talk about undermining the umpire's authority, well introducing a system designed to pick up and highlight their 'incompetence' seems to me the perfect way to do it.

On the other hand, if the purpose of the technology was to aid umpires where their eyes and ears might prove insufficient then it would actually have added value. And if this were the case, the ICC should not only come out and say it publicly but it should be written into the playing conditions. Like that, umpires would not be undermined by technology but supported by it. Oh and if they did make a 'howler', the system would still cover that too!

Friday, 22 January 2010

It's only twenty wickets

He may have made some handy contributions with the bat for England over the years but under normal circumstances Ryan Sidebottom's wicket would not be a prized one. On this occasion his dismissal on Sunday morning was not only the match winning one but it was the twentieth English wicket to fall. After weeks of trying, South Africa had finally broken through the magical '19' mark.

For basically a statement of the bleedin' obvious, the importance of 'taking twenty wickets' has come along way in recent years. In the hands of players and commentators alike, it has moved way beyond truism, transcended mere cliché and attained a significance only usually reserved for ethereal terms like 'the spirit of the game'. It may even go mainstream one day, instead of 'closing the deal' you could be 'taking the twentieth'.

Aside from limited vocabularies and limitless press conferences there is a good reason why captains and coaches are speaking about it more. Results in Test matches are expected now. With covered pitches, covered outfields, better drainage and even floodlights much less play is lost to rain than fourty years. As a consequence every one of the Test playing nations who were playing then and now have reduced considerably their percentage of drawn games. Pakistan for example, between 1970 and 1979 drew over 56% of their matches compared to only 26% in the last ten years. Most pleasingly, outside the subcontinent the stalemate has become almost a thing of the past, but with it has also gone many a captain's and many a bowler's first excuse.

This has become the era of the 'good draw' or even the 'great draw',  the type of concept that leaves your stereotypical American bewildered. But for all the honest, positive sentiment after games such as Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town, the truth of the matter is that winning is still almost everything. As an Englishman I celebrated those epic draws, but had I been an Australian or a South African I would only have cursed the missed opportunities.

So why can't teams finish off the opposition like they used to? There are a number of obvious reasons for this, better pitch preparation for one and yes that does include ones of the 'chief executive' variety from time to time. There is also the matter of the players themselves. The lower orders are much stronger than they used to be. When the South Africans returned to Test cricket, by accident or design their numbers 7 to 10 seemed almost as potent as their top order. And of course this was something that Duncan Fletcher brought, most certainly by design, to his England side. (It's interesting to note 'c.f.' on this subject that in the Bodyline series Jardine considered the biggest difference between the teams to be England's superior lower order batting rather than a particular fast bowler that one might more obviously think of..)

The Australians are also responsible. Specifically the Australian side of 1989 to 2007. They are responsible because they have skewed our current reality. Teams didn't actually finish off teams with any greater regularity in the past, certainly not since covered pitches were introduced and timeless Tests abolished. That particular Australian side was a complete Test team, the first in a long time and much more complete than the West Indies of the late 70's and 80's who were one-dimensional by comparison. The Australians had a conveyor belt of high quality batsman, two superb wicket keepers and two of the best bowlers, one fast, one slow that have ever played the game. It would be too easy to say, especially given the theme of this article, that it was Shane Warne that really made the difference. Sure on many occasions it was him that finished sides off, but he only got that opportunity because of the work of the team as a whole.

Cricket is a team game and Test cricket a true test of that team. Where there is a weak link it will be shown up, especially on a good pitch and even against moderate opposition. Unlike Australian, South Africa have always suffered from an overly defensive mentality but like today's Australians they also do not yet have the players. Morkel and Steyn are already very good and will get even better but without the depth battting and the spin bowling to match, they are fated to suffer further frustrations.

Harsh as it might be, a draw doesn't just mean you failed to beat the opposition it means you failed to meet the challenge of the game.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Hussain's lasting legacy?

Being out of the country I was unable to see and hear the Sky coverage of the final day of the Cape Town Test. From a commentary point of view this isn't something that usually causes me too much pain. Whilst acknowledging the quality of Atherton's analysis and the gentleness of Gower's whimsy it is in general a team heavy on Harrises and Ntinis and light on Morkels and Steyns.

On this occasion though, I had a guilty urge to hear the views of Nasser Hussain. For it was a day made for him. Him as a player and captain that is. When he took over as captain in July 1999 he explicitly and unapologetically stated that his aim was to make England 'difficult to beat'. Not for him the gloriously idealistic sentiments of Richie Benaud on Australia's 1956 tour of England where he promised, and indeed delivered, 'attractive cricket even at the risk of defeat'. Hussain's considerations were much more prosaic - it was his primary duty to make England respected again as a cricketing nation. He might have believed they could win ever game they played, but he was also a realist. He didn't have the players to win games consistently, especially against the best teams. According to his immediate predecessor, Alec Stewart, only 'about four' of the side Hussain inherited were of true Test class (one hopes he included his number 3 amongst them!)

Under Hussain's leadership England might win some games, they might lose some but they must absolutely not lose meekly. He was sick of the batting collapses and of the unfavourable comparisons with the mental toughness of Australia and South Africa. He succeeded in changing and improving performances and results quite quickly, winning four Test series in a row. Impressive enough, but the true test and what Hussain really wanted to achieve was to change mindsets, to instill that toughness that he so admired in the Aussies, in the English team side on a permanent basis. We may now have enough evidence to say that he succeeded.

What though, I hear you say, of the collapse at Headingley last year that you describe in your only other blog entry? I submit that this is in fact the exception that proves the new rule. England are not a great team and so against good opposition such as Australia, India and South Africa they are always likely to find themselves in difficulties from time to time. Nevertheless, three times time in less than a year when England have appeared in an almost hopeless position, they have stood firm and instead it is the ability and killer instinct of those same Australian and South Africans that has been brought into question.

Aside from what must now be considered the glorious blip of 2005, England are as far away from being world beaters as every they were. But they can no longer be regarded as the meek, soft touches that they once were either. Hussain deserves great credit for this and he, as much as anybody, must have revelled in yesterday's play.