West Indies vs England: 2nd Test, Day Three Live Blog

Preamble: After being chivvied by Trevor in the comments for being late on parade, I’ve now had coffee and arrived at my spot in the ground. Square of the wicket in the Mound area by the way, though wandering around is permitted which is wonderful.

Stuart Broad said England need a batting hero today, and he’s probably right about that, but first up is the small matter of taking the last four wickets before the already significant deficit becomes a chasm. The possibility that this is the final day of the Test does loom large, for if England don’t bat extremely well later, this Test and this series is done.

For later on, these are the kinds of decisions that are more important though:

The crowd appears to have thinned again today, albeit hopefully more locals will be in given its a weekend and their team is (to be blunt) winning.

0910: Weather report, the skies are mostly clear, with a few fluffy clouds. No rain this morning at all so far.

0920: Desperate news from the West Indies camp that Alzarri Joseph’s mother passed away this morning. Nothing more to be said, dreadful.

0922: I think what I like about this ground, and presumably the others in the region, is that it’s a no shits given kind of venue. Do whatever you like, no one is bothered what you are doing or where. It’s so refreshing.

0930: Wise words from Chris Tremlett

0936: England still playing football in the warm up.

It amazes me so much gets written about this. It’s a relaxing way to get loose, and injuries can happen whatever they do. And they do as well. Not a thing wrong with it, when exercising, muscles can ping, ankles can be turned. Scrapping football won’t change that.

0949: view from the other side of the ground. Nothing to do with going to get another coffee.

0958: Out come the teams:

PS, the decent photographer on these pages is Dmitri. Me? I take as many as possible on the phone and pick the one that’s vaguely acceptable. My total lack of interest puzzles him.

1050: That nasty blow for Bravo is a sign of things to come for England. As was the Holder wicket. As the lead stretches, and with England needing to score a minimum of 250 to have any kind of realistic chance, this Test looks to be going only one way.

1057: Alzarri Joseph got a wonderful reception from the crowd as he walked out. But the PA isn’t very clear here, so most around me didn’t know and were asking why people were standing and applauding.

1119: It’s probably gone as well as it could have for England this morning. The real business of seeing how England bat is to come.

1134: That is a big lead on this.

1204: Being conditioned to expect the worst is a terrible thing. But getting to lunch without losing a wicket is mildly surprising all in all. Seeing England duck and weave though is a fantastic reminder of how Test cricket was at times in the past, before pitches became placid, slow and uniform, existing only to break the hearts of fast bowlers. So it’s a bit uneven. So what?

1244: I actually hate it when the press publish photos of their lunches that are provided for them, but since I queued and paid for this, I’ll mention the goat curry was excellent.

1258: Fancy an opener playing a risky pull shot in a crisis situation. Would never have happened a few years ago.

1322: It looked a terrible shot live. It looked worse on replay from Burns. A late cut (of sorts) straight to the slips is, well, brave.

1342: Still 52 overs scheduled today. So England should be significantly ahead assuming they’re still in by the close. One way or another, we’ll be a fair way to knowing the outcome.

1348: that’s another ridiculously ambitious shot. Bairstow said in the first innings that he didn’t feel ever in, hence attacking everything. Seems the second innings was to be the same.

1410: Don’t worry, they’ll learn from this. It’s just an aberration, right?

The atmosphere in the ground is great now though, the locals are climbing into this England team with relish and gusto. Who can blame them?

1419: this is shambolic. Again.

1420: Alzarri Joseph being the catalyst for it though, that’s pretty special.

1425: Just a brilliant atmosphere. Though just heard the England fans next to me say “bollocks to going to South Africa to watch this shit”.

Oh England are winning the rugby at least.

1432: Meet Michael, who has provided plenty of entertainment to the crowd all around the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium. He’s currently offering all the sad England fans a free flight home tonight and not to cry too much.

1441: Dominant session from the West Indies. And every chance they’ll wrap up the series after tea.

1450: My legs are burning. I await your sympathy.

1521: England are playing a positive, exciting brand of cricket, remember. Are you not entertained?

1530: Six down, four of them bowled. This aiming at the stumps lark is clearly overrated.

1543: Just to emphasise that no one cares what you do in this ground, there’s an enormous reefer being passed around just to my left. Lord’s next.

1556: Ironic cheers all round as England make the West Indies bat again. What a hiding this is.

1559: Seven wickets this innings have been bowled or lbw. England did that once when they bowled.

1610: “The England teams are very clear that part of their responsibility in playing this bold and brave cricket – this commitment to playing an exciting formula of cricket every time they go on the park – is linked to this.” – Tom Harrison.

That’s alright then.

1614: So. Beach tomorrow then.

1628: Just trying to get a few different photos of the finish, I’ll then pop them up with a few words. It’s not like anyone is on tenterhooks about the outcome!

1633: West Indies sneak it, in the end.

1641: On my way out of the ground now. Some photos and some video of the winning runs…edit: why the hell this is upside down is beyond me.

And a last farewell to the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium:

Two Tests played, two thumping victories for the home team. And my goodness did they deserve it. They outbatted and outbowled England by a distance, pretty much from start to finish. England have made a point when they lose matches of saying they haven’t executed their skills or some such guff. It’s nonsense, they’ve just been outplayed by a better team in these conditions.

The inability of the England team to graft and show fight is quite striking. Rabbits in the headlights when faced with the revolutionary tactic of a team bowling straight at them. It was a pleasure to witness the West Indies play, and to see the amazed pleasure of the locals who have watched their team struggle for too many years. And if a sporting success can bring a small crumb of comfort to a young man in distress, so be that too.

But some of the English media appear to be in disbelief that such a thing could happen, so convinced by the ECB mantra that all is going swimmingly that rational analysis has gone by the wayside. England are brittle they have been for some years. Doesn’t mean they can’t win, doesn’t mean they won’t win. But faced with challenging circumstances, they wilt more often than not and appear to struggle to cope with needing to change their method. That a player as free scoring as Darren Bravo gave them a lesson in Test match batting ought to ring alarm bells. But alas of course, it will not.

Have a good rest of the evening folks, been a pleasure to share the Test with you. TLG.

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West Indies vs England: 2nd Test Preview

Playing catchup in a series, especially a short one, does tend to rather focus minds somewhat, and while it is not in the make up of anyone even remotely associated with the ECB to admit to an error, the 12 announced for tomorrow’s match at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium (let’s be honest, we all miss the Antigua Recreation Ground) by England are as much a tacit recognition of a first Test balls up as is ever likely to be the case. Broad is back in and seems certain to play, Jennings is out in favour of Joe Denly as the revolving door of England openers shows no sign of slowing down. More notable is the dropping of Adil Rashid, a player who might not be the Shane Warne standard that he appears he has to be in order to get any credit, but isn’t the clueless ingenue he gets all to often painted as either. More strikingly with him is the clear lack of any clue as to how to use him, either from the captain or the coaching team. If he’s not going to bowl more than a handful of overs, there’s little point playing him.

As ever, there are cases to be made both for and against any individual instance, but the inability of English sport across the board to be able to handle flair and individuality, whether on or off the field is a constant. It isn’t that Rashid in this instance deserves defending for his performance in the last Test, it’s that it’s impossible to ever know with such players how good they might be, so determined is the sporting culture to force them down narrow channels. This happens at elite youth level all too frequently to begin with, discipline too often coming to mean an insistence on conformity.

There is a consistent focus on what players can’t do rather than what they can. The idea that Rashid can be a stock bowler in Tests is absurd, yet so much of the criticism aimed at him consists of complaints about his accuracy and economy – it’s such a very English thing to do. None of this means that he is the answer to all our prayers, nor that his on field performances shouldn’t be criticised, but the pre-disposition in so many quarters to hold him to a standard he could never possibly achieve is simply bizarre, while the lack of scrutiny over how he is used is a failure of analysis.

Still, Denly can bowl a few leggies if asked, while Rashid can focus on more important personal matters.

For Jennings, there must now be serious questions over his future. He probably does have the aptitude for it, but his technical problems have become a major barrier for him. He has time to go and put that right, but it could be a long haul.

For Stuart Broad, with his new, more economical run up and work on his action, much will be expected. Not because of anything much more than that his omission was deemed in some quarters more culpable for defeat than the abysmal batting display in the first innings and the in some ways worse in the second. Being out of a losing side is one of the best ways to improve a reputation after all.

In the West Indies camp all is serene, the victory in Kensington most obviously allowing the clear anger at a perceived lack of respect to be vented from a position of strength. And why not either.

The weather for tomorrow seems similar to today, cloudy with showers. The dash from the beach to the room in a downpour will have earned me all the sympathy I’m expecting.

Tomorrow morning I daresay I might liveblog it and see how that goes down.

West Indies vs England: Send the Word, Send the Word Over There

It’s hardly surprising that the Caribbean is a popular place to come and watch England play: what isn’t there to like, warm weather during the depths of winter while watching cricket has a certain allure to begin with. Then there is the romance of the West Indies in cricketing terms to add to that.

Spending the day on a tube at 35,000 feet for 8 hours is a small price to pay, though with my travel industry head on, it remains endlessly amazing that places reliant on tourism often don’t seem to grasp that condemning arrivals to a wait of well over an hour to get through immigration is rarely the best first impression. These are the kinds of things that people comment on to friends and acquaintances.

No matter. The welcome is exceptionally friendly as might be expected, and the volume of people coming for the cricket comprised the majority of the flight, meaning if nothing else there is clear demand to come and mix a holiday with seeing the game.

From a ridiculously small sample of two people, there also appears to be a good level of interest locally, on the back of the West Indies’ dominant display in Barbados, which is surely a healthy state of affairs if it comes to pass in terms of the crowd.

A brief post this evening then, a more detailed one tomorrow, as the blog attempts not to become too much of a travel related one, and with a proper preview tomorrow.

West Indies vs. England, 1st Test, Day 2 – Calypso Collapso.

There is an old adage to never judge a pitch until England have collapsed on it and Day 2 of this Test showed that these words still ring true after all these years. In fact it’s a close run thing whether it took me longer to write this post than England managed to survive against the West Indian bowling attack.

If Day 1 was one of those days that momentum shifted back and forward between both teams, then Day 2 offered the exact opposite, this was a procession for the West Indies bowlers and another humiliating and inept batting display by the England batting unit. There was much talk at the end of play around whether England picked the right team for the Test or whether they might have got away with one yesterday; however the answers to both of the above question were soon answered as an emphatic No as the West Indies blew our batting away within 30 overs through a good performance from their seam attack. In normal circumstances, bowling the West Indies out for 289 after they had opted to bat first would seem to be a decent result; however the way that England’s bowling attack looked so toothless up until Tea and then coupled with the fact that Jimmy and Stokes got the ball to seriously talk after tea all seemed to add up to the fact that the selectors and/or Root had blown another big call. I’ve mentioned a number of times that I am a huge Sam Curran fan but he is not (and I doubt will ever be) an opening bowler at Test Level certainly compared to a senior England bowler with the height to trouble the batsmen on a slightly uneven pitch and over 430 wickets in the locker.

The fact that the West Indies had gone into this Test with only a part-time spinner should have also raised alarm, as I would generally back the home team to understand their own conditions than the touring team. It very quickly soon became clear that 2 spinners was an unwanted luxury on this pitch, coupled with the fact that the one spin bowler they didn’t pick was the one I’d have picked myself as having a spinner in the side that concedes on average 4.5 an over and regularly lets the batsmen rotate the strike is less than ideal. It’s not rocket science to observe that the West Indians first innings score of 289 is by no means a massive score and in many way shouldn’t have been close to match winning one.  However when you factor in England’s ability to collapse in a total heap in the first game of many an away series alongside the fact that the selectors felt they had to pick a number of all-rounders to make up for the frailty of the specialist batsmen, alarm bells should have been ringing loud and clear at the end of Day 1. Day 2 only managed to confirm our worst fears.

England did what they needed to do in wrapping up the tail with minimum fuss this morning, with Stokes bagging his fourth and Jimmy bagging his first 5fer of the winter. So in the absence of any annoying tail-end stands, it was down to England’s openers to bat sensibly and get England off to a good start. There naturally has been a strong focus on the opening slots with the retirement of the ‘chosen one’ and the revolving door that has been at the other end with discarded opener after discarded opener. With both Jennings and Burns having a solid Test Series in Sri Lanka, this was now the chance to further their cause on a pitch away from the sub-continent against a lively new ball attack and to reward the selectors with their selections. Sadly, maybe even predictably, this was not the case. Jennings got a start before lazily wafting at a wide ball from Holder and Burns didn’t seem to be switched on straight after lunch, when he played at an innocuous Roach delivery with an angled bat which then rolled back to hit the stumps. Naturally this was not the start that neither the opening batsmen nor the England team wanted and it did very little to suggest that these players might not be best suited to opening in Test Cricket. Sure this is very early in the series, but neither batsmen should be happy or proud in the way they got out and there will need to be a marked improvement if England aren’t going to be heading into a home Ashes series with either one or two major question marks around our opening batsmen.

If there was a major disappointment in how both openers fared, then this disappointment soon turned to outright alarm with both Bairstow and Root following both openers back into the changing room in quick time. Bairstow might count himself a little unlucky after being bowled after being struck on his elbow, though this doesn’t take away from the fact that Bairstow is hearing the death rattle of stumps being struck far too often for a top order batsman, whilst Root never looked settled and was undone LBW by a great delivery from Holder that originally looked like it may have done too much but would have ended up canoning into leg stump. England’s soft underbelly was being exposed again by a good, but no means top class bowling unit and the lower middle order once again had a massive job to do to rescue England’s ailing top order. This time though the lower order could bail out England’s underachieving batsmen, with Stokes, Buttler & Foakes all falling cheaply and Moeen trying his best to win the ‘worst shot of the day’ competition with the sort of shot that genuinely gives club players the shivers. By this time outright alarm had turned to blind panic with none of England’s batsmen able to hold up an end, rein in their shot making and play for time until the ball got softer, after all, this is the aggressive model that the captain wants his team to play with, which is admirable unless you’re 61 – 8 and staring down the barrel. The West Indies eventually took the final 2 wickets to reduce England to 77 all out, another humiliating collapse to add to the record books. It’s only a shame that they didn’t put England back in to follow on as we might have all got the day off tomorrow, though naturally my one crumb of comfort is that Danny will now have to write a review of tomorrow’s play.

Naturally praise has to go to the West Indies pace attack who bowled quickly and put the ball in good areas, but this is no West Indies bowling attack of the 80’s. Kemar Roach is hardly Malcolm Marshall nor is Holder the reincarnation of Courtney Walsh and the pitch certainly isn’t Sabina Park 1998. Yes the West Indies bowled well and credit must go to them for that, but the English batsmen looked unsure about which way up to hold the bat let alone look like actually score some runs. I’m sure the players and management will be quick with the excuses that they hadn’t had enough time in the middle (well make time then by touring longer) or that the West Indies had the best conditions to bat in, but again this is no excuse. This happens time and time again at the start of England’s away tours, one only has to look back a year ago, when we were bundled out for 58 in New Zealand. Sure they’ll be talk about ‘accountability’ and ‘putting right a wrong’ but it’s the same empty rhetoric that is employed after every dreadful batting performance. Nothing ever changes except maybe the standard response bowler being dropped for the next game. Personally I’m just thankful that I have little attachment to this team. In the past I’d have been incredibly annoyed perhaps even raging at this performance, now I find it almost amusing although I would emphasize the word ‘almost’.

At the close of play, West Indies extended their lead to 350, mainly down to the fact that their board wants to protect their Day 3 revenue rather than put England’s inept team to the sword and risk a 2-day defeat. Mind you, perhaps this wasn’t completely communicated to the West Indies batsmen who batted like they had a hot potato in one hand and an important round of golf to attend tomorrow afternoon in the back of their minds. This strange approach from the West Indies batting unit allowed Moeen to add a few junk wickets to his tally and to boost his average with the ball to once again enhance the pretence that he is a Test class bowler or even an international class all-rounder (as a FYI, he is averaging a tad over 11 with the bat this winter). Sadly, once again this was way after the horse had bolted.

England may have a statistical chance of chasing down a score under 400 in the fourth innings, if England can skittle the West Indies tomorrow morning. In reality though, this game is over after 2 days and what a soul-crushing defeat it will be. It just comes down to when the West Indies fancy putting England and their long-suffering fans out of their misery once again.

This might be a little more a ramble than I thought it was going to be, so please feel free to add a few more insightful comments below:

 

West Indies vs England: First Test, Day One

Ah, the start of a series in the Caribbean. If it isn’t quite the highly anticipated series of years past, it does at least have the advantage for an English audience of good scheduling, both in terms of post-work cricket to watch, and in reminding everyone of the sunshine in the depths of January – this is, after all, the prime justification for the broadcast of Death in Paradise.

Given the West Indies side, talented but still recovering from the schisms of the last decade, the pitches that would give them the best chance are those with a bit of life, a bit of pace and plenty of bounce. Certainly their quartet taken as a whole are quicker than England’s, particularly after the decision to drop Stuart Broad. But there is a contradiction between the best interests of the West Indies team, and the related needs of the cricket board and tourist boards, both of whom see dollars of various descriptions dancing in front of them, and have no intention of wasting the opportunity.

Thus it is that to the surprise of precisely no-one, the pitch turned out to be on the slow side, prompting England to select two spinners, while the hosts stuck with four seamers and the locals insisted the pitch was unlikely to turn. That meant for the third time in four Tests Broad was omitted, this time for Sam Curran, and naturally prompting whispers about the senior man’s future.

It is perhaps a little premature to do that, but there seems no doubt at all it is Anderson who is the first choice of the two at this stage of their careers, and probably rightly so. The one thing that has really returned to bite Broad was illustrated by Root’s observation that Curran offered the team more batting depth. Broad’s decline from almost being considered an all rounder to virtual ferret may well now be the factor that goes against him. A reminder that cricketers now have to be multi-faceted if they’re not right on top of their discipline.

As for the day’s play, it is forever the case that unless one side has a genuine shocker of Melbourne 2010 standards, at the end of play it can only be said that England finished well, but the West Indies are in the game.

Anderson remains an exceptional performer, and three late wickets from him and one from Stokes tilted the balance significantly. Yet a total of 300 would be at least adequate enough to provoke sighs of relief from the authorities, and it can’t be said that England are sufficiently reliable with the bat to be sure of matching them. But there must be a sense of a missed opportunity in the home dressing room -five batsmen passed 40, none reached 60, albeit Shimron Hetmyer is still at the crease on 56, and has looked very good getting there.

Second new ball apart, the England seamers looked unthreatening much of the time, Stokes probably being the pick until Anderson’s late burst. But it didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know, England lack the express pace to overcome a sluggish pitch, they don’t have mystery spin and they are heavily reliant on the exceptional skills of their veteran spearhead, even on a pitch that doesn’t suit him.

In the morning, Hetmyer may well need to try to score rapidly, but the real meat of this game will be seeing what the home team can get out of this pitch in response.

You Walk Alone With The Ghost Of Time – Australia and Me (Part 1 of a Few)

“Those darling byegone times, Mr Carker,’ said Cleopatra, ‘with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic vengeances, and their picturesque assaults and sieges, and everything that makes life truly charming! How dreadfully we have degenerated!” Charles Dickens

So, Australia. I’ve thought about this for a while now, and remember back to when I did a series on the Blackwash series of 85-6, which people seemed to like, and I enjoyed writing. This isn’t a history of the Ashes, I leave that to wallet chasers like the Analyst and so forth. It’s what Australia means to me. From the early memories, through 81, the 86-7 series, losing the World Cup Final, the juggernaut Aussies of the 90s and early 2000s, to seeing them in the flesh, to the 2010-11 series, the humiliation of 2013-14 to today, and their current plight. It’s going to take a while. If I have the inclination, I can spare the time, as the Pet Shop Boys nearly said. This is a post of Opportunities, after all.

There is, certainly within, me to lurch back to what Ian Botham thought was the curse of Ray Illingworth. “It was so much better in my day”. As India have closed a test series in Australia with a 2-1 advantage and taken home the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, there is time to consider how big an achievement that is for the nation that has most grown the game in the past 30 years or so. But it also makes me look back on the great players of the past that never won a series there for India. While this era may be the time of hyperbole and sell, sell, sell, yesteryear comes with rose-tinted glasses, an in-built editor for the unmemorable, and a forgetfulness for the sub-standard. There was crap authoritarian bullshit in huge supply from the governing bodies. There were players who divided the press, the populace and the players themselves. There were blowhards, know-it-alls, rent-a-quotes and mob rule just as there is today. Today, the players get paid more, and so do the administrators, and even taking for inflation, the people paying this are you and I – directly through ticket prices and subscriptions, or passed on advertising costs for the corporate backers.

So what’s my point, you ask, not for the first time. Well, I’m about to get a bit nostalgic and go back in time a little. The kernel of the idea for this post was planted by Fred’s response to my comment on the current Australian schmozzle over the ball tampering nonsense. I’ve been clear from the start. I think the ban was ludicrous, the reaction over the top, the penance a joke, and the authorities, some of who needed to be taken from the building kicking and screaming, playing the role of sanctimonious, pious hypocrites that I won’t reel back from. These were aided and abetted by a media who have one main role in life – generate heat, to get those clicks and peepers on the TV, to flog advertising. This was a story. The heat generated far outweighed the crime. That it carries on to this day, and Australia submitted meekly this winter to India as a consequence, is bizarre. An act of self-flagellation that will satisfy no-one. A crisis borne of its own self-regard, its own view of the world of cricket. England are not immune from this stupidity. We actually ban players for f*** all, and are told to shut up moaning about it by the authorities, acting with aplomb, the media, acting like ventriloquist’s dummies and the useful idiots in the social media world who clapped the result while not exactly considering what happens next time.

There can be a view taken, and some do, that I hate Australia, and that comment is the basis for what I want to write here. Australia has been the most important cricket influence on me alongside the West Indies of the 70s and 80s. I would watch them at every opportunity. They were an amazing team during the 90s and into the early part of the century. They are the most important series we play in the mind of most.

So with nostalgia firmly in place, for good or ill, let me take you back to my first cricketing memory and move forward. This piece is going to be what Australian cricket means to me, as an England cricket follower, and may take more than one post. Because it’s complicated.

It actually goes back, funnily enough, to a One Day International, probably a Prudential Trophy match, played at The Oval. All I remember about it is that they carried on playing in the pouring rain. I know I remember it because every time this person sat down in front of the TV to watch cricket and it was raining, I would say “well they played out in it in that game at The Oval, why not now?” It appears as though the game may have been this one in 1977 (http://www.espncricinfo.com/series/17145/scorecard/64960/england-vs-australia-3rd-odi-australia-tour-of-england-1977) but my faded memory could have sworn it pre-dated Viv’s 1976 destruction of England – thank god for real facts and not alternative ones. But let’s go from there. Chappell (G) was the danger man. He played the winning innings. Dickie Bird was the umpire in the pouring rain. I have no earthly idea who was playing for England in that game.

1977 was the first Ashes series I remembered, and to be frank, it was no big deal. To me, as a growing enthusiast for the game, my memories, my love for the game, and my fear for England derived from the West Indies team. Not Australia. 1976 was the hot summer, the summer of Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding. Immense innings augmented by pace. The game at a different level. I knew not of Bradman. I knew nothing of Bodyline. I had a book that told me we won the Ashes after donkey’s years in 1953 when Compton swept the ball to the Gas Holder. But that was it. In fact, looking back, that book had Randall’s cartwheel on the cover, so I would not have known even that.

1977’s series, won by England, had several memories for me. The Aussie to fear was Greg Chappell. I wasn’t really familiar with many of the others. England gave a debut that series to Ian Botham, and yet his test commencement, great as it was, was overshadowed by a run out. Geoff Boycott, who everyone knew (play a defensive shot out in the street, it would be “who do you think you are, Boycott?) had returned after exile, and came into the team for the third test. A memory of the time is that the series was being played under the shadow of Packer – at the time I never had a clue what that meant (Imagine BOC being around during that!) – and Tony Greig, a favourite of mine, had been sacked as captain but stayed in the team, and some grey-haired posh-speaker had taken his place as captain. The first test (might remember a catch or two, but nothing else) was drawn at Lord’s, the second won by England at Old Trafford. Boycott returned for the third test at Nottingham, and then promptly ran out the prodigal son of Nottingham, Rags Randall himself, and got booed. Mercilessly. I can still picture the head in his hands at what he had done. You can loathe Boycott all you want, but the bloke had some mental resilience. Australia had made 243 in the first innings, and Boycott’s faux pas contributed to England subsiding to 82 for 5. Then came Alan Knott. I remember looking at a TV in some shop window in SE London and Knott and Boycott still being there. They went on, and on, putting on over 200. Boycott made a redemptive hundred. Knott made a match-winning one. Australia set England 180, Brearley made one of his highest test scores to get us on the way to the ticklish total, and Boycott was there at the end for 80 not out. So was Randall. Lovely.

The fourth test of that series was played at Headingley, and this then gets into the realms of how life used to be. I was lucky to be able to go on a summer holiday with my parents every summer, and in 1977 this meant Kalathas in NW Crete. Nothing really happened while we were there. I met my first real-life Americans (they said “hey you guys” a lot and came from the big naval base on the west of the island). My mum had the most momentous strop on the whole family (the only one I ever saw), and as she’s no longer with us, I’m sort of safe to say it. Elvis Presley died. I got stung by a jellyfish – that sort of pain is very memorable. I got wound up by my little brother, turned round to give him a whack, and belted a local kid by mistake (I was 8) – his dad wasn’t pleased.

But the main thing you had to do, before I got a long-wave radio, was to find the shop that sold the British Newspapers. Yes, even at that age I was agog at newspaper writing. I was brought up reading the sports pages of newspapers by my parents. But on holiday finding out football scores and cricket scores was a different, and in some ways much nicer, ball game. If something happened on Thursday, it would be in the Friday paper, which you might get on Saturday, if you were lucky. That weekend, we found one. Boycott had made another hundred. That special one, the hundredth one. Then, every day we tried to find a paper to continue the story. That’s how we found out Elvis died. I’ll never forget where we were – Hania Market. Meanwhile, while Elvis was preparing to leave this mortal coil, England won the match by an innings, regained the Ashes with a 3-0 series lead, and Derek Randall did a cartwheel and ended up on Brian Johnston’s Book of Cricket the following year (a really important book in my cricket life – I still have the remants of it). I saw none of the test, though. Now there’s a problem that still exists today when I go the States. Then you couldn’t watch it. Now you won’t watch it (legally). A game, authorities will never learn.

It never really resonated, the importance of the series, until the next one in 1978-9. By then Australia were decimated by Packer, and the team was a shadow of what could have been put out. It was also the first series I remember where action from far away fields was shown on TV via mid-evening highlight packages. The BBC opened up the geography of Australia to this boy who loved maps. I still wonder to this day when we were going to go to Darwin as we’d visited everywhere else for a test (sorry Tasmania, you were an odd drop at the bottom of the country). We also won, a lot. 5-1. I missed one of those tests on a school trip. Might have been the one we lost. But this was brilliant. England winning easily against Australia. It seemed we reserved our worst performances for Melbourne, but still, mustn’t grumble at 5-1. Of course this was the series of Rodney Hogg. I sort of remember him being really quick. It’s that “sort of memory” we all have of certain sporting events. You think you remember, but you probably don’t. Subsequently, on the recommendation of one of the blog commenters, I got the Graham Yallop book on the series – the fall guy Aussie captain – and it’s superbly bitter. If you can pick it up, get it.

England visited Australia again the following year in a curious winter where we played three tests but the Ashes were not at stake. We lost the lot, I remember nothing. Not even the aluminium bat nonsense. I remember us getting into the haughtily named World Series Cricket final and not looking like getting Haynes and Greenidge out in one of the Finals, listened to no TMS when I could get the chance. Given I lived 8 miles from my primary school, the morning run was listening to this day-night oddity on the trek up to Deptford. This was the Australians being flash for flash sake in my eyes. Even then, as a 10 year old, I was quite resistant to the new world order. I loved test matches. ODIs? Not for me.

After I drafted the main part of the post, I realised I had left two main test events out. The Centenary Test played in Melbourne, where the first formal test match was played, and Lord’s for the English version, where the first formal test match in England wasn’t. Summed it up. The first game I never knew was going on, and it passed this young Deptford lad by. Of course, it was famous for Derek Randall’s solo super effort, and the result being the same as the first ever test. The second event was more famous for the Lord’s members kicking off and getting mad about the weather and the reluctant umpires. Oh yes, and Kim Hughes belting the ball into the pavilion. Boycott may even have made a hundred on the final day, but it doesn’t leave a huge impression on me.

I suppose, like most, the mysticism and aura of the Ashes, and beating Australia, derived from the events of 1981. Cricket, it has to be said, was massive in England then. In 1979 we had lost the World Cup Final, and then appointed Ian Botham the captain for the start of the 1980 season. A 1-0 loss to the West Indies was not a bad result, although the weather played a huge part. Botham’s baptism as captain was not helped by the West Indies being on the agenda that winter, and a 2-0 loss barely covered the tour’s story. Thrown out of Guyana, the death of Ken Barrington and an opposition growing into its pomp, coupled with Botham’s loss of form ramped up the media pressure. Without being melodramatic, if Alastair Cook thought that the media were against him in the aftermath of the 2013-14 tour, he’d walked about 2 feet compared to the mile walked in Botham’s shoes at that time. The media were vicious. This was not just the cricket writers, but the front of the paper mob too. Cricketers, and Botham in particular, were that famous.

The first test was played at Trent Bridge. It was a dull, drab, low scoring affair, played under miserable grey clouds. Australia had a little wobble chasing a small total, but got there and took a 1-0 lead. They had an innocuous looking dibbly dobbler bowler (compared to what we’d seen the year before) who kept taking wickets. Botham was out of sorts with bat and ball. England saw the pressure ramping up day-by-day. Botham was a match-to-match captain as Alec Bedser, faced by the froth and fury of a tabloid world, and an establishment mob who saw Botham as an oik, trying to walk a plank that was going to snap.

The concept that Beefy was constantly on trial was not helped when, immediately after the defeat, Alec Bedser, the Chairman of Selectors, announced that Botham was appointed as England captain for the first Test match only. “We have to decide whether the captaincy affects Botham’s play,” said Bedser, with Botham himself trying his best to remain positive over the affair: “It’s better than not being appointed at all.”

Both England and Botham would need a good performance at Trent Bridge to keep the doubters at bay. The Mirror’s “Both on a tightrope” headline summed up the player’s perilous position. – The Guardian – 9 July 2013

After a pair at Lord’s which I missed due to the minor inconvenience of being at school, the legend grew about the stony silence that greeted Botham’s return to the pavilion. As always, it seemed, with Lord’s, this was a bore draw, but England had a big issue. Botham resigned “a minute before he was sacked” (Matthew Engel – Cricinfo). England listened to his sage advice in the now oft-played interview. They picked Brearley as captain. Then came Headingley.

As a 12 year-old I recall the start of Botham’s innings to turn around our fortunes coinciding with attending my little brother’s sponsored walk at Deptford Park. It was a Monday. The first day I knew nothing of the score. The second day coincided with last day of term, so no interest there either. Saturday was sitting in front of the TV, or going out to play football. I saw some of Botham’s 50 in between the horse racing. Then Sunday was a rest day (although we started experimenting with Sunday play in subsequent games – something I welcomed because Sundays were boring), and Monday we were all resigned to defeat. I do remember the Saturday morning being one of the most boring spells of test cricket in my memory. England became shotless. It wasn’t the only time.

So when I got home, England were on life-support, but somehow, someway, Graham Dilley was batting well. Botham was chancing his arm. Now this is what gets a kid truly inspired by the game. Alderman suddenly looked human. Lillee, dominant throughout, not looking too great now. Lawson, tyro Aussie, losing his rag. Ray Bright being ordinary. The deficit decreased. There was still no hope, but this was, at least, exciting to watch. I’d missed many of Botham’s batting tour de forces until then, but now I could watch. Anyone who underestimates the power of visibility in sporting figures needs to take heed of moments like this. You could sense, as the stories of the comeback were being told, more and more people switching over to BBC 2. More and more people willing him, Dilley and then Chris Old on. You sensed it meant so much. The legendary confectionary stall six. The thrashes over the slips, the belt to deep backward point for the hundred, Botham running the first, big sweater on, raising his bat and fist. I sometimes didn’t warm to him as a kid, but you didn’t half love him then. The gesture from Brearley on the boundary to stay there in between the applause for the hundred. All there. Seared in my brain, with or without the endless replays of the game. If this was an epoch in English cricket, mis-appropriated, repeated more times than Dad’s Army, clutched to by England fans during the dark days, then so be it. For it is what sport is about. Victory from the jaws of defeat, attacking and reckless, thrilling and without pressure, it seemed. If you sneer at Headingley 1981, then you are wrong. It made heroes. It gripped people. It is what sport is absolutely all about.

But even me, who did have some grains of optimism, thought 130 to win wasn’t enough. But I was going to watch it all, to the last. My dad was a printer, and he was on the real late shift, so he wasn’t up and about. Mum worked weekdays. My brother didn’t care. So it was me, on my own, in the living room, glued to it. The dodgy first wicket of Wood, who probably didn’t nick Botham’s wide half-volley. Then peace until just before lunch, Australia on 56 for 1. The wickets off lethal short balls to get first Trevor Chappell, and then straight away, the dangerous Kim Hughes, and we were in business. In my head it was now all about one man. Stuff Dyson and his dull first innings hundred. Who could see as dull a batsman as that win the game. It had to be someone getting Allan Border out. Already he had that aura with me. The player to dismiss along with Hughes.

Yallop lasted five minutes, getting another brute from Willis. But with Border there, it was still in their hands. When Old got one through his defences, it was 65 for 5. I thought we had a chance. Willis got Dyson, and then the dangerous Rodney Marsh, who probably brought forth Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ most famous TV commentary “Dilley underneath it….AND HE’S CAUGHT IT”. Lillee gave me heart palpitations before I knew what they were, but when Gatting took the catch at mid-on we could breathe. Willis cleaning up Ray Bright (after two drops in the slips) and then wheeling away in delight had me waking up Dad. I think he was pleased to be woken up with the news.

You can’t put a price on experiences like that. But what did it tell me of Australia? Well, at this time all that had happened was they bothered to put a full team out only at home. They were riven by Packer. They had decent bowling. But they hadn’t embedded themselves in my cricketing soul. The West Indies had. It was important to beat them, but you did not feel like you were beating the best.

I’ll pick up Part 2 from Edgbaston 1981, and take it up as far as I can, probably to the inflection point on the relationship. The 1987 World Cup Final and then the 1989 Ashes. I’d love to hear any memories you have from the late 70s, Headingley etc. All I can say is that I never had a favourite Aussie player, I never particularly cared about playing them, I never measured England on the Australia axis. They were beaten in England, and we could beat them there (I didn’t know any better).

Obviously since those days I’ve bought and read a lot on the above matches. The pictures above are from some of the books I’ve snaffled on Amazon SecondHand Books, or at cricket book stalls. The rivalry is such that now reading about your childhood memories reinforces the views of the day, basked in the hindsight of what was to come a few years later and the Aussie total domination. It’s what makes the game special. It’s why it should be treasured. I look forward to writing Part 2. I genuinely enjoy stuff like this.

Standing in the Middle of it

Referees.  Umpires.  Judges.  Whatever the sport, the one appointed to arbitrate on the rules of the game is destined to be alone in their role.  Viewed with tolerance at best, contempt at worst, their errors are highlighted repeatedly, their characters called into question, their motivations considered suspect.

Who on earth would be an official?

Naturally, it’s never as simple as that, and the experience of those passing judgement on the play at the highest level is vastly different from further down the chain, while the experience varies widely between different sports and the conduct of the players within them.  Football referees are routinely abused by players and spectators at professional level, and there are sufficient tales of even worse behaviour at the grass roots to wonder why anyone would wish to put themself through the experience, but cricket, at least, remains a relative beacon of enlightenment compared to many other pastimes with regard to the treatment of the officials.

That’s not to pretend there are no problems, for at Test level incidences of open or masked dissent are legion, while there have been instances in club cricket of serious argument and, lamentably, even violence.  That they remain very much the exception is something to cherish and appreciate, and worthy of exploration as to why that might be,while also paying tribute to those who give up their time to perform a function as vital as opening the batting or bowling.

The most obvious statement to make is that without an umpire in some form, there isn’t a game.  Players can self-umpire, certainly, but it still requires someone to make the decisions and at the very least count accurately to six – albeit the ECB seem hellbent on adding extra complexity for the officials here with the Hundred.  This perhaps is something that sets cricket apart from other sports, for while in all of them an individual can choose to become an umpire, cricket is almost unique in that virtually everyone who has ever played an organised game of cricket will have stood as an umpire as well.  Friendly cricket may be in trouble, but it remains the usual path into more competitive fixtures for young players growing into the game, and few clubs have a permanent umpire prepared to stand all day on a regular basis for all teams.  Thus, the players have to do it themselves, and most players can remember the dawning horror of giving a team-mate out incorrectly, or the sense of pressure from a bowler, usually in a friendly manner, enquiring which of the three stumps that ball might have been missing.  Personally, the one particular incidence of humiliation came from a highly amused bowler gently asking how long one particular over was going to go on for, as I accidentally recycled the coins around my pocket for a second time.

Everyone can tell their own particular tale of woe here, but if nothing else, it taught a sense of understanding and respect for the role of the umpire, and the difficulties therein.  Without ever publicly admitting it, it was years before I learned to get the call of “no ball” out of my mouth in anything remotely approaching a timely manner, so bowlers more or less had a free pass to overstep whenever they were lucky enough to have me in the middle. I simply didn’t dare mention that the one that had just up rooted off stump should have been called by the idiot stood at the bowler’s end, though being by trade a batsman, I probably rejected more than my fair share of reasonable appeals.  Swings and roundabouts.

There were other side effects too, and perhaps it can be argued that the widely held view that batsmen ought to walk can be ascribed to the self-umpiring model – a reluctance to put a team mate in an invidious position; the memory of a tongue lashing from a senior player who was put in that position on the one hand, being that umpiring player put in that position on the other.  Certainly it’s quite common for batsmen to walk in a friendly game while refusing to countenance doing so in a league match.  It’s an approach that might make little sense when viewed from the outside, a certain level of hypocrisy being involved, yet via the peculiar internal logic that applies in every sport, it seems an entirely reasonable way to go about things, and one I always applied personally.  To those who objected to the idea of not walking in a league match, I always countered that not once did a fielding side ever call me back to the middle when they’d benefitted from an incorrect decision.  Equally however, for that to stick, it really does mean accepting the decision of the umpire, right or wrong.

There are other benefits from being forced to go out and officiate for ten overs (we all remember team-mates leaving us out there for far longer) on a Sunday such as the opportunity when standing at square leg every other over for a pleasant chat with a member of the opposition, particularly as the years rolled by and regular opponents became acquaintances and sometimes even friends.  The social dimension of cricket has always been its greatest strength and its glue, but few sports offer the opportunity for a casual conversation over half an hour in the middle of the game the way cricket does in these circumstances; a particular delight rudely broken only by the panicked alarm of a run out appeal. Indeed, even in the high pressure environment of a Test match, it is common to see square leg fielder and square leg umpire engaged in conversation, let alone further down the pyramid.  Rose tinted spectacles shouldn’t be applied to considering the nature of this self-policed umpiring system, but while it is easy to remember occasional disagreements between teams, the reality is that for the most part, it’s a system that works well with little friction, mostly because only pride is at stake.

The rise of league cricket has changed the dynamic somewhat.  Some leagues still allow this method of player-umpires, particularly at the more junior levels where finding sufficient numbers of people to do the job can be challenging, but it is now more customary to either require a club to provide an umpire or, particularly at County League level, for panel umpires to be neutral decision-makers.  In the former case, it is probably the biggest potential cause for dissatisfaction – there is always an opponent renowned for having an umpire with selective eyesight depending on which side is batting.  Players of course are as one eyed as they always are in any sport in perceiving bias and slights against them while perfecting the cognitive dissonance of being absolutely certain the umpire was spot on when it favoured them.

Panel umpires on the other hand remove this perception, yet they also take something away from a club whose umpire never gets to stand at his own ground in a competitive match.  Players would consider this a price well worth paying, yet it remains a sadness that it is considered necessary, even though it almost certainly is.  Cricket does have an advantage here though, in that while socialising with opponents in the bar after a game has declined substantially in the last 30 years (drink-drive laws have played a major, and entirely justifiable, part in that), there remains the opportunity to chew the cud with the umpires after the game.  It is something that is far rarer in other team sports, and indeed even discouraged in some, the referee disappearing at the end of a game and never getting to know the players, and more importantly, never allowing the players to interact at a normal, human level.  This depends on the club, but the opportunity to see things from the umpires’ perspective is one that perceptive cricketers tend to seize upon, even if only to try to ensure the club in question gets a positive umpires’ report.  But equally umpires are often quick enough to apologise for any error, and batsmen quick enough to accept a decision honestly made even if incorrect.  Or as one umpire less than sympathetically reminded me, if I hadn’t missed the ball in the first place, he wouldn’t have had a decision to make. It is not utopian to note that the facility to talk to each other remains a significant strength in the game, and the aforementioned experience almost all cricketers will have with umpiring allows a degree of empathy not always present in every sport.

Leagues also now tend to require a scorer, a decision that makes sense on every level, not least to the frustrated webmaster of a club trying to make sense of a scorebook requiring entry into Play Cricket that doesn’t remotely add up.  Players common loathing of having to do the scoring meaning that scorers get more appreciation for their efforts than perhaps umpires do.  They also tend to privately regard those who love scoring as being slightly odd, while publicly expressing appreciation and delight for those doing it, a magnificently hypocritical position that’s going to cause the blood pressure of at least one of the authors on this site to rise significantly.

Every bit as much as the unsung heroes within a club who ensure cricket can be played, the umpires (and scorers) are essential to the running of the game.  Those who volunteer may be under-appreciated, but at least cricket appreciates them more than the adherents of many other sports do.  It isn’t that no one ever snaps or mutters at an umpire, but it is that most involved object when it happens, and it really doesn’t happen all that often.  Player behaviour towards each other may have deteriorated in recent times, but the sacrosanct nature of the umpire’s position remains largely in place – and needs to continue in the same vein.

Umpires down the years have been every bit as integral to my cricketing experience as the rest of the game, whether they be right or wrong, or whether they be the Sunday umpire Mike who took enormous delight in signalling byes rather than wides when I’d dived full length down the legside to try to reach an outstandingly wayward delivery from the bowler.  He bloody loved it.

Some of those I played with and against became umpires as their playing careers wound down, and the gentle teasing that as a former bowler they weren’t trusted by any batsman in the entire league was and is an essential part of the cycle of the game and the handing on of the baton.  Umpires at the very highest level might get paid, those below may in some circumstances get expenses, but more often they do so because they wish to give something back to the game they love.

Raise a glass to the umpire.  Without them we don’t have a game.  Raise a glass to the scorer.  Without them we don’t know who has won.

Swear Allegiance To The Flag, Whatever Flag They Offer – Thoughts On 2018

So that was 2018. England started it by completing a 4-0 defeat and with Joe Root burning himself out, literally, in a pitiful rearguard. But it was all fine because (a) it was expected, (b) they had a great bowling attack, (c) Sir got a big double the game before and (d) we weren’t whitewashed. England then humiliated themselves at Auckland, and fought hard in an excellent five day tussle in Christchurch, but ended up with another fruitless test winter. At home, there was a 1-1 draw with Pakistan and a 4-1 win over India. The former looks a bit weak given the travails of that team since, the latter looks more impressive by the day. A 3-0 win in Sri Lanka, yes aided by winning each toss, but no not purely down to that (no way we win that series 3-0 playing like that a few years back) meant the test team, which, frankly given the hit rates on here is all you really seem to care about (ODI only matters during big tournaments), had started badly but finished well.

2019 sees us travel to the West Indies for three tests, a home test squeezed in against Ireland (my addled brain seems to recall that this will be a four day event), a full Ashes series straight after the World Cup – I am just utterly perplexed by this nonsensical scheduling – then off to New Zealand for 2 tests in October (hmm, nice weather for ducks) and then South Africa to round off the year (before I think we visit Sri Lanka again the following spring). It is going to be a busy old year. My hope for it is that a new young star batsman emerges to bring some solidity to the top order. I have absolutely zero idea who that might be!

I like to do a review of the year in blogging as part of my end of the natural cycle round up, but like most things blogging and cricket this year, I have neither the time, nor the inclination to do so. I sit in a neatly compartmentalised mental world at the moment, where I allow specific events to define a year, and everything contextualises around that. With the risk of eliciting a reaction from some who should know better, 2018 will always be defined for me by the passing, quite suddenly, of my beloved border collie. It meant that for the end of the year cricket was relegated very far down the list of my thoughts. I think, being my own worst judge at times, that my tribute post to Jake was the best thing I have ever written. I sometimes look back on my HDWLIA posts and think “whatever happened to THAT person”, and the Jake post was THAT person. I’m not saying that I’m mailing in what I write – you know I don’t – but you have to have that engine, that drive, that passion to really hit the spot. The nearest I came to that on here this year was the Alastair Cook post. 7000+ words on a career that should have been fundamentally straight and simple, a career of accumulation and achievement, became a piece where I tried to explain how an intrinsically dull individual elicited more passion and anger than anyone I have seen since Boycott. I tried, but I was never going to succeed.

And that’s probably my summing up for my efforts on Being Outside Cricket this year. But before I complete my thoughts on that, and due to the prodding of the Bogfather (still waiting on that Barry Richards book review), here are my answers to the poll questions I posed a month or so ago.

  1. Best Journalist of the Year – Dobell is always an interesting read. Your blog team also met Nick Hoult this year, and he comes across (well to me) as a really decent guy, and one we also like for his work. He didn’t recall, or bring up, my “does he ever leave the ECB canteen” comment I wrote back in 2014. I am not a huge fan of the all-rounders that some are. In fact this year it’s the Aussies who’ve tried to take the mantle. But for me, and treat this a little like the Ryan Giggs getting Sports Personality, the best journo/writer for me is Andrew Miller of Cricinfo. I’ve admired him for many many years, every piece he writes I find interesting, and I hope he does more.
  2. Worst Journalist of the Year – With many out of the picture, and Newman taking emeritus status these days, it has to be Simon Hughes. How he gets so many gigs I’ll never know.
  3. Best TV / Radio Commentator of the Year – Ricky Ponting. Even if he might have slightly blotted his copybook this week, I find him insightful, passionate, interesting and engaging. Even harder to admit as I never liked him as a player. If he doesn’t count as a commentator, then I would go for one of Simon Doull, Mike Atherton or Nasser (very up and down, but conveys a lot of Ponting’s qualities). Give Sangakkara a couple more years (and Mahela) and they may get there too.
  4. Worst TV / Radio Commentator of the Year – Where do you start? Harbhajan Singh was a lamentable pundit, but he was essentially harmless. I am sick and tired of Michael Vaughan, but it is his written work that angers, his podcast cobblers that riles. I am probably going to go for David Gower. We heard rumours a while back that Sky might have wanted to get rid of Gower and Botham, but couldn’t. Botham has upped his game in my view, Gower has not. Judging by the comments received, Agnew is going to win this from the vote here. Again, I think that’s taking his work outside, and the Cook thing, rather than the day job. But I’m not here to tell you what to do.
  5. England international cricketer of the Year – Tough one. Moeen Ali had a redemption year. Joe Root regained some of his mojo. Anderson was excellent, especially at home. Woakes had his moments. But if 2018 was defined by one player for England, it was Jos Buttler (and Sam Curran, but in just one the format). Stats may not be amazing, but he’s now a key part of the set-up in all three formats. Not a stellar year, but a team one.
  6. World international cricketer of the Year – Virat Kohli and then Williamson and Rabada. Some might put Bumrah in the frame too. Kohli pretty much transcends the game at the moment, whether we like it or not. He’s also great to watch and unlike Tim Paine, I really like the guy (for some reason)
  7. Best innings by an England player in international cricket – Jos Buttler’s century to win the 5th ODI against Australia. It may have been a JAMODI but to watch him pull a win out from certain defeat was incredible. Both in terms of technique and temperament. An honourable mention to Sam Curran’s Edgbaston houdini act, Chris Woakes at Lord’s, Joe Root in Kandy and yes, Alastair Cook’s farewell hundred.
  8. Best innings by an international player in international cricket – I think there were just two test double centuries this year. I can check (answer – yes). But to me there were two standout test hundreds. The first was AB de Villiers in Port Elizabeth – a match defining knock, marshalling the last three wickets for 150 runs, and turning the series (126*) before the nonsense – and the second was Virat Kohli’s 150+ at Edgbaston. I was limited as to what I could watch, so Karunaratne’s ton referenced by many of you passed me by.
  9. The worst thing about cricket in 2018 – Australia’s pious hypocrisy over the Sandpaper incident, which continues to spin out of control entirely of their sanctimonious making. I genuinely don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or the ECB and The Hundred. Others do a better job than me in defenestrating this idiocy. It is symptomatic of ECB thinking, most recently espoused by the knighthood for Cook (to put this into context, Atherton, Stewart, Hussain, Gooch, Vaughan and Strauss all have OBEs – many have gone into coaching, broadcasting and administration – where further honours are received). Cook already was one notch above them with a CBE. Jack Hobbs was 70 when he was knighted. Len Hutton was very young at 40 to get knighted. This is clearly not Cook’s making, but it is absolutely the sort of thinking that annoys many on here of the double standards and so forth. But back on topic, the Hundred is coming and the ECB have mortgaged their future on it. And more importantly, our future. And yet they do a great impression of totally ignoring anything we say.
  10. The best thing about cricket in 2018 – Personally it was Surrey winning the county championship. Not a popular view, but one I enjoyed. I also enjoyed the day-nigh game between Surrey and Lancashire, which ended with a thrilling finish. The County Championship is a jewel, but too many deride it, ignore it, or demean it. It doesn’t make money, ergo it is not good is the feeling. It is a really good competition and next year will be fascinating as Somerset, Surrey and Essex look strong. On the international stage, every year Virat Kohli is bang up for test cricket is a great thing. I say it again, he is arguably the most important cricketer in the world since Bradman. If he gives up on tests, we are in strife.

My Dmitris for this year would have been – Sam Curran, Morne Morkel, Surrey, Andrew Miller, Simon Hughes (not sure he’s been one before), the Cape Town test, Tom Harrison and Day 1 at The Oval. Again, a bit Surrey loaded, but it’s about my influences and my experiences.

So to 2018, and what has gone before. I started the year fed up at the media reaction, and those on social media too, to the Cook 244 not out. I took a break from writing, one of my many, and didn’t miss it as much as I thought I might. I then found myself shaking my head through the New Zealand tour, as another lamentable start cost us a series, and there seemed little care about that. The summer will always be defined in my eyes by my reaction to the criticism I received for my report during the second test against Pakistan. In the days before I would have fought back really hard. Now I didn’t have the heart. It was an important moment. A self-reveal. The anger isn’t really there any more. Not really.

I do still love writing, but the nice pieces won’t work here. It’s not what is expected of me. Chris writes his stuff so much more beautifully than I could ever hope to do. I do anger well. I know. I do the stuff around Cook better than anything else because there is a righteous indignation to my prose. That there is such favouritism to a player above all others, sticks in my craw, and I’ll bet it did with some of the team too – notice the lack of mentions of him on the Sri Lankan tour – but of course no-one would mention it. While I love writing, I will still write. But it may not be on cricket. It may not even be for public consumption. My passion at the moment is my new border collie. There’s a blog about him. The Teddy Times. I am far more interested in him, than I am cricket.

As a little bon mot, yesterday an old friend popped up on my Twitter feed. Yes, that old friend. I’d made a tongue in cheek tweet about KP doing more for charity, conservation and being a better player. I clearly don’t think he should be getting a knighthood. Or anything more than he has. It got a reaction from my old friend. I made one comment, and walked away. Maybe my old friend should too. Life really is too short.

So, 2000 words in, and I think I’ll just say Happy New Year to you all, and wish you luck for 2019. For all of us in the UK, I think we are going to need it. For the blog, 2019 looks jam-packed and hopefully traffic, which is still quite constant, will pick up. Some of my old commenters don’t show their faces as much any more, and given some of their comments to me they are displaying my symptoms on attitude towards the sport, but amplified, so I hope they come back. To those who genuinely want to write for this blog, please let us know. We love reading your stuff. And to those who contributed in 2018, thanks so much. It’s not been our greatest year, but after the tumult of the preceding four, perhaps a more restful one.

Some of my favourite pics from the year below…

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The past?

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Sam at Sundown

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So what did 2018 do for me. Maybe a neat little bullet point list:

  • I learned to ignore the haters a bit more, but not enough;
  • I learned that you can only keep on keeping on for so long;
  • The standard of cricket journalism is on a massive decline, filled with people who think being more clever than their readers is more important than being interesting;
  • Cricket blogging, like much blogging, is becoming less read, less interesting and increasingly less true to itself. These may not be unrelated factors;
  • That it is OK to take a break;
  • That good commenters are hard to find, and easy to lose;
  • That English cricket probably needed to cut adrift from Alastair Cook;
  • That you should never trust a blogger who gets paid to write (not to be confused with bloggers who try to get advertising revenue);
  • That Mike Selvey’s cricket blog will never happen;
  • I’ll miss Charles Sale;
  • That the death of a loved one conquers all. Even a dog.
  • Contentment is in inverse proportion to your usage of Twitter

Best wishes for the New Year. New beginnings and all that. It’s likely to be fascinating.

 

 

 

The Lord’s Mayor – A Pantomime for every Tom, Dick and Harri(son).

Tom Whittington sat at home, gazing around at the room, contemplating his existence.  His faithful cat, Mary Le Bone washed herself in the corner, content with the world, and oblivious to Tom’s plotting.  A poor orphan boy, believed to be Harri’s son, he was sure there was more to life than this.  He had heard tales of untold riches to be found in that there London, where the pitches were paved with gold, and where a bright boy could make his fortune.  He was determined that if the chance came along, he would go to London, where he could dig up the pitches and take enough gold to be forever wealthy.

One day, a county trundler passed by.  Tom called out to him, asking where he was going.  “To London”, came the answer.  “I’ve been doing this for years, following the same line and length each time”.  Tom hopped aboard, with Mary Le Bone following him and as they passed the fields and greens of England, Tom was sure he could make a difference, looking with disdain at all around him and thinking about real estate opportunities.  When they reached London, Tom was amazed – he could see wealth and affluence, but even as he went through St John’s Wood, nowhere could he see pitches lined with gold, although he could see concession stalls with astonishingly high prices.  “Whatever am I to do?” he cried, seeing no way he could make his fortune, for he could not even see how he could make enough money to eat – especially at those prices.

After a few days, exhausted and hungry, he collapsed on the doorstep of a rich merchant’s house, at number 100 on the street.  Despite his condition, the germ of an idea came into his head, unbidden, not obvious even to him, but a possibility, a chance…

“Be off with you, you ragamuffin” cried The Cook upon spying him, with a failed attempt at a sweep to move him off the step.  At that moment the merchant, Liveon Skye, returned.  Taking pity on poor Tom he ordered his buttler to carry him into his house, Mary sneaking in behind him.  Given a job in the kitchens, he realised Skye was incredibly wealthy, even though hardly anyone saw what he did.  The house was plagued by rats and mice, but Tom, in his small room had Mary for company.  Mary Le Bone was a very special cat, she kept his room free of rodents, she was loved by all who saw her, and she protected Tom, nurtured him and provided him with a safe place to sleep.  But instead of appreciating her, Tom felt she was in the way, and that all those who loved her weren’t important, and nor were their views.  He thought only in terms of what the cat might be able to do for him in future: the cat was a barrier to riches, not a gift to be cherished.

Not long after, the merchant announced he would be embarking on a long voyage, and asked all the staff if they had anything that they would like to send on board for him to sell.  “Please sir, will you take my cat?”.  Everyone was horrified, for the cat had been nothing but a servant to Tom, but the merchant smiled, sure he could somehow make something out of Mary, even if no one else could see it, even if it meant sacrificing all they held dear.

With Mary Le Bone gone, Tom’s life was plagued by the rats and mice, plus endless football in the street, but he didn’t feel sad, he blamed the cat for abandoning him for failing to live up to what was needed in the modern world.  Tom wasn’t a thoughtful or grateful man.  Clearly Mary had done nothing for him, and he had no use for her in future.  Tom decided to run away, for even the Cook had turned against him, and was now demanding to be called “sir”.

As he left the house, he heard the church bells ring, and they seemed to be speaking to him. “Turn again, Tom Whittington, turn again and again with more ideas, no matter how daft they sound.  Lords Mayor of London is your destiny and not even a leg before can stop you”.

“Goodness me”, Tom thought – if I am to be Lord’s Mayor then surely I can put up with a few rats, even if Mary has abandoned me”.  Back he went inside, determined to show the Cook that there was more to be done than just the traditional way of things.

Across the other side of the world, in India where the pitches truly were paved with gold, the merchant had arrived.  He sent gifts of food to King Kohli, but as soon as the food was presented, a plague of rats descended and gobbled it all up.  Seeing an opportunity, Skye told the king that he had a very special cat, a very traditional cat, who could help.  Sure enough, Mary cleansed the pavilion of rats, as she always had.  The king cried out with gratitude, asking the merchant what would he desire for such a gift.  The merchant thought about it, deciding that a Hundred balls of gold would be the price, certain he could make use of that back home.

Upon his return, greeted by thousands of mums and kids who had appeared from nowhere, Tom was overjoyed to see the sale of his cat had produced such riches.  He bought a fine new house, never once thinking of the cat who had helped him or what became of her, but instead buying a golden goose with some of the proceeds.  Killed it, naturally.  And Tom lived happily ever after, even if everyone else lamented the loss of Mary.  But as Tom said to himself, really, who cares about the cat?

The End.  Because it probably is.

Merry Christmas from Chris, Peter, Sean and Danny at Being Outside Cricket, and my thanks to the World Stories website for providing unwitting help with the story.  You can read their real version here

Because I’m not Ed Smith.

 

Pick Up My Guitar And Play

2018 is drawing to a close. This is, therefore, a time for looking back, some introspection, some need to set out what went on, and what the future might hold. In previous years this has meant a stream of posts – awards, reviews, even thanking all of you individually for commenting. 2018 has been really, really different. And one day in particular on this blog has sort of made a huge difference.

The year itself has had limited cricketing appeal, certainly in the international game. There’s just not the energy in me to keep up with all of it, and certainly not the passion to constantly write about England. You’ve heard that a billion times before, and I’m not going down that road again. The Ashes ended with a supine media exulting at a 244 not out in a dead game, and a 4-0 series loss seemed somewhat irrelevant. Oh well, that was OK, at least we weren’t whitewashed. Then came some limited overs jollop where Jason Roy actually beat a 25 year old record and no-one cared outside immediate friends and family. A T20 competition no-one seemed to engage with was all by the by, and the New Zealand test series would have gone the same way if we hadn’t seen England perform the mother of all faceplants in the opening hour or so. A loss in that series didn’t matter at all.

An interesting summer with Pakistan and India visiting for test matches, and Australia, for money reasons, playing out an ODI series, were on tap. England performed lamentably in the first match against Pakistan, rallied to take the second (and more of that later) to, yet again, draw a series against the Traveling team. Sam Curran made his debut, which was nice. I like Sam.

England lost to Scotland in an ODI, but then shoved Aussie piss-taking down their throats by beating Australia 5-0. Despite its dead rubber status, despite it being an ODI, Jos Buttler’s brilliant century in the final game was up there for my innings of the year. Oh yes, and England set a world record ODI score at Trent Bridge too. We should be excited, but we all know we’ll faceplant in the semi in 2019, so no point getting too excited.

The test series against India saw many suspend their cognitive functions and claim to see no way we could bowl this superstar line-up twice. Well, we did in four of the five test match contests, and ended up winning 4-1. The first test was exciting, with Sam making a massive contribution to pulling us out of the mire, and then India’s batting, Kohli excepted, looking like Anderson’s plaything. A Lord’s test played in gloom, was one-sided, and the game won in large part by a partnership between Bairstow and Woakes. England lost the third at Trent Bridge, in a performance lacking gumption and skill, and handily proving that if anyone puts up a half-decent score first up, England are bang in trouble (see Lord’s – Pakistan). The fourth test was quite similar to the first, with England always just about in charge, and when it threatened not to be, they took key wickets. Pujara performed well but it wasn’t enough. The fifth test will always be Cook’s retirement test. You either loved every second of the Cook Festival, or you recoiled at its sanctimony and peer pressure. If he gets knighted, as reported, it puts everything into the proper context, again depending on the side of the fence you sit. I’ll say it once more – KP wasn’t the player who divided opinion most passionately in my experience. It was Cook.

Anyway, England won that, Anderson took the vital statistical wicket to end the game, everyone went home happy, and England had beaten the world’s number one team 4-1. Even Joe Root made a hundred. It was that lovely.

In Sri Lanka, without Cook, who merited barely a backward glance or a sentimental mention during the tour, England whitewashed the home side in the test matches playing a style of cricket that may, or may not, catch on. This was to go hard during the batting, and trusting the long batting line-up to make enough to defend. With a team a little weaker than before, this might work. I’m not sure it will in India, or the Emirates, but hey, if you win a series 3-0, don’t knock it. Ben Foakes came in and made a century on debut, which was nice. Jonny Bairstow made a super hundred in the third, which pre-empted a volley of the “media hates me” which in turn had the media going “why on earth why would he say then” when there’s been a whispering campaign for ages. They are both in the wrong. In the second, Joe Root’s brilliant century gained a lot of plaudits on here, and rightly so. It is definitely Root’s team now.

Oh, I nearly forgot, England won the one day series 4-1 (the one, a special kind of defeat) and some T20 contest which passed me by. So England’s ODI team is the envy of the world, and the test team ended up winning 8 out of its last 9 tests. It’s certainly reason to be cheerful. Indeed, I liked the fact that in Sri Lanka there was none of the Cook BS. His passing from the team is like a weight lifted off those of us who weren’t fans of what came with it. If you want to know what I mean, check out Jonathan Agnew’s retweets of Sports Personality of the Year commenters, angered at the snub of Cook. Has KP been feted properly, yet?

But for me 2018 is one tinged with sadness and with melancholy. It started with my oldest uncle dying in the first week, it saw me lose a good friend in August, and then, as many of you know, the death of my beloved border collie, Jake, in October. While not struggling with the rigours of life, I felt that my attitude to blogging, and to the social media circus, has changed. It would be true to say that work is taking its toll – a job transfer in March to a much more prominent role did that – and so getting home and writing is less of an option. And it is also true that there is not so much to write about that would garner interest. If I’m not interested in writing about it, then you will see through it.

Importantly, another factor that is increasingly coming into play, is the social media aspects of this gig. To get people interested we need to be on other platforms to drive traffic. Unfortunately in blogging, we aren’t in the Field of Dreams. If we write it, they don’t always come. We’re not into branding, we’re four individuals, who agree on a lot, disagree on a lot too, but brought together under the roof of disaffected cricket fans with a love for the game, and a platform to say what ails. What we see more and more is people walking away. From us, and the game. And no-one really seems to care. The media have moved on. Social Media increasingly resembles a game as to which one of the former blogger / current writer can be the cleverest person in the room. It is now a Barney Ronay tribute band, and that is not a good thing, people. I see people cramming in “pop culture” references as if they all think they are Gideon Haigh, coming off more like Gideon Osborne. When they aren’t doing that, there’s the ludicrous bigging up of certain shots with pseudo-erotic references as if the people out there worship this bollocks. Well, maybe they do. This grumpy fucker doesn’t. I’m not looking for the classic “report the facts, and just the facts” because that would be (a) hypocritical and (b) dull. But what I want to see is comments and reports and opinions written as if the acclimation is sought from the readership at large and not from their close circle of reporter / media friends. While I may not be a huge fan of Jonathan Liew, I appreciate that he has a message, and he’s going to deliver it, whether you like it or not. He might not be to my taste, and he may be the smartest guy in the room, but I feel I recoil at the content, not the writer. That’s the difference. It’s why I like George Dobell, because he takes the piss but is writing directly to his audience, and have gone off Jarrod, because I feel he thinks he’s trying to win over his writing colleagues – his book on test cricket was borderline unreadable.

People don’t want to hear our voice as much, these days. When the height of the KP fury was in full tempest mode, we were read. People may not have liked us, but they read our message. Interesting that those that claimed that they didn’t are not employed (with one main exception) by their employers at the time. I had a journo tell me that although we didn’t agree on matters, say that when I wrote what I did on HDWLIA, people looked at the well argued prose and thought about it. That’s not me blowing my own trumpet.

The current issue is the Hundred. It is everything we said the ECB were and still are. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. It’s the arrogance of knowing best. It’s the arrogance of telling current cricket fans to shut the fuck up and let the adults run the joint. It’s the attitude of money is the cure of all evils. It’s the failure to own up to its own stupidity, while saying they were stupid in the past to cut off terrestrial only through mealy-mouthed gestures. It’s the media pretty much standing by, not saying anything, but who might moan in 10 years time when test cricket dies on its arse, and we’re fed this meaningless crapfest as our cricket fix. It’s everything we’ve ever said about the ECB. I can’t keep banging my head against a brick wall without incurring permanent brain damage.

Which takes me back to the Saturday of the second test between England and Pakistan – https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2018/06/02/england-v-pakistan-2nd-test-day-2/ – and I had compiled a very hasty end of day’s play report where I wasn’t overly enamoured about the way England had gone about it. This got a tweet from a local paper journo clearly out to impress his friends:

England well on top in this Test thanks to two days of dominance, but they’ll be gutted to learn they’ve done it wrong, all wrong.

One of a few comments on Twitter. Now yes, the one thing you lot know is I’m quite thin skinned, but of all the comments to get to me (and yes, I proclaimed that I didn’t let it, but I did) this one did because of its crass stupidity and it’s playing to the gallery. And instead of getting angry about it, which used to get me to write my best, I found out that I was more sad. Sad that I didn’t have the passion in me to really fight back. Especially at this:

Didn’t mean to cause any offence mate; genuinely assumed you were writing like that deliberately, because that’s what your “brand” is. Advice from someone not important enough to concern yourself with: If you love cricket as much as you say, try writing positively about it every once in a while. It’s harder, but it can be a lot more rewarding.

That’s me. A troll, doing it for a brand. If that is how we, I, am perceived, what’s the point? I’m just professionally angry, and if not, I need to seek to be happy because that’s so much better to write about. If you think he’s the only one, read the blogging piece in Wisden Almanack. I’m the angry man, while Chris writes the beautiful pieces. Those two may not like my work, and that’s almost fine, but they should not like it and argue back about the content. What I see is playing the man, not the ball. He thought we pretended to rage, and when the comments came back, he found out we weren’t. But he’s not alone. He might genuinely be happy that such stuff pisses me off, but then he’s by no means an outrider on that one. There’s others, long since muted on Twitter, who do the same.

For example. The blog is seen as “Anti-Cook” in its sole purpose by some. It isn’t it’s sole purpose at all, but he was a focus. I wrote some of the pieces I consider my best work on him. https://beingoutsidecricket.com/2018/09/03/sink-me-in-a-river-of-tears-the-retirement-of-alastair-cook/

He’s a fascinating case study of English cricket. His mention of the KP saga before his final test was everything we said was wrong with the media in microcosm, but they never saw it. Probably never knew it. With him went a purpose, an interesting subject matter, a source of focus that I can’t replicate with objections to the Hundred just yet. England appears fairly well run at the moment as an international group. They are entertaining. Have players I like. But they don’t stir the pulse as much because the game doesn’t matter as much. When asked recently whether an England run in the World Cup would stir the nation, I said no. It wouldn’t even stir this cricket lover. There’s many reasons why.

So, on that pessimistic note, and with this likely to be my last posting before Christmas, because of social commitments and the fact we have a lovely new border collie puppy called Teddy who is far more interesting than Australian hypocrisy and sanctimony, I want to wish all who have participated, read and written on the blog a really happy Christmas, reserving the right to write something else of course. I leave you with the end of the Alastair Cook post which seems to sum up the last five years, give or take…

But as Cook heads off into the sunset, at The Oval where I will have a dry eye on Friday, trust me, his excellent career, his records and his achievements in the game will always come with the rider that I was forced to turn on him. Events had pushed me into a box I rarely like to go. A player on my team, in a box marked “hate”. And although I am to blame, a hell of a lot of other people are too. Not that they care. Not that it matters.

That’s what the Hundred is forcing people to do with domestic cricket. I wish those with more fire in their bellies, who aren’t beholden to the sport for their livelihood but for their wellbeing and enjoyment, for those not consumed by money, but by sport the best of luck. You sure as hell are going to need it.

Best wishes, and see you after Christmas. Or before. Who knows?