Friday, 28 November 2014

Phillip Hughes: a tragedy in many parts

"He died doing what he loved."

It's funny how often you hear that, as if in some way it mitigates the tragedy of an untimely, unforeseen, senseless death. Surely it only makes the thing more tragic? If someone died doing something they hated then at least there would be mitigation in them not having to do it any more. So we must reject that idea. Phillip Hughes' death is an unmitigated tragedy. And it is a tragedy on many levels.

There is the level on which we can all relate. The human one. This was after all a life cut off in its prime. It has left families and friends distraught, a part of themselves lost forever. And in the cruel warping of nature's cycle of life it has left parents to bury their own child. Amongst all the inevitable talk and speculation, of which I am now going to add, we should never let this be forgotten.

There is a particular tragedy in the premature deaths of sports people. They are not usually our friends, nor even acquaintances but as fans we can develop, well fanatical attachments. Often we have watched them or noted their names from a young age, fifteen or sixteen, sometimes younger. There is something of the talent scout in all of us, we like to talk about the young lad we saw in the nets when he was eleven, the next Sachin we confidently and erroneously predict. And once we have identified them we like to stick with them, see where the story leads, smugly celebrating their successes and cursing their inevitable failures. We don't know whether they will make it but now we have invested in their lives we want to see how the story ends. But for Phil Hughes we never shall. And it is particularly sad because his story was a fascinating one. Brought up in a small, rural town, he batted as you might expect - with freedom, freshness and scant regard for urban convention. And then it became a bit of a struggle; the city slickers worked him out, and he disappeared back into the crowd. But he wouldn't go away, and significantly, many good judges continued to believe in him. Whether they were right or not we will now never know. We have been denied the end of the story and that's not supposed to happen. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, it is hard not to imagine him looking down on us, aghast, that rather than proving his critics wrong, he had, in his final moments, added grist to their mill. It was a cruel and undeserved end.

And then there is the wider tragedy. I have a sense that cricket has finally, truly lost its innocence. Let's be honest we all thought this had happened a long time ago - match fixing (18th century style), Bodyline, World Series Cricket, sledging, match fixing (21st century style), IPL cheerleaders - but we were wrong, these were just trivial events, situations to be managed or glossed over. What's that they say when people start taking sport too seriously? "Calm down, nobody died". Well they were right. They were right then and they are right now. Someone has died and we can't calm down and we shouldn't. As much as we want too, we can't just brush this under the carpet and carry on as before. It's the last thing we want to do but we have to face up to this.

In some sports such as motorsport or boxing danger is front and centre, it is integral. In cricket it is no more than incidental. It's a hard game sure, requiring courage every bit as much as skill to succeed, but dangerous? It's not really a word we use is it? And yet we should, at least we shouldn't shy away from it. You know what might be the strangest aspect of this horrible incident? That when it comes to the game we love, suddenly it looks as if our fussing mums knew the truth better than we did. If they could see it, why couldn't we?

In recent years we have seen more and more Test cricketers get hit on the head and yet not one of us worried. They rubbed their heads, sometimes they changed their helmet, at worst they got a broken nose. Injuries, they're part of sport aren't they? He's got a helmet on, he'll be fine. We were blind, wilfully blind. We trusted in these helmets as if they were lucky totems - beyond all rational reason. We saw the consequences - the hits, the cuts and bruises, the momentary losses of equilibrium but we didn't see, or we didn't want to see the danger. And when I say we, I don't just mean "us" the spectators, the supporters, the commentators, I mean "them" too, the players, especially the players. They thought they were indestructible. It's not that they don't know how to avoid these deliveries, it's not that they aren't taught properly, they are. They know they should get their head inside or outside the line or under the ball, but they don't or they didn't know why. They were blind, wilfully blind. And it has cost Phil Hughes his life. His blindness, all our blindness. But we can claim blindness no longer.

It is worth reiterating, that this wasn't just any old cricketer, this was Phil Hughes. He was a Test match batsman. This wasn't a club match, this wasn't a weekend grade cricketer, this wasn't even a hapless tailender pummelled mercilessly from around the wicket. Not getting hit by a cricket ball was Phil Hughes' job and of the 7 billion or so people on this planet he was considered one of the very best at it. And he was killed. He was killed.

I don't know how this will change cricket, I just know that it will. It is of course right to urge against rushes to judgment, although where the ICC is concerned this is hardly a real concern. Can we make helmets safer? Of course we can. Can we make helmets safer to the point where there is no significant risk of this happening again? Probably. But can we make helmets safer to the point where there is no significant risk of this happening against whilst at the same time ensuring that that batsman retain the same freedom of movement and sensory perception? The answer is probably not and if this is the case then some tough decisions will have to be made and we may not like them.

One place where the word "dangerous" does actually appear is in  Law 42.6 (a)(1). It states:

(a) Bowling of fast short pitched balls

(i) The bowling of fast short pitched balls is dangerous and unfair if the bowler’s end umpire considers that by their repetition and taking into account their length, height and direction they are likely to inflict physical injury on the striker irrespective of the protective equipment he may be wearing. The relative skill of the striker shall be taken into consideration.

From a legal standpoint I have always found this a strangely worded clause. It  implies that the frequency of the short pitched bowling should be taken into account in considering danger. Why? Do we wait for a bowler to deliver a third or a fourth beamer before considering the batsman to be in danger? And conversely if the delivery is designed to gain the batsman's wicket why should the bowler be limited in such a way. 

Of course my mistake is to read this as a legal clause, it is not. It is a deliberately broad and inexactly worded guideline designed to give umpires a degree of authority in managing the game. A rough translation would be that "bowlers do not have carte blanche to bowl as many short balls as they wish at batsmen of limited ability". We can imply no stronger message than that.

The problem is that the cat is now out of the bag. We now know what "dangerous" means, it means potentially fatal. And as such this clause can no longer be taken so lightly. We can wish that the law of the land stops at the touchline or the boundary edge but increasingly it does not. How will this affect umpires? Do they not owe a duty of care to each and every player, just as a rugby referee does? What about the captain? These are questions we don't want to hear, but we cannot avoid them. Putting our heads in the sand, whether wearing helmets or not, is no longer an option.

We should also not forget one more tragedy, one more victim. A living one. Mike Atherton wrote on Tuesday about Peter Lever's struggles after nearly killing Ewan Chatfield. It seems hard to imagine Sean Abbott playing again this season, and you have to wonder whether he will ever play again. Whilst we can and should honour and remember Phil Hughes, Sean Abbott needs our support.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Sri Lanka may regret poking these dozy lions

This sudden outrage about Sachithra Senanayake has got me deeply confused. Not only has it been established that it was within the laws but he is not even the first 'culprit' - there are numerous precedents throughout the history of the game and many recent ones. (Incidentally it is perhaps not a coincidence that many of the recent incidents involve the same sort of bowler, perhaps something to do with that exaggerated pause at the moment of delivery?) Why this sudden backlash? In essence, as has been repeated ad nauseum the argument comes down to whether it is in the spirit of the game. Here there is little agreement. One argument is that it is an innovation and brings an extra dimension to the game. Cricket is famous for its innovators even  if those brave souls were not always appreciated in their own lifetimes. At the same time, having watched a myriad of replays from the stump cam to blimp in "super slow-mo" and in "real time" it really doesn't look good. It doesn't feel as if it should be allowed. And that is perhaps as good or at least as clear a definition of "the spirit of cricket" as any.  No doubt we can expect a response from the ICC in six to nine months. Anyway that is enough about bowling actions for the time being.

A word on the Mankadding incident. Jos Buttler is an exceptionally talented prat. Just as Ian Bell was a wonderfully gifted chump three years ago at Trent Bridge when he made a dash for an early tea. Ethically grey areas or not, both deserved to be given out if only for doziness. Any comments relating to young, impressionable minds should be directed chiefly at aspiring batsmen.

The answer to why of the two only Buttler's innings was terminated may simply lie in their differing opponents. Whilst Indians may be "soft" in such matters, at least according to Virender Sehwag, as Vic Marks has  noted you could never say that about Sri Lanka. Not now, not ever.

Whether Sri Lanka were more irked by the umpire's report on Senanayake's action or by Buttler's brutal assault at Lord's is hard to gauge but their response has added further spice to the upcoming Test series. Just as in Australia, Alistair Cook has attempted to plant the Cross of St. George firmly in the moral high ground. It seems no more justified here than it was then. Nevertheless provocative gestures have been known to backfire on touring teams in the past and whilst it is unlikely that either side will find themselves "grovelling" come the end June, Sri Lanka may yet come to rue poking these dozy lions.

Whilst Sri Lanka have a choice amongst three specialist spinners to leave out for next week's match, England seem set to ignore Monty Panesar their sole credible candidate. Instead they seem intent on choosing a spinning all-rounder, or rather a batsmen who tweaks. It would be yet another triumph for hope over experience. If Panesar can't tie up an end as Graeme Swann once did, what makes anyone think Moen Ali or Samit Patel will be able to, especially against a batting line up stronger than Australia's. Presuming on the fitness of Ben Stokes, England will play four seamers rather than the three of the Swann era, surely Joe Root can fill in if needed?

All this is not to say that Moen Ali is not a candidate for the number six position purely on batting merit. But here Matt Prior is key. If Prior plays a slight risk can be taken with a new cap at six, if he doesn't it leaves a long tail albeit one more than capable of wagging. That tail would have been shortened considerably had the option of Josh Buttler not been ruled out. I was surprised by Cook's startlingly frank assessment that he is not yet ready as either at batsman or keeper. It seems overly simplistic. His keeping needs work but so did Prior's when he started and so did (does!) Bairstow's when he took over Down Under. As a short term replacement whilst Prior regains fitness it is worth the gamble. As for Buttler's batting well he may not be ready for a place in the top six but a combination of himself at Ben Stokes at 7 and 8 would be formidable. England, it seems, have other ideas.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A big blast from the past

Nostalgia maybe a dangerous and unreliable mistress but that doesn't mean some things really weren't better in the past. One-day internationals for instance.

From 2000 the ECB decided that the one-day international series should follow the first Test series of the summer rather than precede it as previously. In doing so they brought to an end those joyously irreverent and irrelevant three match series sponsored by Texaco which heralded the start of the international season. Irrelevant but from the fan's perspective, not pointless. On the contrary they gave you the chance to get your head around new fielding regulations, your eyes around new TV graphics and and your tongue around Sri Lankan surnames. They were the appetite-whetters, the sneaky 11.30 sausage roll before the main lunch. By the time the Tests arrived you were properly hungry.   

Aside from giving England's fringe players a chance to press their Test claims - an opportunity seized this week with uncommon relish by Josh Buttler - they were also a low pressure start for the visiting teams, most still contending with chilled fingers and frozen footwork. From 2000 all this changed and opponents were thrust into the frays of cricket's most demanding format when pitches were still the colour of a dollar bill. Objectively, the results have not been pretty. In the 37 Tests played in the May-early June slot, England won 26 and lost 2 with their last defeat being in 2006 (by contrast in high summer they won 29 and lost 16 of 59 Tests). There have been few good contests. You can point to the quality of opposition - Zimbabwe (2), Bangladesh (2), New Zealand (3), West Indies (3), Sri Lanka (3) and Pakistan (1) - but that doesn't change the point, in fact it reinforces it. These matches were afterthoughts or in the case of the opposition no thought or real respect at all.

Much is made of the legitimacy of home team pitch preparation, but if you schedule a Test for mid-May you know what you are likely to get - Headingley in the 80's. I remember watching the Bangladesh openers shuffle out in long sleeved sweaters with collars raised and wondering why the selectors didn't give Jimmy Anderson and Steven Finn a bit more time off and just bring back Steve Watkin and Neil Mallender. Aside from giving Anderson the chance to get that average below 30 (an increasingly desperate quest), it served little objective purpose.

So bravo ECB, even if a two match series is not ideal this season's international schedule is still the best from a cricketing perspective for some time. Anderson and Broad versus Sangakkara and Jayawardene in mid-June on a fair pitch should provide for a terrific contest, every bit as good, if not as commercially profitable, as the India series that follows.

Of course when I speak of a return to the days of the Texaco Trophy, the similarities really start and finish with scheduling. Back then coloured clothes, white balls and black sightscreens were still something strictly antipodean, whilst Duckworth and Lewis were just the solicitors down the road.

More importantly, you could write the playing conditions on the back of a beer mat. Today you need an instruction manual and a calculator, or an app. Back then captains' minds were focused solely on field placing and bowling changes, there were no power-plays or such like to worry about. But does this matter? No, of course it doesn't, not if the product is better as a result. But here is where my problem lies. It is palpably worse.

One-day cricket is like nature: the more you try to manipulate it, the more it resists and mutates. I'm no free market libertarian but forty odd years of regulation has proved only one thing, it is not the answer. In particular the obsession with the "problem overs" between 15 and 40, has never come close to being solved. A better question was why it needed solving in the first place.

In fact the problem has already been solved. You get rid of them, because that is effectively what T20 is, one-day games without the "boring bit". I'm not a fan of the format, but like Test cricket it is an honest product. The ingredients are written in big letters on the front of the package - if you don't like it, don't buy it. One-day internationals are no longer honest. They would have you believe they are the cool kid's elder brother: same smile, better car. The problem is that car is a Prius and, even if they are wrong, people don't think a Prius is cool. So what to do?

The answer is to stop trying to be cool and start being serious. Once again to go forward we need to look back. Growing up the Natwest Trophy was my favourite format. For one simple reason, I could go down to Old Trafford and watch an entire game of proper cricket in one day. Even then, with long school holidays, I didn't have time to go to an entire Championship match but the Natwest was the next best thing. Batsmen played themselves in, seamers bowled to more than one slip, sweepers were optional. It was never formulaic cricket.

I'm not suggesting a revival of the format, but of it's spirit. For example the 60 overs that encompassed a Natwest innings (the first World Cup was actually 65 a side) is not only too long, for the players in particular, but unnecessary. Test match scoring rates have increased almost as much as over rates have fallen. 50 overs would be plenty. The 60 over competition also had minimal fielding restrictions: 4 men inside the circle, a maximum of six on the leg side. I would remove every single non Test match playing condition bar one - leg side wides, but even these could be granted a more liberal interpretation than we currently see. By doing so creativity and original thinking would be encouraged rather than stifled. In essence it could do for the mental side of Test cricket what T20 has done for the physical.

We already see such creativity from captains like Michael Clarke and MS Dhoni. Without the shackles of the playing conditions, the possiblities are endless.  Undoubtedly the first few games would draw out some anomalies as teams grapple with this new found freedom but so what?  Nine, ten fielders on the boundary? Maybe, but six twos is still twelve an over. Eight on the leg side? Don't get your line wrong... 

I ask you, what would Shane Warne have come up with given such licence?